By 1967, the Junior League of Charleston had sold 200,000 copies of “Charleston Receipts,” a cookbook so instantly iconic that New York City department store B. Altman and Co. devoted a massive display window flourished with sweetgrass and Spanish moss to the title. But it loomed singularly back in the Lowcountry, where it dominated conversations of shrimp paste and cool o’ the evening cocktails. Its reach was so complete that when Renie Clark, the adored wife of Citadel president Gen. Mark W. Clark, was in 1966 asked to write a foreword to another Charleston cookbook, she reflexively referenced the best-seller.
“Gourmet food, the receipts passed down for centuries, served in these old historic homes, seem to taste more delectable with each passing year,” she wrote, prompting readers to turn to the recipe for she-crab soup.
Except there wasn’t a she-crab soup recipe in “The Post-Courier Cookbook,” as its author, food editor Charlotte Walker, acknowledged in her purposefully deferential introduction. “I guess she’d already tangled with the Junior League,” former colleague Betsy Clawson says. (By all accounts, Walker wasn’t adversarial, but she was foremost a newspaperwoman, or in other words, professionally inclined to scratch at the establishment.)
“This book is designed to supplement, not replace, the many fine cookbooks homemakers already possess,” Walker wrote 50 years ago. “It makes no attempt to compete with ‘Charleston Receipts,’ which has long been the definitive work on Charleston cooking and contains the recipe for She-Crab Soup to which Mrs. Clark refers in her foreword. ‘The Post-Courier Cookbook’ is general, rather than regional.”
In keeping with its “general” focus, “The Post-Courier Cookbook” featured chapters devoted to cakes, chicken, “cents-savers,” sandwiches and sauces, but didn’t cover seafood. There aren’t any soups, salads or beverages in the book. Instead, readers could consult recipes for sherried pickled mushrooms, olive cheese balls, prestige potatoes and fruitcake nuggets. Over and over, the book stressed trendy ingredients and quick cooking times. It was accessible, useful. It also was doomed to be utterly forgotten, even in the newsroom that produced it.
Newspapers have always reported on food and drink: It would have been virtually impossible for 18th-century publishers to rile up readers about the Molasses Act if appetite wasn’t central to the story. During the Civil War’s Union blockade, Charleston newspapers expended countless column inches on clever ways to cure meat without salt, caffeinate without coffee and flavor fish without Worcestershire sauce.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1890s that U.S. newspapers started designating “women’s pages” in hopes of luring advertisers of fabrics, cosmetics and female tonics. Those recipe collections bulged into stand-alone sections after World War II, when supermarkets were eager to sell new products to returning servicemen and their young families. Just before one memorable postwar Thanksgiving, the food section of the Los Angeles Times swelled to 90 pages.
Editor & Publisher in 1950 reported that the number of newspaper food editors nationwide had doubled over the past year, with 561 people — almost all of them women — claiming the title.
“There was a false notion that this was a public relations exercise,” says Kimberly Wilmot Voss, author of “The Food Section: Women and the Culinary Community,” referring to the misperception that the first food sections were thick with casserole and cake recipes provided by pork associations and flour companies. “It was good journalism.”
It was certainly public service journalism. In the 1950s, homemakers were being inundated with new kitchen equipment and processed food items touted as revolutionary. In her book, Voss quotes Chicago Tribune editor Ruth Ellen Church, who in 1955 remarked, “Fully a third of the products and foods we buy now in the supermarket were not even in existence 10 years ago.” It was up to Church and her peers to help their readers make sense of everything from instant coffee to chow mein noodles.
Their guidance was typically doled out in the form of recipes customized for the newspaper’s audience. “The food editor was the one who could say, ‘They don’t carry that at Publix,’ ” Voss says. “The editors also sometimes inserted commentary about federal nutrition programs and the need for quality care: Voss says the women got away with the political asides because “male editors admitted again and again they didn’t bother to read the section.”
Readers developed deep and lasting relationships with food editors, calling them when their souffles didn’t rise or the grocer claimed he’d never heard of papayas. In their offices, though, they were marginalized. Voss says it was standard practice to segregate the staff members responsible for the women’s pages.
“They were always in a separate room, and usually on a separate floor,” she says. “The theory was the women couldn’t handle the cursing.”
Still, the editors weren’t dissuaded by their bosses’ patronizing attitudes. They worked such long hours that one food editor in Atlanta got married on her lunch break. Many food editors never married, Voss says, since their jobs weren’t compatible with 1950s expectations of wives and mothers.
Charlotte Walker was married twice. Born Charlotte McGillivray in 1909 to Scottish immigrants living in Montreal, she was named editor of Newfoundland’s The Western Star at the age of 33. She liked the work, but apparently wasn’t equally enamored of her husband. Yet at the time, the province’s divorce law was so stringent that it literally took an Act of Parliament to dissolve an unhappy union.
Rather than apply for a private bill of divorce, McGillivray in 1946 went to Reno, the capital of quickie divorces. According to Clawson, she befriended a Charlestonian there who suggested she resettle in South Carolina.
It’s not clear whether the informant knew Henry Frost Pinckney Walker, but Charlotte McGillivray married him within the year.
In 1950, Walker joined the editorial staff of The Evening Post, and was rapidly promoted to women’s editor. The S.C. Press Association in 1957 named her newspaperwoman of the year.
“She was extremely exacting,” Clawson recalls. “Extremely exacting. She was that job and that job was she.”
Even decades after leaving Canada, Walker retained an accent that people in Charleston assumed was British. And she still drank Scotch with ginger ale.
“She was a lot of fun both at work and after,” says Rosemary James, who worked with Walker until James took a job at a paper in New Orleans. “She liked a good story over a good drink.”
Around town, Walker was known for her responsiveness to readers. Her “Loved and Lost” column, featuring recipe requests, was enormously popular. Walker’s authority was unquestioned, especially on the topic of turning out an impressive meal on a budget and deadline.
While “The Post-Courier Cookbook” is the nearest thing Walker left to a statement of her culinary philosophy, James says she strived to make recipes “as easy as possible to help working women, which was somewhat unusual back then, and cooks with no special talent.”
Neither James nor Clawson remember exactly what inspired The Evening Post and The News and Courier to publish a cookbook, but their best guess is the papers hoped to capitalize on Walker’s reputation; newspaper cookbooks were a fairly common revenue generator in the 1960s. “The Post-Courier Cookbook” sold for $2.25.
Many newspaper cookbooks glossed over the regional specialties that contemporary readers might expect to find in a book with a city’s name on the cover. Voss quotes the late Peggy Daum, founder of the Association of Food Journalists, as explaining people in Milwaukee don’t need German potato salad recipes because they already know how to make their grandmother’s German potato salad. In Charleston, the same likely went for hoppin’ John and red rice. In 1966, though, home cooks were perplexed by gelatin, mayonnaise, canned olives and Crisco.
I recently gathered all of those items, along with evaporated milk, frozen broccoli and orange juice concentrate, to prepare a dinner party from Walker’s cookbook. Trying to string together the book’s most representative recipes (and avoid buying more than one jar of mayonnaise), I came up with a menu of nut-stuffed celery, barbecue peanuts, onion olive biscuit snacks, chicken mousse, eggs on deviled French bread, asparagus with guacamole sauce and orange pudding cake.
At the last minute, I decided to round out the hors d’oeuvres portion of the program with curried potato chips, which are made by tearing open a bag of chips, spreading them on a baking sheet sprinkling with curry powder and baking for a few minutes. My guests were crazy about them.
“(Walker) was such a pro that she did need to test recipes,” Clawson says. “She could look at a recipe and know if it would work.”
They all worked. I hesitated when she instructed me to fold whipped cream into chicken salad (made with plenty of mayonnaise), and questioned the wisdom of saucing asparagus with guacamole (made with plenty of mayonnaise), but every dish had more texture and tang than I’d predicted. The only flop was the eggs on deviled French bread, and it was my fault for straying from the recipe to poach eggs in the microwave.
Of all the dishes, I was most taken with the orange pudding cake, a kind of fully saturated citrus sponge cake. I had to agree with Mrs. Edwin H. Poulnot, who appeared in a 1967 Evening Post ad for the cookbook: “Orange pudding cake sounded so delicious and so easy. Believe me, it is both!”
Walker retired in 1974, and died in 1995. She left no survivors, so her legacy is carried solely by a compendium of her “Loved and Lost” columns and “The Post-Courier Cookbook,” which today isn’t available for checkout at the public library.
“These food editors were so significant,” Voss says. “They did all these great things, but in the 1970s, they began to fade.” Teaching women how to bake pudding cakes ran afoul of the decade’s definition of feminism, and struck younger female journalists as embarrassing as hair rollers and girdles.
“They were completely forgotten,” Voss continues. “I guess it’s one of those things about women’s history that’s sad and scary: You can shape the lives of so many people, and yet be forgotten so quickly.”