If modern-day Charlestonians know croquettes at all, they’re typically familiar with the mashed potato version of the cylindrical snack. But in the early 20th century, when the shapely treats were considered the epitome of excellence, nearly every possible meat and vegetable was subjected to the breadcrumb-and-fry treatment. During the century’s first few decades, Charleston’s food columnists taught readers how to make croquettes out of clams, oysters, lamb, veal, tongue, chicken, brains and bananas, among other fillings.
While the word croquette is derived from a French verb meaning “to crunch,” Europeans don’t have the monopoly on the preparation. Cuisines around the world feature homegrown versions of the continental recipe. Japanese eaters dote on curry-dusted korokke, coated with panko flakes; Indian cooks deep-fry discs of aloo tikki; and coxinhas, featuring cream cheese and shredded chicken, are popular in Brazil.
In the U.S., deviled crab is the signature croquette of the Tampa Bay area: Bearing little resemblance to Lowcountry deviled crab, the Cuban-influenced dish is a blimp-shaped shell containing picked blue crab.
If there ever was a croquette associated with Charleston, it may have been the salmon croquette, which was beloved across the Southeast. As John T. Edge reported in a 2008 story for Gourmet, salmon croquettes, made according to the recipe on the back on the salmon tin, were William Faulkner’s favorite meal. The first printed mention of salmon croquettes in Charleston came in 1913, when the YWCA lunchroom offered them alongside cream of asparagus soup, veal cutlets and macaroni pie. In 1955, Robertson’s Cafeteria started serving salmon croquettes on Fridays, a tradition it upheld for nearly four decades.
But in the first part of the 20th century, going out for croquettes wasn’t as common as making them at home. Croquette production was such a routine matter that Cottolene shortening in 1916 ran an ad in The News and Courier specifically targeting croquette cooks. “When Cottolene is used, you are certain of croquettes with a tender, nut-brown crust,” the copy promised.
Cottolene may have served as the medium for any of the croquettes suggested in a 1926 Evening Post column. “Often a bit of leftover meat, rice or fish can be made to serve as the main dish of another meal by keeping a list of croquettes on hand,” Bessie Murphy explained. Murphy’s list included egg croquettes, veal croquettes, rice croquettes, rice croquettes with pimento sauce and macaroni and cheese croquettes, made with white sauce and finished with tomato sauce.
Because the original recipe was light on details, Lorraine Small of My Three Sons, Alice Warren’s restaurant in North Charleston, assumed a “thick white sauce” meant bechamel. She mixed that with eggs, cheese and noodles, then let the croquettes sit for an hour prior to frying. And she dressed the croquettes with tomato sauce, as suggested, but added Old Bay and Italian seasoning to the mix.
“It tasted delicious,” Small says. “I told my son we want to put it on the menu as an appetizer.”