Error in custom script module
Tulanian Logo

Stovetop Secrets

March 22, 2007

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

Amid the pages of a thousand cookbooks, Susan Tucker finds testament to the silences in the lives of southern women.

From soaking French bread to adding bourbon whiskey, Susan Tucker knows bread pudding. Tucker has written a history of this scrumptious, seminal dessert and, with co-authors, is writing and editing the history of other iconic New Orleans dishes for a book project. But she doesn't investigate recipes and cookbooks so she can whip up the best jambalaya on the block. She studies food because it is an insight into society. Cooking and cookbooks are fruitful avenues for exploring the lives of women--and men, says Tucker.

tulanianwinter07_stovetop1_1But she didn't always think this way. Tucker is the curator of books and records for the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. In her second-floor office in Caroline Richardson Hall, a chafing dish perches on a filing cabinet. Downstairs, thousands of cookbooks line open shelves. Closed stacks hold mementos, recipes and scrapbooks.

Before the research center acquired its first cookbook for the Newcomb College Culinary History Collection, Tucker says she was opposed to getting cookbooks because "it seemed such a backward way to look at women." Now she appreciates cookbooks as rich sources for understanding women's lives. In order to penetrate the silence that has historically surrounded these lives, Tucker says she has to "think, more than I usually do, about things that are everyday"--such as cooking.


For most of her career, Tucker has pursued the stories of women, always looking for what has been left out in order to document that which is secret or hidden in women's lives. Tucker (NC '71) has a master's degree in library science from the University of Denver and is a certified archivist. As head of the Nadine Vorhoff Library at the Center for Research on Women since the 1980s, she has guided the library to concentrate its collection on the education of women and Southern women's history.

But, in 1992, an avalanche of donated cookbooks resulted in a sea change in Tucker's views about what constitutes the education of women. The library's culinary collection started with two gifts: Stella Barnes Adams (UC '40) left a bequest of 2,000 cookbooks to the Center for Research on Women. And six months later, Courtney Werner's heirs donated 1,000 books from his international cookbook collection. With this windfall to a fledgling library that needed books, Tucker had to make a decision.

"I didn't know if I wanted to define cookbooks as part of the education of women," she says. "I was at first not happy about the collection."

Cookbooks in a women's studies library seemed to Tucker akin to the idea that women belonged barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. The cookbooks, though, were appealing. As Tucker evaluated the books, it dawned on her that cookbooks provide clues to how people, especially women, educate themselves when they are not in school. The cookbooks, Tucker began to see, could help answer the question: what shapes a person, a society? After her initial reluctance, Tucker embraced cookbooks and more and more have come her way.

Today, the Newcomb College Culinary History Collection is a repository of thousands of books and items related to food studies. And it's inspired much scholarly activity. Tucker is a founder of the New Orleans Culinary History Group, and she's curated half a dozen exhibits about New Orleans restaurants and cooks. She writes and edits articles and books on food. The Smithsonian Institution has called on her expertise for its traveling food exhibits. And all this happens because cooks in the kitchen kept a record.


Jayne Hennessey was a fantastic cook and a meticulous record-keeper. She was a Navy nurse, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. Her husband was also a Navy commander. They had no children and eventually settled in Algiers on New Orleans' West Bank. Hennessey loved to throw dinner parties, and for every party she hosted, she kept the menu. When she died, the culinary collection acquired her notebooks and cookbooks from her husband. One year, Hennessey listed every meal she cooked and ate. The '70s-style Day-Glo notebooks with Hennessey's recollections of scrambled eggs and grasshopper pie reside in a metal box on the collection's shelves.

Hennessey marked the margins of printed recipes for dishes such as Premium Chicken and Broccoli Bake with handwritten notes: "Added sauteed mushrooms and onions," "Used wheat crackers," and "Made nite before--baked next day." "You could tell she was a cook," says Tucker, who adds that the notebooks are a treasure-trove of middle-class New Orleans entertaining.

And someday a scholar may come along to cherry-pick the documents to tell how an American woman lived in the second half of the 20th century. Hennessey learned much about New Orleans cooking from the late Lee Barnes (NC '73). She attended every course offered at the Lee Barnes Cooking School, which Barnes founded in the late 1970s on Oak Street in uptown New Orleans. Barnes is significant in the annals of cooks because she helped preserve traditional New Orleans dishes, says Tucker.

After World War II, New Orleans cooks began taking shortcuts in their cooking "up until Lee started her cooking school," says Tucker. They used canned and frozen goods, committing such sacrileges as canned fruit cocktail in bread pudding. But Barnes resurrected recipes for dishes such as crawfish etouffee and okra/seafood gumbo with fresh ingredients. "She would write them out in her own handwriting," says Tucker, "and give them out in the classes."

Barnes' handwritten sheets, along with all her personal cooking papers, are part of the culinary collection. Her husband donated them after she died at age 42. In 2002, Tucker opened a Lee Barnes exhibit that drew 200 of Barnes' family and friends to the center. They paid a bittersweet tribute to the cooking heroine, who advertised her cooking school on the sides of streetcars and drew, probably for the first time, a clientele of both black and white New Orleans cooks and wannabe cooks to a cooking school.


The saying goes that New Orleanians live to eat, while in other places people merely eat to live. "New Orleans has been lucky," says Tucker. Historically, most people in New Orleans ate fairly well, especially compared to the rural South, where life was meager and hardscrabble and people often went hungry. This hunger and deprivation lasted for many Southerners until the 1960s.

But New Orleans was different. As a port city, it was the epicenter of imports from everywhere. Gulf of Mexico seafood was brokered and sold cheaply to locals. Boats brought an abundance of goods to the city down the Mississippi River from the Midwest's Bread Basket. And the mild climate allowed a long growing season.

"We were blessed for a long time," says Tucker. "That relative wealth and abundance really hasn't lasted but for a long time it did shape the way we lived." New Orleans had another ingredient that made it a good place to eat--a mix of people. "New Orleans rises like the Emerald City of Oz," says Tucker. For white and black Southerners moving from the country to the city, "It was a mythic, wonderful place. The more people talked about the food and restaurants, the better they grew in their imaginations."

Tucker has tracked down the lives of African-American cooks in New Orleans, gathering documentation for the collection the way a government hoards gold. One such cook is Lena Richard, a caterer, restaurant owner, cookbook author, entrepreneur and quite possibly the first person, and certainly the first African-American, to host a weekly cooking show on television. Tucker has acquired Richard's papers for the culinary collection, and it is Richard's chafing dish that sits in Tucker's office. Richard was born in New Roads, La., in 1892. She wrote the New Orleans Cook Book, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940.

Richard began her catering career in the 1920s and appeared on WDSU-TV in New Orleans in 1949. As a youngster, she was a cook for a wealthy white family who recognized her talent early and helped her attend cooking school in Boston. She returned to New Orleans to start several restaurants, including the Sweet Shop, Lena's Eatery and the Gumbo House. Richard's dishes were quintessential New Orleans fare: pork chops, fried chicken, stuffed crab, stuffed peppers, gumbo, and red beans and rice.

She also was head chef for a time at the Bird and Bottle Inn, north of New York City. Her signature dish there was "shrimp soup Louisiane." Richard died in 1950. Tucker learned about a cooking school operated by Richard through neighbors, who put Tucker in touch with Richard's granddaughter, from whom she acquired the chafing dish as well as Richard's cookbooks and recipes.


Tucker diligently hunts down cooks and their records, keeping her sights on New Orleans and the South. Her focus is for the culinary collection to further specialize in New Orleans food, in the community cookbooks of the South and the autobiographies and biographies of Southern cooks.


Susan Tucker in her office at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.

"For a book collection to be valuable, it must have focus and depth," she says. Other institutions in the city, such as the Historic New Orleans Collection, also are interested in culinary history, and Tucker often competes with them for acquisitions.

"I want more cookbooks," Tucker says. "I know there are things we should have. It's frustrating to me. We have no funds for acquisition. It's totally by donation. I have never had a budget to buy cookbooks for the collection."

The collection received a Newcomb Foundation grant in summer 2005 to complete the cataloging of the collection's current holdings. Vorhoff librarian Cristina Hernandez oversaw the project. Tucker and Hernandez also have developed a website, highlighting the collection.

Tucker, like any good archivist, has a passion for documentation. She gathers firsthand documents that will allow future scholars to authenticate their insights and substantiate their theories.

A "receipt" for gumbo in a yellowed scrapbook has been passed down from generation to generation and finally donated by a family to the culinary collection. An older black Creole cook first dictated the recipe to a young white bride.

With disdainful in-laws who looked down their noses at her because she wasn't French--she was a Virginian--and she did not know how to cook in the Creole style, the younger woman apparently needed an ally in the kitchen. Lovingly kept for decades, the recipe is evidence of a young housewife's gratitude.

But what about the cook? What did she think? Silences and gaps still exist in the history of black and white relations in the South. Could this recipe or an item like Lena Richard's chafing dish provide a first utterance toward giving voice to the unspoken?


Looking back at Tucker's own scholarly contributions, it's surprising that she initially resisted cookbooks as vehicles for understanding the lives of women. After all, her career was launched in domesticity. Tucker wrote the groundbreaking book--Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South--published by Schocken Books of New York in 1988 and reprinted by Louisiana State University Press.

Telling Memories is a record of black and white women's memories of an era when the economic subsistence of black women and their families often depended on their performance of arduous cleaning and caretaking chores for Southern white women of a certain class. Tucker is of that class. She grew up the oldest of four daughters in Mobile, Ala. Her father was a doctor, and her mother, an artist.

She writes in the preface to Telling Memories, "Domestic workers and members of the families of domestic workers were the only black people I knew until I was 20 years old."

Motivated by curiosity about the two groups of Southern women--black domestic workers and their white employers--Tucker undertook an extensive oral history that is the basis for the book. Mary Yelling, a black social worker, assisted Tucker in conducting several of the dozens of interviews and was particularly instrumental in getting the black women to talk frankly.

Telling Memories is a "record of the stories as well as the silences I have heard all my life," Tucker writes. In the book, the gulf between workers and employers is revealed in little details. For instance, domestic workers did not feel gratitude when they got hand-me-downs. They knew a castoff, unwanted article of clothing when they saw one.

Tucker transcribed hours of interviews, trying to look behind the masks black women wore to survive and understand the roles they and their employers played. African-American actress and playwright Cheryl Lynn Bruce was so fascinated by Telling Memories that she selected six narratives from the book to be read by actresses for "Stories on Stage," a series produced by WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. The performance was presented at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and later broadcast. When she wrote Telling Memories, Tucker says she had no interest in cooking. A

nd although she likes to cook, Tucker admits she simply didn't pay attention when the women related their cooking memories. Now, almost 20 years later, she's gone back to the tapes to discover that food is mentioned frequently, which makes sense since the book is about domestic life. But when she wrote the book, Tucker says, "I edited out food." Not entirely. In the Telling Memories narratives, Tucker notes "for ambiance" what she is served by her interview subjects--ginger ale and cheese straws, peppermint candy, chili and Irish coffee. Food may have been peripheral for Tucker then, but it creeps in.


So Tucker's scholarly venture comes full circle--back to the kitchen. Most scholars have ignored food, as she did. Tucker attributes this oversight to the commonness of food. "I think it's because we live it." New fields of scholarship are rising, though, like freshly kneaded bread. Food is essential and scholars have appetites.

Think of the possibilities, as Tucker does: The history of food, the sociology of food, the anthropology of food--all research fields hungry for new understandings. Cookbooks are not the only "feminine" documents that Tucker studies. She has tapped into the richness of scrapbooks, those flimsy pages of dance cards and photos, held together with yarn. Temple University Press published The Scrapbook in American Life, an anthology edited by Tucker, in 2006. She's also writing and editing a history of Newcomb College. All Tucker's work is about memory.

"It's recollections," she says. The different genres--cookbooks, scrapbooks--are tangible ways women, and sometimes men, have interpreted the world. What ties Tucker's interests together is looking for meaning in the everyday. It's the sounds of silence, again.

Mary Ann Travis is editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Office of University Publications.


Citation information:

Page accessed: Sunday, May 29, 2016
Page URL:

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000