Ye olde bourbon balls: cookbook highlights fare of Colonial Williamsburg

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Williamsburg Cookbook for nostalgia buffs
For more than four decades, The Williamsburg Cookbook has helped home cooks recreate favorite dishes from the city’s historic restaurants and taverns, including the Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick Stew featured in the cover photo. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

It wasn’t the first cookbook to explore the Historic Triangle’s culinary legacy.

It isn’t even the most recent.

But by standards of longevity and sales, “The Williamsburg Cookbook” has had quite a run.

From the Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick Stew (shown on the cover) to the 1975 edition’s final recipe for eggnog, the cookbook celebrates an idealized amalgam of English-inspired colonial offerings, Virginia cooking, mid-century hospitality and Williamsburg’s historic restaurants and taverns.

Think bourbon balls, beefsteak and kidney pie, cream of peanut soup and Virginia ham loaf.

Released in hardcover by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation on May 1, 1971 according to Amazon.com, it targeted a sweet spot – so to speak — of history, tourism, branding and nostalgia. In 2016, it has the earmarks of a multi-generational mainstay.

“This is a romantic, affectionate look at historic material,” said Nancie McDermott, a cookbook author and culinary historian with interests in Southern food and traditional home cooking and recipes and the stories behind the food. “That is an incredible connection that resonates to this day.”

As an archival document, the cookbook has ties to several eras, including Colonial Williamsburg as a tourist destination.

Chowning's Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
The Williamsburg Cookbook highlights recipes from Chowning’s Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street, including Welsh rabbit with beer and sauteed backfin crabmeat. (WYDaily file photo)

The credited author, Letha Booth, worked as the manager of Travis House, Colonial Williamsburg’s first 18th-century themed restaurant, from 1946 to 1951.

She also managed the King’s Arms Tavern, collected most of the recipes in the cookbook and adapted them for home cooks. The recipe writing and retesting was done by Grace Sumner, a food editor in Norfolk.

More than four decades after its publication, the cookbook conjures a sensibility of colonial Virginia history and hospitality, filtered through a prism of the mid- to late-20th century.

One section recounts a 1957 visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who came to mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

The Williamsburg Inn’s menu for the occasion is reprinted in full, from Clear Green Turtle Soup Amontillado and cheese straws to strawberry mousse, demitasse and liqueurs.

Colonial Williamsburg as a vacation spot for non-royal families also resonates through the recipes: Williamsburg Inn popovers; King’s Arms Tavern colonial game pie; Chowning’s Tavern brownies.

And with its color photographs, the cookbook evokes the 1970s: A time before business casual, cell phones and social media, before personal trainers, yoga pants and Fitbits.

One photograph shows two couples in formal attire, ringing in the New Year at the Williamsburg Inn. The candlelit buffet has marinated shrimp, salted peanuts, chilled champagne and cheddar cheese and olive balls.

To a reader steeped in 2016 food trends, some of the recipes might raise questions about authenticity, not to mention cholesterol.

Christiana Campbell's
The 18th-century themed fare of Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, shown here in June, appears in The Williamsburg Cookbook through recipes for dishes such as rum cream pie, fig ice cream and Tipsy Squire. (Courtesy photo)

Hampton crab bisque calls for condensed cream of mushroom and asparagus soups, as well as crabmeat, light cream and milk.

A clam and chicken bisque uses butter, light cream and whipping cream.

The Brunswick stew recipe allows for the use of canned corn.

Even amid renewed interest in farm-to-table cooking, that pre-foodie sensibility hasn’t doomed the text.

“The Williamsburg Cookbook” has sold more than 1 million copies and gone through 18 printings, according to Paul Aron, director and managing editor of publications for Colonial Williamsburg. Last updated in 1990, it sold for many years without a large national distribution network, primarily in Colonial Williamsburg.

Aron has no plans for an update.

“I’m sort of afraid to tamper with it,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Williamsburg Inn Popovers
Recipes from the Williamsburg Inn are also featured in The Williamsburg Cookbook, including ones for popovers, Yorkshire pudding and pecan bars. (WYDaily file photo)

And that is seemingly fine with readers, at least the roughly 30 customers who have given it an average five-star rating on Amazon, calling out favorite recipes such as Brunswick stew.

Based on some of the Amazon reviews, a perception of authenticity may be part of the cookbook’s appeal, along with nostalgia for childhood vacations, holidays and other personal milestones observed in the Historic Triangle.

“A favorite since we bought one on our honeymoon 30+ years ago,” said a five-star Amazon review written by “C. Elliott” and posted on Sept. 30. “Found one for my daughter’s cookbook library.”

That inter-generational framework may help explain part of its endurance.

With its ties to Colonial Williamsburg, the cookbook comes with a sense of theater, McDermott said.

“There’s romance and stories and adventure,” she said. “This book invites you in.”

If you want to introduce some of the cookbook’s iconic dishes in your home, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg here are recipes for Christiana Campbell’s Tavern Spoon Bread, which is like a hot cornbread pudding-soufflé, and Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick Stew.

Other cookbooks from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation are available here and here.