When Cathy Forrester sat down six years ago to update the family cookbook, she had planned to make a few changes and give copies to friends. “I was just going to correct an error here and there and then get the whole thing bound at Kinko’s.” But as she sifted through generations of recipes, Forrester realized she possessed something with broader appeal: a familial account of elegant entertaining in Charleston, S.C.
At Home~Charleston: Traditions and Entertaining in a Charleston Home combines recipes, photographs of her family’s 18th-century Charleston mansion and a biography of society maven Juliette Wiles Staats, Forrester’s maternal grandmother. The book is organized according to the events that fall within the traditional Charleston social season—October to May—and includes menus for debutante dinner parties, Sea Island picnics, and Thanksgiving and Christmas banquets.
Staats kept party ledgers in which she painstakingly recorded the food, guest lists, seating arrangements and table decorations for events she hosted between 1955 and 1987. Forrester quotes from the notebooks as well as from her grandmother’s personal correspondence: “Yesterday, as I told you, was a gorgeous day. The luncheon ended up sixteen, so I used the two marbleized tabletops. . . . After the luncheon there was a party up the street, then I had a quiet hour and off to the North Carolina ballet.”
The photographs that accompany the text showcase the furniture, fine linens, and silver table settings as Staats would have arranged them for her guests.
“This is a slower, more genteel way of life. . . . [This is] a culture where family is everything and gatherings have a larger importance,” says Forrester. She goes on to say that while professional chefs keep local cuisine alive, it is the home chef who is responsible for passing down the culture and traditions of the family.
“There’s a very real risk of losing this lifestyle, even in a town like Charleston,” she says. “My grandmother thought it was so important to pass these things on to the next generation, and now I’m trying to do the same.”
Or as Staats wrote: “No one ever drops by or has time to visit with each other unless some special occasion is set up. So I shall keep at it as long as able.”
—MARIE CANNIZZARO, ’06