[This blog post was written by Samantha Crisp, Director of the Outer Banks History Center.]
Have you ever thought about your community’s food history? What about your ancestors’ relationships to food—what did they eat? Why did they eat it? How did they get it?
Public interest in historical foodways has really taken off in the past decade, particularly relating to vintage recipes. In 2014, Duke University’s Rubenstein Library launched the Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen, a blog featuring historical recipes from the Rubenstein’s collections recreated by archivists. It was immediately popular among history lovers and foodies alike. Even popular web content producers like Buzzfeed and its subsidiary, Tasty, have made forays into experimenting with historical food, preparing recipes for 350-year-old ice cream and oyster and chicken pie, and even curating a list of “truly upsetting” vintage recipes.
A recent collaboration between the Outer Banks History Center and the Dare County Arts Council prompted my own foray into “vintage” food. We worked with a local food author, Amy Gaw, to curate a juried art show based on historical recipes from the OBHC’s cookbook collection and recipes collected by Amy for her new book, Lost Restaurants of the Outer Banks with their Recipes. About 30 local artists were each given a recipe and instructed to use it as inspiration to create a piece of art in their preferred medium, culminating in an awards ceremony and reception in which we passed out tastings of each dish recreated by local cooks. The show was called The Art of the Recipe.
Each recipe was carefully selected based on its age, ties to the local community, ease of reproduction, and availability of ingredients, except for one. My earliest contribution to the list wasn’t meant to be a contribution at all, but rather a snapshot sent to Amy of a recipe I stumbled upon and simply thought was hilarious: Wayne’s Famous Pooter Dip. As the weeks went by and the list of candidates whittled down to our favorites, Wayne’s Pooter Dip never really left our minds, and we eventually decided that it had to be included in the show, and I would be the one to recreate it for the reception. It was kismet.
Wayne’s Famous Pooter Dip appears in the Town of Nags Head’s 50th anniversary cookbook, Fifty Years and Still Cookin’, published in 2011. Unfortunately, despite a great deal of searching and asking around, I was unable to find out who Wayne was or what prompted him to contribute this recipe to the cookbook. While this recipe was less “historical” than most of the others in the show, its irreverent humor, conversational tone, and performative elements resonated with me in a way that the other recipes didn’t.
I started by gathering all the ingredients, including Colby Jack cheese (“no substitute”), Pace picante sauce, and two “your choice” beers, which in my case turned out to be two of my husband’s leftover Landshark Lagers. And, of course, “pooters,” or refried beans.
After preheating your pan, Wayne first instructs you to “open up one of the beers and take at least one drink, two if the skillet is heating up slow.” Then, add sausage and chop as fine as possible. Wayne advises that “it takes a little work but it’s worth it in the end.”
Next, chop and add your onions, and take another swig of beer.
Add the Pace picante sauce, rinse the can with water, and finish off beer number 1. Then, open beer number 2 and spread your “pooters” in a Pyrex dish, making sure that you “try to be neat with the pooters as folks tend to judge you harshly if they are smeared all over the baking dish.” I’ll take Wayne’s word for it.
At this point, as can often happen with historical recipes, Wayne and I had a breakdown in communication. He states that the sausage mixture should simmer “for at least 30 minutes. Longer is better but 2 hours is too much.” I was suddenly reminded of my mother’s and grandmother’s favorite recipes, which frequently include less-than-helpful descriptors such as “a moderate oven” or “make a sauce” or “bake until it looks done.” One of the most enjoyable and sometimes frustrating aspects of recreating old recipes is attempting to decipher the cook’s bad handwriting, odd turns of phrase, or forgotten ingredients, all of which likely result from having to write down a recipe for the first time that one has known by heart for decades. I settled on an hour. I felt like Wayne would appreciate a nice, round number.
While the pooter dip was simmering, I tried to imagine what Wayne must be like. I know nothing about him other than what I can glean from this recipe. He was probably a lover of beer and simple, cheap food to enjoy with it. I suspect he was the class clown and preferred to make his home in Nags Head due to the laid-back, relaxing atmosphere on the beach. Perhaps he was a surfer. I couldn’t help but picture him standing at his stove in his tiny beach box home, wearing Rainbow sandals and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, casually stirring pooter dip and sipping beer while keeping an eye on the condition of the waves through his kitchen window. I wondered how Wayne’s dip became “famous.” I wondered how he’d feel knowing that his name will be immortalized in art, or that his recipe will be preserved in the archival record in perpetuity. Perhaps he anticipated this, and the “famous” descriptor portended this very moment.
After simmering for an hour and “having beer at will,” I pulled the steaming pan off the stove and “gingerly” spread a generous amount of cheese on top. Wayne recommends melting the cheese in an oven “at low heat,” another vague descriptor that I interpreted to mean 325°. Per Wayne, “don’t burn it.” Fifteen minutes later, a pan full of spicy, cheesy pooter dip was cooling on my kitchen counter.
At the reception, Wayne’s Famous Pooter Dip was sampled by young and old alike, and I heard numerous attendees joke about it being the funniest recipe they’d ever read. Local photographer Jim Trotman’s entry, “A Pooter Tower of Power,” was even awarded an honorable mention. By the end of the night, our attendees had scarfed down almost two whole batches of the dip. Over 100 people attended our reception, and I think I overheard just about every one of them remark that it was one of the most enjoyable shows they’d ever participated in, and how much they loved the concept. I left that evening knowing I had succeeded in sharing my love of Wayne and his cheeky pooter dip recipe with the world.
Archivists know that archives change lives. We see it every day in our reading rooms, and share stories about our observations with each other. But it’s not every day that an entire room full of people can have their lives changed together by engaging with archives in a way they’d never imagined before. Archives are essential, inspirational, and powerful, but they can also be quirky, unpredictable, and fun. Projects like The Art of the Recipe encourage folks from all walks of life to come together and seek out the joy in archives, somewhere at the intersection of art, history, and pooter dip.