DG MARTIN COLUMN: Cookbooks that tell stories

What North Carolina cookbook has sold the most copies?

If you ask the folks at UNC Press they will tell you that “Mama Dip’s Kitchen” is their all-time best-selling book. It has sold nearly 300,000 copies.

D.G. Martin

Rarely do local oriented cookbooks published by community groups or churches sell in such numbers. But “Island Born and Bred” published by the Harkers Island United Methodist Church’s Women has sold a reported 140,000 copies of its cookbook over the 35 years that it has been in print.

How and why did these cookbooks do so well?

One of the secrets of “Mama Dip’s Kitchen’s” success was how the author shared her personal story of growing up in Chatham County and how it led to the success of her Chapel Hill restaurant.

Writing in 1999, she told her story. “I was born a colored baby girl in Chatham County, North Carolina to Ed Cotton and Effie Edwards Cotton; grew up a Negro in my youth; lived my adult life black; and am now a 70-year-old American.”

She continued, “I grew up and lived in poverty most of my life without knowing it. My children, too, grew up in poverty never knowing that they were poor. Our house just leaked. No screen doors. An outdoor bathroom and little money.

“Our family was happy to sit around the table at dinner time, eating, poking jokes, and having fun.”

Mama Dip’s book is a treasure of Southern cooking recipes. Still, the book’s success was due in large part to the appeal of her story of struggle that she shared.

Similarly, “Island Born and Bred” combines a magnificent collection of recipes with a good hard look at the story of Harkers Island and its people.

Today, Harkers Island, on the Crystal Coast near Beaufort, has about 1,200 residents who appreciate its small-town appeal. Some are new residents, including retirees and second homeowners. But the core population came from fishermen, mariners, boat builders, hunters, decoy makers and others whose livelihoods connected them to the ocean and nearby sounds and waterways.

How the town got its start is also described in “Living at the Water’s Edge,” written by Barbara Gariety-Blake and Karen Willis Amspacher, and published by UNC Press.

Many of the ancestors of the town’s residents “lived, haunted whales, and fished off Core and Shackleford Banks until the storms of 1896 and 1899 ravaged their homesteads and drove them to higher, safer ground.”

Many floated “what was left of their houses and belongings across Back Sound to nearby Harkers Island, where they bought land for a dollar an acre.”

The descendants of these settlers have long ago passed away but, according to the authors, “the story of the exodus from Shackleford Banks is told with great reverence by islanders, underscoring a deep and abiding attachment to place.”

Among its more than 300 pages of recipes and memories, “Island Born and Bred” contains a short note written by Susanne Yeomans Guthrie explaining this attachment. “No tradition is more precious to a native Harkers Islander then the privilege of returning to Shackleford Banks. For it is through this ritual that island people ‘go home.’ In fact, the desire is almost an actual need — often undiagnosed by the individual but quenched only by going and ‘feeling’ the Banks under your bare feet.”

To help preserve these memories and share them with a wider group, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center, led by Amspacher, has reopened after the repair of extensive damage during Hurricane Florence. It is located on Harkers Island at 1800 Island Road and adjoins the National Park Service’s Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center.

With three floors of exhibits and experiences, the museum gives visitors a rich experience and real connection to the history of Harkers Island and other nearby Down East communities.

“Island Born and Bred” and “Living at the Water’s Edge” are available at the museum’s store and online at https://shopcoresound.com/collections/books

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”