For March 2023, the Common Ground Virginia History Book Group is exploring the history of Southern baking with Rebecca Sharpless’s Grain and Fire. Sharpless explores the recipes and resources that shaped baking in what is now the Southern United States. Sharpless makes sure to point out that many of the written records we have reflect what was eaten by the wealthy and “as we think about food of the wealthy, we must think of the hands that prepared them.”1
A few years ago, when researching materials regarding Virginia suffragists, we came across an article in the Virginia Suffrage News about a suffrage bake sale in Richmond, Virginia that threw that reminder in sharp relief. At the time, we posted a twitter thread as part of #ArchivesHashtagParty but we would like to expand on it here.
The article, published on December 1, 1914, lists a selection of goods available for purchase to benefit the suffrage cause including “cakes, pies, breads…homemade candies, tarts, and snakey-noodles.” That last item in particular caught our eyes. What in the world are “snakey -noodles”? We were further intrigued when a Google search (at the time) yielded no definitive answer.
Google, alas, doesn’t know everything, but this is exactly where archivists and librarians shine. The game was afoot! Amidst the random search results, there was one that seemed somewhat relevant – text describing a baked good from a book called Molly Brown’s Senior Days written by one Nell Speed in 1913.
In this book, one of a series, Molly Brown, a Southern girl attending a Northern college, mentions more than once how good “snakey-noodles” are, but her classmates, like us, have no idea what she is taking about.2 Although we now had a description of the baked good, it seemed even stranger that neither Google, nor the characters in the book, nor anyone at LVA had ever heard of this treat, yet the writers of Virginia Suffrage News seemed to think their readers would have. Why might that be?
The next stop was to look into Molly Brown’s author – Nell Speed was born in Kentucky and moved to (you guessed it) Richmond, Virginia. While she was the author of the first four Molly Brown books, she died in 1913, a year before our bake sale. However, the series had been continued by her sister, Emma Speed Sampson.
Does that name sound familiar? Take a look back at the suffragists listed in the original article. It includes a Mrs. Emma Speed Sampson, who now seems to be the most probable bringer of the “snakey-noodles.” But what was it and was she its baker and inventor?
In the excerpts from Molly Brown, Nell Speed has Molly say that “our old cook…Aunt Ma’y Morton” makes the treats which are described as “coils of very rich pastry with raisins and cinnamon all through.”3 Emma, a transplant from Kentucky to Virginia like her sister, reiterates this in books written later in the series.
Molly Brown as a character has many similarities with the Speed sisters. Growing up in Kentucky during Reconstruction, the sisters and their other siblings were attended by servants who only a few years before had been enslaved by the family. The titular character of the Molly Brown series grew up similarly in Kentucky, and though the series follows her college years in the Northern United States (just like her real-life counterparts), she constantly refers to her life in Kentucky for the benefit of her Northern classmates. Later, just like the real-life Emma, she spends time in Paris. At least one actual event she relates comes directly from the sisters’ own childhood. In both Molly Brown’s Post-Graduate Days and in her unpublished autobiography, Emma Speed Sampson recounts her mother feeding a large group of Black workers for whom their neighbor had not provided lunch after contracting them to work on his fields. Even though most of the series does not occur in the South, the books are full of the lost-cause imagery and racist paternalism emblematic of the time period, which also shows up in Sampson’s non-fiction writing.
“Snakey-noodles” appear in both the factual and fictionalized accounts of the Speed sisters’ lives, so it seems probable that once again they were drawing from their own childhood experiences. This raises the question: who was the real-life counterpart of Mary Morton, and did she invent the baked good just like her fictional stand-in? As we pointed out in our original Twitter thread, the 1890 federal census lists Maria[h] Richardson as a cook in Speed’s Kentucky home. Since then, we have been able to locate the unpublished version of Sampson’s autobiography at Virginia Commonwealth University which reaffirms her name. Sampson writes of “Aunt Maria, our arbitrary old cook,” but says very little else except reiterating that she was not “a very pleasant person although an excellent servant and a good cook.”4
Emma Speed Sampson was by all accounts also a good cook herself. In fact, she hosted cooking classes in Richmond in conjunction with Quality Service Stores. The women’s section of the Richmond Times Dispatch in the 1930s is covered with her name: her endorsements of certain food products, her advice column, remarks regarding her position on Virginia’s Motion Picture Censorship board, and her daily recipe column.
Despite her love of cooking, Emma Speed Sampson does not mention in her autobiography how she came to enjoy it. Did Maria Richardson help teach her? Sampson did not approach it as a possible profession. She did not see being a cook as a respectable position. In fact, in her autobiography, she relates with amazement and a little scorn how early on in her marriage she was offered a position as cook to make ends meet. Although she thought the offer ludicrous, she added that she wondered if the couple was ever “able to get as good a cook as Emma Speed Sampson.”5 Cooking for others for pay probably did not fit Sampson’s ideas of what was acceptable for her as a white middle class woman. Perhaps teaching others to cook was different since it put her in a place of authority. Teaching was one of the few respectable positions for white women at the time.
``Mrs. Emma Speed Sampson in her own kitchen.``
Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 30, 1932, page 7.
Sampson was not a typical teacher, however; most of her cooking instruction took place via the short-lived cooking school or via her articles for the Richmond Times Dispatch. Although she never mentions who taught her to cook, all of her recipes are written, as a reviewer of her later published compilation put it, “as dictated by the negro tyrant of the kitchen herself,” or as it was commonly called, the “negro dialect.”6
Ironically, in the storyline of the Molly Brown books, the characters are taken to account for being ready to take “the old cook’s” recipe and profit off it themselves – something that Emma Speed Sampson seems to be doing herself. Sampson’s cookbook is called Miss Minerva’s Cook Book and features stereotypical illustrations of a Black woman. Despite the title, Miss Minerva is not the cook. In Sampson’s fictional series, another that she continued after the original author’s death, “Miss Minerva” is a white woman but in a mirror of real life, the cookbook is once again written in dialect with the true cook unnamed. Even some of Sampson’s product endorsements, such as a 1932 endorsement for Duke’s Mayonnaise, is written in this “style.”7 Just as with many other food brands before and since, the cooking expertise of Black women was regarded highly enough to sell products but not enough to earn them respect and credit.
Miss Minerva’s Cook Book does include a recipe for “snakey-noodles.” The Miss Minerva series was popular throughout the South, but especially so in Richmond where its author lived. It shows up in many local Miller & Rhoads and Methodist Publishing House (now Cokesbury) advertisements.8 The recipe also seems to have appeared in Sampson’s Richmond Times Dispatch column at least twice.9
Did Emma Speed Sampson bake those “snakey-noodles” she sold? The ones that according to the article “should forever silence [those] who claim that suffragists have forgotten the home-makers’ arts”?10 Possibly, but it probably wasn’t her original recipe despite the money she made off it, not only at the bake sale but in more than one publication.
It can be very hard to track down where a recipe originated. In Grain and Fire, Sharpless even mentions a similar sounding recipe to “snakey-noodles” made in North Carolina from unused dough scraps called “tanglebritches.”11 But even though she never credits Maria Richardson or any other cook in her non-fiction writings, the plots of Emma Speed Sampson’s fictional books and the fact that she co-opted what she thought was a Black woman’s voice to share the recipes strongly hints that she co-opted the recipes as well.
How many recipes in Miss Minerva’s Cook Book were Maria’s? Although we don’t know for sure, it’s something to ponder. It is certainly frustrating that in an attempt to write more about Maria Richardson, we are forced, given the archival record we have at hand, to write more about Emma Speed Sampson instead. Curiosity about an unfamiliar recipe certainly taught us more than we expected.
Join us virtually on Monday, March 20th at 6 p.m. to chat about the history of Southern baking with author Rebecca Sharpless. Please note that just for March 2023, our usual day of the week has changed. Registration is free but required.
Digital Resources from LVA
Cooking today with Our Church Paper (Uncommonwealth Blog)
4-H Club Baking Photographs (Fairfax County Public Library Historical Photographs)
Homegrown: Celebrating Virginia’s Food Culture (Uncommonwealth Blog)
Marion Cabell Tyree and Mrs. T’s Sweet Potato Pie (Uncommonwealth Blog)
Norfolk Bakery Photographs (Harry C. Mann Photograph Collection)
Websites About Southern Baking
Cooking in Early Virginia Indian Society
Rare Books from the History of Food and Drink Collection (Virginia Tech)
Southern Baking Oral Histories (Southern Foodways Alliance)
Books about Southern Baking
Deetz, Kelley Fanto. Bound to the Fire : How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017.
Edge, John T. The Potlikker Papers : A Food History of the Modern South. New York City: Penguin Press, 2017.
Ferris, Marcie Cohen. The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Ford, Thomas K. and Horace J. Sheely. The Miller in Eighteenth-Century Virginia : An Account of Mills & the Craft of Milling, as Well as a Description of the Windmill Near the Palace in Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1978.
Tipton-Martin, Toni, John Egerton, and Barbara Haber. The Jemima Code : Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Twitty, Michael. The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South. First edition. New York, NY: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017.
Hounihan, John D. and Howard L. Goodman. J.D. Hounihan’s Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Guide and Treasure. Staunton, VA: John D. Hounihan, 1877.
Randolph, Mary. The Virginia House-Wife. Washington: Printed by Davis and Force, 1824.
Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1984.
Selected Recipes for Cakes, Biscuit, Muffins, Etc. Prepared by Ladies of Virginia. Rumford, RI: Rumford Chemical Works, 1900.
Tyree, Marion Cabell. Housekeeping in Old Virginia : Containing Contributions from Two Hundred and Fifty Ladies in Virginia and Her Sister States … New York: G.W. Carleton & co., 1877.
Walker, Lula V. The Making and Using of Breads: for Women Studying the Bread Unit and Members of the Bread Clubs. Blacksburg, Virginia: Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute and the United States Department of Agriculture, 1924.
 Rebecca Sharpless, Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 58.
 Nell Speed, Molly Brown’s Senior Days (New York, NY: A. L. Burt & Company, 1913), 258.
 Ibid, 193.
 Fugate, John Letcher, “Great day. An edition of Great day : the autobiography of Emma Speed Sampson” (1968). Master’s Theses. 202. https://scholarship.richmond.edu/masters-theses/202
 The Birmingham News, October 04, 1931, page 47.
 Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 30, 1932, page 8.
 For example Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 12, 1936 has Miss Minerva’s Problem advertised by both Miller & Rhoads and Methodist Publishing House along-side a review of the book by RTD.
 Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 06, 1930, page 7 and May 12, 1933, page 14.
 Virginia Suffrage News, December 01, 1914.
 Rebecca Sharpless, Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 130.