McCulloch-Williams, Martha, approximately 1857-
Martha McCulloch-Williams was born near Clarksville, northwest Tennessee, in Montgomery County. The fourth daughter of Fannie Williams and William Collins, a wealthy plantation owner, she was christened Susan Martha Ann Collins, and answered to the nickname "Smack," an acronym of her name and a term descriptive of her quick wit and independent manner. McCulloch-Williams grew up in a privileged world of leisure and abundance. She never attended school but was educated at home by her older sister. During the Civil War, the family remained together and retained their land, but afterwards they fell into genteel poverty, struggling to run their farm with little help. McCulloch-Williams began writing stories for the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle; the positive reaction she received encouraged her to continue. When her father died in 1885 at the age of eighty-eight, and her mother, an invalid throughout Williams' life, passed away soon after, a distant cousin, Thomas McCulloch Williams, came to live with the three unmarried sisters to help with the work. Though Martha wanted to manage the family farm, her sisters would not agree to this arrangement, and in 1887 the family sold the property. Sisters Mary and Gold moved in with their near-by married sister, Virginia; McCulloch-Williams, fueled by literary ambitions, left Tennessee for New York City, and much to the consternation and embarrassment of her sisters, Thomas McCulloch Williams accompanied her. It is unclear whether the two ever married, though her Who's Who entry lists her as married. In any case she created a new name for herself, Martha McCulloch-Williams, adding the distinctive hyphen for effect.
An attractive, witty, energetic woman, she quickly established herself in New York, picking up regular magazine assignments and publishing short stories, serials, poetry and essays in several magazines, including Harper's Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, and McClure's. In 1892 she published her first book, Field Farings, A Vagrant Chronicle of Earth and Sky. The same year she also published The Tenant of Woodfell, A Story of Fate, which was followed by Two of a Trade (1894), Milre (1894), A Man and His Knife: Passages from the Life of James Bowie (1898) and Next to the Ground, Chronicles of a Countryside (1901). She wrote over two hundred short stories, including the McClure prizewinner "In Jackson's Purchase," and "A Rose Distilled," which was chosen for Fifty Best Stories of 1916. Her domestic books earned her the reputation as an authority on household topics; in 1895 she published The Capital Cook Book, and in 1913, at the age of sixty-five, she published Harper's Household Handbook, and the book featured in this collection, Dishes & Beverages of the Old South.
More than just a cook book or a domestic advice manual, Dishes & Beverages of the Old South was the first book to weave cooking recipes and food preparations into a narrative essay, creating both a nostalgic and an immediate sense of the elegance and deliciousness of old Southern cooking. Dishes & Beverages of the Old South went through just one printing, and was forgotten. John Egerton writes, "Both the author and her pathfinding book slipped away with the passage of time and disappeared virtually without a trace, leaving other writers to reinvent the wheel of narrative books about food, apparently without the slightest inkling of what had been done before them." Its uncomplicated affection for a way of life built on the injustice and brutality of slavery - vivid recollections of Mammy in her kitchen, the plantation barbecuer ("the loan of him was an act of special friendship") and of the royal feasts enjoyed by a Southern elite - make this a historic and literary chronicle of a truly vanished era. At the time, of course, such atrocious sentiment was common in nostalgic accounts of the old South.
Martha and Thomas McCulloch-Williams lived comfortably in New York City, on Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side, relying on Martha's writing income and her share of the family estate for financial support. They had no children. Sometime between 1900 and 1910, Thomas passed away. Martha's three sisters died between 1919 and 1920, and after that, she never returned to Tennessee. A fire destroyed her Manhattan home and all her belongings late in life, and she was left destitute, without family. Her friend Dorothy Dix, the advice columnist and fellow Montgomery County native, supported her until her death in a New Jersey nursing home in 1934.
- Williams, Martha McCulloch, Dishes & Beverages of the Old South. New York: McBride Nast & Company, 1913.
- ----------Dishes & Beverages of the Old South. A facsimile of the original, published in 1913, with a new introduction by John Egerton. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
- Who Was Who in America. Vol. V. Chicago, IL: Marquis Who's Who, Inc., 1973.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman