Country Captain is the Southern Icon You May Have Never Tasted

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[Photograph: [email protected], Flickr]

In April 2009, a Food Network production team arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, to film a special featuring local cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, complete with a cooking demonstration. "Taste a true original Charleston dish—Country Captain," the producers announced in their Craigslist call for audience members.

To get the backstory on the dish, the producers phoned up local food writers and industry insiders, including my colleague Jeff Allen at the Charleston City Paper. The producers didn't have much information to share, for if country captain was "a true original Charleston dish," that was news to the paper's staff.

"I had heard of it as a dish," Allen recalls. "But I had never associated it with Charleston cuisine or the classic repertoire of the colonial era."

That was my reaction, too. The name was vaguely familiar, but, despite having lived in Charleston for over a decade and in South Carolina almost my entire life, I couldn't recall ever actually eating it.

Which isn't to say that no one in South Carolina was cooking country captain, a fragrant and somewhat spicy dish consisting of chicken parts simmered in a tomato-based curry sauce. That sauce generally includes onions, garlic, and green peppers and it's finished with almonds and currants. It's almost always served over plain white rice.

Matt and Ted Lee remember first encountering it in the 1980s in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb just north of Charleston, when it was served to them by a childhood friend's mother. "It's instantly lovable," Matt Lee says. "Even to a nine year old. It's chicken and gravy, but flavorful gravy." They liked it so much that they included it in their first cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.

The Food Network "cooking demonstration" turned out to be a set-up: the Lee Brothers were the victims of a Bobby Flay "throwdown," where the celebrity chef shows up unannounced and tries to best cooks at making whatever their own specialty is in a head-to-head contest. The Lee Brothers won.

A Lowcountry Classic?

But, of the dozens of recipes in the Lee Brothers' cookbook, why did the Food Network seize upon country captain? (The Lee Brothers confirm that the producers chose the dish.)

Journalist Sam Sifton could be to blame. In January 2009, just a few months before the throwdown was staged, Sifton wrote in the New York Times Magazine that country captain is "a dish you'll find in both [Charleston and Savannah] and throughout the Lowcountry that surrounds them, in restaurants and home dining rooms alike. Made correctly, it captures exactly that moment of excitement you feel when first arriving in the region from far away: a sense that everything really is different in the South, that it is the one last, true regional culture in the United States."

Sifton's misty-eyed preamble makes it sound like country captain is as much a Lowcountry classic as shrimp and grits and hoppin' John. But we can forgive some running rough-shod over the finer delineations of the sub-regions of Southern cuisine, for almost everyone does the same. (Remember where pimento cheese really comes from.)

The rest of Sifton's piece does a good job outlining the murkiness that surrounds country captain's provenance, with interviews from Southern food luminaries like John T. Edge. Almost everyone who has written about the recipe in any depth has correctly identified that its origins are Indian and that it eventually made its way to the South. How it got there, though, is the tricky part.

An Indian Dish Comes to America

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Chicken tikka masala. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The simplest explanations posit a direct route, as Michele Kayal notes in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: "Legend has it that a British sea captain who served it in India introduced the dish to locals either in Charleston or Savannah, port cities accustomed to both spices and sailors."

Writers like Sifton and Kayal, who have dug a little deeper into the dish's history, are rightly skeptical of that legend. They cite earlier writers like Cecily Brownstone, who insisted it had a northern provenance. They go on to note that country captain was served to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia, and became one of his favorite dishes, and that it was a staple of Junior League Cookbooks in the 1950s and 1960s. Then they throw their hands up and leave it at that. But tracing the rest of that path is worthwhile, for it tells us a lot about the evolution of what is today considered to be Southern cuisine.

The "country" part of country captain might evoke images of the rural South, but the name long predates the dish's arrival in America. Its roots are clearly Indian, going back to at least the early 19th century, which is not to say it conforms to any one traditional Indian recipe, like murgh makhani (butter chicken), or even the Anglicized chicken tikka masala.

William C. Hunter offers a succinct explanation in his memoir The 'Fan Kwae' at Canton Before Treaty Days (1882). A partner in the merchant firm Russell & Co., Hunter lived in Canton China between 1825 and 1844. In his book, he describes the trade between India and Canton. "The local name for their business was the 'Country Trade,'" he writes. "The ships were 'Country Ships,' and the masters of them 'Country Captains.' Some of my readers may recall a dish which was often placed before us, when dining on board these vessels at Whampoa, viz., 'Country Captain.'"

In 1889, the New York Times noted that those who wandered off the beaten track in India would within a few hours "make acquaintance with 'Country Captain' in one of its local forms, which are varied." All of them involved browned chicken parts cooked in some form of curry.

Through the early decades of the 20th century, country captain remained an "Indian" dish, though it was starting to become known in the United States. It first appeared in an American cookbook in 1857, when Eliza Leslie included it in Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book. "This is an East India dish," she noted, "and a very easy preparation of curry." Her version starts with a whole chicken that is boiled then cut into pieces, seasoned with curry powder, and fried with onions in lard or butter. She recommends adding a few tablespoons of grated coconut to the curry and serving it with rice.

Over the next few decades, recipes for country captain popped up occasionally in English-language cookbooks like The Indian Cookery Book (1880), Indian Dishes for English Tables (1910), and The Pan-Pacific Cookbook (1915). The recipes are all pretty simple: a chicken cut into pieces and dredged in flour then fried with onion and curry powder, covered with broth, and simmered until tender.

It's not surprising that such a recipe would appeal to American cooks around the turn of the 20th century, for exoticism was very much in vogue. Curry powder was quite fashionable, and "chicken curry" was a popular recipe. In fact, many of the recipes called "chicken curry" published during this period are almost indistinguishable from those called "country captain."

Enter a Swiss-born chef named Alessandro Filippini. He ran the Pine Street outpost of the famous New York City restaurant Delmonico's, and the recipe for country captain caught his eye. Filippini included the dish in his International Cookbook (1906), and he added a few of his own flourishes. He fried green peppers and garlic along with the chicken and onions, and he added thyme and parsley with the curry powder. He then finished the dish by garnishing it with roasted almonds and dried currants.

Those New York flourishes would eventually become standard for the American incarnation of country captain.

From Indian Dish to Southern Icon

Country captain started the 20th century as an "Indian" recipe, but it ended it as a Southern one. Alessandro Filippini was an important link in the chain, but unlike shrimp and grits or Cajun gumbo, home cooks, not chefs, were the driving forces. In fact, we can attribute most of country captain's Southern icon status to a handful of women in key roles, though who did the actual cooking is a complicated matter.

Mary B. Bullard was the wife of William L. Bullard, a respected physician in Columbus, Georgia. Dr. Bullard passed away in 1925, but his wife—known to all as "Miss Mamie"—and her daughters and granddaughters remained prominent in Columbus society. Sometime in the 1920s, Miss Mamie settled upon a signature dish to serve when entertaining: country captain.

One of her daughters may have actually been responsible for discovering the recipe. In Georgia Heritage:Treasured Recipes (1979), Mary Hart Brumby, Mrs. Bullard's granddaughter, recalled that her mother, Mira Bullard Hart, ordered Alessandro Filippini's cookbook around the time of World War I. "Of all the marvelous dishes of Filippini's," Brumby wrote, "this is the only one Mother changed radically. At the time, you could not even obtain curry powder locally and it is, as far as I know, the first party dish of this kind to be served in Georgia."

The "radical" change seems to be the addition of a single ingredient, for the Bullard family's recipe was essentially the same as Filippini's but with two No. 2 cans tomatoes added to the chicken while it cooked.

The Bullards had a summer home in nearby Warm Springs, and one of their neighbors was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had started coming to the resort in 1924 to treat his polio. Roosevelt became friendly with the local social circle that included Miss Mamie, and at one of her Warm Springs dinner party she served him country captain, which quickly became one of the future President's favorite meals.

Columbus was the home of Fort Benning, and many of the officers stationed there became part of the Bullards' social circle, too. Those included George S. Patton, who, like Roosevelt, became a fan of their country captain and requested it whenever he visited the fort. But it wasn't famous men like Patton and Roosevelt who popularized country captain. It was army wives.

The Army Wife's Specialty

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Curry powder was a safe-yet-exotic flavor for Army wives looking to impress. [Photograph: Shutterstock]

Miss Mamie died in 1944 at the age of 84, but the dish that was the star of her dinner table lived on long after thanks to the women whose husbands were stationed at Fort Benning. Many of these officers' wives appear to have picked up the recipe from the Bullard family in Columbus and then took it with them as they were deployed to other bases across the country.

A 1953 article about an Army wife entertaining the chiefs of staff in Washington, DC, notes that for the occasion she made, "country captain, an old Army recipe made with chicken and rice and topped with almonds." In 1955, Duncan Hines published a recipe for country captain in his widely-read syndicated column "Adventures in Good Eating." He noted that it was given to him by Mildred Williams, the food columnist for a Virginia newspaper, who in turn got it from Mrs. W. L. Bullard of Columbus, Georgia.

In 1958, Morrison Wood, the author of a nationally-syndicated food column, put out a call to his readers for country captain, which he had been unable to find in any of the cookbooks in his collection. Mrs. H. F. Creelius of Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, supplied him with "the original recipe for Chicken Country Captain as prepared by the famous 70-year-old colored cook, Aire Mullen, of Columbus, Ga."

"I am an army wife," she noted in her accompanying letter, "and whenever we have been stationed at Fort Benning, Aire has always prepared this famous dish for me, but I have served it in many faraway places, and it is always a great sensation." (Remember that name, Aire Mullen. We'll get to her in a moment.)

Nancy Shea, the wife of an Army colonel, included country captain in the series of guidebooks she wrote to help officers' spouses navigate the unique social conventions of their migratory military world. In the 1951 edition of The Army Wife, Shea spelled out the rules for dinners. "Formal dinners given by ranking officers," she instructed, "are often returned by buffet suppers given by junior officers. . . . Limit your guest list to 12. By this time, if you have really applied yourself to learning to cook, you must have some specialty. Perhaps you are a past mistress at making 'country captain' or Italian spaghetti."

Country captain was the perfect low-risk dish for such an important social event. It could be made well in advance, leaving plenty of time to start over in case of error, and its curry powder and currants added a touch of exotic elegance. In the Air Force Wife (1954), Shea listed country captain alongside fried chicken as the two options in her prescribed menu for a "Southern Supper."

In fact, almost every recipe for country captain published in the 1950s can be linked in some way to either a military spouse or to Mrs. Bullard directly. Someone consulting Charleston Receipts (1950), the well-known Junior League Cookbook that collected recipes from home kitchens around the city, might be forgiven for concluding that country captain is, as the Food Network producers put it, "a true Charleston dish."

As it turns out, its contributor was "Mrs. E. H. DeSaussure (Eleanor Charlton)," and her husband was Edward Harleston de Saussure, a career military officer who served in World War I and World War II and was stationed at various Southern bases during peacetime.

But let's return to that name that we mentioned in passing, Aire Mullen. Who was she?

Her name was actually Arie Mullins. A historical marker outside the Bullard-Hart-Sampson House in Columbus notes the famous guests like FDR and General Patton who dined there on "'Country Captain,' a popular regional dish originated by the family cook, Arie Mullins." Apart from that marker, Arie Mullins' name has pretty much disappeared from the story of country captain.

Mrs. Bullard and her daughters, it seems, weren't the ones who actually cooked the country captain their guests loved so much. In 1963, Louise Bullard MacPherson, one of Mamie Bullard's daughters, told the story of the dish's origins to the syndicated food writer Clementine Paddleford. Mrs. Bullard was giving a dinner for their Warm Springs neighbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "To this particular dinner," Paddleford wrote. "Mr. Roosevelt was bringing distinguished guests and Mrs. Bullard wanted to serve a most distinguished dinner. She and the family cook, Arie Mullin, paged through old recipe books and, putting this with that, devised Country Captain."

Later, Paddleford related, the dish became the specialty of The Big Eddy Club, a private supper club in Columbus. "Mrs. Bullard's daughter sent Arie and other servants to the club to prepare Country Captain for the world's great visiting the city...a star studded list: General John Pershing, General George Patton, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, General George Marshall."

Census records tell us that Mullins was an African-American woman born around 1880 in Georgia. She married Tobe Mullins, who worked as a driver, and they lived together in Columbus for the rest of their lives. In 1940, she was 60 years old and working as a "chamber maid" with an annual income of $260. Arie Mullins passed away on December 5th, 1959, just as the dish she was so instrumental in popularizing was about to hit its peak of celebrity.

From the Army to the Greater South

In the 1960s, country captain made the leap "an old Army dish" to a "Southern classic." It's common to see it referred to in newspaper articles during that decade as "Georgia's famous Country Captain recipe." It was during that decade that writers also started grasping to explain the origin of both the recipe and its name, and they ended up making a lot of wild speculations about things like "country capon." A 1968 article in the Augusta Chronicle is the first published instance I've found of the sea captain origin myth: "a captain of a spice trading ship sailed into Savannah and left the original Country Captain recipe with friends there."

One food writer cried foul to this Southernization of country captain: Cecily Brownstone, the New York-based food editor for the Associated Press. Brownstone insisted that the dish had a northern pedigree, noting its appearance in Eliza Leslie's Philadelphia-published cookbook and its adoption by Alessandro Filippini, one of New York's most noted chefs.

Brownstone championed Filippini's more cheffy version, which she preferred over Leslie's simpler one, and she published it in hundreds of newspapers. Oddly enough, Brownstone omitted the parsley and added a can of stewed tomatoes, making it essentially the same recipe as the one mastered by Arie Mullins in the Bullard family's kitchen down in Columbus.

Brownstone teamed up with James Beard to evangelize what she considered to be the purest form of the dish. Beard taught Brownstone's version in his cooking school, and Irma and Marion Rombauer included it in their highly-influential Joy of Cooking. "For years, every variation upset me," Cecily Brownstone told Molly O'Neill of the New York Times in 1991. "I would worry about eroding the image of the dish, about people getting the wrong impression." If she saw a version in a restaurant or a cookbook with ingredients like cream or chicken breasts instead of bone-in chicken parts, she would protest loudly to the chef or author.

In O'Neill's New York Times interview, Brownstone noted, "I first heard about Country Captain in the 1950s." Around 1960, she started investigating the origin of the dish, which is when she turned up the Leslie and Filippini versions. "At that time," O'Neill wrote, "the dish was widely regarded as a specialty of the southern United States, but Ms. Brownstone blew the lid off that assumption."

Or did she? By the time Brownstone discovered country captain, it legitimately had become a specialty of the southern United States—specifically, of Columbus, Georgia. Despite having influential allies in the New York food world, Brownstone failed to de-Southernize country captain. By the time Molly O'Neill interviewed her in 1991, Brownstone had grown more accepting of variations in the recipe. By that point, though, country captain's popularity was well past its peak, and the formerly-exotic, now-comfort-food dish was sliding into the same genteel obscurity as former dinner-party favorites like beef stroganoff and turkey tetrazzini.

A Country Captain Comeback?

Country captain's revival as a Southern icon in recent years strikes me as something akin to the elevation of pimento cheese. While not native to the South, it was embraced by Southern cooks in the years following World War II and, spurred on by newspaper recipe columns and Junior League cookbooks, it became a home-cooking standby in quite a few Southern kitchens.

In recent years, Southern food writers like Matt and Ted Lee have taken the foods they remember eating while growing up and updated them for modern tastes.

"We had cooked it before," Matt Lee says, "but it wasn't until then [when we were working on The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook] that we had to make it our own. We selected ingredients that make it more interesting and colorful: orange carrot, yellow bell peppers."

"We had to have a cheffy touch," Ted Lee adds, and theirs was garam masala, a North Indian blend of spices that, back in 2006, was difficult to find on supermarket shelves. "It probably seemed more cheffy then than now. That's how much things have changed in ten years."

To my mind, such "cheffy" touches fully keep with the spirit of the dish, which first entered the Southern kitchen as a sort of gussied up version of chicken curry. In the post-World War II years, country captain was fancy food, but it was reliable fancy food, something a housewife could prepare well in advance when an important personage—a governor, a general, or perhaps just her husband's commanding officer—was visiting for dinner and her social reputation was on the line. Of course, in the pre-Civil Rights South, the person actually preparing the meal may well have been an African-American cook.

From East Indian trading ships to a Delmonico's chef to a Columbus socialite and her African-American cook to a succession of Army wives: country captain has a far more complicated and ambiguous history than is allowed by romantic myths of sea captains sailing into South Atlantic ports bearing recipes from afar. But it captures in a single dish a great many of the key threads that make up the story of Southern food. And that, for me, makes it a Southern culinary icon, even if it's one that a lot of Southerners have never tasted.