Not Your Mom’s Cole Slaw

Tennessee Barbecue Sandwich with Slaw (Photo Courtesy of Amy Evans of the Southern Culinary Association)

Tennessee Barbecue Sandwich with Slaw (Photo Courtesy of Amy Evans of the Southern Culinary Association)

Summer is here and the Five Points Farmers Market is in full swing right outside my door at work every Thursday afternoon. So I thought it would be good if I tried one of Aunt Lillian’s vegetable recipes. There’s been lots of cabbage in the market right now, so I thought I’d try her Cabbage with French Dressing, which is essentially a Cole Slaw recipe. But, it’s not like any modern cole slaw!

Now, I’m no fan of cole slaw. When you get it at restaurants, and it’s quite popular here in the south, it comes chopped very fine and so drowned in mayonnaise and sugar that to me its totally unpalatable. I just don’t touch the stuff.

Turns out cole slaw has a long history in America going back to the Dutch who brought it with them as Koolsla when they settled New York. Kool is Dutch for cabbage and sla for salad and voila you have cole slaw. The salad became popular with others beyond the Dutch community and became as American as apple pie. It is a summer staple for picnics, and here in Tennessee it is an important part of our barbeque sandwiches (placed on top of the barbeque with the bun then placed on top of the slaw).

Preparing to Make Cole Slaw with Organic Ingredients

Preparing to Make Cole Slaw with Organic Ingredients

So, I purchased my organic cabbage from the Greenway Table folks at the market Thursday and yesterday I made this strange cole slaw. Strange because rather than dousing it with cold mayonnaise and sugar, I made a hot dressing that I poured over the shredded cabbage, which I then allowed to cool! Go figure. What I actually made was a Victorian era hot slaw, which was very popular back then.

As you know, many people today call their cole slaw “cold slaw” because we serve it cold. There also are/were hot slaws that were made with dressings that were heated and poured over the cabbage, which wilts the cabbage somewhat. My 1928 Fanny Farmer cookbook has a hot slaw recipe with a dressing similar to Aunt Lillian’s, as does my 1944 version. For that matter my 1977 Joy of Cooking still has a Boiled Dressing for Cole Slaw, but I doubt anyone today uses boiled dressings for cole slaw. Maybe I’m wrong on this though.

Here’s how things went. First I wanted to make sure I was shredding and coring the cabbage correctly. Here’s a great site that shows you exactly how in case you’ve never done it. It really is a good idea to do this by hand, rather than with the cuisinart that makes too small a cut. You want the nice long thing shreds.

The Thickened "French Dressing"

The Thickened "French Dressing"

Here’s Lillian’s recipe with my notes included in italics:
Cabbage with French Dressing (as far as I can tell this bears no resemblance to any French Dressing)

  • Core and slice cabbage into their shavings
  • Layer shavings in a large bowl with salt and pepper between the layers
  • In a double boiler begin the dressing
  • Put into the double boiler the following:
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • Abeaten egg (try to choose free range – it will be the most like what they had back then)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Butter the size of a walnut (yep, she actually wrote this! My research tells me this is 1 1/2 tablespoons)
  • Stir this over the double boiler with a wire whisk until it thickens and almost comes to a boil
  • Take off the heat at that point and add 1/2 c. white vinegar and stir
  • Pour this over the cabbage and stir
  • Cool and serve
Great Aunt Lillian's Cabbage with French Dressing or Hot Slaw

Great Aunt Lillian's Cabbage with French Dressing or Hot Slaw

Wow! Does this ever taste good! Light, fresh, crisp, yummy. This bears no resemblance to the slaw we are used to that swims in mayonnaise and has no taste. You will taste the crunch of the cabbage and the creaminess of the dressing. While you are using butter, milk, and sugar, you are using no oil and what little fat is in this is being distributed over a lot of cabbage!

There are a few more slaw recipes in Lillian’s cook book and we are eager to try them now. I encourage you to give this recipe a try – you will never look at cole slaw again in the same light! And do let me know if you have a hot slaw recipe that you use. Perhaps there are more of you out there than I’m aware of.

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