The City Magazine Since 1975

Secret Sauce

Secret Sauce
February 2019

The surprising figure behind 200 Years of Charleston Cooking

Helen Woodward conceived of the seminal Charleston cookbook.

When the book 200 Years of Charleston Cooking appeared in 1930 under the authors Rhett, Gay, and Woodward, many believed, as most still do, that it was an entirely local product. Blanche Rhett, after all, was the wife of a former mayor, and all the recipes—or “receipts”—were collected from 18th- to 20th-century Lowcountry sources. The secret has been kept for nearly a century that the book’s driving force was a Northern, Jewish feminist.

Born Helen Rosen in 1882, the child of immigrants, she married South Carolina expat William Woodward in 1913. He was high-up in the publishing and advertising world in New York City, and so was she. A union organizer and a champion of working women, she is considered the first female account executive in the country.

While wintering in Charleston’s Pirate House complex, Woodward began to feel pity for Northerners ignorant of cuisine like that provided by her African American cook, Sally Washington. It was her idea to have Rhett, her landlady, ask friends to send in their recipes. All were tested by her friend, Lettie Gay of the New York Herald Tribune, and Woodward supplied the narrative and spicy stories. In a tribute to local hospitality, she tried to efface her contributions, yet the book’s success is really hers—as much the chef’s as its ingredients’. 


Photograph (Helen Woodward) from