A RENAISSANCE WOMAN-MY AUNT DOLLY

“ A HIGHLY CULTIVATED MAN OR WOMAN WHO IS SKILLED AND WELL VERSED IIN MANY FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE, WORK, ETC., AS IN THE ARTS AND SCIENCES” – Webster’s New World College Dictionary

In Memory of Evelyn Neumeister Schmidt—My Aunt Dolly

She was a Renaissance Woman
If ever there was one;
Beautiful, blonde hair and blue eyes,
She could have been royalty;
She carried herself with regal ease.
Her father was enchanted with her tiny features
And winsome ways;
“She’s just like a little doll!” he said;
“We can call her Dolly” and so they did.
She took classes once her children were grown;
Her specialty was art—oils, charcoal—she could
Draw or paint—whatever captured her attention.
I hardly knew her when I was growing up and
Moved to California when I was twenty-one,
But came to appreciate her wit, talent, creativity
And vitality and her wonderful, gentle laughter
When I became an adult and my children were grown.
I was able to visit her home on North Bend Road
Many times, often with my sister, Becky, sometimes
With my brother Bill—a few times on my own;
She was the kind of aunt you wanted to have
All to yourself.

When she was recuperating from spinal surgery
In 2005, I was able to go “take care” of
Her for a couple weeks—and some years
Later, in 2012, I was able to go again to her
Home in Port Orange, where she had
Relocated, and I was able to cook and bake
For her.

My visit to Florida in 2012 would be the last
Time I had the opportunity to spend time
With this one-of-a-kind-aunt—who learned to
Bake at the elbow of my grandmother when
Aunt Dolly was only a teenager. She became
Our link between a grandmother who had
Passed away in 1959 but left a legacy of recipes.

Throughout my house there are some of my
Aunt’s paintings—but the one treasure most is a
Painting of my paternal grandmother, Susanna
Gengler Schmidt, that Aunt Doll6y copied from an
Old photograph of my grandmother as a young
Woman.

As I was preparing to return to California in
2005, my aunt asked me if I liked that painting.
“Of course!” I repli4ed, “It’s one of your best
Paintings!”
She asked if I would like to have it.
“Absolutely!”

Like my aunt, the painting of Grandma Schmidt
Is one of a kind. It hangs over my fireplace
In Quartz Hill, California.

Aunt Dolly’s professional name was
Evelyn Neumeister Schmidt—but to all her
Adoring nieces and nephews—she was always
“Aunt Dolly”.

Today, May 10, 2015, would have been
Aunt Dolly’s birthday.

–Sandra Lee Smith

SEARCHING FOR META GIVEN…AND NOW WE KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY

I’ve posted this before–letters continue to come in from people all over the USA who remember Meta Given’s cookbooks with great fondness and, in some cases, are trying to find one of them. This is what I wrote:

Originally on February 14, 2011, I wrote the following blog post: “Abe of Abebooks.com asked 500 customers who owned a cookbook that had been given to them by a family member to tell the story about their handed down culinary companions. He wrote, “Those old, splattered, battered cookbooks found on kitchen shelves are also treasured family heirlooms in many cases. According to research by AbeBooks.com, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking is the cookbook most frequently handed down through the generations. The books often spanned several generations of cooks and had huge sentimental value. In 96 per cent of the cases, a grandmother, mother and mother-in-law had handed over the book to the next generation. The books tended to have a long history within each family – 58 per cent of the cookbooks were more than 50 years old. Thirty eight per cent of the current owners said they had owned the book for more than 30 years…”

Well, recently I had the opportunity to hold in my own two hands a copy of JOY that had belonged, for decades, to my sister-in-law, Bunny Schmidt, who passed away from cancer of the esophagus in 2012, about eleven months after my partner Bob passed away from the same disease. It’s a battered and stained Joy, exactly what Abe Books was talking about. I am delivering it to my niece Leslie in a couple weeks. She is the oldest child of my brother and sister in law, Bunny.

The cookbook I grew up on, and learned to cook from, was – as I have written before in Sandychatter—an Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook that I believe my mother bought for a dollar at Woolworth’s. (I now have that very cookbook, which is certainly battered, tattered and stained. Years later I searched for, and found, more pristine copies).

When I was a teenager, a copy of Meta Given’s “The Modern Family Cookbook” appeared in our family bookcase (a little cherry wood bookcase with glass doors, that my younger sister now has). I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.

Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies. I really wasn’t. interested in cooking anything else at the time.

I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.

None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks. I began a Google search:

Margi Shrum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote the following in April, 2009 “I spoke last week to a group of parents of special-needs children, and the conversation turned to old cookbooks. Egads, I love them. My favorite is one my late mother used, “Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Cooking,” which seems to have been first published in 1947. I have the 1955 edition. It’s chock-a-block with antiquated stuff. I never, and you shouldn’t, use the techniques for canning or preserving foods in these old books, and I am never going to make Muskrat Fricassee (calls for one dressed muskrat. If I could picture what a muskrat looked like I’d picture it dressed in top hat and tails. Carrying a cane). But there’s also a lot of useful stuff in this book, which is in two volumes and has 1,500 pages. I’ve tried loosely over the years to find information about the author but to little avail. She was of some note in the 1940s through the early ’60s, if the popularity of her cookbooks is any indication. Her first was the “The Modern Family Cookbook,” published in 1942.”

Margie adds, “The encyclopedia’s foreword says Ms. Given grew up on a ‘Missouri hill farm’ learning to cook with the limited foodstuffs available to her. She then studied home economics and became involved in developing and testing recipes, and in writing about nutrition, shopping and kitchen equipment. Her foreword to my edition — purchased on eBay and immediately chewed on by my golden retriever puppy, who smelled food — was written from Orlando in 1955….”

May I add that the foreword also states that Meta Given..” had good food (growing up) but little variety. The women were forced to be resourceful in presenting the same simple foods in a variety of interesting ways. She watched food grow on her family’s farm and worked to help it develop into a sound and abundant harvest. She learned to store and preserve a summer’s plenty to last through the winter months. And she acquired from her parents a deep appreciation for the goodness of earth’s bounty…”

Sure enough, Volume II of Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking” offers a recipe for Muskrat Fricasse—as well as recipes for antelope, deer and beaver. It also has a recipe for Hasenpfeffer which I won’t ever be trying. Hasenpfeffer was the bane of my childhood. If you came home from school and smelled it cooking, you knew we were having it for dinner and there was no escape.

Also offered in Volume II are recipes for raccoon, squirrel, woodchuck and turtle. Meta lost me at “evisceration and removal of feathers, removal of fur….” But you know what? Of all the comprehensive cookbooks in my collection, these are surely the most detailed (everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask? I wasn’t afraid to ask—I just never wanted to KNOW).

Elsewhere on Google, someone wrote, “My mother was only 17 years old when she got married. Somewhere in that time, she was given a special two volume cookbook set called Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. It was a true cookbook of the 50’s, offering advice so basic, the author must have assumed many of her readers couldn’t boil water. Until Julia Child altered my mother’s views on food, Meta Given’s was the only cookbook in our home. The recipes were so simple and straightforward, I learned to cook from them at a very young age. By the time I was nine years old I could make real fudge, basic one-bowl cakes, quick breads, and peanut butter cookies all by myself. I also learned to make a pumpkin yeast bread when I was slightly older. Over the years my mother’s Meta Given’s cookbook disintegrated into a pile of loose pages. However, I was able to track down a used set several years ago. Although most of the recipes seem outdated, it was quite an experience just holding the cookbook while childhood memories rushed back…”

The following single line clue was also found on Google: “When not penning cookbooks, Ms. Given—I don’t think she’d approve the title, but an extensive Google search fails to reveal her marital status— taught Home Ec at the University of Chicago in the post-World War II years…”

Maybe Meta Given tired of teaching in Chicago and returned to her home in Missouri. We may never know- but if you are interested in finding her books, there are umpteen sites to choose from as you browse through Google.
I have the following:

• The Modern Family Cook Book published in 1942
• Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking Volumes 1 and II published in 1947
• The Modern Family Cook Book, published in 1953

As well as the following, which I do not have:

• The Art of Modern Cooking and Better Meals: recipes for every occasion
• The Modern Family Cook Book New Revised Edition
• The Modern Family Cook Book by Meta Given 1968
• The Wizard Modern Family Cookbook
• Delicious Dairy Dishes

On August 10, 2011 someone named Don posted the following comment:

Hi Sandy, Please let me know if you ever find out what happened to Meta Given. I have been going through some old family letters and it turns out that my great aunt, Helen Swadey, was her assistant in the 40′s and 50′s. She would help with the writing and arranging the final meals for the photo shoot. Thanks! Don

I sent Don the following message: “Hi, Don – how interesting that your great aunt worked for Meta Given! I HAVEN’T learned anything more than what I wrote but maybe someone will read this and write, if they know anything else about her. Oddly enough I have had emails from a number of people, in response to other cookbook authors I have written about – so there’s always a possibility that someone will see the inquiry and shed some light on this prolific and excellent cookbook author. Now, that would have been a job I’d have loved – assistant to Meta Given! Let me know if you learn anything else.

On February 2, someone named Brenda sent the following message to my blog:
I am preparing a Birthday Party for my mother who turns 80 this July. We are having a picnic theme, and we are replacing my mother’s Meta Given Cookbooks with a better set. The sisters of the family are HUGE fans of Meta Given, and I am trying to find anything out about her to have it framed for my mother to put in her kitchen. She raised all of us girls using this cookbook and we all have copies!! I know I am a little late adding this comment, but can you or anyone help me out? Sincerely, Brenda

On February 22, 2012, Karen wrote the following message: I had to comment because one of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving is my mother and grandmother quoting Meta Given about making turkey gravy: “You can only make so much fine favored gravy.” I haven’t even looked at the recipe in years, but must admit that I do know how to make fine flavored gravy and I don’t even eat gravy! Thanks Meta. I have my grandmother’s copy. My mother still has and uses her own copy. My oldest daughter has her other grandmother’s 2 book set. Over the years, I have managed to collect one of the single book editions for my sister and two copies of the 2 book sets for my sisters-in-law. Just recently, I finally got the single book edition for my youngest daughter. We are a family devoted to Meta Given, which is why I found your blog. I was looking for some information about her and started to do some research. So, if you find out anything else about her, I’d be delighted to hear it and then I will in turn share it with the rest of the family. Thanks!

On February 25 2012, Neil sent the following message: I’m a 44-year old single guy who grew up with a mother who occasionally whipped out this tattered, index-missing BIBLE. I have no other name for it… other then the BIBLE that was in our kitchen. Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. The version I’m most familiar with is the single volume gem published in 1955 on its EIGHTEENTH printing (35,000 copies). My mom was inspired by the “White Sauce” in that book – creamed onions were a Thanksgiving tradition. Like most people who are reading this, when I finally understood the power of Google I FINALLY had a chance to have my own copy of this piece of history – it’s WAY more than a cookbook and we all know it. I paid almost $200 because I just had to have it. Since then I purchased a “backup” copy – you know… just in case. That one is in a safe room where the temperature and humidity is just right. A few years ago I stumbled upon a dessert recipe that blew me away – Lemon Chiffon Custard on page 746 in my book. “A puffy cake-like topping and a creamy custard bottom layer.” OMG”

On May 2, 2013, Janice King Smith sent the following message: “According to census reports she (Meta Given) returned to her hometown of Bourbios, MO, and later relocated to Florida. Being from the general area, I was happy to have The Modern Family in my collection and enjoy seeing the differences between how she prepared the meal versus what we were taught by my grandma who lived during the same time frame literally 3-4 hours away from each other.”

On May 24, 2012 Anna wrote the following message: I am doing a little research on Meta Given… My Mother’s maiden name was Given. I was told Meta Given was a Great Aunt of mine from Missouri that wrote cookbooks, and I have all copies of her cookbooks, and learned to cook from them. The books I have were been passed down through the years from my grandmother..Ruby Given, to my mother Anna Jane Given, and now to me. I will be passing them on someday to my children and grandchildren!

On June 22, 2012 Gil wrote the following: I have the 1953 version of Meta Given’s Modern Family Cookbook. I turn to this book when I need to know how I should cook a vegetable that won’t be listed in most cookbooks and I have more than 100. I am going to cook turnips today and I want to know a cooking time. I recently checked in this book for a cooking time for beets. I have two of these books but one is so battered that I am afraid to open it.
Gil Wilbur Claymont,DE.

Now, many months later, after years of searching and speculating about the unknown later life of Meta Given, my new-found friend, Bonnie Slotnick, who owns a cookbook store in New York** (see address at end of article) managed to unearth information about Meta that no one has been able to discover.

It turns out that food writer Jane Nickerson***, writing for the Lakeland Ledger in 1981, interviewed Meta and in an article that appeared in the December 10,m 1981 Lakeland Ledger food column, discovered “the rest of the story” –the details no one knew about Meta Given once she disappeared from the cookbook publishing limelight.

By Jane Nickerson, writing for the Lakeland Ledger on December 10, — wrote the following: “A few lines the other day in this paper reporting the death of Lakelander Meta Given in no way hinted the professionalism of that nonogenarian, [sic] author of the monumental, two-volume cookbook ‘Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking.’

That brilliant work, published in 1947 by J.G. Ferguson and later distributed by Doubleday, contained in its 1969 edition 1,665 pages, 71 tables and charts, 230 photographs in black-and-white and color, 2,906 tested recipes and more than 200 drawings. Considerably in excess of a million copies are now in use.

Born and reared on a farm in the Ozarks, where, as she once put it, ‘my parents had no money,’ Miss Given remained throughout a vigorous life essentially modest and straightforward.

At 15, she had finished her own education, or so she thought, and was teaching in a rural grade school. Later she instructed high-school students in physics, chemistry and agriculture.

But she began to feel she needed more training. In 1916, she enrolled in the University of Chicago to study a subject still in its infancy at that time—home economics. She went on to work for the Evaporated milk Association, developing recipes for that trade group. Then came a stint as food editor of the Chicago Tribune”.

“But the Depression came along,” Meta told Jane in a 1975 interview, “and in 1931, the Tribune fired me. By that time I had my own test kitchen and staff and was also doing freelance work in recipe development and food photography for Kraft and other companies.

“I couldn’t fire my staff. But the jobs that came along were spasmodic, and so to keep my people busy, I started them working on a household cookbook.” In 1942, J. G. Ferguson, a Chicago printer whom Miss Given had consulted, published the “Modern Family Cookbook.” From it, the encyclopedia developed.

A heart attack in the late 1940s persuaded Miss Given she should pursue a quieter life. The tall, spare, broad-shouldered woman, with a coronet of white hair, wound up her hectic career in Chicago, and retired to Florida, where, among other things, she grew oak leaf lettuce and developed recipes for pies using loquats and other local fruits.

Her inborn modesty made her hard to interview. Among the first “career women” in this century, she wore her accomplishments lightly, and could not understand why anyone should be especially interested in recording them.

This article was unearthed for us by Bonnie Slotnick of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks 163 West Tenth Street New York, New York 10014-3116 USA –so if you are searching for your mother or grandmother’s tried-and true-cookbook you might want to contact Bonnie.

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!

UPDATE! May 10, 2015

If you have ever read the above, which was posted on my blog February 11, 2011, under the title “Searching for Meta Given”, you will no doubt notice the many readers who have written about Meta Given – – mostly people who had her cookbooks or were looking for them.

*why the red italics? Because, I thought—it was because Meta couldn’t bring herself to fire her staff during a particular stringent period, she put them to work on a cookbook – a cookbook which turned out to be the nucleus of the two volume cookbooks published in 1947, that people are searching for still, today. Some of whom are paying big bucks for! But I get it. As all of you know, you who have some of Meta Given’s cookbooks—they are timeless, recipes you can follow from start to stop without wondering if it will turn out right. And there is hardly a topic that Meta doesn’t write about!

**Looking for a particular old cookbook? Contact Bonnie Slotnick at bonnieslotnickbooks@earthlink.net or at 163 W. 10th Street, NY NY 10014-3116

***Jane Nickerson, food writer for the Lakeland Ledger also wrote a cookbook about Florida food and recipes. Jane passed away March 2, 2000. She was employed as a food writer from 1973 to 1988 for the Lakeland Ledger.

–Review by Sandra Lee Smith with a special thank you to everyone who ever wrote to request or provide information. A special thanks to Bonnie Slotnick whose culinary sleuthing provided “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

=–Sandra Lee Smith

A HEALTHIER YOU AND ME

While watching a Criminal Minds marathon a few days ago, I spent some hours working on the recipes that go into my 3-ring binders; I am often nonplussed over some of the finds in the box—and came across an article that appeared in the January, 2008, issue of Woman’s Day—I want to share a brief explanation of some of these–along with my thoughts:

The first is “8 YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD DO BUT DON’T –

EAT BREAKFAST—author Anna Routos writes that “Study after study shows that people who eat a morning meal are more energized, focused and weigh less..” she adds that an ideal choice is oatmeal with nonfat milk and fresh fruit such as blueberries or strawberries mixed in. (I’ve been eating my favorite cereals for breakfast, with a few frozen blueberries that thaw out quickly—when I have bacon on hand and fry some slices—I end up giving most of it to the dogs, a little bit crumbled over their dry kibble is a big treat.)

BONE UP – try a calcium supplement every day. That I do.

GET YOUR THREE-A-DAY of whole grains—this can cut your risk of heart disease by more than 35%. Good sources include oatmeal and brown rice.

MILK IT—it’s a great source of calcium as well as vitamin D, which recent research shows may help you live longer; it’s also linked to a lower risk of some cancers. I have been consuming milk with cereal but I really love low fat milk made into tapioca or chocolate pudding).

HYDRATE—and take it from the tap. We’re missing out on cavity-preventing fluoride since we’ve started drinking all that bottled H2O. (This isn’t something I ever stopped to consider—I keep bottled water on hand all the time since moving to the Antelope Valley—but I use tap water to make coffee or tea. Does that count?

DO A SHOT of sunscreen—you need a full shot glass to cover your entire body, and one teaspoon for your face to fully protect against skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. (*This was such an eye opener—I generally spritz sunscreen on my arms and neck but never use it on my face; I only spread sunscreen on my legs when I am wearing shorts!

LUNCH ON SALAD – it’s an easy way to get at least two servings of vegetables in one shot, says Molly Morgan, R.D. Be sure to toss in the brightly colored ones which are highest in disease-fighting antioxidants. Try tomatoes, red and green peppers and broccoli.

FLOSS- gum disease increases your risk of various conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. (I have dentures so flossing isn’t something that I do).

The next “tips” are 6 NON-NEGOTIABLES –means vitally important—maybe put the list on your refrigerator door as a constant reminder. They are:

KNOW YOUR “BIG SEVEN” – Your weight, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and blood sugar. These are the most crucial indicators of good health and disease risk—if any of these fall outside the healthy range, work with your doctor to get them under control.

TAKE YOUR FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY – Many diseases have a hereditary component, and your doctor may want to watch you more closely for conditions that run in your family. (My younger sister had a bout with breast cancer about two years ago and our older sister died in 2004 from complications arising from breast cancer that was not diagnosed early—after a mammogram in 2013, the doctor suggested some additional tests I should undergo, such as a breast MRI, since now there is history of breast cancer in my family.

We also discovered that some of us in my family have something called Factor 5, which is a blood disorder. We learned this when a niece in my family had a stillborn baby. My family doctor thought it unlikely I could have it—but guess what? I tested positive for this condition; one of my younger brothers also has it. My hematologist said quite frankly that it runs in my father’s side of the family. It could also explain three miscarriages I had n my child-bearing years. Both of my sisters have had miscarriages as well).

MEASURE YOUR WAIST MONTHLY – In women, if it’s over 25 inches, you’re at a higher risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes, regardless of your weight. GET AN ANNUAL MAMMOGRAM starting at age 40, along with a yearly clinical breast exam and a periodic breast self-exam, it’s the best way to catch breast cancer in its early, most treatable stages.(who knew this about measuring your waist? not I!)

ASK FOR AN HPV TEST – Along with your Pap, it screens for the human papillomavirus which is directly linked to cervical cancer.

DO A FULL-BODY MOLE CHECK on yourself monthly, and get one yearly at the dermatologist. If you notice any that are new, changed or bleeding, see a dermatologist ASAP.

And finally—8 YOU CAN NOW COUNT AS HEALTHY

Nibble before dinner – having about 70 calories of healthy fat 20 minutes before you eat—that’ six walnuts, 12 almonds or 20 peanuts—can trick you into thinking you’re full faster. This works because good fats stimulate the production of a hormone that sends the signal to your brain that you’ve eaten enough.

HAVE PIZZA NIGHT – pizza is often dismissed as unhealthy but if you use whole wheat crust and lowfat cheese, and pile on the veggies (skipping the pepperoni and ground beef) its one the most nutritionally sound meals around. (the trick here, I think—is making your own pizza from scratch!)

JUICE IT UP – so long to its reputation as a sugar and calorie bomb. Research has found that drinking fruit and vegetable drinks can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 76% and help lower cholesterol. Just make sure you go for 100% juice (and read labels carefully)

PUT PASTA ON THE MENU – just make sure you choose multigrain varieties!

DRINK A FRUITY COCKTAIL – Research shows that alcohol can increase the level of antioxidants in certain fruits, including strawberries and blackberries (who knew?)

EXPRESS YOURSELF – When people write affectionately about their close friends and family in three 20 minute sessions, their cholesterol dropped an average of eleven points! (Another who knew?!–I wonder if posting on your blog counts?)

GO SHOPPING! –Buying something as small as a lipstick can give your mood a lift plus you can burn off up to 160 calories walking around the mall(as always, be sure to choose a parking spot in the last row. (I don’t like to shop and only go to the mall when I have someone along with me. My shopping is pretty much confined to Quartz Hill and Lancaster—so I’m guilty of not doing this.)

DO THE DISHES—increasing light physical activity such as washing dishes and ironing—can lower blood glucose levels and may reduce the risk of diabetes according to research in the Journal DIABETES CARE. (Well, I wash dishes all the time, not having a dish washer( AM the dish washer) – and I iron only when I absolutely have to—I remember only all too well the hours spent doing ironing before permanent press came along—hours of ironing every week when I was still living at home with my parents. I did the ironing for the entire family with the exception of my father’s bowling shirts–But some of these tips may help all of us—and don’t do any ironing unless you absolutely have to!

–Sandra Lee Smith

KITCHEN LEGACIES -SOMEWHERE OUT THERE

“Women have conserved a whole world, past and present, in the idiom of food. In their personal manuscripts, in locally distributed community recipe compilations, and in commercially printed cookbooks, women have given history and memory a permanent lodging. The knowledge contained in cookbooks transcends generations…” – Janet Theophano, author of “Eat My Words”, Published in 2002 by PALGRAVE, a global publishing imprint of St Martin’s Press.

How it came to be written is just as interesting as the subject matter itself, for Ms Theophano discovered what so many of us cookbook and recipe collectors ourselves have learned, that there is a lot more to be learned from a manuscript cookbook or a collection of recipes, in a small wooden box, than just recipes.

“Over the past ten years,” Ms. Theophano writes in the Introduction, “I have been researching manuscripts and printed cookery books from the United States and England from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and finding myself constantly amazed by the richness of these sources…”
“Few of these materials,” she acknowledges, “are readily available to readers today; some have been kept in families as purely private documents, while others have languished in archives in manuscript form. Even those that were published are no longer widely known and now are generally available only in historical collections…” (and sometimes a recipe box or a manuscript cookbook is added to my collection because someone in a family knew that I collected these items).

Janet Theophano’s purpose in writing this book was first to make these materials known both to scholars and general readers, but also to open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods, who would otherwise be unknown to us.

What intrigues me most about the writing and publishing of EAT MY WORDS is the author’s description of a spectacular find. So many of us, cookbook collectors, writers, and researchers alike, have experienced similar events that have charted a course for us. I know I have.

Theophano writes, “My interest in cookbooks began with a chance discovery over a decade ago when I was browsing in an antique shop and stumbled across a book of writings. When I opened it, I realized I had discovered a manuscript. At first glance, the handwritten book reminded me of a journal of poetry. When I looked more closely, I discovered that it was a collection of household advice: recipes for Lady Cake and Parker House Rolls, for instance, and folk remedies for flushing the colon and dyeing hair. Inserted between the pages were newspaper clippings of other recipes as well as a poem and a letter dated August 3, 1894, and addressed ‘My Dear’ and signed ‘kiss the babies for me. John.’ The volume also contained a section of clipped recipes pasted onto the pages of an early telephone directory…”

Janet Theophano bought the book for a dollar (be still my heart!) from the shop owner, she says, reluctant to ask for even that much money, which reinforces my belief that many such treasures are thought to be worthless and are often thrown away. Ms. Theophano returned home and began to search her new treasure for clues to the identity of the owner.

“I was struck,” she recalls, “not only by this book’s recipes with their titles and ingredients but other information contained within its covers. There were letters, poems, loose recipes on scraps of paper, devotional texts, and a list of books and rhymes…”

Even so, she was unable to learn the name of the author of her treasure, and she wondered how many books like this were anonymous and how many had been discarded, lost, or destroyed because they were considered unimportant. How many were intended for publication? Or were they meant to be kept in families and given as legacies to children? Did women compile the keep these books as symbols of wifely and maternal devotion? Or as a way to give themselves identities apart from those roles? Were these books read? If so, by whom?

Which brings me up to date and what started out as a newspaper article. Some time ago, my Michigan penpal, Betsy, sent me this newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 6, 2007, the title of which was “KITCHEN LEGACIES”.

What is a kitchen legacy for one person may not be the same thing for someone else. I know several women—not including myself—for whom old kitchen utensils are kitchen legacies. I have three old sifters (and yes, I still use whichever sifter is closest at hand when I am making cookies or a cake and need to sift the dry ingredients). About a decade ago I began collecting old glass measuring cups after finding one in green Depression glass.

My favorite was a 2-cup green glass measuring cup that I thoughtlessly poured some hot coffee into, while making brownies. The measuring cup cracked. I couldn’t bear to throw it out so now it’s part of a kitchen box collage that also contains a couple old potato mashers and one egg beater (I cracked up—no pun intended—seeing a revamped egg beater for sale recently in one of my cooking supplies catalogs–everything old is new again!)

The red or green painted handles help narrow down the age of these items. Long before I started looking for small kitchen tools, I had already collected cookie cutters (which have been a collection since the 1970s) – but with red or green wooden handles you can get a better idea of the age of the cutter. (And if rolling pins are your kind of kitchen legacy, those, too, have been manufactured with red or green handles).

Then around the late 1980s, after I met Bob and we began making weekend treks to Ventura, California, a filled recipe box came into my radar. The first box like this that I found was in an antique store in Ventura and was priced at $11.00. I didn’t buy it the first time I saw that box –I may have looked at it three or four weekends in a row before finally buying it. And once I bought (and carefully searched through) that first filled recipe box, I began wondering if there were more of these “out there, somewhere”.

And of course, there were. I now have over two hundred recipe boxes, different sizes, some filled with another person’s collection of recipes, some empty. What is the lure? Possibly, they make me think “kitchen diaries”—but backing up several decades earlier when my cookbook collection was in its infancy, I discovered a used book store in Hollywood that sold nothing BUT cookbooks. And many of the books were only a dollar each—so if I had ten dollars to spend, I could come home with ten cookbooks.

Then, one day when I was at this bookstore by myself, the owner said “I have something upstairs in my office that you might be interested in” – and he went upstairs and came back with a really worn small leather bound notebook…I opened the book and discovered it was filled with handwritten recipes. If memory serves me, I think I paid $7.00 for this handwritten notebook. I have written about it several times and for several decades had no idea who the owner, someone named Helen, was.

From a blog post, I wrote the following:

“A serendipitous event can take place when you write a story about an experience in your life, telling the story as you know it–never knowing, when it appears in print, how it may ultimately affect someone else, far away.

I wrote about Helen’s Cookbook for Inky Trail News in 2007 (but had originally written an article about it for another newsletter, the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, back in 1993) –and again, on my blog, in June, 2009.

Obviously, Helen’s cookbook has continued to fascinate me, more than 40 years after I acquired it. Its pages are fragile, now, and I handle the book with extreme care. I couldn’t treasure it more if my own mother had compiled it.

This is what I wrote in my blog in 2011: “To bring you up to date, In the 1960s, when I was just beginning to collect cookbooks, I found a bookstore in Hollywood where many cookbooks were $1.00 each. While I grabbed books off the shelves, thrilled by my find –the store owner said “I have a cookbook you may be interested in seeing” and he brought it out–it wasn’t ONE dollar, however, it was $7.00 (a lot of money for me at the time)–but I was captivated. The collection is in an old leather 3-ring binder but not your 8 1/2x 11” size binder. This one measures 5 ½ x 8 ½”.

I learned a lot about its creator by carefully reading through all the handwritten recipes and examining cards, newspaper clippings and other scraps of paper kept in a pocket on the inside of the cover. I knew that her name was Helen.

I didn’t think that Helen had any children–consequently, her handwritten collection of recipes ended up in a dusty little used book store–and has been a prize gem in my cookbook collection for over 40 years.

The book is packed with handwritten (in real ink) recipes, interspersed with pages of recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers and pasted onto the pages. Helen apparently began her collection in the early 1920s, shortly after she married. One of the earliest entries is a recipe she obtained while on her honeymoon–Helen always gave credit where credit was due; most recipes are dutifully named after the person who gave it to her. There are dozens of recipes with titles such as “Aunt Maude’s doughnuts” or “Florence’s pound cake”.

Helen liked to have dinner parties; she and her husband usually hosted Christmas dinners for eight or twelve; guests were assigned duties (everything from serving up celery stalks to putting up the card table chairs). Helen kept her menus and guest lists from the mid-1930s until after WW2. And she kept copies of her guest lists, assignments, and menus.

Helen was thrifty and often copied recipes onto the backs of envelopes or old greeting cards–sources that provided clues to who she was and how she lived. Gradually, it appears that Helen’s vision began to fail her. Her handwriting became scrawled and almost illegible. Judging from a message inside an old card, I believe her husband died first.

What happened to Helen? My guess was that she died, and when she did, her belongings were sold in an estate sale or perhaps by a distant relative. That part of Helen’s life was–until recently–a blank page; her manuscript cookbook offered no clues.

Then, earlier that year (2011), a package arrived in the mail one day, from England -Inside I found a recipe journal, very old–possibly 1920s and a letter from an ITN subscriber offering the book to me since she had read about Helen’s cookbook and thought I would appreciate this one as well.

Would I! I wrote to the sender, Anna, and in answer to her questions, provided what little other information I knew about Helen–her name and address had been printed on a sheet of stationery that ended up in the cookbook with a recipe written on it. And Anna – with the assistance of a genealogy-minded friend – soon sent me several pages of information about my Helen–where she had been born and grown up, when she had married, – and most amazing of all (to my mind) that Helen had been a psychologist and the daughter of a surgeon in Chicago.

And, as I had surmised, Helen and her husband Mart never had any children. They had lived most of their married life here in Southern California (strongly reflected in the pages of her cookbook). It would have never crossed my mind to try and discover the history of the author.

Helen’s husband did die before she; he passed away November 14, 1956. Helen died January 20, 1971, in Los Angeles.

It is the most amazing discovery–to think that this handmade cookbook I have treasured all the years – has more than just a name. It has a history. But even more amazing – that my story reached a woman in England – who provided all the details about another southern Californian whose passion, like mine, was cooking…” (my blog, 2011)

Well, after discovering Helen’s cookbook—I began wondering if there were more hand-written cookbooks “somewhere out there” – and, of course, there were –why else would I be sharing this story?

The article in the Chicago Tribune provides stories about yet another kind of Kitchen Legacy. These are hand-bound collections of family recipes—not famous families–there are certainly many published collections of celebrity recipes -–but families just like yours or mine. (in my family, we began collecting recipes in 1984, after my father passed away—but it took us twenty years to get the Schmidt family cookbook published by Morris Publishing, a company that specializes in family and church cookbooks) but rather focused on an endeavor which sidestepped the considerable cost of spiral bound publishing.

Of these homemade cookbooks, some of which, photographed for the Chicago Tribune article, the primary focus was to preserve various family favorite recipes which are often lost to posterity when a family member passes away. Within the ranks of the Schmidt family, we made a hard push to get the Schmidt family cookbook published while my sister Becky was still alive.

She passed away in 2004. When I flew to Nashville in June of 2004, it was with a duffle bag full of the Schmidt family cookbook “Grandma’s Favorite” so that Becky could give copies to her children and grandchildren.

And since publishing our family cookbook we have lost two of our aunts and one of our uncles—a sad reflection on what were once large families on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. (And as an aside—five of my uncles served during WW2 – in Army, Navy, and Air Force—and all made it back home to tell their stories).

So—to summarize– keep your eyes open at estate sales or even when a family member passes away and no one else wants that rolling pin or Smiley Pig cookie jar. (Ok, that’s another collection of mine).

–Sandra Lee Smith

FEAST OF EDEN

Regional winner of the 1994 Tabasco Cookbook Award is a beautifully composed cookbook titled FEAST OF EDEN, from the Junior League of Monterey County, California.The Junior League of Monterey County, Inc., is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.
The Junior League of Monterey County, Inc. reaches out to women of all races, religions and national origins who demonstrate an interest in and commitment to voluntarism. Currently there are 140 active members and 302 sustaining members of the Junior League.

The Junior League has been actively working to improve Monterey County for 60 years. Our hands-on approach has enriched our community through the development of past League projects, including The Family Service Agency (started as the Family Resource Center), The Salinas Adult Day Care Center, the Monterey County Youth Museum (MY Museum), and the Silent Witness Exhibit. JLMC is also represented on the executive board of the United Way of Monterey County’s Success BY 6 project.

FEAST OF EDEN is a lovely and appropriate play on names since its famous native son, John Steinbeck, wrote EAST of EDEN and a number of other wonderful books about the Monterey Peninsula. If you are not familiar with them, DO read CANNERY ROW, TORTILLA FLATS, OF MICE AND MEN, SWEET THURSDAY and, of course, EAST OF EDEN. You will come to love, as did I, the village of Carmel by the Sea, the town of Monterey, Carmel Valley and Salinas, all places Steinbeck loved and wrote about.

I visited the Monterey Peninsula for the very first time in 1979 with a girlfriend who had spent summer vacations there as a very young child. We wandered the cobblestone streets of Carmel, with its old-fashioned street lights, meandering in and out of hundreds of cubby-hole shops and stores. We dined in tiny little restaurants, some with fireplaces, and sometimes at little street-side tables, people-watching while we dined on shrimp or pasta.
The village of Carmel is indescribable. It has been, for decades, an artists’ colony, but it is also a great tourist attraction, and once you visit, you will know why. I’d give my eyeteeth to be able to live there.

Meanwhile, share with me, for a few minutes, a love of Monterey and the presentation by the Junior League of Monterey County.

I confess to being partial; the Monterey Peninsula is one of my favorite spots on earth. Whenever possible, Bob and I would head north to camp in Carmel Valley and shop in the quaint village of Carmel. I have several black and white framed photographs of Point Pinos, the lighthouse on the Monterey Peninsula, that I printed and framed myself. They are on my bedroom walls, always beckoning. When I am there, I feel like I am at home.

I can easily visualize, when – in the Introduction – the compilers of FEAST
OF EDEN tell us “Where the Santa Lucia Mountains separate the fields of Salinas from the Pacific Ocean, lies the garden paradise of Monterey County, California….life in Monterey County is highly textured. From the rocky cliffs of the agriculture fields of Salinas, to the thatched roofs of story book Carmel, to the diamond sparkle of the aquamarine waters of Pebble Beach..”
Accompanying a rich array of recipes which range from the elegant–Custard Baked French Toast…Spicy Grilled London Broil…Crab Cakes with Charon* sauce, to the sublime—Baked Salmon with Tomato, Cucumber and Basil, Scallop Lasagna, or Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake…are colorful vignettes of life in Monterey county, which will enable you to understand a bit my love of this particular region in California. (*Charon Sauce is made with egg yolks, lemon juice and fresh Tarragon. I’m guessing it is closely related to Hollandaise sauce but with the addition of Tarragon.

Other recipes you might want to try – Zesty Crab and Artichoke Dip, Eggplant Bruschetta, or perhaps the Tomato and Bacon Bruschetta – Monterey Phyllo Triangles, Thai Meatballs, Pastures of Heaven Salad or Steinbeck Country Salad. Feast on Praline Breakfast Rolls or Apple Spice Muffins—or try the Chocolate Zucchini Cake that I think I am going to make with the zucchini my sister brought over.

FEAST OF EDEN provides many vignettes about life in Monterey County. Read, for instance, that “Early Carmel-by-the Sea had few telephones, no electricity, no paved roads and the rudimentary wooden sidewalks lined only Ocean Avenue…but to many it was a refuge from an increasingly technological world…” or that “Life in Carmel in the 1920s and 1930s was both carefree and communal. Villagers might meet each other at all times of the day or night in all kinds of dress.

Author Mary Austin would roam the woods dressed as an Indian Princess in Greek robes. Each day, city residents would greet each other in their bathrobes at the milk stations – sets of shelves set up where residents would leave money at night and pick up their milk in the morning”.

FEAST OF EDEN with over 225 triple-tested recipes featuring healthy, fresh ingredients, is beautifully done, with wonderful color photographs of various dishes, and many of the historical sites for which Monterey County is so famous.

SANDY’S COOKNOTE: The above was written for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, probably in 1994 or 1995. When the cookbook was first published in 1994, it sold for $19.95. It is available on Amazon.com new starting at 1 CENT & UP for a pre-owned copy and new for $3.92 and u. Remember that purchases from private vendors always carry a $3.99 shipping & handling charge.)

Since 1994, I don’t remember how many more trips Bob & I would make to Monterey. Once, we made the trip in a Chinook I had bought, and we camped in Carmel Valley. It was our favorite place to visit until Bob could no longer drive and a three hour trip was about the most I could handle—then we discovered San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach. Now those are my favorite towns for short vacation trips.

–Review by Sandra Lee Smith

COOKING

Cooking, and I mean this as all aspects of cooking including baking, has been such an integral part of my life that I feel it should be addressed entirely on its own.

I have told the story of my first experience in cooking. My mother was allowing me to make some muffins. I assume I was following a recipe in my mother’s Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. The ingredients and the muffin pan were on the kitchen table. My mother instructed me to leave the yellow Pyrex bowl on the table as I stirred the ingredients—but I wanted to hold the bowl in the crook of my arm like I had seen it done on TV. Needless to say, I dropped the bowl and it crashed to the floor. I ran upstairs crying.

My memory stops right there. Did I go clean up the mess? When did I try again? I surely did because I have been making many kinds of muffins almost all my life. And it took me at least a year to save up enough money to buy my mother another yellow bowl –you couldn’t buy JUST the bowl—you had to buy the entire Pyrex set, which cost about $3.95.

Somehow, I saved up the money and gave the bowl—the entire set of bowls—to my mother. I may have been about ten years old – where did I get the money? I have no idea. I don’t think I started babysitting for my older sister and some of the young mothers in our neighborhood until I was about twelve years old. I was always looking after my younger brothers.

One thing my mother did make from scratch for many years was homemade bread. She baked two large loaves of bread (in black speckled roasting pans) twice a week. I think the homemade bread must have gone by the wayside when my mother began working full time.

I began baking the cookie recipes in Ida Bailey Allen’s Service cookbook; I particularly remember making large peanut butter cookies to send to my mother who was in the hospital at the time.

I learned how to make brownies. From my mother I learned how to make salmon patties from a can of salmon. I learned how to make macaroni and cheese and macaroni with tomato sauce. When I was ten or eleven, my mother instructed me to make dinner for my three brothers (this was long before my brother Scott was born) – mom and my father were going to a dinner.

“Do we really have to eat this?” they asked Dad.
“Every bite” he told them.

Our dinner was salmon patties, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese, with cottage cheese as a salad. When we had finished eating, my brothers all stood up together, grasped their stomachs, and fell down on the floor, pretending to be unconscious. I may have cried, kicking them. They thought it was a good joke.

Salmon patties played a part throughout my life. Years later, when Bob and I had driven in our little Chinook camper to Point Arena in northern California, it was late and we were hungry. We parked in the Point Arena camping area but couldn’t sign in until the next morning. Meanwhile I began making macaroni and cheese (from the blue box) and salmon patties. The mac and cheese was only halfway done and the salmon patties a little on the undone side when we ran out of propane–but we ate them anyway.

For many years after that, whenever I made salmon patties and mac and cheese, Bob would say “This is good but you know what was really GREAT? Those salmon patties and mac and cheese you made that cold foggy night in Point Arena—“ and that was how his memory always remembered that meal.

The next day I took beautiful pictures of the Point Arena light house – many I would have enlarged and framed – and we continued north until we reached the redwoods; we camped near a river and Bob would strike up conversations with people in thirty footer motor homes—us with our little Chinook.

The day after that, we traveled south in very hot weather and so traveled west to get back at camp grounds near Morro Bay where it was always much cooler; we traveled south to reach Pismo Beach again. Throughout our stays I cooked on a two-burner little gas stove. I think we also visited the lighthouse at Morro Bay. I would say that was our best vacation. **

But getting back to my learning how to cook—I learned some things from my
mother, other things from the Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. At some point in time, my mother acquired a Meta Given cookbook. She always maintained that Readers Digest sent the book to her, unsolicited, and she refused to pay for it. I began reading the recipes in the Meta Given cookbook and eventually acquired it for myself. I was curious about Meta Given for many years—until I began researching her and writing about her life and cookbooks.

In a blog article I posted in 2013, I wrote:

“I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.

Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies. I really wasn’t interested in cooking anything else at the time.

I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.

None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks…”

Over time, as readers found my blog articles (http://sandy chatter.wordpress.com) about Meta Given on Google, they began to write to me and I learned more about her. (there are over six hundred comments in response to this post).

Mean while—back in the 1950s—I was a teenager learning how to cook. In my sophomore year at Mother of Mercy High School, I took cooking classes with Mrs. Cunningham—a dedicated and delightful teacher if ever there was one, who treated cooking as a science. It was there I began to understand that if you could read and follow directions—you could cook–or bake.

Mrs. Cunningham realized that one other classmate and I had more knowledge about cooking than most of her students and so would single us out to take messages to the principal or run other errands. Once a week or so, we were assigned one of the stoves in the cooking class and would make something. I remember once making cream of pea soup out of canned peas—which gives me something to think about these many years later as I make split pea soup with dried peas. Mrs. Cunningham’s approach may have been to get the soup made in a class of 45 minutes. For the life of me, I can’t remember what else we cooked in that class.

At the age of eighteen, I married a boy whose mother was from West Virginia. I didn’t have the best of relationships with his mother but I did learn how to make white (southern) gravy from her, as well as perfect fried chicken and fresh string beans cooked until they almost fell apart. (The fresh green beans was a departure from my mother’s CANNED green beans—speaking of which, my mother always cooked canned corn, peas, green beans, asparagus, beets; if there was a canned version of vegetables, that’s what we grew up on. I nevertasted fresh asparagus until we had been living in California for a few years. Ditto fresh spinach.

Come to think of it, I never tasted a steak until we moved to California. Or avocadoes! Or Clam Chowder! Or Yogurt! Or Artichokes!

In 1961, my father bought several copies of a cookbook being sold by one of his coworkers. That book was the 50 ANNIVERSARY COOKBOOK by WOMEN’S GUILD MATTHEW’S UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (in Cincinnati) – for something like one dollar each. He gave one of the cookbooks to me but several years would pass by before I began to wonder if there were other church and/or club cookbooks such as the one Dad bought and asking myself how I could go about finding those cookbooks. I wrote a letter to a magazine called Women’s Circle (not to be confused with Family Circle or Woman’s Day that are still being published). Women’s Circle was published by Tower Press and was entirely made up of letters sent in by women like myself—looking for a book or penpals or any number of other things. I was looking for a Culinary Press cookbooklet of Hungarian recipes for my friend Peggy whose husband was Hungarian) – I think I received well over two hundred letters—some for the Hungarian cookbooklet – I bought two copies for $1.00 each, one for Peggy and one for myself—and began answering the other letters and buying many different cookbooks that formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection.

And it was a revelation to discover the thousands of church and club cookbooks being published over the decades. It was how I knew what to do when my sons’ grammar school PTA announced the desire to compile a cookbook. I immediately contacted the woman whose name was on a flyer my sons brought home from school in 1971—two of those women became life time girlfriends – and our cookbook, RECIPE ROUNDUP was published in 1971.

Moving to California was the proving ground for many foods and many more recipes. I began collecting cookbooks in 1965—some years later, I began collecting filled recipe boxes; I didn’t want just an empty recipe box—I wanted the collection of recipes that can sometimes be found in recipe boxes that turn up in antique stores or even thrift shops. I wanted to find out what recipes other women collected. I began to think of them as the Kitchen Diaries.

And so here I am, in my 70s and not doing very much cooking. I continue to bake but generally give the cookies or cakes away—often to people I am bowling with. Bob passed away in 2011. Jim and I divorced in April of 1986. I met Bob around in August of that year. We did a lot of canning and he was a willing helper. We entered the L.A. County Fair for about a decade, proudly displaying our blue ribbons (and even the red and yellow ribbons).

If I have learned anything along the way—it’s that if you can’t BE cooking, you can at least WRITE about cooking.

–Sandra Lee Smith

Reference (see also)
SEARCHING FOR META GIVEN, originally posted 2/14/11. UPDATED JUNE 22, 2013
BATTERED. TATTERED, STAINED PAGES IN A CHURCH COOKBOOK, June, 2011
WHEN IT’S NOT A BATTERED, TATTERED, STAINED CHURCH COOKBOOK, WHAT IS IT? August, 2011

THE LEGEND OF RED VELVET CAKES

The very first time I heard about red velvet cake was from my friend, Pat Stuart, who became a penpal way back when the internet was just catching on and my sister Becky and I belonged to PRODIGY. I think this had to be in the 1980s because Pat Stuart and her husband Stan lived out by the Los Angeles Fair grounds in Pomona. After a year or two of exchanging correspondence via Prodigy, we agreed to meet when Bob and I were making our annual trips to the fairgrounds where I would enter jellies, jams, chutneys, preserves—anything I could make using a boiling water bath to seal the jars, being gun shy about using a pressure cooker.

The best way I can describe Prodigy as it was back then – it was like a bulletin board where everyone who subscribed to Prodigy could enter comments for other Prodigy subscribers based on your favorite topics. Ours was food, cooking and exchanging recipes. At some point in time, Pat asked if we knew about Red Velvet cake; she had a recipe from a cousin who lived in the South. The story they had heard about Red Velvet cake was that it originated at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1930s.

Back in the 1980s, I began entering the Los Angeles County Fair; first you submitted entry forms describing the items you planned to enter into the Home Arts Division, accompanied by the entry fees. Then Bob, my significant other, would make the trip to Pomona to submit my entries—two of each canned food item; one for tasting, one for displaying. Then he would make a second trip to pick up my tasting jars (which otherwise would have been discarded). THEN we planned a weekend at the fair in Pomona and once the new Sheraton Fairplex hotel opened right on the fair grounds, I made reservations for us to spend the weekend there. It was delightful – hotel guests had their own special entrance, bypassing all of the long lines.

We agreed to meet Pat and Stan at the hotel and have dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was friendship at first sight.

Bob would make a fourth trip to Pomona after the fair was over, to pick up my entries, ribbons, if I had won any, and prize money. I was still working at the time so he made the trips to and from Pomona on his own.

(*In 2008, we moved to the high desert, the Antelope Valley, and since it’s so much farther to go to the Los Angeles fairgrounds, that ended our experience entering the Home Arts Division—and, in 2011, Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus.

Getting back to Red Velvet cake – a few years ago two of the leading cake mix manufacturers came out with their own version of red velvet cake mix. And for the past few years, I have been making red velvet cookies out of red velvet cake mix.

Imagine my surprise, last year (2014) the Food Network Magazine featured a short article about red velvet cake. They noted that red velvet cake is one of America’s most searched for dessert.

According to the Food Network, the origin of red velvet cake remains a mystery and that even food historians can’t agree on the story. That said, the Food Network mentions that in the 1800s, light textured velvet cakes were popular (and I did find a reference to a chocolate velvet cake in one of my food reference books). I checked through half a dozen other food reference books in my collection without finding red velvet cake or any other velvet cake reference.

The Food Network states that the Waldorf Astoria hotel introduced red velvet cake in the 1930s—that would have been during the Depression. The Food Network repeated the oft-repeated claim of a customer requesting the recipe and being billed $100.00 for it.

(In more recent years, this food urban legend has been attributed to a Neiman Marcus restaurant and by now the recipe was for a chocolate chip cookie) Whatever! Neiman Marcus Department Stores denies it ever happened.

And when the red velvet cake recipe first came to my attention, it called for an entire bottle of red food coloring. Never mind that a bottle of food coloring is only about one ounce – in my lifetime there was a red dye #2 scare (the red dye being said to cause cancer). That was probably in the 1970s but I have been leery of red food coloring ever since—never mind pouring an entire one ounce bottle into a cake mix.

And, according to the Food Network magazine article, there is an extract/spice company which dates back to the 1880s and they claim that red velvet became a term when the company added red dye to their classic velvet cake during the depression.

Since General Mills and Duncan Hines food manufacturers came out with their own red velvet cake mix, I haven’t made a red velvet cake from scratch since. And I have been making cookies from cake mixes for about a decade.

In a blog post of mine from May, 2011, about Urban Legends, I wrote:
“…While clipping recipes from a stack of old newspapers (my project every two years while the Olympics were on TV), I happened to come across an article by food writer Jan Malone who wrote, “In what has to be a classic example of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ Neiman Marcus has put a chocolate chip cookie recipe on its website. “For years,” writes Malone, “Neiman Marcus has battled an urban legend that will not die. A ‘friend’ of the initial e-mail writer has lunch at the store’s Neiman Marcus in Dallas, eats a wonderful cookie, asks for the recipe, is told it will cost ‘two-fifty’; she thinks its two dollars and fifty cents but it’s really two hundred and fifty dollars She is so incensed when she gets her credit card bill and the store won’t refund her money, that she gets even by sending the recipe to every e-mail address she knows.

Sometimes this tale of the greedy corporation,” Malone continues, “victimizing the small consumer who gets revenge…has a different villain. In fact, the same story circulated in the 1930s about a red velvet cake from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York”. THAT recipe “cost” $100.00 but hey, times were tough, it was the depression and all.

Malone says she has written about the cookie myth several times and one time encountered a guy who was offering a reward if the ‘friend of the email sender’ could produce a credit card receipt for the $250 purchase but so far there have been no takers. Still, writes Malone, people refuse to believe that the story is a hoax even though Neiman Marcus says it never served cookies in its restaurants until recently and that it always shares its recipes free of charge”.

NOW—as an update—I wrote my original story about urban myths for the newsletter the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 1998. While going through my notes, I wondered if the cookie story was still making the rounds –so I Googled it. AND the answer is – YES, the cookie myth is still in circulation – but NOW if you type in “chocolate chip cookie myth” on Google – one of the sites that pops up is from – none other than Neiman Marcus with the recipe AND their offer – copy it, print it, pass it along to your friends and relatives.

It’s a terrific recipe – and it’s FREE. So how did this story ever get started? According to Los Angeles Times writer Daniel Puzo, “…a Neiman Marcus spokesperson in Dallas, said that the tall tale has been circulating ever since she went to work for Neiman Marcus in 1986. The first newspaper story she saw on the bogus cookie recipe appeared in 1988…” and now you know the rest of the story.

TO MAKE THE WALDORF ASTORIA RED VELVET CAKE:

• 1/2 cup shortening
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 2 eggs
• 2 ounces red food coloring
• 2 tablespoons cocoa (heaping)
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 2 1/4 cups cake flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon vinegar

FROSTING
• 3 tablespoons flour
• 1 cup milk
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 cup butter (must be butter)

Directions:

Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 45 mins

1. Cream shortening, sugar and eggs.
2. Make a paste of food coloring and cocoa.
3. Add to creamed mixture.
4. Add buttermilk alternating with flour and salt.
5. Add vanilla.
6. Add soda to vinegar, and blend into the batter.
7. Pour into 3 or 4 greased and floured 8″ cake pans.
8. Bake at 350°F for 24-30 minutes.
9. Split layers fill and frost with the following frosting.
10. Frosting: Add milk to flour slowly, avoiding lumps.
11. Cook flour and milk until very thick, stirring constantly.
12. Cool completely.
13. Cream sugar, butter and vanilla until fluffy.
14. Add to cooked mixture.
15. Beat, high speed, until very fluffy.
16 Looks and tastes like whipped cream.

ANOTHER RED VELVET CAKE (this one is made with canned red beets and only a teaspoonful of red food coloring:
Ingredients

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds canned beets, drained and pureed
1 teaspoon red food coloring

Cream Cheese/Mascarpone Frosting

2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Pre-heat oven to 350 F

Butter three 9″ round cake pans and line them with parchment paper or waxed paper. (I’ve used square pans and Pam for Baking as well and they worked fine.) To prepare cake:

Melt Chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water or in the top of a double boiler (or melt in microwave for 20 – 25 seconds). Meanwhile. place the sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed for two minutes. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and continue to mix on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula so everything is well incorporated.

Add the melted chocolate to this mixture and continue to mix on low speed. Add the pureed beets and food coloring. Continue to mix on low speed until everything is thoroughly combined. Evenly divide the batter between the three prepared pans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until center of cake springs back when touched, or when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Remove the pans from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Let cool for ten minutes in the pans, then turn the layers out onto the rack and let cool completely.

To prepare Cream Cheese/Mascarpone Icing:

Pour cream into a small bowl and whip to soft peaks. Set aside in the refrigerator. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until it is soft and smooth. Add the mascarpone and continue to mix on low speed until the cheeses are well combined. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar and mix until everything is just combined. Turn off the mixer and fold in the whipped cream by hand with a spatula. Keep refrigerated until ready to assemble.

To assemble:

Using a serrated knife, trim the top of each layer of each layer of cake so that it is flat. Place the first layer on a cake plate or serving platter and top with some of the icing. Repeat until all of the layers are covered with icing, then ice the top and sides of the cake. Store cake in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Chef’s note:
Sliced canned beets are easier to work with in this recipe than whole beets.

Note – This cake works well as a wedding cake but use a cream cheese/buttercream as the icing noted here will not harden.

(*after typing the above this morning, I went to the kitchen and made a batch of the lemon/rice krispie cookies with a box of lemon flavored reduced content cake mix using one egg instead of two and adding juice and zest from one lemon.(instead of any evaporated milk) The cookies turned out just fine!

First, let me share with you A BASIC CAKE MIX COOKIE RECIPE—
1 box, (18.25 oz) any flavor cake mix (I prefer the Betty Crocker cake mixes but any kind will work)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter or solid stick margarine (such as Imperial), melted and cooled
2 TBSP milk (I like using evaporated milk for this but if you are making lemon cookies, I prefer using a little lemon juice and the zest from one lemon
2 eggs (or if the box of cake mix has been reduced to 15 or 16 ounces, use just one egg)

Mix together all ingredients. Divide the dough into several balls and pack it into zip lock bags. Chill overnight or as long as you need—the dough will keep for at least a month. Now you are ready to roll the dough out for cutout cookies, or shape into balls. You can roll the balls into finely chopped nuts or glaze them after they’ve baked.

Next, is Chocolate Fudge Cookies – you can use any kind of chocolate cake mix with this recipe and you can change it around a bit by using white chocolate chips instead of semi sweet chocolate chips.

To make Chocolate Fudge Cookies you will need:
1 PACKAGE (18.25 OZ) chocolate cake mix or devil’s food cake mix
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil or melted and cooled butter (1 stick = ½ cup)
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips.
In a medium size bowl, stir together the cake mix, eggs, and oil until well blended. Then mix in the chocolate chips. Shape the dough into walnut-size balls; place the cookie dough 2” apart on the cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Let the cookies cool on baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
To make the cookies look more Christmassy, make up a thin glaze out of powdered sugar and a little water – drizzle over the cookies on the wire racks.

KEARA’S FAVORITE CRISP LITTLE LEMON COOKIES
To make Keara’s Favorite Crisp Little Lemon cookies you will need:
1 package lemon cake mix (18.25 oz)
1 cup dry rice krispies cereal
½ cup margarine or butter, melted and cooled (1 stick)
1 egg slightly beaten
1 tsp lemon extract or lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl; mix well. Shape into 1” balls and place 2” apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake in preheated oven 350 degrees 9-12 minutes. Cool 1 minute then transfer to wire racks to cool.

If you make up a lemon glaze with powdered sugar and lemon juice, and drizzle it over the cookies, you will have a more festive cookie. I like to add a little lemon zest to the cookie batter, too. Finally, here is my red velvet cookie recipe:

RED VELVET CHRISTMAS COOKIES
1 box (18.25) Red Velvet cake mix
½ cup cooking oil
2 TBSP evaporated milk
2 eggs
1 12-oz bag white chocolate chips

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Drop by tablespoonful on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. A white glaze is nice with these. or dust them with sifted powdered sugar.

It may take a while to figure out how to make these recipes work with most (not all!) of the cake manufacturers reducing the size of the box and the amount of cake mix inside. I was most curious about angel food cake mix—the box is smaller but you still add the same amount of water and bake the cake in a tube pan. Angel food cake is my youngest son’s favorite cake so he doesn’t mind being my guinea pig figuring out how to deal with the changes in cake mixes.

After posting the above last night, I found a lengthy article about red velvet cakes in the Daily News, titled The Color of Rubies–by Florence Fabricant–I will write more about it in another post. Meantime, I also found the recipe for red velvet cookies that I made last Christmas, which were a big hit.

RED VELVET COOKIES
2 RED VELVET CAKE MIXES, 3 EGGS, 1 stick Imperial margarine, softened, 1/4 cup drained well chopped maraschino cherries, 1/2 cup chocolate chips, Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven 350 degrees.  mix all ingredients except powdered sugar. drop by teaspoonful onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Allow room for spreading. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until done. cool on wire racks and then dust with powered sugar sifted gently over the cookies. let cool completely.
*CATCHING FAIR FEVER, 2011 BLOG POST

–Sandra Lee Smith