Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Coal Camp Cooking in Southwest Wyoming

From the series “Southwest Wyoming: A Tough Place to Live"

March is Women’s History Month.  This look back at cooking in southwest Wyoming's coal town of Superior emphasizes just how far women have come since the days when we were tied by our apron strings to the coal stove in the kitchen. 

Taking a break from the kitchen.  Can you smell the starch in the women’s housedresses and aprons?  It looks like the woman on the left might be wearing a hairnet as well, proper kitchen attire in the mid-1950s.

One of my favorite ways for a historical glimpse of a place is the community cookbook.  In the days when housewives spent a lot of time in the kitchen and not working outside the home, one surefire way to make money for church guilds and ladies’ auxiliary organizations was the cookbook.  Each member would contribute at least one recipe, and the collection would be sent off to be printed.  Kansas and Missouri were popular locations for cookbook printing companies, whether because forebears of Superior and Rock Springs people came from farms on the plains or because of a dearth of Wyoming local companies.

Today’s young people are rediscovering yesteryear’s recipes, compiling their own cookbooks and trying to re-create forgotten favorite dishes Mom and Grandma used to make.  A big problem with this process is Grandma didn’t use a measuring cup or spoons.  It sufficed to say a “pinch” of this, or a “handful” of that.  And she rarely wrote down a recipe.  Her children learned, if they bothered to learn, by paying attention while they were peeling potatoes or washing the many dirty dishes and pots and pans that good home cooking required.

Interior image from Superior’s Kitchen Secrets, used by permission 
 Cookbook Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 1951 Bev-Ron Publishing Company

From my mom’s sister I inherited a cookbook called Superior’s Kitchen Secrets, Compiled by the Mary Martha Guild of the Community Church, Superior, Wyoming.  This book has a copyright date of 1951 by the Bev-Ron Publishing Company of Kansas City, Missouri.  Cookbook printing must be an eternally profitable business: Founded in 1947, the Bev-Ron Company is still in business in 2012 as Cookbook Publishers, Inc. of Lenexa, Kansas.

Cover image of Superior’s Kitchen Secrets used by permission
Cookbook Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 1951 Bev-Ron Publishing Company

The cover of Superior’s Kitchen Secrets is unquestionably politically incorrect today, but back in the 1950s and previously the kerchief-headed plantation cook was the universally understood symbol of the secret recipes of good down-home cooking. 

It is interesting to note what was popular in this particular cookbook in the middle of the last century.  The section on appetizers, pickles and relishes barely covers three 6” X 9” pages.  Soups, vegetables and salads also don’t make up three full pages.  Poultry, meat and fish recipes fill five pages with bread, pastry and rolls coming in at the same number.  But cakes and cookies, the two staples of bake sales, and another perennial way for moms to make money, fill nine pages of the book.  Desserts are more than four more pages and candy, jelly and preserves one more.  Beverages is one page, and then comes ten pages of dieting advice!   The more things change the more they stay the same.

Everyone hates fruitcake, right?  Not in my experience.  I went looking for a recipe for fruitcake that people would actually eat and found it in Superior’s Kitchen Secrets.  What has to be the best fruitcake recipe in the world (with a minor modification of macadamia nuts) is found in this book: a White Fruit Cake contributed by Mrs. Wm. Fox.  Using six eggs and a pound of butter, the recipe’s secret lies in adding pineapple and applesauce to the recipe for moistness.  (It does make four generous loaves of fruitcake, so that really only works out to one-quarter pound of butter each!)

Although Rock Springs bills itself as “Home of 56 Nationalities,” the smaller town of Superior had to have at least that many.  Mrs. Carl J. Carlson’s “Swedish Meatballs” made it into the book, but the closest most of the recipes in Superior’s Kitchen Secrets come to ethnicity is found in such generic offerings as “Chicken and Rice Curry” or “Tamale Pie.”  Especially in small towns in the years after two world wars, the Fifties were a time of fitting in, of American homogenization.  Although the logical plural of egg in English should be eggi, which my grandmother was scolded for using, grandmas of European extraction were urged to speak only English with the grandkids and not to be teaching them any “baby talk.”   My aunt regrets to this day that she wasn’t taught Italian.  The grandchildren learned neither proper Italian nor the Tyrolean language.  We are all poorer for refusing the gift of  Empress Eugenie’s insistence on education for all.

Some of the ingredients in the cookbook I didn’t recognize, such as Spry.  Turns out it was a Crisco shortening competitor.  And it was easy to tell from all the sugar in the recipes that they were published post-WWII.  Each section had at least one page of ads, no pictures but a few logos such as Buick and Texaco, and containing business phone numbers of three digits.  Not many of the companies advertising in the book are still in business more than 60 years later, but I would bet at least a few copies of the cookbook can still be found in southwest Wyoming kitchens.  And although modern women might cringe at the thought of spending hours in a dress in the kitchen while attempting to live up to some definitely white middle-class notion of proper housewifery, there was certainly less stress in being able to stay home all day and a limited kind of power in deciding her own schedule.

1 comment:

Alethea Williams said...

Hi Chris,
I tried to leave a comment on today's blog post on cookbooks, but the site wouldn't publish it so I gave up. Anyway, your post was interesting. I vaguely remember my mother using a cookbook, but she never shared her recipes with me. When I was single, there was no need, and by the time I finally got married, she had passed away. Most of the recipes I now use came from my husband who did all the cooking until he suffered his first stroke in 2006. To make a long story short, I had to learn to cook, and now, I do it all, and he supervises. I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.


-- Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver