Thursday, May 5, 2011

Alice's Recipe Box: an American Legacy

This is the (mostly) final draft of a paper I wrote for a recent American and New England Studies grad course, Food, Politics and Culture.

Recently I have begun to realize that my mother, born Alice Elizabeth Siegmund, a straight-laced, educated Republican who died 15 years ago, was a subversive. As far back as I can remember, Mom seemed ahead of her time and possibly a contrarian, but I figured her votes for Nixon and Reagan (for governor and president) as well as membership in the Ojai Country Club, Symphony and Tennis Auxiliary told the bulk of her political story. Seems I was wrong. 
Born in 1920, just weeks before American women got the right to vote, she died 78 years later after running a gauntlet separate from most of her generation. Graduate class readings designed to help me explore the world of American food, politics and culture have lately convinced me that not only did she choose a path apart, she worked to undermine the dominant culture and lay groundwork for a local, whole food revolution she would not live to see bear fruit. The shelf on our refrigerator door might have held a clue had I known how to see it. 
The only child of an intrepid Midwestern woman with Puritan New England roots and her second generation German-American husband who worked as an inventor and engineer for Bell Labs, Alice bucked her inter-war years generation. Most of her peers married with abandon before during and especially after WW II, giving rise to the biggest population bubble in history. During those years Mom earned a B.S. in chemistry and a master's degree in home economics, developed a lucrative career, worked overseas and postponed marriage and her paltry two children until well past the female sell-by date determined by her peers.
           Just days before WW II's end, she crossed the Pacific on a troopship to India with a handful of Red Cross coworkers. As a photography teacher she honed her skills on the Taj Mahal in moonlight and fell in love with a tall, married OSS officer. 
           After the war, she used her photography skills as a food photographer and editor for Family Circle magazine. Started in 1932, Family Circle is one of the Seven Sisters of American women's magazines and her work there in the early-50s helped inform ideas of American food and cooking for her readers with kitchens full of children and Tupperware. (In a cynical moment decades later, as one of our bed and breakfast guests fairly swooned over a tragically simple dish, my mother described the American palette: "Americans really only like food that is either hot and salty or cold and sweet.") When the OSS officer cum international oil executive broke her heart, my mother left New York for sunnier climes. Sunkist, then a growers' cooperative, not today's multi-national corporation, hired her as a recipe developer to promote the use of California's citrus fruit, growing more and more available in more places across the country thanks in part to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.
          Some of her work at Sunkist can be found in a long index-card box full of recipes. This box and its predecessors have held recipes, handwritten or typed, from my mother, her mother, Leola Meachum Siegmund, and my mother’s Aunt Pauline Kunkel, her father's sister, as well as those cut from magazines, newspapers, flour bags and tortilla wrappings, given by friends and copied from books. With its 250-odd recipes, this box sits at my house between another smaller one and a gaggle of vitamin bottles atop my microwave, an appliance my mother helped develop and market some 40 years ago. If I look for it, I can find an 80-plus year timeline of culture, science, health trends, even economics, in this long squat box and its attendant files. An American kitchen timeline runs through this box, from the scrimping and making due of the depression, to the glamorizing of the 50s to the natural food wave of the 70s to Alice Waters’ influence in the last part of the 20th century, just before my mother’s death in 1998. My mother’s anachronistic response to these trends is only predictable in hindsight.
          Though not a cookbook, like Janet Theophano’s examples in “Eat My Words,” this box fulfills Theophano’s criteria for legacy and a way to mark, even celebrate, lineage. This lineage and legacy have a twist, though, because of my mother’s choice of career and the moment in history she made that choice. She chose work over a family when many women her age and older were grateful to give up their Rosie the Riveter-esque jobs and return home. Many women hoped to celebrate the country’s victories by going home and having families.
          They did not necessarily want to return to the penny pinching days of the Depression when making due with nearly nothing was the measure of the celebrated Thrifty Housewife. This woman, one who was charged with spending all of her time caring for her home and family because it took that kind of attention to save money, according to Inness, was a “domesticated” version of the already ostensibly more domestic gender.  Though these women wanted families they almost certainly wanted some of the autonomy they had enjoyed while working for wages or salaries. Though women like my mother were in the minority, in some ways they were a touchstone for those who left their jobs when their husbands and sons returned from the war.
          Because my mother worked in what we now call “the media,” she had a role in reforming Rosie the Riveter into the Happy Housewife of the 1950s and 60s. A recipe from files she kept
from her days at Family Circle tip her hand at the transition between the two. Home cooking
during the depression and food-rationed days of WWII included cheap ingredients that could be stored for long periods including canned milk. One of the recipes for the Ballard School YWCA Cookbook# she edited includes instructions on how to whip canned milk. We have to assume this is a recipe left over from times when cream and butter were luxuries, either because of poverty or rationing.

To whip evaporated milk -- chill overnight, before whipping. Use bowl that has been chilled. Gelatin may be added by adding 1½ tsp cold water to ½ tsp gelatin. Let stand 10 minutes and then melt over steam. Add to evaporated milk and whip until stiff.

My mother’s omissions, revisions and recipes directly copied demonstrate the simultaneously reflexive and promotional aspects of food in culture. Though the war had been over for nearly 10 years--I cannot tell the exact date of this project--she still believed it necessary to include a recipe for a cook who might not have access to heavy cream.
In 1956 Alice began to work for Sunkist Kitchens, part of the California Fruit Growers Exchange. Her recipe box reflects the career move. All manner of citrus shows up on typewritten cards and those written in my mother’s careful, perfectly aligned cursive. Salads and fruit-based desserts compete for space with the hearty stews, pastries and cocktail party canapes from her days at Family Circle.
As part of the portfolio that earned her the Sunkist job she included the December, 1955
copy of Family Circle, where she marked recipes she had written that used citrus. In an article called “Candelight buffet,” presumably Alice and author Grace White came up the menu and my mother tested then photographed the food. Her Snowman Punch uses water, sugar, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, cranberry, lemon and orange juice. To dress up and chill the punch, in the glamorizing trend of the moment, she suggests freezing “maraschino cherries [and water] in small ring molds.”  In a coincidence that only resonates years later, the back cover of this magazine advertises My-T-Fine Lemon Flavor pie filling. The faux hand written print claims that “real home-made lemon pie” can be wrought from this little box. The ad claims, “ make it without any bother or fuss.” It is home-made “yet without the hard work of squeezing and grating lemons.”  This magazine, at least in its advertising, encourages its readers to leave the Ballard parsimony behind and buy a labor-saving box of lemony powder manufactured in New York, with the promise that its resulting pie will taste exactly like homemade.
The irony of this advertisement as part of my mother’s portfolio for Sunkist becomes obvious when I see an entire Sunkist file from a year later dedicated to nothing but lemon meringue pie recipes. Google Sunkist lemon meringue pie and, but for my mother’s version’s addition of a teaspoon of lemon juice to the meringue, the recipe is identical to one typewritten, annotated, then mimeographed about 30 times in my mother’s file folder. Her recipes are autobiography indeed.
My mother married my father (not the OSS officer--she married him 29 years later) shortly after arriving in California. One of her files contains a section called Cooking for Two. In it are two recipes that reflect Sherrie Inness’s observation that men’s tastes were paramount in that era. “Fifties women were taught that males had to be considered at all times,” she writes and the chatty patter accompanying my mother’s recipes for Noodles of Love and Love Boats do just that. The first describes the joy that “the man of the house and his guests” will experience when “the woman of his choice” serves the lemon noodle casserole. Aimed clearly at a woman cooking for a military man, the Love Boat recipe says, “Let your G.I. float into a happy atmosphere of culinary contentment on Love Boats.” Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing whether my mother ever made these dishes for my dad, a G.I. who only made it as far as Hawaii. My father’s memory grows less reliable every month.
That Sunkist liked this angle shows in the Sunkist Kitchen News, a press release I found in my mother’s files, aimed at the women’s sections of California newspapers. Though its theme is Springtime Favorites its lack of a date--possibly to indicate timelessness on the food pages--leaves its exact creation date a bit of a mystery. The final recipe in the four-page citrus-centric document is Orange Kiss Me Cake. Though the Sunkist press release does not say what baking contest this recipe won, it does say that the winner took home first prize and $25,000. That the document fails to identify the year, 1950, and the winner, Lily Wuebel of Redwood City, Calif., demonstrates its author’s concern that it might be considered dated.  Though the traditional still had merit, the concern that a recipe might not be modern enough is clear. Today a dessert dubbed Orange Kiss Me Cake could be construed as a cake likely to elicit a kiss from someone of any age and gender. Part of the sub-text of the 1950 recipe title is that the man of the house will kiss the cake’s maker out of sheer wondrous gratitude for creating such a delicious cake. In 1950, this dynamic represented the happy household, the domestic bliss that had been missing from much of the country over the previous decade for many of the adults cooking, eating or reading about this cake when it won the Pillsbury prize. The recipe’s name also points to “Kiss Me Kate,” a modern version of Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew” that opened on Broadway, replete with Cole Porter classics like “It’s Too Darn Hot,” two years before the Pillsbury contest, in late December, 1948.
To say associating oneself with this play could be a positive marketing move is an understatement. Reviewers and audiences alike loved this musical. The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs wrote in the January, 1949 issue, “This is, in every sense, a wonderful show, and I can’t think of a single sensible complaint to make about it.”  The theme of a fiery, independent woman being tamed may have resonated strongly with post-war Americans adjusting to new domestic arrangements and needing a model for regaining the tranquility they remembered, whether it had ever existed or not.
In terms of bake-off history though Pillsbury had launched cake mixes by 1950, Orange Kiss Me Cake calls for flour, no cake-mix in sight. Only the orange juice--though the recipe does not call for it--could arguably be made from concentrate.  Unsurprisingly, the Sunkist version from the press release in mother’s files sings the praises of “large California Navel oranges,” and calls Kiss Me Cake “a real time-saver” because of the “fresh orange juice plus nuts and place of frosting.”
Though the Sunkist press release writer saw this recipe’s time-saving qualities as a welcome bonus, Laura Shapiro writes that in baking cakes time may not have been much at issue. Studies from 1950 and 1954 comparing cakes made with mixes against scratch cakes found nominal differences in time saved, from three to 15 minutes.  Regardless of the time, knowing my mother, if Lily Wuebel had included a Pillsbury cake mix in her recipe, I am certain it would not have made it past my mother’s test kitchen, let alone to Sunkist’s press department.
Other examples of my mother's focus on real food fills her recipe box and files. Though Mom fails the uber-foodie tests of today in that she bought tortillas, pasta and peanut butter, and her coffee came in a vacuum packed Chock Full o’ Nuts can, most of the recipes in this box require discreet food items and only a handful originated on a printed package. Always suspicious of margarine, she never brought anything approaching convenience food into our home, and, except for a brush with liquid protein meals and anorexia, I have inherited her disdain for food fads and pretty much anything advertised on television.
 The irony of my mother's stance struck me as I read Sherrie Inness' estimation of the 1950s and 1960s domestic science movement's attempt to disguise and hide food and dissociate what went on in the modern kitchen from the messy, antiquated process of preparing healthy meals throughout history. While my mother worked for magazines and companies that seemed to have modernization and commodification as goals, at home she moved us in what I understand now to be an antithetical direction. One of my most vivid memories is my mother pulverizing leftover meat in a hand cranked grinder attached to the counter by a two-inch wingnut that might have come from a furniture-making workshop. If she was going to eat processed meat, she would process it herself, seemed to be the message. Maybe it was her work in the food production industry, her chemistry coursework, her own Minnesota farmer's-granddaughter mother, her stern, skeptical, yet techie father, her worldwide travels as part of the Red Cross, or some combination of the five that made her hold processed food at arm's length.
My mother was a serious professional home economist at work as well as under our roof. I remember hearing about “empty calories” from about age three. It seems the strongest influence in her life had a more romantic origin than her formal education, though. It was her international
travel that flavored much of her views and certainly her cooking. In the Red Cross from 1946 to
1951, she worked in India, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and Germany as a field supervisor. She had also spent a summer in Scandinavia, mostly in Denmark, working on a cultural anthropology course.  It was these last two, the European countries that would bring the most to bear on her recipes and her attitude toward food. Germans and Danes shopped every day for the freshest local food and my mother would have been familiar many of their dishes with thanks to her second generation German-American father’s family.
Though my mother and other Americans had spent plenty of time in Asia it was a taste for Europe that came home with my mother and her compatriots in the mid-20th century. It would be another 40 or 50 years before sushi became a household word, and the Szechuan revolution took the sweet pink food coloring out of American Chinese food. According to “Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads,” it was the 50s when international, especially European and, most specifically, French food, gained a foothold in the U.S. Led by writers like M.F.K. Fisher and fueled by nostalgia and an excellent economy, Americans traveled to Europe in droves and returned with an ostensibly more refined taste.  Previously the most Euro a “Modern Epicure” of my mother’s era got was to serve Beef Stroganoff, a party staple since the 1940s, or possibly Chicken Divan.  The Julia Child phenomenon would not happen for another 15 years.
While at Sunkist in the mid-50s my mother managed to marry her experience in Europe with her objective to promote citrus fruit in at least one dish. My favorite is her Roquefort Dressing. Salad dressings in general represent the best examples of my mother's rejection of prepared food were her salads. Though we lived in California and ate our body weight in salads every week, the closest thing to a prepared dressing in our house was the occasional envelope of herbs and spices developed by my mother's home economist friends working for spice companies like Lawry's to be mixed with oil, vinegar and water. We had salads created by my mother and her Sunkist colleagues that mixed weird (to my sister and me, anyway) ingredients like citrus, onions and olives. My mother put nuts (!) in salads back in the early 1970s, and she was no hippie.
The fact that none of my friends' mothers made their own salad dressings is testimony to my mother’s subversion. Though these homes seemed more modern, more connected to the television-imbued scene I thought ought to be our touchstone, it was my mother and her devotion to homemade food who led the way. 

Roquefort Dressing
2 c. sour cream                                                ¼ c. lemon juice
½ c. mayonnaise                                             1 garlic clove
⅓  to ⅓ c. blue, Roquefort, Gorgonzola         ⅛ to ¼ c. olive oil
or other blue veined cheese                            ½ t. salt
¼ c. lemon juice                                             ground pepper to taste

          Developed about 1956, this recipe seems emblematic of the upwardly mobile post-war 50s. Blue cheese, though ubiquitous and varied these days, then seemed exotic, and Roquefort, made from sheep milk might have seemed downright strange. At the Ojai, California Safeway--our local market--there was a single brand of blue cheese available by the time I was shopping with my mother in the late 60s and early 70s, Danish Blue. We lived for a couple of years in England during this time while my father attempted a PhD, and my mother reveled in the access to European food, especially cheeses. In her case, this represented a return to food she had learned to love as a young proto-jetsetter-slash-humanitarian working for the Red Cross in the late 1940s. When we returned to the U.S. in 1971 it took another 10 years for American supermarkets to include sections of imported cheese. In a bit of American irony. Norway’s Jarlsberg, ostensibly our most recognizable imported cheese is actually a laboratory-created cheese crafted by scientists age in smaller quantities so as to compete with the unwieldy and heavy Swiss cheese wheels.  According to its manufacturer, Jarlsberg began appearing on shelves in the U.S. in 1965, though I only remember it in Maine markets in the mid-70s.
Shopping for blue cheeses today I find Roquefort, Saga Blue, Gorgonzola and at least one other blue-mold cheeses in such humble markets as the Waldoboro Hannaford. At Portland’s Whole Foods the blue cheese fan can find 21 varieties, from genuine French sheep milk to the domestic Maytag version made with cows milk in Newton, Iowa for nearly 70 years.
Though consumers like me would argue that the cheese market has grown more exotic, more open to imported cheeses, facts fail to prove our perception. If our perception is at all right, that of more choice in flavor and types of cheese available at the supermarket, the numbers prove that the increase must be coming from the domestic market. For all the free trade talk among manufacturers, it turns out that cheese imports have been highly regulated since 1951--arguably about the time when it would become lucrative to tax and restrict this desirable commodity--the proportion of imported cheese in U.S. markets consistently remains around 56 percent.
The numbers do show that imported blue veined cheese from Denmark and Italy makes up the bulk of Americans’ choice in the imported cheese market. Economists hoping to increase U.S. tax revenues estimate that imported blue cheeses make up some 70 percent of the import market with cheddar from Australia and New Zealand coming in second.  It appears that though we are not importing more cheese, our taste for blue-veined cheeses has become thoroughly American.
In any case, my mother and others like her helped blaze blue cheese’s path from tony cocktail parties to American steak houses and on to sports bars as a de rigeur chicken wing condiment. Blogger Chris Padgett, who claims to be blogging about the “simple things in life,” insists, “All orders of hot wings should include blue cheese dressing.” He includes a comprehensive list of fast food chains that do just that. Sadly most blue cheese dressings bear little resemblance to the tart rich mix I grew up with. Too often they are an oily mix of second rate mayonnaise, vinegar, preservatives, sweetener and a little cheese.
Alice’s original recipe calls for olive oil, but in the late 1980s she began to use extra-virgin olive oil. Like garlic, olive oil, for most of American history, had been relegated to the Italian food aisle. Like garlic, olive oil can now be found in most kitchens and its uptown cousin, the green, fruity extra-virgin olive oil has been raised in some circles to lofty enough heights to garner contests, tastings and medals. Its perceived nutritional value received a boost with the media’s promotion of the Mediterranean Diet as a guard against heart disease. We in the 21rst century begin to look at practically everything through a sustainablility lens. According to nutrition policy writer Joan Gussow olive oil, whether its health benefits prove factual or not, may turn out to not be environmentally sustainable.
In either case blue cheese dressing, regardless of the origin of the cheese or oil, with most of its calories from fat, cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise, could hardly be called healthy. This may explain its popularity as part of the stereotypical anti-health food menu found at sports bars. I would argue that my mother’s version, nevertheless, is rich, whole food, and in these early days of what some of us hope is a local food boom, could, except for the lemons, be made from local ingredients almost anywhere in the country.
As for the lemons, we had two lemon trees and a grapefruit tree in the back yard of our Ojai home. My mother, a New Jersey native, marveled that she could step past the clothesline and pick such an exotic fruit. Citrus was strictly seasonal and infrequent at that for most of her life. When she moved to California, she fell in love with the state and cherished her work at Sunkist.
My mother’s recipe box could yield a hundred more clues. A folded up piece of cardboard at the very back looks like something she stuck in the box to take up space until more recipes replaced it. When I open it, I see a recipe. There’s no title, just the ingredients: BB, sugar, gel and lemons. Without thinking, I know where and when it was written. Shortly after my family moved from California to Maine in 1972, she and her newish friend Ginny Cooper bought flats of blueberries from the blueberry packers in Union (home of Maine’s annual Blueberry Festival) to bring home to freeze and make into jam. This recipe undoubtedly came from Ginny, a country cook with a big family, gathered while unloading their flats of blueberries from the back of my mother’s station wagon. Leslie Land, a food and garden writer who helped start Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, describes country cooking as “home cooking plus direct access” to fresh produce and ingredients.  This aptly describes Ginny Cooper. My mother’s friend, born in 1930, never gave up her family’s fruit and vegetable gardening tradition. To Ginny, Victory Gardens were a fad.
Though wild blueberries may not have grown in the backyard, like the lemons my mother loved, she had direct access to them and could apply some of Alice Waters’ local and regional foods wisdom when preparing blueberry jam for her family, and ultimately for the bed and breakfast guests who filled our home after my sister and I left for college. These habits of cooking grow with each factory food poisoning drama and her legacy of maintaining her focus on home cooking, at least, and at least one version of country cooking at best, continues through one more generation.
Where this box will go next remains to be seen. I have a 10 year-old son, and without belaboring gender issues, I have no way of yet knowing whether he will be interested enough in cooking for any of these messages, literal and nutritional, historical, or more metaphoric, will interest him. There is the matter of media, too. Is this cardboard box filled with index cards, paste, ink and paper, to become an artifact of a time before Should I scan the whole thing onto a disk and put it in my safe deposit box at the bank to be retrieved for the reading of my will? I have not decided.
What I know is that, like a photo album or diary, the box and its attendant files keep me connected to the memory of my mother on a nearly weekly basis, despite the fact that she has been dead for 15 years. Thanks to writers who fleshed out this phenomena long before I really thought about it, I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of my lineage and legacy and the responsibility therein. Though I may not be able to control what happens to my mother’s recipe box and files, I can do my best to carry on the vision of cooking and nutrition she stated in her 1956 resume. In it, she states that her objective is no less than “To promote national health and human welfare through a program of home economics and consumer education conducted through an industrial organization.” She worked from the inside out, a subversive’s best angle. Though I may never work in “an industrial organization,” I can do no less than emulate her desire to improve health and well-being of my family and friends at the very least through the tool she has given me, her recipe box.

Though my footnotes failed to translate into blogger, here are the documents I used for this piece.

"1950s from" Easy Recipes and Creative Cooking Ideas  from (accessed May 1, 2011).

Fisher, M. F. K.. The art of eating  . New York: Collier Books, 1990.

Gibbs, Wolcott. "The Theatre: : The New Yorker."  The New Yorker. (accessed May 2, 2011).

Gould, Brian . "Monthly Data - American Cheese Imports." Understanding Dairy Markets. (accessed May 2, 2011).

Greene, Gael. "The Haute Stove." New York Magazine, September 13, 1971.

Gussow, J.D. "Mediterranean diets: are they environmentally responsible?." American journal of clinical nutrition 61, no. 6S (June 1995): 1383s-1389s. Agricola, EBSCOhost (accessed April 28, 2011).

Inness, Sherrie A.. Dinner roles:  American women and culinary culture. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa City, 2001.

"Jarlsberg Markets: USA." Tine . (accessed April 28, 2011).

Land, Leslie. The modern country cook  . New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1991.

Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable food:  seven decades of food fads. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCorriston, S., and I.M. Sheldon. "Selling import quota licenses: the U.S. cheese case." American journal of agricultural economics 76, no. 4 (November 1994): 818-827. Agricola, EBSCOhost (accessed May 1, 2011).

Siegmund, Alice Elizabeth. Personal papers, including resume, work notes, portfolio.

Shapiro, Laura. Something from the oven:  reinventing dinner in 1950s America. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

White, Grace . "Candlelight buffet." Family Circle, December 1955.

White, Lois. "Nursing History, Education and Organizations." In Foundations of nursing  . 2nd ed. Australia: Delmar Learning, 2005. 46-47.

Wuebel, Lily. "Orange Kiss-Me Cake from" Easy Recipes and Creative Cooking Ideas  from (accessed April 28, 2011).

Chicago formatting by

Orange Kiss Me Cake

1 orange
1 cup raisins
⅓ cup walnuts
2 cups Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
½ cup margarine or butter, softened, or shortening
2 eggs

Reserved 1/3 cup orange juice
⅓ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts


Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 13x9-inch pan. Squeeze orange, reserving 1/3 cup juice for topping; remove seeds. In blender container, food processor bowl with metal blade or food mill, grind together orange peel and pulp, raisins and 1/3 cup walnuts. Set aside.

Lightly spoon flour into measuring cup; level off. In large bowl, combine flour and all remaining cake ingredients at low speed until moistened; beat 3 minutes at medium speed. Stir in orange-raisin mixture. Pour batter into greased and floured pan.

Bake at 350°F. for 35 to 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Drizzle reserved 1/3 cup orange juice over warm cake in pan.

In small bowl, combine 1/3 cup sugar and cinnamon; mix well. Stir in 1/4 cup walnuts; sprinkle over cake. Cool 1 hour or until completely cooled.

1 comment:

Stan Tupper said...

Wondrous writing. I'm in awe. Proud to know you.