Luther Burbank, The Reliable Russet and Everyone’s Favorite Way to Eat A French Fry {1970’s Style}

They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa.  Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson.  Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.

But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead,  today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato.  With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers.  But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world –  a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.

It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.

On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…

Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding.  Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.

The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes.  But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think.  Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated.  It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.

If you have never seen how a potato grows, this is a good illustration. Plant above the ground and lots of potatoes nestled together below ground. Image from the 1893 L.L.May & Company Seed Catalog featuring Northern Potatoes.

But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different.  Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with.  Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.

He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story.  Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.

Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country.   Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.

Russet potato farmers in 1940’s Idaho.

Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.

Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture.  In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting!  This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.

A midcentury newspaper ad for McDonald’s french fries.

By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.

A vintage frozen french fry ad from the 1960’s. Photo courtesy of itsjustoldpaper on Etsy.

The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity.   In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.

A 1955 advertisement for French Fries featuring Hunt’s catsup.

But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…

…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard,  salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a  tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.

Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry  in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake,  which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.

Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)

1 large russet potato (scrubbed)

1/8 cup olive oil

A generous sprinkling of sea salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long  1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.

Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and  return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes.  They should look something like this when they are ready…

Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.

Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy,  using his version over any other!

Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…

Luther Burbank’s house as it looked in the 1920’s
Now in 2018, his house is a city park and garden that is open to the public.
Luther Burbank House and Garden, 200 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, CA

And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…

Clockwise from top left: The Plumcot – a mix between plums and apricots, the Fire Poppy, the July Elberta Peach, the Spineless Cactus and the Shasta Daisy

So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches,  he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.

Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.

Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here.  Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here. 

If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

Happy 4th of July! This Is What This Day Tasted Like in 1902…

Happy 4th of July! It has been super quiet around here on the blog since mid-May and I must say, I have missed you all terribly.  There was a family tragedy and a family illness that took me unexpectedly far away from the Vintage Kitchen for most of June. But I’m happy to write that I’m back and ready to dive into a plethora of new kitchen stories starting this week.

Exciting things coming up in July include an interview with a creative artist who will make you look at your refrigerator in an absolutely new and enchanting way; we will travel back in time to a hotel in 20th century Minnesota and share a few recipes that made them famous around the world; we’ll learn about a guy who invented one of the most addictive foods ever known to eaters; we’ll celebrate three national food recognition days and we’ll host a giveaway that is guaranteed to add a little sparkle to your life. So stay tuned on that front. July is full of fun!

In the meantime, since it’s a holiday today and you are out and about celebrating with friends and family, we’ll keep this post short – a litle dollap of history pertaining to patriotism and how Americans ate their way through Independence Day in 1902.

In that year, this guy was president…

Theodore Roosevelt – the 26th President of the United States.

And patriotic family gatherings looked something like this…

A fourth of July family picnic in St. Augustine, Florida in 1902. Photo courtesy of FilsonHistorical.org

Decorations were simple…bunting, flags, flowers and the natural settings of the great outdoors. There were parades and town concerts and special events planned throughout the day.

July 4th, 1902 in King’s River, California. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Conversations were full of pride, in the general achievements of the country. Unlike today, where the political terrain is quite rocky and American morale is at an all-time low, in 1902, patriotism was a bit more revered. President Roosevelt prepared a speech saying nothing but thank you to the American military for continuing to extend and uphold the open arm ideals of the United States and pledged to continue to promote peace and tolerance throughout the world.

In American households during the early 20th century, the 4th of July was the one day where political affiliations were set aside. What was celebrated in conversation was not that someone was a Democrat or a Republican but instead an American. And topics led more towards incredible examples of what had been achieved in the past as a unified country as opposed to criticisms about the work that still needed to be accomplished individually.

Eating occurred on a large all-day scale with a full breakfast, lunch and dinner… each incorporating the colors of the American flag. Here’s a suggested menu from Woman’s Favorite Cook Book published in 1902…

Woman’s Favorite Cook Book, 4th of July Menu, 1902

You’ll notice, even back then, the holiday has always been about cooking and spending time together. The kitchen would have been a hotbed of activity (just like it still is today) preparing all the staples we still enjoy eating on the Fourth – ice cream, salads, garden vegetables, fresh berries, cake. Our national pride might be much more diluted now than it was 116 years ago but our bellies are traditionally still enjoying the same types of food. That is a comfort at least.

Theodore Roosevelt once said…“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

Teddy would have appreciated all the new voices coming forth this year (no pun intended!) in our fights for democracy and fairness and freedom for every person in America. He would have admired all the political bravery that exists today and marveled at all that we have accomplished so far.  Americans of the early 20th century would have lauded our collective efforts too, noting how far we have come on the food scene as far as innovations and improvements and equipment while still managing to keep the culinary traditions of our ancestors alive.

So it is with that in mind that we say cheers to the holiday, to the progress we have made, and to the traditions we still hold dear. However you choose to celebrate the 4th of July – whether you are partying it up at a fish fry, a barbeque, a picnic, a seafood boil or a campfire roast – I hope your holiday is filled with fun, family, and friends. May it be peaceful and light. And may all those fireworks be bright. Cheers to a happy holiday! We’ll see you back in the Kitchen shortly.

The Man Who Taught Newfoundland How To Can

It’s been known by names such as The Island of Cod, Vinland, Land of the Fish and Terre Neuve.  You’ll know it as Newfoundland.  Walter Winfred Chenoweth knew it as the island of the can. Or the canning jar to be specific.  That’s where he taught local inhabitants how to preserve harvests from the garden and the sea in glass jars for future consumption.

Walter Chenoweth (1872 -1945) was a professor and department head of Horticultural Manufactures at Massachusetts Agricultural College, now known as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Born in Grundy County, Missouri in 1872, Walter spent his entire professional career, researching, testing and educating others on agriculture and the science of growing fruit, mostly at MAC where he was a member of the staff from 1912-1941.

Walter hard at work in the lab. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Library at the University of Massachusetts

Through years of trial and error, scientific study and hands-on testing, Walter became an expert in the area of food sciences, especially food preservation. In 1929, he went overseas to Newfoundland where he set up canning stations and taught classes to local inhabitants and British colonizers.

Newfoundland in the early 1900’s. Photo courtesy of the Town of St. Anthony

At the time of Walter’s trip, Newfoundland was in peril. Suffering drastically from results of the Great Depression and a financially crippled local government, the people of Newfoundland were in a state of crisis.  The train line that ran through the province ate up all the government’s resources. Vast holes were poked in the salt cod industry – Newfoundland’s main export- via trade halts due to the Depression and via competition from other countries like Iceland, who were developing more efficient fishing methods. These two factors meant that the local government couldn’t take care of its people financially and the sea couldn’t keep its villages afloat as far as income.

Early 20th-century travel photographs of Newfoundland. Photo Courtesy of the Town of St. Anthony.

Collaborating with British medical doctor Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940) who was trying to stop the spread of contagious diseases and malnutrition in Newfoundland’s fishing villages, Walter Chenoweth lent aid in the best way he knew how. Through preservation. For a year, Walter worked to make local inhabitants and newcomers more self-sufficient through food storage. By setting up canning station facilities around the island he taught all who were willing to learn how to can fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and poultry so that no food would be wasted or left behind to spoil.

Farm family in Newfoundland

This was an important skill for islanders to master in their subarctic climate.  With a slim gardening window of just 2-3 months, planting, growing, harvesting and preserving had to be done quickly and correctly to ensure beneficial results. Handled inappropriately, jarred foods could cause serious illness and even death due to bacteria. Stressing proper sterilization methods and practices to ensure safe food preservation, Walter taught islanders every aspect of canning from equipment to techniques, precautions to recipes.

Vintage Wheaton canning jar available in the shop.

In addition to common jarred items like wild blueberry jam and pickled vegetables, Walter also taught the islanders how to can freshly caught fish, boiled chicken, and roasted meat. These teachings came at a fortuitous time.  Two years later, after Walter was back home in Massachusetts,  two-thirds of island workers would become unemployed due to the unstable trade markets and the local government’s lack of proper financial planning.  Food would become scarce, morale would plummet and families would resort to inventive measures in order to stay alive. Canning skills would become an important component of survival.

Trading became an active currency when money was scarce. Here, families trade household items for clothes from a Grenfell mission nurse. Photo courtesy of thetelegram.com

During that time of island-wide poverty and hunger,  the only formal aid that would be offered by the local government was a meager food dole consisting of molasses, flour, cornmeal, fatback, split peas, and cocoa.  This care package provided only half of a person’s daily caloric intake. Preserved food helped bridge the gap between the dole and starvation.  Eventually, through fortitude and endurance, the island got back on its feet and money started flowing again into communities thanks to jobs and resources needed for WWII.

When Walter returned back home to Amherst, he compiled fifteen years of hands-on experience into a book called Food Preservation, which he published in 1930…

Part cookbook, part instructional guide and part natural science lesson it contained all aspects of the food canning process beginning with the understanding of how bacteria grew in 1765…

Lazzaro Spallanzani…an Italian priest, biologist and physiologist who discovered that air trapped in glass tubes caused the growth of bacteria. 

and how that led to the eventual creation of foods kept in sealed shelf-stable jars.  In between the anatomy of vegetables, lists of equipment, instructions on canning methods, and advice on troubleshooting, shelving considerations, and cleanliness factors, Walter included a host of recipes explaining how to preserve summer’s bounty for next winter’s nourishment. He explained how to build canning stations, storage rooms and simple farm factories to accommodate production. Everything from cider to syrup, carrots to kerosine, fruits to fermentation were tackled. At the time of publication, Food Preservation was the most concise book ever written on the topic of canning and was so thorough it became the go-to teaching tool in food science classrooms for decades.

Table of Contents for Food Preservation by W.W. Chenoweth

A once celebrated, but now forgotten pioneer in his field, Walter’s contributions to the people of Newfoundland has been long overshadowed by the lifetime efforts of Dr. Grenfell. It’s easy to understand how that happened – Grenfell made a HUGE impact on the island by building hospitals and schools and by bringing worldwide attention to the hardships of an isolated community.

Dr. Grenfell and his wife, Anne. photo courtesy of Grenfell Historic Properties.

Walter’s story in Newfoundland may not have been as lengthy nor as flashy as Grenfell’s but, like the products Walter represented, he gave the gift of long-term sustenance to a sea-island in need of a salve. What’s wonderful about a jar of pickled beets or canned tomatoes from last summer? It’s not just an example of previous effort spent,  it’s a symbol of security, an innate assurance that the past is vital to the future. That’s what Walter really gave the people of Newfoundland in their darkest hours – a promise that good things were coming soon.

Walter Winfred Chenoweth. Image courtesy of Credo Library at the the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cheers to Walter for teaching us how to enjoy our harvests year round and to the people of Newfoundland for never giving up.

Find Walter’s Food Preservation book in the shop here. Find the vintage Wheaton canning jar featured in this post here.

A Mare-gerita Affair: Happy Derby de Mayo Day!

It’s twice the fun… Happy Cinco de Mayo and Happy Kentucky Derby Day! Our busy week of posts winds up today with the table decorations for our Derby De Mayo party. On Tuesday,  we got out our vintage cookbook and planned our menu…

On Wednesday, we pulled out our dishes and planned our table settings…

On Thursday, we posted the story of Adelaida Cuellar, the inspiration (and the vintage recipe supplier!) behind this year’s party…

On Friday, we posted fun facts for this year’s Derby, picked our winners….

and made a second batch of Carne Mexicano and Ranchero Sauce for today’s party…

And for the final bit of merry-making, this morning we made our table decorations for our burrito stations and cocktail bar…

 

Our signature cocktail of the day is a traditional margarita with a touch of mint and a new name… the Mare-gerita complete with our sombrero-ed host…

Our final activity was making papel picado banners (traditional Mexican paper bunting) to adorn our make-your-own burrito station…

Mexican paper banner bunting, also known as Papel Picado

Needless to say it was a very fun and busy week. And now its time to celebrate. Thanks for following along all week. We hope your Derby parties and/or Cinco de Mayo celebrations are the best ones yet!

Cheers to a safe race and festive celebrations!

10 Fun Facts About This Year’s Kentucky Derby

Churchill Downs in 1901. Photo courtesy of kentuckyderby.com

Tomorrow it’s Kentucky Derby Day! Now that you already know what to cook for your party, thanks to a shared holiday with Cinco de Mayo, we can now focus on picking our winning horses.

Here are 10 fast fun facts about this year’s race if you are still trying to decide on a winner…

Fun Fact #1…

That’s Victor Espinoza on the left and Kent Desormeaux on the right.

Two jockeys, Victor Espinoza (riding Bolt D’ Oro) and Kent Desormeaux (riding My Boy Jack) are the only two jockeys out of the twenty participating that have won the Kentucky Derby three times before. Victor won in 2002, 2014 and 2015. Kent won in 1998, 2000 and 2008.

Fun Fact #2…

Instilled Regard

The kind-hearted gentleman of the race, Derby contender Instilled Regard was named in the spirit of good sportsmanship. His name reflects his owner’s desire to treat all fellow competitors with respect, kindness and sincerity. In today’s troubling world we can use all the kindness we can get, so we say cheers to Instilled Regard for keeping things convivial on the field this year.

Fun Fact #3…

Left to right: Kyle Frey, Paco Lopez and James Graham.

It’s the first time competing in the Kentucky Derby for all three of these jockeys. Kyle will be riding Blended Citizen, Paco on Firenze Fire and James on Lone Sailor.

Fun Fact #4…

That’s Firenze on the left and baby Bolt on the right.

Two entrants share the same birthday – March 17, 2015. Firenze Fire and Bolt D’Oro were both born on that day which also happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. Sounds pretty lucky, if you ask us!

Fun Fact #5…

As far as jockey breakdown by nationality goes, the United States leads with six jockeys hailing from American soil. Panama, Puerto Rico and Mexico tied with the next largest amount – each boasting three jockeys apiece. France and Venezula each have two. And the U.K. and Ireland each boast one. Jockeys and their birthplaces are broken down as follows…

UNITED STATES: Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, Cory Lanerie, Robby Albarado, Draydon Van Dyke, Kyle Frey.

PANAMA: Luis Saez, Jose Lezcano, Ricardo Santana Jr.

PUERTO RICO: Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez, Irad Ortiz Jr.

MEXICO: Victor Espinoza, Luis Contreras, Paco Lopez

VENEZUELA: Javier Castellano, Junior Alvarado

FRANCE: Florent Geroux, Flavien Prat

IRELAND: James Graham

U.K. : Ryan Moore

Fun Fact #6…

My Boy Jack on the left and Mendelssohn on the right

The oldest horse running in the Derby this year is My Boy Jack, born on January 26, 2015.  The youngest of the bunch is Mendelssohn who was born May 17, 2015.

Fun Fact #7…

This trio brought in the most prize money. Clockwise starting at top: Magnum Moon ($1.4 million), Mendelssohn ($1.9 million)  and Good Magic ($1.8 million)

The most expensive horse in the race this year is Mendelssohn with a purchase price of $3 million. He was also one of the top three earners in the field.

Mendelssohn at the Keeneland Yearling Sale

Fun Fact #8

Clockwise from top left: Free Drop Willy, Audible, Lone Sailor and Bolt D’Oro

Four of the horses running in the race are associated with sports. Free Drop Billy was named after the golf term, free drop. Audible and Lone Sailor both have football connections. Lone Sailor was owned by the past owner of New Orleans Saints football team, Tom Benson who recently passed away. Audible refers to the football play call.  And Bolt D’Oro was named after famous sprinter Usain Bolt.

FUN FACT #9

Winstar Farms

Winstar Farms in Versailles, KY has connections to four of the horses in the Derby this year. They are the owners of Audible, Noble Indy and Justify and were breeders of Bolt D’Oro and Noble Indy.

Fun Fact #10

As of this writing, Instilled Regard is the long shot at 99-1 odds.  There’s the terrible cliche that says nice guys finish last, but we have big hopes for this guy, which brings us to the Vintage Kitchen’s picks for this year’s Derby winner…

If you have your own favorites, share them in the comments below. It’s always more fun to watch the race when you have your own specific champions in mind.  Check out the complete list of contenders on the Derby’s official website here.

Cheers to daydreaming and Derby! The fun continues tomorrow with a post on our Derby party table decorations combining horseracing and Cinco de Mayo. Stay tuned!

Adelaida from Mexico & Her Lasting Impact on America {Plus Two of Her Recipes!}

Adelaida Cuellar photographed in 1901 with three of her children. photo courtesy of D Magazine.

In 1892, two young lovers crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and got married in Texas. They spoke no English but were very fluent in the language of love. They were dreamers yearning for better opportunities then their home country could provide, and they were determined to work hard to create a beautiful life that would bring them all  they desired.

The newlywed years of Macurio and Adelaida Cuellar led them through a myriad of jobs on ranches around the Texas countryside. For five years they moved about before they settled down in Kaufman, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where Macurio started sharecropping and Adelaida started a family. As the seasons passed, their family grew, eventually producing twelve babies.

This is an unidentified farm photo from the Cuellar collection. It may have been the farm where Adelaida and Macurio raised their family. If not, it gives an interesting perspective on what farm life looks like in Texas during the time Adelaida and Macurio lived and worked there.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Ranch and farm work weren’t the most profitable of jobs, so Adelaida took a stall at the Kaufman County Fairgrounds in 1926 selling two things…  chili and tamales. It was her hope that her homemade recipes, so loved by her family, would bring in a little extra income to help support her children.  To her surprise, the food stand was an instant success.  The profits she made from her entrepreneurial endeavor were much larger than farm or ranch work earnings, so Adelaida kept at it, turning her stall into a tidy little family business.  Some of her children helped her cook while others formed a family band playing Mexican music to entertain the eaters.

During the 1920’s, Tex-Mex cuisine was a new style of cooking that combined traditional recipes from Mexico and Spain but with toned down spice factors which were more appealing to American palates. Adelaida’s chili and tamales debuted at just the right time – exotic enough for adventurous eaters and flavorful enough without being too spicy to dissuade repeat business. With every taste of tamale and every cup of chili, Adelaida’s reputation for preparing delicious Mexican food began growing.

Adelaida’s Cafe – simply called Cuellar Cafe – opened in  1928.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

In her mid-fifties, Adelaida opened her own restaurant which did well until the Great Depression hit and she was forced to close due to the terrible economy.  Each of her grown boys inspired by their mother’s own entrepreneurial spirit opened their own independent Mexican restaurants in different cities throughout Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana using the recipes that Adelaida made for them growing up.

Each of the sons, enamored with cooking just like their mom, quickly realized there was something missing from their independent ventures… family love and support. From the beginning, in the county fairground days, the Cuellar family was successful at the tamale and chili stand because they all worked together towards one common goal. But now the family was spread over many cities, and their restaurants couldn’t be as successful because they all weren’t working together.

This is one of the original porcelain neon signs from the first El Chico restaurant in Dallas. It’s now for sale on ebay here.

So in 1940, five of the brothers banded together to form one restaurant in Dallas, which they named El Chico. The entire family and extended family worked there together, each bringing their own unique talents.

Opening night of El Chico featured a Mariachi band to entertain the crowd. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Everyone who worked at the restaurant was fluent in Adelaida’s style of perfection when it came to selecting quality ingredients and blending the spice mixtures in the correct way, so the food was authentic and consistent, which kept customers coming back. And the Cuellar family was proud of what they were accomplishing.  At the heart of their restaurant lay the heart of Adelaida and all that she stood for.  Her children wanted to extend that same level of love and devotion with all who dined at El Chico.

A popular dining place indeed! This photo was taken in 1945. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Just like Adelaida’s chili and tamale stand, El Chico became phenomenally successful, making the Cuellar family and the El Chico brand one of the greatest American success stories. They went on to open more than 40 restaurants throughout the country, built a successful packaged food division for the retail market, and offered franchise opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. By the 1970s, they were the largest full-service Mexican food company in the world. They cooked for United States presidents at the White House, for princess Grace Kelly at her palace in Monaco and entertained movie stars like John Wayne in Dallas. The family stayed together through all these years and all this growth, never veering from what they knew – good food taught to them by Adelaida.

A Cuellar family portrait with Adelaida and Macurio in the front row center. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Adelaida passed away in 1969 at the age of 97, not before experiencing the overwhelming success of her family and seeing how her humble tamale and chili stand at the Kaufman County fairgrounds grew into a multi-million dollar corporation over the course of forty years. The Cuellar children credit both their mom and their dad with teaching them about the value of working hard (and quickly) toward their goals and the importance of taking chances.

In 1970, El Chico published a small, spiral bound cookbook of some of the family recipes that they used in the restaurant, along with some others collected from their travels. Hailed as one of the most authentic Tex-Mex cookbooks ever published, it’s now a hard-to-find treasure.  It is in fact, so special and represents such an importantand  integral part of the ethnic American food landscape, that it’s held in special collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. We are also very pleased to offer a copy in the kitchen shop. 

Since Cinco de Mayo is coming up this Saturday, on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, we thought it would fun to highlight two vintage recipes from the El Chico cookbook to ring in the festivities. A general crowdpleaser with a ton of creative toppings, these recipes are fun party foods so whether you are celebrating Mexico or Kentucky, or both this weekend, there will be something edible for everyone.

On the menu it’s El Chico’s Homemade Beef Burritos & Ranchera Sauce. Both are really easy to make. You’ll have the whole thing whipped up in under 30 minutes. Each recipe features fresh ingredients with generous amounts of spices, so you can skip buying the taco seasoning packages and the taco sauce at the grocery store. There’s plenty of flavor between the two recipes.  In addition to ground beef, you could also incorporate ground pork, turkey or chicken if you wanted to offer multiple variations.

What’s especially great about the Carne Mexicano recipe is that it includes vinegar which gives it a little bit of tang and de-greases the pan all at once so you don’t need a thickening agent like cornstarch or flour which is included in most commercial taco seasoning packets. As with many vintage recipes, we cut down the salt by 2/3rds, so we recommend starting with our measurement first and adding more to taste if you feel it needs it.

Carne Mexicano for Burritos

2 lbs. ground beef (we used grass-fed beef)

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt (we used only 2 teaspoons)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup chopped onion

In a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat brown the beef and onions until cooked through. Add the spices and cook for 1-2 more minutes. Add the vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Remove from heat and serve immediately or store mixture in a covered dish and keep warm until ready to serve.

El Chico’s Ranchero Sauce (A La Caballero)

2 cups fresh chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup chopped hot green peppers (we used serrano peppers)

2 tablespoons shortening (we used olive oil)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Saute the onions and peppers in shortening (or olive oil). When the onions are translucent add the tomatoes and simmer over a low fire for five minutes.  Serve it immediately or at room temperature.

Obviously, the hotter your peppers, the spicer your sauce is going to be. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of sauce so if you are cooking for a crowd you might want to double or triple the recipe. We used serrano peppers which were quite hot so a little bit spooned on top of your Carne Mexicano goes a long way!

There are so many topping options when it comes to burritos, so your creativity can really shine here based on your preferences.  El Chico suggested that their burritos include only cheese, refried beans, Carne Mexicana and the Ranchero Sauce. But we added a bunch of our favorite toppings too which included sour cream, spring lettuce, red onion, mango, tomato, cilantro, avocado and lime juice.  Other possibilities re guacamole, green olives, rice, etc etc. The sky is the limit. Can your burrito ever really have too much stuff?

Coming up tomorrow on the blog, we’ll be sharing our picks for the Kentucky Derby winner, as well as our table decorations for the Derby Party, which tie together both the Mexican theme and the horse theme. If you are planning a party for either event, we’d love to hear how you are celebrating.

In the meantime, cheers to Adelaida and the Cuellar family for sharing their long-time favorite family recipes with all of us. We will definitely be sending a toast their way on Saturday!

Explore more information about the El Chico cookbook here. And learn more about the restaurant chain, still in operation, here. 

We Have A Winner!

Cheers, cheers and CHEERS! We have a WINNER in our Paris themed giveaway contest. Congratulations to RoseOfSharon for winning a signed copy of the new novel, Paris Ever After, by one of Amazon’s bestselling authors K.S.R. Burns. A winning notification has been sent via email so please respond in order to claim your prize.

A big thank you to everyone who participated in this giveaway. We will have more coming up this summer, incorporating some different themes, so stay tuned! The fun is just beginning…

Cheers!