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!

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!

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. 

Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

Katharine’s Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread: From the Kitchen of the Hepburn Household

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know what big fans we are of Katharine Hepburn.  Last Fall, we made her famous Lace Cookies. The ones that were in constant request at both her city house and her country house, so much so, that extra batches were kept on hand either freshly baked or on standby in the freezer. Was Katharine always the one baking away? Sometimes. But mostly it was Norah, Katharine’s longtime personal cook, domestic helper and treasured friend.

Norah Considine. Photo from the book At Home With Kate.

Norah Considine worked for Kate for 30 years, day in and day out, making the kind of food that Katharine loved best – simple, hearty and well-balanced. Sometimes though Norah would sneak-in her own recipes, a combination of food from her Irish heritage and dishes that she made up on the fly to feed her five kids. With guests continuously coming and going from the Turtle Bay city townhouse and from Fenwick, the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut, mealtimes were always eventful and Norah was always up to the task to make them as delicious as possble. Cooking for everyone with equal aplomb, making meals that were thoughtfully prepared and proven to please, Norah was accustomed to feeding an ever-evolving crowd that ranged from household staff to famous celebrities. In turn, she became a little bit famous herself, with returning guests regularly requesting her rum cake, or her beef stew, or her creamed chipped beef on toast.

Katharine Hepburn’s townhouse in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of NYC

Even though Kate liked to run a tight ship, she was generous with her friends and her staff. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, Kate would leave New York City and head to Fenwick, so that Norah could have the townhouse to herself to entertain her friends and family for St. Patrick’s Day. This party was no small gathering, sometimes counting over 100 people or more.  But no matter what the attendance numbers were, large or small,  Kate always wanted Norah to be the star of the show for her special event, so she’d graciously leave in order to give Norah the run of the place.

For a change, Norah would cook for herself and her friends, and she would relax into the traditional celebrations of her heritage day.  At these parties, you didn’t always know who was going to be attending – friends and family flew in, drove in and walked over from all corners of the city, the country, and the world. There were homemade costumes and contests, musicians and dancers and tables full of traditional food and drinks. One of the edibles Norah always made for these parties was her cousin’s Irish Soda Bread, a recipe that traveled all the way from Ireland.

This was the soda bread recipe that was legendary in Norah’s family and in Katharine’s house. It has fed hundreds of people throughout hundreds of parties and like, Kate’s Lace Cookies, it represents wonderful memories and extraordinary experiences.  Not bad for a humble bread born out of lean economic times.  With a consistency somewhere between a fluffy cake and a crumbly cornbread, Norah’s cousin’s Irish Soda Bread is a decadent little treat both sweet and hearty in a satisfyingly nourishing way. One slice makes you understand how it fortified a country for two and half centuries.

Although technically, not really Irish in origin (the Native Americans were the first to come up with the general idea), Ireland has been proclaiming soda bread a national staple since the 1830’s. Because it contains no yeast, an expensive ingredient in times past, soda bread gets its bulk from baking soda which chemically raises the dough when combined with flour and any acidic property like sour milk, buttermilk, or in Norah’s case, sour cream.  Some people even add a touch of orange juice or lemon rind to their soda bread for an extra dose of certainty that the chemical reaction will yield a tall and fluffy loaf.

That are lots of variations on the traditional soda bread recipe, but Norah’s is interesting because it includes caraway seeds and sour cream and just a little bit more butter. Super fast and easy to put together, this recipe only takes about 15 minutes to prepare and bakes to a crunchy, golden brown within an hour. Norah recommended enjoying it warm, just minutes out of the oven, or if you want to wait a bit,  let it cool to room temperature and toast it with a little butter right before you are ready to serve it. The one drawback of Irish soda bread is that it dries out quickly – so if you are not going to serve it the day you make it, then it is best to freeze it and reheat it when the occasion arises.

Not as hard as biscotti and not as dense as cornbread, Irish soda bread lands somewhere in the middle as far as form. It pairs beautifully with any salty meat like ham, sausage or brisket for a savory-sweet combo, and would be marvelous with a soft creamy-textured cheese like Brie or goat cheese.  In an adventurous mood, we might even top a toasted slice with cream cheese and bacon and kale for an interesting brunch option or serve it alongside baked apples or a chopped salad of pear and fig.  In the next couple of months, we’ll be experimenting with Norah’s soda bread recipe, trying out some different food pairings. Once we’ve determined our favorites, we’ll post them here on the blog.

In the meantime, we encourage you to try this delicious holiday bread and look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread

4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups raisins

4 teaspoons caraway seeds

4 eggs

1 pint sour cream (2 cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 sticks, salted butter, plus more for pan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, raisins and caraway seeds.

Roughly chop the butter into the flour mixture and combine to the point that the mixture looks like coarse meal. You can do this with the tines of a fork, a wooden spoon or your own two hands. Set aside.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream, eggs and baking soda.

Mix well and then slowly add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients…

Mix until combined and until the bread is no longer sticky. You might need to add as much as 1/4 cup extra flour to this process, but be careful not to overmix the dough.

Ideally, you want the dough to be just smooth enough so that you can pick up in your fingers and transfer it to a lightly floured cutting board without it sticking to your hands.

On the board, shape the dough and then transfer it to a greased 2-quart baking pan. Keep in mind – the dough expands to fit its baking container and then rises – so if are using something other than a 2-quart dish – just be aware that it will grow in size.

Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing from the pan and slicing.

However you choose to spend St. Patrick’s Day, whether it be at a big house party like Norah’s, or at a simple celebratory supper for a few (much more Kate Hepburn style) we hope you have a wonderful holiday full of good food, good friends, and good spirits!

Cheers to Kate and to Norah and to Norah’s cousin, whose family recipe has traveled across countries and continents and kitchens and time. Happy St. Patrick’s Day with much love from In The Vintage Kitchen.

That’s Norah (wearing the polka dot blouse) in the midst of her St. Patrick’s Day merrymaking.

Gender Discrimination in the 1940’s: Why a Correspondent Turned From War to Cookbooks

Betty Wason (1912-2001)

In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event.  She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen.  She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.

And that affected everything.

Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by.  One of those rules concerned women. Women  simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air.  It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air.  This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.

Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide.  As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.

Vintage 1930’s travel posters to Czechoslovakia show the beauty and attraction of foreign travel. This was one of the countries Betty would visit and report from.

Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on,  so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.

Betty’s contact at  CBS was Paul White who was in charge of news broadcasting.

There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.

A 1940’s radio

Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis.  But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch).  It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.

Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.

Winston went on to have a lengthy career as a broadcast journalist at CBS. In 1955, he admitted to being a communist spy during the 1930s and 1940s when Betty worked with him.

Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”

Betty Wason in Greece. She made her own uniform to appear more professional since there was no dress code for correspondents. Photo courtesy of Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism.

As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.

Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.

After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing.  Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life.  Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.

A sampling of Betty’s cookbooks published from the 1950’s-1980’s

Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking…  Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places.  That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…

How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)

In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.

 

If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail.  In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.

Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks.  In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season,  it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.

Betty Wason’s recipe for Spanakopeta, A Greek version of Spinach Pie

It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too.  It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.

Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA

Serves 6

12 phyllo pastry sheets

2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)

1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Salt to taste (optional)

2 eggs

1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)

1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…

At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.

Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.

Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.

Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.

Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.

Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.

Ready for the oven!

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,

then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).

Back into the oven!

Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts,  prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.

Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.

It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.

Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

The Pineapple, The Sea Captain and How A Legend Began…

Sailors are known for their stories. You’d be hard-pressed to go to any ocean-enthusiasts house and not hear a tale of the extraordinary fish caught, or the summer storm turned sour or the port city that lured like a siren song.  But did you ever hear the story about the pineapple? The one that tells how it became one of the most iconic symbols in the world? Today in the Vintage Kitchen, we’ve got a legend on the table.

There are a few versions surrounding the pineapple and how it became known as the universal symbol of hospitality. Some stories claim it was a gift of peace offered to foreign explorers by local Caribbean tribes.  Other stories state it was a sought-after souvenir traded around South America until it eventually was welcomed in Europe for experimental gardening. Another explains that it was a status symbol of the very rich and the very royal who used it as a party decoration to signify the extent of their wealth, visually reinforcing the fact that they could indeed offer the best of everything to their guests, no matter what the cost. But our favorite version in the Vintage Kitchen, of how the pineapple came to be a hospitality icon, is the one that dates to the 1700’s in the time of the sea captains.

That legend states that merchant trading ships like this…

A Chesapeake Bay style sloop was a common merchant ship traveling between the West Indies and the Eastern Atlantic coast.

carried cargo (mainly sugar, tobacco, rum, and molasses) back from the Caribbean islands to various ports in New England. Included in their bounty was the exotic tropical pineapple, a fruit so unusual in its beauty, so incredible in its sweetness and so valuable in its price, it was treated delicately just like its most precious counterpart, sugar.

When the ship was back in port and safely unpacked, the captain would return home to his New England house with a pineapple in hand.  He would spear this fruit on the front garden gate to signify to friends and neighbors that he had returned from his ocean voyage and was ready to entertain visitors with good stories and good food.

The centuries-old houses of Kennebunkport, Maine where many a sea captain lived.

With just the right amount of whimsy and practicality, it is not hard to see how such a story and such an action could have spread throughout the village, and then the state, and then the coastline, so that within time, hundreds of garden gates across many states were bearing pineapples – a symbol of friendly invitation, warm welcome and kind generosity.

Pineapple gates in Odessa, DE

No one yet has accurately been able to authenticate the first-time connection between pineapples and hospitality, but this sea captain story may help explain why you’ll find pineapples incorporated into outdoor architectural details all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida.

Appearing in gardens both ancient and new…

Permanent pineapples in the garden.

…history tells of America’s long-standing love affair with this hospitable fruit.  You’ll see it on the front doors of old houses like this one…

The historic Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island built in 1748.

 

There’s the pineapple above the door, welcoming all who enter.

and this one…

Virginia’s Shirley Plantation, completed in 1738, which boasts a three-foot tall pineapple in the middle of the roofline…

and in the decorative details of brand new, modern days houses…

Pineapple themed door knockers, welcome signs, doorbells, and house number plaques announce an age-old symbol on brand-new exteriors.

You’ll also find them indoors…

Most often as finials front entry staircases…

blending classic and traditional elements from past centuries to the present century…

Pineapples in all modern ways useful… ice bucket, lamp,bookends, flower vase.

Last week we added a new vintage pineapple to the shop…

This one was neither a finial nor an exterior facade detail but instead at one point in its life had adorned the top of a fountain.  The fountain wasn’t as big as Charleston’s famous Waterfront Park pineapple…

Waterfront Park, Charleston SC

but she is an ideal size for many design possibilities including lighting, decoration, and display.  And she carries forth the sea captain’s theme of good stories and good food in a most beautiful way.

Even though we might never be able to uncover where and how the pineapple became involved with the convivial idea of good hospitality, we still love the idea of one fruit bringing together three centuries worth of parties and people. Critics would say that the sea captain story is flawed because pineapples were expensive and traders wouldn’t put a small fortune out in plain view for anyone to steal. But hospitality is about extending and offering, not squandering and hiding, so clearly, the argument could go either way.

If you a were a sailor in the 1700’s, at sea for long stretches of time, with life and death equally close at hand, perhaps you needed a little frivolity upon returning home to family and friends and the pineapple provided just that. A simple yet beautiful billboard. One that symbolized rich with life lived instead of rich with monetary wealth.

Cheers to the legends that stick around and to the fruits that travel through time!

Channel your own inner sea captain and set the stage for your next nights of entertainment. Find the vintage fountain topper pineapple piece in the shop here!