The Art of the Vintage Picnic

Happy August! As promised in the last post, here is the article written for Artisans List that highlights the beauty and joy of a vintage style picnic. We’ve got just six weeks left before Autumn officially starts, but rest assured that doesn’t mean that picnic season, as we most traditionally know it, is over. There are plenty of Fall foliage opportunities for all you Northerners intent on a day trip and a dine out in nature. If you happen to live in the Southern half of the hemisphere than lucky you – everyday is a good day for a picnic no matter what time of year. When we settle into the cooler months, I’ll also be featuring two outside of the box picnic ideas – the carpet picnic and the car picnic  – both which promise to hold as much fun as their summertime counterpart. So stayed tuned on that front. In the meantime, six full weeks of summer still await. From somewhere I can hear a basket calling your name…

Twentieth century foodie, gourmand and all around good cook, James Beard declared that “picnicking is one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life.” Indeed. No other dining experience seems quite so decadent. The fresh air, the natural setting, the creative food choices, the deliciously idle intentions. Picnics have a wonderful way of engaging all of our senses in such a fantastic way. It’s almost overwhelming.

Those first few moments at picnic’s start – when you are dizzy with the view and the weather and the notion of doing nothing but relaxing and reveling in food and friends – is satisfaction enough. But then a truckload of simple delights follow one right after another. There is that liberating sensation of kicking off shoes and wiggling bare toes in soft grass.  The crisp, snapping action of the picnic blanket as it unfurls from containment, joyfully sailing on the breeze before floating to the ground. There is the laying out of the carefully wrapped food parcels and the first sip of a celebratory toast. The giddy laughter, the bird songs, the sound of leafy trees dancing on the breeze… suddenly you are aware of the musical vitality of nature and yourself in it.

On a picnic, the world shines newly bright with details mostly overlooked in the hustle bustle routine of everyday life. It is an activity that encourages you to stop and to breathe and to melt – into your surroundings, into your friends, into the food that makes up your lunch or your dinner or your breakfast time snack. Yes, picnics are a triumphant and pleasurable experience. And there’s no better season for them then right now. In today’s post, we will be discussing the art of of the vintage picnic – how it came to be, how it shaped us, and why we still need to celebrate it now. Highlighting a handful of old, but still very relevant recipes, this post also offers suggestions on how to build your own vintage picnic experience so that you too can succumb to the relaxing style of outdoor eating that our ancestors favored so long ago. It’s history in a most delicious form, unveiled, just as we are about to round the corner towards the 4th of July, the most popular picnic holiday of the year.

This idea of eating outdoors from a basket on a blanket is no trend. It has been around for centuries and has taken eaters on a plethora of picturesque adventures. But it wasn’t always a simple act. At first, outdoor dining began in grand style. Lavish entertaining in lavish settings. In the 1700’s, there were the hunting after-parties which made glorious outdoor feasts of animals bagged from the day’s sport. Garden gatherings in the 1800’s involved fine china, silverware and fancy dress. Plein air luncheons in the early 1900’s focused on seasonal foods, artistic creativity and exquisite manners. Today, picnics involve technology fueled cooling mechanisms, compartmentalized backpacks and fitted amenities made for details and devices. Needless to say, the desire to picnic has never been lost, but the way we eat outdoors has evolved quite a bit over time.

Nowadays, anything goes when it comes to picnic style and presentation.  An impromptu paper bag lunch for two in a city park can be just as engaging as a thoughtfully prepared country basket for six. But just like any activity worth doing, there is a certain art form to a well produced picnic that makes for a more pleasurable experience. The vintage-style picnic favors china plates and real glassware, classic cocktails and linen napkins, and most importantly, homemade food. It is the sort of affair that wraps you up in a long, restful lazy day adventure fueled with time-honored tradition and attention to detail. It discourages anything fast or obtuse- like technology and frenzied time schedules and plastic utensils. It champions a slower, simpler and more relaxing rhythm. The type of experience that not only feeds your appetite but also your senses, your spirit and your sanity. Basically, a vintage-style picnic is a big, long break in your day meant for resting, relaxing and restoring through small details… the time-worn touch of an old plate, the taste of an heirloom recipe, the time-out of technology, and the tune in to your natural surroundings.

Legend loosely states that the word picnic stemmed from the French pique-nique which derives from the action of picking and selecting small spots or things. Originally, pique-niques were more like potlucks, in that all invited guests were asked to contribute a little food or drink for the group to share together. But it was England, in the 19th century, not France who created the picnic in the modern sense that we know it as today. Both a mealtime and a leisure activity, the English made picnicking a deliciously long-term and lengthy event that could last all day and well into the night if done right. They played games, read books, plucked instruments, talked, sang, painted, swam, flew kites, played sports and generally just all around enjoyed themselves while snacking on small plates of assorted foods from wicker hampers and baskets.

Monet’s painting, Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (Dinner on the Grass) was painted between 1865 and 1866.

In America, prior to the Civil War, there were no lackadaisical, carefree picnic outings. If any outdoor eating occurred before that time period, it was eating en masse – generally a large sociable event where whole communities of people turned out to enjoy a barbecue or a church social or a political rally. The Victorians ushered in more intimate, family-style picnic parties, rambling in close proximity to home, as their appreciation of nature and outdoor enthusiasm bloomed in the late 1800’s.  But the rise of the automobile, the building of the U.S. highway system, and the introduction of drive-up motor lodges and nationals parks all encouraged a whole new independence when it came to on-the-go eating as the 20th century began. Suddenly, the English style picnic took hold as Americans began exploring their more easy-to-navigate country. Economical, spontaneous and available to everyone, picnics naturally turned destinations into dining opportunities. All you needed was a basket, a blanket, a small collection of foodstuffs and an adventurous spirit. Outdoor eating euphoria had arrived!

A group of picnickers photographed in 1914 by Albert M. Price. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Back in earlier centuries, outdoor eating meant bountiful quantities and dramatic fare. Whole animals roasted over fire pits, multiple courses served by domestic staff, exotic ingredients, rich foods, elaborate presentation. But as outdoor dining began to evolve over time into smaller parties and simpler affairs, the food that accompanied it changed also. As serving staffs diminished and people became more independent, picnics and the baskets they represented, became simpler – filled with foods that could be easily made, easily transported and easily unpacked. By the time the mid-20th century rolled around, there was a definite type of picnic fare anticipated and defined by the activity. Fried chicken, salads and deviled eggs topped the favorites list, along with hot dogs, sandwiches, pies, cakes, bread and fruit.

The picnic basket spread out before you in this post highlights vintage recipes that capture that same essence of familiarity and practicality, while also providing a well-rounded balance of flavors and tastes. Vintage recipes include Sicilian-Style Marinated Olives, Oven-Fried Chicken, Deviled Eggs, Cheese Straws and Blueberry Tart. Americanos join the party as a refreshing aperitif to toast the season and the stars. 

Ranging from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, these recipes came from a handful of treasured vintage cookbooks. They pair gourmet creations from famous chefs like James Beard with regional favorites from lesser-known sources, like the ladies of the Junior League of Huntsville, Alabama. Covering all matters of taste from sweet to salty, savory to sour, they are considered traditional picnic foods, but each contains an unusual twist in the form of a cooking method or an ingredient pairing that makes them both interesting and innovative. Whether you make all of these recipes at once for your next outing or just focus on a dish or two to sample and try, you’ll discover that all of these options listed here are steeped in simplicity. Almost all of them can be made a day or two ahead of time, so that your restful day of picnicking doesn’t include you running around the kitchen like a crazed cook.  

And, just one more note before we get to the recipes. While food is obviously the main attraction in a picnic, the vintage-style picnic places just as much importance on the accessories that go along with it as well – a.k.a. the servingware.  While it is true that we may no longer entertain as formally as we did in centuries past, there is something lovely about incorporating some little niceties into your basket in the form of linen napkins, china plates and glass drinkware. These details add an elevated aesthetic to your picnic that reflects the elegant English versions of yesteryear, and really just makes for a nicer overall dining experience.  A cocktail enjoyed from a plastic cup or a homemade dessert pierced with a plastic fork is never quite the same experience as using real glass and real flatware. Even James Beard agreed about that point. “Skimp on all the other dishware if you have too – but never on the glassware for your cocktail,” he advised.

A few vintage items featured in this post are a handwoven picnic basket from the 1930’s, a matching set of W.H. Grindley hotelware salad plates made in England (also in the 1930’s) and a handful of embroidered vintage linens in various shapes and sizes. Vintage restaurantware dishes in general are a great choice for picnics because they are heavy duty and aren’t quite as fragile as delicate ceramic or porcelain dishes. Salad plates or bread and butter plates are also the perfect size for your small snack needs and aren’t as bulky to pack as dinner sized equivalents. Likewise, vintage tablecloths make ideal picnic blankets thanks to their soft fabrics (decades of washing and drying!), variety of sizes and nostalgic designs. As you build your vintage accessories collection, you’ll also notice that these elements have a fun way of engaging people in conversation too.  Each item in your basket expresses its own unique story.  When packing all these elements up I like to designate the sturdy picnic basket for fragile foods, a separate tote bag for the servingware and linens and an additional tote for drinks and ice. That way everything remains intact from the moment you leave your kitchen to the moment you arrive at your destination.

Americano (serves 1)

1 1/2 oz. Campari

1 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth

3 oz. Club Soda

Ice Cubes

Twist or Slice of lemon or orange for garnish

Add the Campari and vermouth to an old-fashioned glass. Add ice cubes and club soda. Stir to combine. Garnish with a slice or twist of lemon or orange.

Marinated Olives, Sicilian Style (from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, 1985)

1 pound Ligurian, Nicoise or Greek Olives  or a combination, drained

8 cloves garlic, cut lengthwise in half

Zest of 1/2 orange

Zest of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Combine olives, garlic, citrus, fennel and rosemary in a large bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice and oil. Marinate, stirring occasionally at room temperature at least 24 hours.

Deviled Eggs (from James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining Cookbook, 1965)

8 hard boiled eggs, shells removed

1 small tin boneless skinless sardines

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

Mayonnaise

Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half and remove the yolks to a small bowl. Mash yolks with sardines, onion and parsley. Blend with mayonnaise until you reach ideal consistency then fill each egg half. Chill in fridge until ready to pack into your picnic basket. These can be made up to 24 hours in advance.  * If you don’t have a portable egg carrier, disposable muffin tins make a great alternative.

Oven-Fried Chicken (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book , 1965 Souvenir Edition)

1 lb. chicken cutlets

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons Herbes de Provence

1/8 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

1/3 cup butter, melted but cooled to room temperature

6 cups corn flakes, crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, parsley and melted butter in a shallow dish and mix thoroughly. In a separate shallow dish add the crushed cornflakes. Dredge each piece of chicken on both sides in the butter mixture and then coat them on each side in the cornflakes. Place the prepared chicken on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until chicken is golden brown and crispy. *Note: This chicken recipe will loose its crunch factor the longer it sits. So if you are picnicking, this should be the last dish you make before packing the picnic basket and heading out the door. That being said, it’s still wonderful hours later or even the next day, but the corn flake coating will have a more breaded consistency rather than a crispy crunch.

Belle’s Star-Spangled Cheese Straws (from the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook, 1967 Edition)

1 lb. New York State sharp cheese (or any sharp cheddar), grated

3/4 cup butter

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper

smoked paprika for garnish

Leave both the cheese and the butter out overnight on the counter to soften. The next morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together (except the smoked paprika)  in a medium bowl by hand. Knead the dough until it turns into a consistency like play-doh. Form into a ball shape. On a lightly floured pastry cloth, roll the dough out firmly to 1/4 inch thickness with a wooden rolling pin. By pressing it into the cloth with the rolling pin, you’ll be able to smooth out any crumbly or wrinkly areas as you work. Using a small star shaped cookie cutter, cut out the stars and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden in color. Let stars cool on a rack and dust with smoked paprika just before serving.

Homemade Blueberry Tart (recipes adapted from the Smitten Kitchen and Martha Stewart)

For the tart shell:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

9 tablespoons very cold (or frozen) butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon together. Add the chopped butter pieces and blend with with a fork until the mixture resembles small bread crumbs in various sizes. Add the egg and mix until combined. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Butter a 9-inch tart pan (the kind with a removable bottom). Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth and roll out to a size big enough to accommodate an extra 1/2 inch of dough in diameter when placed in the tart pan. Add dough to pan, trim any excess dough beyond the extra 1/2″inch that hangs over the sides. Fold the remaining  1/2″ inch of dough back into the tart pan, so that you are re-enforcing the side walls with an extra layer of dough. Pierce crust all over (bottom and sides) with a fork. Place tart pan in freezer for at least 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from freezer and place directly in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tart shell turns a soft golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

For the blueberry filling:

6 cups fresh blueberries

2/3 cup cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups blueberries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let berries simmer, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes.

In a small bowl mix the flour with 4 tablespoons of water until smooth and then add to the blueberries in the pan. Next, add the lemon juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Let the mixture thicken for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 3 1/2 cups of blueberries. Immediately, add this hot blueberry mixture to the tart shell.

Sprinkle the remaining cup of fresh blueberries across the top of the hot mixture, gently pressing the berries down so that they stick into the hot mixture enough to bind them together. Place the tart in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or at most overnight.

Additional Picnic Companions

One of the joys of picnic fare is the ability to snack and nibble on little bits of food at whim throughout the day. Since the original pique-nique days, small has been the favored size and serving proportion. For that purpose, a wooden cutting board filled with fresh fruit, a sampling of cheeses, cured meats, fresh herbs and bread offer an infinite number of little edibles that can be combined in interesting ways with the food options listed above. From chicken baguette sandwiches to cheese and crackers to deviled egg wrapped prosciutto, variety runs the gamut. The picnic board here included rainier cherries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goat’s milk Gouda, cave-aged cheddar, blueberry Stilton, herb stuffed salami, thinly sliced prosciutto, Genoa salami, a bouquet of fresh herbs and a French baguette.

Finally, when bellies are full and appetites satisfied, the vintage-style picnic experience celebrates and salutes the pursuit of leisurely activities. There’s no rushing to clean up or clear out once you finish eating.  The whole, blissful idea behind a vintage-style picnic is to stay awhile and relax into yourself and your surroundings. One of my most favorite picnic activities is bird watching and tree scouting. I usually tote along a couple of species guides and a pair of binoculars, so that I can identify what’s flying over and growing up around me. Other fun activity suggestions (depending on your setting) include painting, sketching, walking, kite flying, playing cards, reading, talking, napping, swimming, collecting and just appreciating the people and places that share your afternoon. 

The world is a beautiful place. Time is a priceless gift. Eating is a ceremonial act. The art of the vintage picnic reminds us of that. Just as it has in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Wherever your picnic adventures take you this summer, I hope they are magical and delicious. Cheers to dining out in nature. Hope it is your best meal yet!

Gifts of Food: Generous James and His Rich Pastry Dough Recipe {circa 1965}

In 1965, when James Beard published his new cookbook, Menus for Entertaining, he had one thing in mind… generosity. Unlike his 14 cookbooks published previously, all of which taught readers how to prepare good food, this one focused on the largehearted act of cooking for other people.

A subtle change from his more tutorial-style instruction favored in earlier cookbooks, this one captured an idealized, ethereal expression of how to combine the art of being a good cook with the art of being a thoughtful host. Two concepts that, surprisingly, don’t always meet up in the race to put a good meal on the table.

There are lots of elements that can inspire one to cook. Maybe it’s a particular ingredient or a time constraint, a season or a health reason, the weather or a garden, a particular holiday or a memory, a special piece of cooking equipment or a celebratory event.  And there are lots of fundamental reasons  to prepare a meal: to satiate, to learn, to nourish, to educate, to create, to boast.  In James’ case, in this cookbook, his inspiration was people and his reason was gratitude.

“There is no greater reward than pleasing your audience,” James shares in the introduction. His cookbook was not only about preparing something delicious, it was also about spoiling his guests, about indulging the valuable time spent together, and about presenting a thoughtful, custom dining experience. Like a play or a live performance, this type of entertaining is a nuanced event. Something wrapped around food and friendship equally. To James it meant paying as much attention to what you were serving as to whom you were serving and why.

For example, if James wanted to throw a dinner party and wanted to include a certain guest whom he knew was on a diet, he would plan a light and low calorie menu for  the night, making sure that it didn’t skimp on flavor but was fully satisfying for everyone, dieters or not, without being calorie heavy.

Or if he had a friend who longed to travel to Germany but couldn’t afford the plane ticket, James would plan a whole dinner party around German foods from start to finish complete with music and wine and Bavarian-style decorations. By putting focus on this German lover’s interests, it was his thoughtful way of acknowledging, satiating and celebrating his friend’s wanderlust.

This idea of unselfishly cooking for other people in an effort to please them and care for them is a notion that really hit home these past dozen weeks while I’ve been away from the blog. I spent the time in Florida, in and and out of the hospital with my sick dad as he fought hard through infections and medical procedures, rehab and rest.  While I was there, I was overwhelmed by the love and support that people showed my family through gifts of food. From the vendor at the farmers market who tucked extra pastries into our packages, to neighbors who stocked the fridge with homemade meals, to family friends who stopped by with treats in their hands and empathy in their hearts, it was these thoughtful gestures of kindness that helped sustain and support our spirits during a daunting time. Like James suggests in his book, cooking is one of the kindest, most fundamental things that you can do for another person, so you might as well throw your heart into it and fill the effort with joy and passion.

On Friday over on Instagram, I posted a picture of this homemade pear tart which was made with the Rich Pastry Dough recipe from James’ 1965 cookbook.

This was a thank you food parcel too. A gift for my friend, Diane, who shared her vintage cookbook collection with me while she was packing up to move. Like James in 1965, and the wonderful people in Florida in 2019, I wanted to thank her for her kindness with a homemade dessert. One that could be easily kept and consumed over the weekend while she moved from one house to another.  I wanted to make something for her that could be eaten on the run for breakfast or enjoyed by slice or sliver late in the afternoon when the moving boxes might seem endless and energy levels might be in need of a boost. Either way, tarts are very accommodating in that department. They travel well in the car, can sit on the counter all day, and can be eaten, provincial style without any need for plates and forks.

This pear tart in particular, is also a good transition dessert between Winter and Spring, and the wonky weather that always seems to be sorting itself out in March as the temps fluctuate between hot and cold. Comforting cinnamon and in-season pears are nods toward Winter, while the thin buttery crust with flecks of lemon rind adds a light, fresh note for Springtime. Diane’s husband is also a collector of vintage French cookbooks, so it seemed fitting to make a classically French dessert, but with a slight James Beard twist for them. This crust includes egg yolks, lemon rind and lots of butter and the filling is a combination of Julia Child’s pear tart, James Beard’s apple tart and my sister’s homemade apricot jam. (Note: If you don’t have a jam-maker in your family, don’t worry.  Any good-quality, corn syrup-free store bought jam will work too.)

Whether you make this for yourself or as a gift for someone else in your life, I hope you enjoy every part of the process of making it and presenting it. That’s what James would have wanted and what he hoped for when creating his cookbook so many decades ago.

James Beard’s Rich Pastry Dough circa 1965

Makes 1 2 crust pie or 2 shells

2 cups unsifted flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup vegetable shortening ( I used butter)

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

2 raw egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Make a well in the center of the flour. Add sugar; butter, not too hard, not too soft, cut in small pieces; vegetable shortening cut in small pieces; lemon rind; eggs and salt. Work quickly with finger tips to make a smooth, firm pastry. Dough should form a ball and leave tabletop or bowl fairly clean. Chill dough ball in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before rolling.

Remove dough ball from fridge. Cut in half.  Roll out one half of the dough on a floured work surface.  Transfer rolled dough to tart tin and remove excess dough from  the sides. Using a fork prick the dough all over the bottom and sides. Chill unbaked tart shell in pan in the freezer for 2 hours.

After two hours, remove tart pan from freezer and place immediately in a hot 450 degree oven for 10 minutes to pre-bake. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack while you assemble the filling.

Pear Tart Filling

4 ripe pears

1/4 lb butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste preference)

1 splash of white wine

2 tablespoons cane sugar + 2 more tablespoons for sprinkling

1/8 teaspoon salt

A dash of nutmeg

Juice of half a lemon

Apricot Jam

Leaving the skins on, dice two of the pears into quarter inch pieces. Add them to a small saucepan along with the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, white wine, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar  and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated (forming a consistency close to thick and chunky applesauce). Remove from heat. Let cool.

While filling is cooling cut the remaining two pears in half. Then lay them cut side down on a cutting board  and carefully slice them vertically into paper-thin slices.

Spread the filling evenly into the pre-baked tart dough. Arrange the pear slices in a circular fashion on top of the filling. Squeeze lemon juice over the pear slices and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cane sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until pears and crust are lightly brown on top.

Remove from oven. Spread a thin layer of apricot jam over the entire tart and let cool to room temperature.

Last November, my husband and I traveled through Gearhart, OR where James Beard grew up, spent childhood summers and eventually after a long and hardy life,  became the final resting place for his ashes. We were hoping to see a glimpse of his life in town. Perhaps a restaurant named after him or his childhood house now a monument to visit. But there were no obvious signs. There was just a big stretch of beautiful ocean and the sound of the sea. Maybe that summed up his impact on the 20th century food scene best… a massive presence that still ripples through our modern days making us feel inspired, and impressed, soothed and comforted.

The beach between Astoria and Gearhart, OR

Cheers to James Beard, to good friends and to thoughtful food! Interested in learning more about James Beard? Discover a few of his cookbooks, including Menus for Entertaining,  in the shop here, here and here.

Sugar Spun Success: It’s the 1920’s, It’s Wilton and It’s the Winter Snowflake Cake!

Although it was invented technically in 1927, television didn’t make a widespread appearance in homes until the 1950’s. And cooking shows didn’t reach their heyday until the 1990’s. That means there was no Food Channel, no Great British Baking Show, no Martha Stewart. If you wanted expert instruction in the 1920’s on how to bake a festive looking cake for the holidays you basically had four options as far as guidance… your mom, your grandmother, your favorite cookbook or your favorite radio show…

Agnes White Tizard, the voice of Betty Crocker on Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air taught listeners how to cook for 20 years. Read more about her here.

Very reliable sources for sure, those options would have definitely produced a delicious, time-tested cake that everyone enjoyed, and had been enjoying for years and years. But none of those options would have been able to show you how to make something new and innovative. For that you would have had to go to Chicago – to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating, where you’d get expert hands-on-training on how to make the most pretty and modern cake of the holiday season.

Dewey McKinley Wilton

Started in 1929 by confectionery artist Dewey McKinley Wilton,  the Wilton School first taught classes to area pastry chefs in the hotel industry. Dewey had a special relationship with these guys in particular. As a traveling pulled sugar expert, Dewey would show up in hotel kitchens around the Midwest when the pastry chefs needed an extra bit of magnificence to wow their hotel guests.

An example of pulled sugar ribbons atop a modern day cake. This is the type of work Dewey did for area hotels in the 1920’s. Photo via pinterest.

Most of these pastry chefs were wonders themselves in the cake baking department, having been trained in Europe, and were very proficient with a frosting knife and lofty buttery layers. But they weren’t quite as familiar with Dewey’s flair for pulling sugar into hardened shapes and intricate designs.

A 1920’s pastry chef with confectionery creation. Photo courtesy of snackncake.com

Quite curious, they wanted to know about techniques, about processes, about possibilities. And most importantly, all these pastry chefs wanted to know how exactly a pot of boiling melted sugar could eventually turn into a big, brilliant ribbon or a bird or a crunchy piece of abstract art. Dewey was more than happy to share what he knew, but after so many pastry chefs in so many hotels kept asking so many of the same questions over and over again, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

Instead of telling each chef, one by one, how pulled sugar was done, he realized he needed to be teaching one class geared towards many minds.  So that’s what he did. He started the Wilton School of Cake Decorating in the dining room of his house in 1929 and charged $25 a class for an expert lesson on how to pull sugar and make hard candies. The class filled up in a jiffy. Nothing excites a pastry chef more than a newfangled way to decorate a sweet treat, and in all that sugary merry making of the new School there was plenty of learning going on.  While Dewey was teaching his students, he was also learning about their classical European ways to bake, frost and assemble cakes in eye-catching ways.

An image from the early years of the Wilton School of Cake Decorating.

Soon word spread beyond the pastry chef community. The school was fun and informative and produced the most spectacular and delicious cakes the Midwest had ever experienced. People started arriving for instruction from other towns beyond Chicago, and then other states beyond Illinois. Home cooks, caterers, food economists and restaurant owners were clamoring to learn Dewey’s special way with cakes – a method he wound up calling the Wilton Way – which combined the best parts of European baking with simple easy-to-replicate American designs.

Now getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in a few short years, The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art still remains a bustling educational center for all baking aficionados.  Determined to create interesting and engaging art through butter and suagr, Dewey and his following generations grew the business into not only a school, but also a food product and accessories line that can be found in most grocery stores around the country today as well as on their website. They even offer online classes for those who can’t make the trip to Illinois to join the fun in person.

That’s a pretty remarkable career for any business, let alone one in the baking industry where it can be difficult to remain innovative and approachable at the same time. Thanks to Dewey’s Wilton Way  and his easily accessible method, he helped dispel the myth that cake decorating was an intimidating, complicated art meant for only a certain type of person.  Thousands of accomplished students have graduated from the Wilton program since its inception, many continuing on with successful careers in the baking industry.

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, I was introduced to the Wilton Way through this book…

a 1991 reprint of their 1979 cake decorating book. It is full of attractive cakes, some vibrant with retro charm, others timeless and elegant…

Laid out like coursework, it teaches readers progressively in master class style. Meaning that if you start at the very beginning, and work your way through each chapter, by the end of the book you’ll have amassed so much skill you’ll be able to confidently tackle the baking and decorating of a multi-tiered wedding cake festooned with  a bevy of frothy details.

This past week, I endeavored to make their Winter Snowflake Cake – a pale green pastel beauty that consisted of two layers and frosted snowflakes…

This was my first foray into cake decorating with an intentional design, multiple frostings and more than one piping project, so it was a fun adventure, but it definitely didn’t go quite as planned. The Wilton’s are fast to reassure in their book, saying that the best way to make a perfect cake is to practice, practice, practice. I fast forwarded through the beginning chapters and went straight to this cake. That being said, here’s my finished version…

You’ll notice it is missing some elements from the original cake – most noticeably the side snowflakes. I’ll explain how they went awry further down in the post. I’m also sharing the recipes, as I go along too, in case you want to take yourself to school and experiment with making your own vintage snowflake cake this winter as well.

One funny thing about this cake decorating book in particular is that it’s all about cake decorating and only cake decorating, which means that you have to gather a recipe in order to bake the actual layer cake part from another source. I used Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake recipe which turned out great because it baked flat and even on all sides – characteristics you definitely want when making a multiple layer cake.

Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake 1 

(makes two 9.5″ inch round cakes)

8 ounces unsalted butter

3 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350. Butter cake pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess flour.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until pale (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again.  Add flour mixture in three batches alternating between each batch with two batches of milk. Stir until evenly combined.

Distribute batter evenly between cake pans (this is about 3 1/4 cups of batter per pan).

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert cake layers and remove cake from pan. Let cool on wire rack completely then wrap each cake in wax paper and then plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you are ready to frost.

There are two types of frosting used for this cake. A pale green buttercream and a bright white royal icing. Both icing recipes are from the Wilton School and are easy to use. They both include a curious ingredient called meringue powder (made by Wilton!) which can be found in the baking section of your grocery or online.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as meringue powder before this project,  but basically it is an egg-white substitute used in place of whipping up fresh eggs. Normally, I’m not a fan of substitute convenience products but since this was the first time I was making this cake I wanted to use the products they recommended. Next time, I’ll try to make my own meringue using fresh eggs. Now it’s onto the frosting…

Snow-white Buttercream

(makes 8 cups)

2/3 cup water

4 tablespoons meringue powder

11 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 1/4 cups butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2-3 drops green food coloring

In a large mixing bowl, combine water and meringue powder and whip at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Alternately, add butter and remainder of sugar. Add salt and vanilla and beat at low speed until smooth. Add food coloring one drop at a time, (a little goes a long way!) mixing thoroughly between drops until a desired shade is achieved. The color will deepen as the icing ages, so keep that in mind when adding drops.

Special note: This  recipe makes enough frosting for one two layer cake  including top, sides and  filling between layers, plus a little extra. Leftover frosting can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for several weeks.

Next, I set to work frosting the top of the first layer and then the top and sides of the next layer…

When it was all sufficiently frosted, I cleaned the frosting knife and then gently scraped it as evenly as possibly around the sides of the cake to create a smooth texture.That same treatment was repeated on top of the cake too so that it maintained a flat and level surface. At this stage, I learned a fun little trick. A little drop of water helps to smooth icing out – so round I went once more on the sides with a wet frosting knife. Then the cake was set aside so that the icing could harden (or “crust” as Wilton described it). Next on the schedule was making the icing for the snowflakes…

Meringue Royal Icing

(makes 3 1/2 cups)

3 level tablespoons meringue powder

1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

3 1/2 oz. warm water

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine all ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl. At first, mix slowly with an electric mixer then increase the speed to medium and mix for 7-10 minutes.

Things is where things got a little bit tricky. While the snowflake icing is super easy to make,  the method used to make the snowflakes is really difficult. It involved piping icing onto wax paper…

letting each snowflake dry for an hour…

re-piping each one again (aka over-piping), letting it dry for another hour…

and then carefully removing each snowflake from the wax paper and adhering them to the cake one by one. In theory, this sounds simple enough, but each snowflake was very tricky to remove without them doing this…

After many attempts and many hours, I abandoned this method of snowflake making altogether. Evidently I need more practice in this department! Instead, I just carried on and piped the large snowflake directly on top of the cake, freehand style, and left the sides bare.

Finally, this winter snowflake cake was trimmed on top and bottom with little snowballs. Wilton recommended using two-different sized pastry tubes #3 and #6 for this task, but I just used just one ziploc bag and it worked great.

And that was how this vintage snowflake cake came to be. It definitely isn’t a perfect cake compared to Wilton standards, but it was a whole lot of fun to make and has me thinking about future designs once I practice, practice, practice as Wilton often recommends.

Have you guys ever decorated cakes like this before? If you have any tips or techniques or adventure stories of your own confectionery creations, please share them in the comments section below. It will be fun to help propel the educational portion of this post, so that we can all learn together. And most definitely, if you embark on this winter snowflake baking project, please let us know how it all tuned out in your kitchen.

In the meantime, learn more about the wonderful world of Wilton and their inspiring vintage cake decorating book  here.  Several other shop items also made an appearance in this post’s photos as well… find the 1960’s era glass cake stand here, the 1920’s silver plate water pitcher here, and the vintage embroidered tea towel here.

Hope your weekend is as sweet as buttercream and as lofty as a layer cake! Cheers!

 

The Cake That Fed An Entire Town: {Part One} On Election Day in 1700’s America

Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.

The first American cookbook was written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796. Her second edition of this cookbook, published two years later in 1798, features the first published recipe for Election Cake.

Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially).  It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.

Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings,  it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority.  I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way,  but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.

An election cake recipe from 1889 by Ellen Wadsworth Johnson. Photo courtesy of connecticuthistory.org

The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.

The 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook originally published in 1898.

For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.

The bulk of this project lies in waiting for the dough rise (six hours!).

A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen?  Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…

 

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!

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.

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.