Tasty Tales of Stillwater History Through Recipe Cards
Story provided by Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Director Amelia Chamberlain
Getting ready to cook a recipe isn’t quite what it used to be. Instead of opening a recipe box and pulling out a well-worn recipe card, most of us are more likely to pull out a mobile device or recipe we’ve printed from online. Even so, people continue to associate handwritten 3-by-5 index cards with recipes, particularly those that are treasured. For centuries recipes were handed down orally, but as literacy spread, so did written recipes. These written recipes were not particularly detailed partly because the instructions weren’t meant to teach anything new; they were meant to jog the memory as the person preparing the recipe would have likely made it alongside a mother or grandmother.
The written recipe really owes its start to the rise of women’s magazines in the early 20th century. Nutrition science was quite a fad, and magazines, eager to participate and sell subscriptions, printed recipes on heavy cards branded with the magazine’s logo—quite popular in the 1930s and 40s. Once the written recipe format was established, women began to create their own recipe cards. Notes could be made right on the card as to changes the cook found desirable.
Today recipe cards are a way to remember – both the recipe itself and the memories of cooking it, sharing it, and eating it with loved ones. “The idea of the recipe card was that you were building a treasury of your knowledge,” said Amy Bentley, associate professor of food studies at New York University.
“The ritual of keeping recipe cards seems to be rooted in the same impulse that makes us keep shelves of books we’ve already read and snap photos of every vacation we take: we like to remind and reassure ourselves of that which we already know,” says Sandra Oliver, former publisher of Food History News.
Tucked inside family recipe boxes one might find photos and notes and other mementos from life. There is evidence of the box’s owner and of its frequent use. Cards may be spattered with grease stains and marked with thumbprints. For recipe boxes that have been kept for years, it is possible to see the passage of time as the handwriting became a little less readable between the first written recipe card and the last. The box records a family’s traditions in 3-by-5-inch index cards.
Staff at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar are using the current downtime to refresh current long-term exhibits, organize files, and sort through back storage areas and collections. The director, having started work at the Sheerar just this past September, continues to get acquainted with the Museum’s artifacts. One project has been to create a 1940s kitchen. In a back storage area, a hoosier cabinet and kitchen cupboard were uncovered. After some cleaning and a few repairs, these items became the core of the new kitchen exhibit. The canned Orange Blossom tomatoes—an early orange variety of tomato developed by 163 OSU horticultural graduate J. Brent Loy—were relocated from the shelves of the agriculture exhibit to brighten the 1940s kitchen cupboard. We are currently exploring and making selections of the many kitchen items that are part of the Museum’s collection. One “found” item was a metal, painted recipe box chock full of index cards—both handwritten and typed. As sometimes happens with the objects that come into the Museum, there is no documentation about whose recipe box it is; however, there are many clues of history to be found inside the box as well as family traditions, cultural food practices, names of members in women’s groups, and more.
The recipe box has many stories to tell—as well as recipes to prepare! Upon opening the box, there did not seem to be any order in which the cards were placed. At the back of the file were cards that could have been used to sort the recipes by category, but were unused. Some of the recipe cards are handwritten; some typed; some clipped from newspapers or magazines. Some of the cards are on regular 3-by-5 index cards; others are on cards designed and printed specifically for recipes. The recipes appear to be from the time period of about WWII up to the 1970s.
One group of typewritten recipe cards chronicles a get-together of the BU PEO Women’s Club of Stillwater that took place in the Kamm home. One of the cards reads, “Tasting Dinner, October 19, 1967 . . . . Maxine Kamm”. A small selection of the recipes follows; each one is identified with an individual with connections to Stillwater.
Lemon Jello Salad was prepared by Nell Lieu Totusek. Totusek received her associate’s degree at Oklahoma A&M College and married her high school sweetheart, Bob Totusek. She was active in numerous civic and community organizations and those supporting the Animal Sciences Department at Oklahoma State University. When her childhood neighbor Henry Bellmon ran for Governor, Nell was an enthusiastic “Bellman Belle” supporter.
Liz Shindell offered Hot Chicken Salad. Shindell received her B.S. degree in Home Economics from Oklahoma State University. During her 15 years in Stillwater, she served as rush advisor to the Tau Beta Chapter of the Chi Omega Fraternity and was a member and president of the Stillwater Board of Education. Liz also served as a Den Mother, Brownie Mother, Girl Scout Leader, PTA supporter, and Home Room Mother.
Chicken Almond Casserole was provided by Ines McCrary. Ines Abbott McCrary was known for her mastery of presenting elegant tea tables and for her pansy gardens. Her parents operated the Abbott Theater in town. She has the distinction of being one of the first youngsters to enter the newly-formed nursery school through the school of economics at Oklahoma A&M College in 1924. She and her husband Jack operated International Tours of Stillwater for 25 years.
A recipe for Rolls came from Olivebel Parrott. On the card, she notes: “This card was given to me at a shower over 30 years ago, and I’ve made them often and had only one failure. Was making rolls for a Church dinner and forgot to put in the yeast.” Olivebel Hinchey was married to Glenn W. Parrott of Shawnee. Their daughter Martha Winn was born in Shawnee; Olivebel is buried in Chandler.
Marguerite Grimsley provided Hello Dollys for dessert. Grimsley began teaching third grade at the grade school she attended in Frederick, Oklahoma, in 1932. In 1934, she went to summer school at Oklahoma A&M College where she met Stillwater businessman Norman Grimsley. They were married and made their home in Stillwater. Marguerite received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from OSU and continued her teaching career in elementary schools in Stillwater, winning several awards. She was active in educational organizations at the local, state, and national levels.
Maxine Kamm won the Blue Ribbon at the PEO Tasting Dinner for the best recipe that evening for her Maryland Club Coffee, Gold Spot Cream, and C&H Sugar. Maxine Moen Kamm was the wife of former Oklahoma State University President Robert B. Kamm (1966-1977). An accomplished pianist, she was active in several civic organizations. Among their many achievements, the Kamms endowed a graduate fellowship in Higher Education & Student Affairs.
Other recipes found in the box include two salads, Oriental and Vegetable, from Katherine Tompkins McCollom who graduated from OSU with a bachelor’s in education and later a master’s degree. She taught freshman English at OSU in the 1940s. Katherine and her husband Robert left Stillwater for a while, returning in 1964 and Katherine worked as a counselor in the College of Arts & Sciences for a number of years. The McColloms were strong supporters of the OSU Emeriti Association, supporting it with substantial gifts. Katherine was also involved in a number of local community groups, including the Stillwater Public Library.
Several recipes from Molly Sheerar were also found, among them Raspberry Salad, Refrigerator Bran Rolls, and Lobster or Chicken Au Gratin. Molly and her husband Leonard made the Sheerar Museum possible through their numerous donations—of both funds and artifacts.
A recipe card entitled, “Kamm’s Home Cookin’ Vegetable Beef Soup” has Maxine Kamm’s signature and promotes Bob Kamm’s election to the U.S. Senate.
A newspaper clipping tells about Mrs. Katherine C. Woods winning Kamp Grocery’s September Recipe Contest for her “Asbestos” Salad (probably an “aspic” salad!). She won a complimentary dinner for two at the Red Eagle Restaurant. Mrs. Woods stated that she was first served the recipe at a resort in Arkansas.
A clipping from a magazine provides a recipe for Walnut Applesauce Cake. The front of the clipping says to “Send a Share to Your Men in the Service” and encourages that the cake be packed in popcorn inside a small box inside a shoebox. “The popcorn is not only good to eat but also acts as a shock-absorber.” On the reverse side of the clipping, one can partially read another article requesting that people only make one trip to the store each week and to shop early in the week during light shopping hours to make it easier for grocers who were suffering a shortage of labor. This World War II advice sounds familiar!
Another recipe with an unusual name is something that was a family tradition for many: Copper Carrot Pennies.
While the recipe for Frozen Daiquiris and a salt substitute might be expected in a recipe box, others seemed out of place: suet mixture for cardinals and mockingbirds, furniture polish, and Dr. Block’s recipes for cough syrup (one contains whiskey). The name “Mary Smith” was found on many of the recipe cards—was this box hers or was she a relative of the box owner? Perhaps in time, the mystery will be solved. A fascinating trip into Stillwater’s past—all by way of recipe cards.