The Evanston Community Kitchen

A food memoir about women in the kitchen and history in the making. Food = Story.


Juney, Mom, and Me (and Shaggy — the Pekingese)

This is a photo of Juney, my grandma holding me. My mom, BA as in Betty Anne is sitting next to her.  Our Pekingese, Shaggy is on my mom’s lap. Shaggy bit me under my nose when I was a young child.  He had a sensitive spot and if touched, he would bite. Otherwise, he was about as Zen as they come. My sister and I would put him on top of our collie (like cowboy in saddle) to provoke him into movement. Shaggy was like a monk — quiet and spiritual.  He was a kind dog.

I wish I could go back in time and ask my grandma all the questions I have for her now.

What was it like to go to Cuba in the 1930s?

Tell me about Speakeasies?  Did you go without telling Granny Dell?

I can hear her answer that one … “Of course, I didn’t tell Mother! I wouldn’t dream of it. Harriet and I used to sneak out. We were very clever like that  Mother was a a member of the WCTM (Women’s Christian Temperance Union).”

I have my little notepad and write her messages to keep a diary and include it ALL. Grandma was a humble woman and very private. She was equally fascinating and is certainly the main character of this memoir.

Grandma and me

Grandma and me

Juney’s story of her past as a gourmet executive chef and business woman didn’t matter at this moment in the photo. What mattered most to her was she was a grandma — she was Grandma. That was the role she loved the most.

The German Shepard there is Penny. Mom got rid of her because she bit us.  There was no reason to it.  Shaggy got the pass because of the Pekingese temperament.  Every Pekingese has a sensitive spot. Mom got rid of Penny when she snapped at us when we were kids. I wish I could call Mom up right now and muse a bit about Penny and get the exact reason.  My mind wanders and wants to know, “Did Penny bite us?  Or did she just snap at us?”

Funny, what we can get stuck on.  I have a deep desire to know every exact truth about my grandma, mom, and great-grandmother, but I can’t really. We are private creatures as humans and most people (besides journalers and writers, don’t share those private moments and thoughts in our heads).

But I am on a quest to find the truth of my Elizabeths — Elizabeth Odell (great-grandmother — Granny “Dell”), Elizabeth Odell Welch (grandma —  “Juney”), Elizabeth Welch Miller (Mom — “BA,” “Betty Anne,”  “Betty”) and me (Megan Elizabeth Miller Oteri, memomuse).

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Geeking Out Foodie Style

I geeked out last night organizing my Trapper Keepers (I am an 80’s child so they will always be Trapper Keepers to me). I bought three binders, the largest I could find. I bought divider tabs, folder divider tabs, plastic protective sleeves, index cards, and just about every organization tool I could get my hands on. I do have a lot of information to process and synthesize. At times, I have been frustrated that this project is taking so long, but I always have to come back to the fact that the story has to simmer. It takes time. This is brown rice people. It is worth the hour on the stove.

But when it flows, it flows. I have surges (and because I am a mom to young child, these surges usually take place at night). And last night, I only meant to clean off my desk that had open binders, sticky notes, index cards, pencil shavings, books, and a sea of other historic time period items.  I have a book that contains material from 1921 and it is so delicate that when I open the book, scraps of paper flurry onto my desk. I received it through an inter-library loan. I have a helper I have enlisted at the local library. His name is David and he has helped me gather many newspaper articles and books through inter-library loan requests. He has been so helpful that he will surely make the acknowledgement page.

“I had already done a lot of research for Rough Riders, keeping notebooks and old photographs. Some of the books were antiques for that time period, with the covers falling off.” – Tom Berenger 

It feels like I am living in the early 20th century as I am so deep in the research as my focus (and obsession) has been the Community Kitchen.

My husband said the other day, “I appreciate your passion and enthusiasm, but I am Community Kitchened out.”  Oh my, I thought, even my husband has had enough of this story. But you see, I will never have enough of it until it is written and bound in a book. It fascinates me. It takes me on jaunts and journeys to 1880 Spokane, where my great-grandmother was a teacher. Then I hop on a steam train with my great-grandfather heading West to Spokane from C armargo, Illinois. It take me to 1906 Texas where my great-aunt Harriet and grandma are dressed in Mother Hubbards — a red one for Juney and a blue one for Harriet, where they help their grandmother churn the butter.

Image Source: http://www.mamalisa.com

Image Source: www.mamalisa.com

It takes me to 1926 New York City where my grandmother is the manager at one of Alice Foote MacDougall’s tea rooms. It takes me to 1943 Smith College where Mary Liz can’t come home for her Granny Dell’s funeral because of the war. You see, The Community Kitchen is my stage coach back in time. My 1920 Ford. It is my ticket to see my family’s shows and acts. I love it. I can’t get enough of it.

The story of the Community Kitchen, which evolved from an Evanston Woman’s Club food conservation committee in 1918, has so many other stories embedded in the tapestry of American history and family history. There are recipes, stories, and love surrounding this tale. And I am a happy chef in my kitchen of words, memories and translations of text my ancestors wrote, leaving me clues to tie a bigger story together.

Sometimes (OK, a lot) I take out my index cards, which are filled with dates, facts, and anecdotes, and look them over. This gives me great comfort and joy as I have chronicled 1880 well past 1951. I have three binders full of research, which I have organized. The story is taking on a good shape – a shape of its own. The bread is rising and the scent is sweet.

Being alone, while everyone sleeps, gives me great joy. I would rather research and write than go out on the town. I become entranced at night, usually staying up until well past midnight. My son starts pre-school this week so I will have to start going to bed earlier. I will do my writing during the day. But I have to admit that the night is much more alluring as I feel it provides a more daring environment and less distractions.

On that note — good night. I am up well past midnight again.

Today’s treat and tea — I transcribed (retyped) a letter written on my great-grandfather’s business letterhead to my great-grandmother’s (Granny Dell) sister in Connecticut dated May 1896.  I wrote 6,000 words as well. I also had ice cream for dinner.

Sneak peek for this week’s post about the excitement of  coming upstairs from the basement research room when the Dawes House (Evanston History Center) was empty. It was like stepping back in time. This week’s post will focus on the kitchen at the Dawes House. If you are enjoying Downton Abbey like me, then you will enjoy this week’s post.

Kitchen at the Charles Dawes house (Evanston History Center)

Kitchen at the Charles Dawes house (Evanston History Center)


Marion Cunningham: Late Bloomer, Agoraphobic, and Food Pioneer

There is a video below of a panel on Marion Cunningham from the New School’s Food Studies Program panel series, Culinary Luminaries.

“Culinary Luminaries: Marion Cunningham

Thursday, February 21, 2013 6:00 p.m.

Location: Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Arnhold Hall, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor, New York

Description: Marion Cunningham (1922–2012) started her professional career at age 50 after taking a cooking class with James Beard. He was so impressed with her cooking that he hired her as his assistant, a position she held for the next eleven years. On Beard’s recommendation, Random House selected Cunningham to edit the 13th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1979). Its success inspired Cunningham to write her own cookbooks, including two for people who have never cooked before. Her dedication to home cooking led former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl to proclaim, “If Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its mother.” Speakers include Judith Jones, senior editor and vice president, Knopf; Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven; and Anne Mendelson, author of Stand Facing the Stove. Moderated by New School Food Studies faculty member Andrew F. Smith.” – Source: Andrew Smith, New School Food Studies Faculty Member

Photo Source: JamesBeard.org

Marion Cunningham and James Beard ~ Photo Source: JamesBeard.org

Marion Cunningham was an extraordinary person. Her simplicity though and ability to get people to believe in their own cooking abilities and skills set her apart. She was a humble woman and overcame many obstacles before becoming a food icon. She was an extreme agoraphobic and rarely left her home. She was also an alcoholic who quit drinking at the age of 45.

In the New School panel, Laura Shapiro shares a story of Marion confronting her agoraphobia by flying to Los Angeles with two of her closest friends; they sandwiched her with friendship and support, holding both her hands the whole time on the airplane as they all flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles for lunch. Can you imagine the fear Marion had, not only about leaving her safe surroundings,  but also getting on an airplane?

At 45 years old,  this was the turning point for Marion. She came back from her trip to Los Angeles with a fresh perspective. She also quit drinking.   Judith Jones illuminates on this in the panel, “As I heard the story, she got back, walked into her house, said to her husband and two children, ‘I’ve just been to Los Angeles.’ And they almost fainted and then she said fondly, ‘And I’m not going to drink anymore.’ She just knew it was eking away her life and she wanted to do more.”

Shortly after flying to Los Angeles and quitting drinking, she went to Oregon to study with James Beard. She soon became his assistant and worked for him for eleven years. Then Random House needed a cookbook writer to overhaul the outdated cooking bible, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. This is where Judith Jones came onto the scene with her keen vision for talent and editorial skills.  You will have to watch the panel video to hear Judith Jones speak about how Marion became the writer, having never written a word before.

I was so moved by this panel (I watched it online) that I transcribed some of it. It makes me wonder if my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Odell or grandmother, Elizabeth Odell Welch crossed Marion’s path. Perhaps my grandmother knew Marion.  Perhaps my great-grandmother and The Community Kitchen were an inspiration for Marion. The Community Kitchen grew from the same issue Marion promoted: preserving the family meal.

“Yes, I think using your hands is the answer.” — Marion Cunningham

Photo Source: latimes.com

Marion Cunningham ~ Photo Source: latimes.com

“She believed in ordinary home cooking done really well because it had saved her life. She believed it could save everyone’s.” — Laura Shapiro

“Marion was certainly a late bloomer. What really makes a food writer? For one thing we didn’t have such roles in the 19th century into the 20th century. The cook was the cook and not necessarily a writer. But with Marion, the very fact that she was self-taught — she did have a wonderful  Italian grandmother. She learned by doing and observing and loving it and as you (Laura Shapiro) point out, it did save her life because it was that turning point when she was 45 years old and her birthday. As I heard the story, she got back, walked into her house, said to her husband and two children, ‘I’ve just to Los Angeles.’ And they almost fainted and then she said fondly, ‘And I’m not going to drink anymore.’ She just knew it was eking away her life and she wanted to do more.” — Judith Jones, Vice-President and Senior Editor at Knopf (Editor for Julia Child and Marion Cunningham)

Judith Jones is an icon. I enjoyed hearing her speak on this panel. Judith also rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile.

“Home cooking is a catalyst that brings people together.” – Marion Cunningham

Judith Jones talks about Marion cooking on Julia Child’s show, touching and packing the ingredients with bare hands. Julia Child questions Marion in her unique voice and tone, “Use your hands?”

Graceful, elegant, and calm, Marion replies, “Yes, I think using your hands is the answer.”

You can watch Marion and Julia make Buttermilk Crumb Muffins in the video below.  I have always been moved by people who overcome life’s obstacles and use their struggles as a catalyst to build a better life and teach others that we are not alone. Marion taught people that we are not alone, but connected through food and story. Food is a way to heal and Marion healed through cooking. It just goes to show how much story is in the food we prepare, eat, and serve our families and friends.

BUTTERMILK CRUMB MUFFINS  Marion Cunningham
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour2 cups light brown sugar2/3 cup solid vegetable  Home shortening2 teaspoons baking powder1/2 teaspoon baking soda1/2 teaspoon cinnamon1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg1/2 teaspoon salt1 cup buttermilk2 large eggs, well beaten Makes 14 to 16 muffinsPosition rack in oven and preheat to 350°F.  Grease two 12-cup muffin tins.  Put flour and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to mix well.  Break shortening into a few pieces, drop them into the flour, and rub together until mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs.  Set aside 1/2 cup crumb topping.  Add baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to remaining crumb mixture and stir to mix well.  Add buttermilk and beaten eggs and, mix until well blended, thick and shiny.  Fill muffin tins two-thirds full.  Sprinkle a rounded teaspoon of reserved crumb mixture onto each muffin.  Half-fill any empty muffin molds with water.  Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Source of recipe: http://www.alacartetv.com/baking/recipes/buttermilk_muffins.htm

Here is a link to an interview with Marion on NPR titled, Marion Cunningham’s ‘Lost Recipes’ Cookbook Author Wants to Bring Americans Back to the Kitchen.

Suggested Reading:


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Research Treat and Tea: Schrafft’s

My grandmother, Elizabeth Odell Welch (Elizabeth Hawley Odell’s youngest daughter) was the assistant manager for The Community Kitchen.  “Juney,” nicknamed by family, was also the manager for Alice Foote MacDougall in New York.  At the age of 28, she left Evanston and headed for the Big Apple to pursue her own career in the food industry.

Downtown New York from the Woolworth Building
New York: March 2, 1926
Photo Source: http://www.georgeglazer.com

Mrs. Welch’s connection with the business began when it was a wartime project using the facility of the Evanston Woman’s club. She became assistant manager when her mother became the owner of the Community Kitchen, and she continued with it until shortly after it moved to Davis Street.  In 1926 she joined the staff of Alice Foote MacDougall in the tea shop business in New York.  Later she did experimental recipe work for Schrafft’s and before she returned to Evanston in 1947, she was on the staff of General Foods preparing foods for advertising photography.

Source: The Evanston Review Newspaper (May 31, 1951)

My grandmother’s notebook

Inside the notebook pictured above, are index cards with recipes, notations, food conversions, and my grandmother’s beautiful cursive handwriting.  I also found a list of fish entrees.  She must have created the list during her work at Schrafft’s.  How do I know this you say? Well, at first it was a mystery to me as well.

I looked on the back of the paper, wrinkled from time and tinted with age.

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“Fish items Schraffts” was written in cursive.  “Fish,” underlined and written in thick black colored pencil, was my first clue.  A long double dash, then “– items Schraffts” was written in pencil below the black colored pencil.

Photo Source: Shalat Architects

I obtained the 1951 Evanston Review article from my mother’s cousin, Mary Liz Hunt.  I solved the mystery when I read the article. I soon discovered what Schrafft’s was after reading articles about it in The New York Times.

The more research I do, the more I unearth.  This giant puzzle of American women’s history is slowly being put together, recipe by recipe.  I fear writing a blog post that is not up to the standards of Elizabeth Hawley Odell and Elizabeth Odell Welch — two women who were extraordinary women in their time, as well as chefs and business women before their time.  I do believe it would be safe to say they were perfectionists as well.

Some of the examples of fish entrees from my grandmother’s notebook, with Schrafft’s written on the back, including the price from the typed list include:

  • Soft Shell Crabs on Toast a la Schrafft                            Varies
  • Creamed Halibut on Toast (Fresh Halibut)                     .60
  • Grilled Sardines on Toast w. Parsley Butter Sauce        .65
  • Seafood a la Newburg with French Fried Potatoes        .85
  • Fresh Lobster Fricassee w. Biscuits                                  Varies

I imagine my grandmother, in New York, preparing these items in the executive kitchen at Schrafft’s headquarters or perhaps at one of their restaurants.  She is dressed in a white chef coat, her hair perfectly styled, as it always was — not a hair out of place.  Her classic white streak in her hair, which I inherited, showing on the left side of her beautiful thick hair. Her pearls are around her neck; in stockings and heels, dressed glamorously.

Schrafft’s Dining Room — Photo Source: Shalat Architects

Juney’s last words to me were, “Comb your hair, Megan.”  She had a stroke prior to this, and we visited her at the Mather Home in Evanston before she passed away. I was only ten years old when she died.  Her spirit has been with me since I was born.  Juney was strong and elegant.  She was confident in a way I wanted to be, even as a young child.  Her presence was calming and reassuring.  I can only imagine how graceful she was in a kitchen and how elegant she must have been walking on the busy streets of Manhattan in the late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

Experimental recipes sounds fitting, as she was a trailblazer and was never afraid of the unknown.

As I begin the journey of writing this powerful piece of American women’s history, I am channeling her spirit.  I realize I too, am preparing an experimental recipe.

This is an article about Schrafft’s from The New York Times.  

In the kitchen: I am working on a post about contacting the great-grandson of Frank Shatuff — the man who started Schrafft’s.