The Evanston Community Kitchen

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


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The Bones Know (how to cook, that is)

As I was making chocolate chip cookies with my son today, I thought of something so profound and deep — it barely surfaced.

At that precise moment when my three and three-quarters year old poured the baking powder into the blue bowl, I should have honored and listened to the Montessori urge to go write it down right then and there.

But I didn’t. I kept mixing, baking, and preparing our cookie dough.

I had spent the hour prior to this trying to engage my sick, moody, snow day cabin fevered son to bake with me. He was mad at me because I would not let him watch Phinius and Ferb — his current favorite cartoon (I really like it too). We (or rather I specifically) are trying to limit his TV watching to two hours a day. And two hours a day seems like too much as it is.

Back to my profound deep thought — it was right there ready to be  measured out in perfectly proportioned words.

1 cup of prose

1/2 tsp of poetic phrasing

1/4 tsp truthful juice

1/8 tsp of heart based memory

1 stick of beauty

The words were perfect — so perfect I thought I’d remember them exactly for sure.

But I didn’t; I don’t.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” 
― Ernest Hemingway

I know what my one truth was — geez it was the first line of this darn book my ancestors have placed on my insecure shoulders and it was perfect.

Here’s the understudy’s attempt (the lead actress took another gig apparently): my grandmother taught me to cook when I was four. I don’t remember, but my bones do. When I cook with my son, I remember.

My mom, grandma (Juney) and me

My mom, grandma (Juney) and me (and Shaggy and Penny. Shaggy is the the Pekingese and Penny is the German Shepard)

***

I don’t think there is a perfect way to write this story. It just has to be written. I have got lost in the research. There is just so much to say. I want to ask my grandmother so many questions that a thirty-nine year old would ask — an almost forty year old would ask. The thing is — I know one thing for sure, well actually two, maybe three:

1. My grandma loved me and I loved her.

2. You don’t get to ask your loved ones all the questions you will have.

3. You are left to wonder. And sometimes wonder is better than knowing.

I could hem and haw and stop right there. But the story wants to be told, so I will tell it best I can. I am telling it right now.

That is enough for today. The bones know. I am lucky to have had her in my life for the ten years I did. This love is baked into me. I may not remember our conversations, but I remember her perfume. I can still smell it. I remember her pajamas; I can feel them — she always wore silk. I remember her glasses; I touch them — they were pointy. I remember her legs; they were muscular — even for an old lady. She never crossed them at the knee, only the ankles — lady like.

Juney, you are my Valentine. I love you.

A valentine from my grandma

A valentine from my grandma

Inside of Grandma's card

Inside of Grandma’s card

Recipe for Chocolate Chip cookies from Community Kitchen recipe notebook

From Juney's (Grandma's) recipe notebook from the Community Kitchen

From Juney’s (Grandma’s) recipe notebook from the Community Kitchen

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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.