The Evanston Community Kitchen

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


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“We can interpret, but we can never know.” – John Marquand

It is not everyday that one gets an email from a Pulitzer Prize winner — nor is it everyday one gets an email from a world renowned Washington Post book critic. Well, I got an email from both yesterday. Jonathan Yardley emailed me.

I just about fell out as they say in the South. Jonathan Yardley and I have never crossed paths, nor do I expect them to again, but for a small slice of time we were holding cyber literary hands. I have to admit I have a bit of a literary crush on him.

Jonathon Yardley

Jonathan Yardley

Jonathon Yardley at Pirate Alley Faulkner Society introducing  Ernest J. Gaines for the 2012 ALIHOT Award for Literature

Jonathan Yardley at Pirate Alley Faulkner Society introducing
Ernest J. Gaines for the 2012 ALIHOT Award for Literature

Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, class of 1969. Jonathon Yardley is in the first row, second in from the right.

Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, class of 1969. Jonathan Yardley is in the first row, second in from the right.

I feel it is safe to say that my mom had a crush on Jonathan’s dad, Mr. William Yardley while she attended Tuxedo Park School.  Mr. Yardley was indeed a handsome chap and the headmaster at Tuxedo Park School from 1943 – 1949.

Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School archives

Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School

My mom always talked about Mr. Yardley when I was younger. Now I wish desperately to call my mom up right this minute and tell her I received an email from Mr. Yardley’s son. Then I’d ask her to tell me every single detail of her time at Tuxedo Park School. When she attended, it was called Tuxedo Park Country Day School and the school was in the Henry W. Poor House. My mom was a boarder from Manhattan. I never quite understood how she could have attended school in a mansion that was called the “Poor House.” Now it all fits precisely together, like the Nancy Drew jigsaw piece it is.

Photo Source: http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/photos-of-tuxedo-park-new-york#slide-1

Photo Source: Town & Country. Grounds of Former Tuxedo Park School, Henry W. Poor House

This is an excellent article in Town & Country about the origin of the tuxedo jacket. It also includes beautiful photographs of some of the community members of Tuxedo Park, NY.

The alumni relations director at Tuxedo Park School was so very kind to help me in my quest to learn more about my mother’s time there. Ms. Fiona Duffy not only scanned copies of my mother’s records and emailed them to me — she also made copies of letters my grandmother (“Juney”) had written to Mr. Yardley and snail mailed them to me. It was like Christmas when the white envelope with the evergreen tree in the right corner arrived in the mail Saturday.

Henry W. Poor House, also referred to as the Tilford House

Tuxedo Park School — Henry W. Poor House, also referred to as the Tilford House  — Photo Courtesy of Tuxedo Park School

Photo courtesy of Tuxedo Park Historical Society Children playing on the grounds of the Tilford House (also known as the Henry W. Poor House)

Photo courtesy of Tuxedo Park School
Children playing on the grounds of the Tilford House (also known as the Henry W. Poor House)

I learned that my mom had the chicken pox in 1944 and the measles in April of 1947. I learned my mother’s childhood address in Manhattan. I read a letter my grandmother wrote Mr. Yardley on Community Kitchen stationery. An excerpt says, “I still want to send you a box but since school closed was afraid you might be away from home — so when I hear from you if you would tell me when you’d be about 4 or 5 days from time I would receive your letter — I’d love to send you some of our goodies.  I never can thank you enough for what you did for Betty Anne — you put her two feet firmly on the ground.”

I also learned a lot about my mom as a fifth grade student. She was mature for her age, but was at first “a nervous little girl.” She excelled in music and her French teacher wrote on her January progress report, “Betty Anne continues to attack obstacles with a dogged determination which one cannot help admiring. She wrote a very good examination paper, of which she may well be proud of.”  Betty Anne certainly did have dogged determination. And then some.

How I do miss my mother.  Even after receiving an email from a Pulitzer Prize winner and reading the academic files from her fifth grade in school — getting to know her as a little girl — it just was not enough. More than anything in the world, I just want her back. I want to yawn as she tells me for the fifteenth time about the time she ran away from Tuxedo Park School, convincing several other girls to come with her.  I imagine her gazing out on the terraced lawns, planning her escape. She was a feisty redhead and exhausted Mr. Yardley’s patience at times, but he adored this little red head. She adored him.

Below is the email I sent to Mr. Yardley’s son, Jonathon Yardley.

Dear Mr. Yardley:

Hello. My name is Megan Oteri. I am the daughter of Elizabeth Anne Welch Miller; she attended Tuxedo Park School in 1946-1947.  

I have been in contact with Fiona Duffy and she unearthed my mother’s TPS school records. What a treasure. There were letters your father wrote my grandmother and letters he wrote on behalf of my mother to her school in Evanston, Illinois.

There is also a letter my mother wrote him on cat stationary from her summer camp. My mom was very fond of your dad. Fiona sent me a copy of Vera Brigham’s book on Tuxedo Park School.  I would like to talk to you specifically about 1946-1947 and your father. 

I believe the story you told Vera Brigham is about my mother (see below). My mother told me she ran away from Tuxedo Park. The story about the pistol seems familiar too. It is so interesting to hear the name Mr. Yardley and see it in print (in the letters) because my mom spoke of him so often.

“Day students left at 4 P.M., but having a boarding department put a great responsibility on Bill Yardley. Nothing worried him more than the prospect of harm coming to a border. So when several girls decided to run away one evening his consternation was intense. Soon all but one returned and, finally at about 11:30 that night this last lost sheep knocked timidly at the Crawford Blagden’s door in the Park. Bill rushed over to bring her back, but not to castigate her, as he was always gentle and kind.”

I am writing a historic food memoir about my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s famous food delivery service and bakery, The Community Kitchen,  located in Evanston, Illinois. The book spans how long the Community Kitchen was opened — 1918 to 1951. The Community Kitchen brought national attention to the city of Evanston in the 1920’s because it successfully addressed the Servant Crisis and also was the model for the nation as a cooperative centralized kitchen.

I agree with the John Marquand quote you wrote in your 2005 review of Samuel Freedman’s book, My Search for My Mother’s Life: “We can interpret, but we can never know.” 

My mother passed away on Christmas Eve 2012, and like Marquand, I am searching for who my mother was. She had an entire different life before she met my father, which set her life on a completely different trajectory. 

I am searching for the interpretation of who my great-grandmother was before she was a woman who was one of the first business women in the country. I am searching for who my grandmother was as a freshman who flunked out of Smith College. I am searching for who my mother was as a nervous little girl sent to boarding school in Tuxedo Park in 1946, two years after World War II.

I have been hunting through archives, through ancestors, through story, through memory. Nothing can replace a mother. Even though I had a letter my mother wrote as a fifth grade student from TPS, written in her pre-teen cursive script on kitty cat kid stationary, it just was not enough. I wanted to know exactly what she was feeling right then and there. I want to know what she felt when she looked out at the terraced gardens at the Henry W. Poor House. I want to know the exact conversation she and your father had when she finally found the courage to return back to Crawford Blagden’s door the night she ran away. But I can’t know that, I can only interpret…

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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)


Archival Research: Jaunts and Voyages — A Ticket to a Mansion, the Titanic and Charlotte Russe

Here I am holding The Community Kitchen archive files in the research room in the basement of the Evanston History Center.

20130724_153231

It was a delicious treat to sort through the files related to The Community Kitchen while I was at The Evanston History Center in July. I touched the same scrapbook my great-grandmother assembled, which showcased the numerous articles written by magazines and newspapers. It was so delicate, frayed bits of newspaper crumbling in my hands — little bits of weathered, yellow-with-time paper created a flurry of history snowflakes. It was a very delicate process indeed. I exaggerate. It was not that bad, but the original newspaper articles from almost 100 years ago were quite delicate. The scrapbook that my great-grandmother pasted in the articles cost $.10.  As I looked through the scrapbook, I thought of my great-grandmother pasting them in, with a proud gallant heart. I could only imagine she giggled with delight (although I doubt my great-grandmother giggled).

I took a research class in graduate school (East Carolina University). I admit, at the time of the class, archival research seemed dry and a bit boring. I now think research and archives are the most fascinating thing. I love putting on the white gloves (you must wear white gloves when touching archive photos) and taking jaunts through back in time.

jaunt: (n.) a short excursion or journey for pleasure.

I do not believe my research to be jaunts; they start that way. Then they turn into voyages, traveling across continents, decades and even centuries. History is a wonderful thing.

I just wish I lived closer to Evanston as I have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. If I lived closer to Evanston, I would be in the research room every chance I could. The Evanston History Center is quite beautiful.

This house is even more exquisite inside.
The Evanston History Center. This house is even more exquisite inside.

And I promise to post more photos soon. But if you would wish to get your how-the-aristocrats-in-America-lived fix, see this post on my Community Kitchen Tumblr site. I do post more time period photos and tidbits regularly there. So, if you look at this photo and are not local to Evanston or the area, go to the left, dare not to step on the manicured lawn, and walk down (skip if you delight as I often felt like skipping while I was there) the sidewalk on the left and you will see a staircase. This staircase will lead you down into the research room, which is in the basement. OK. I can see you would like a photo.

This is the entrance to the research room at the Evanston History Center.
This is the entrance to the research room at the Evanston History Center.

Speaking of icebergs, who is watching Downton Abbey. Oh my! I am so excited about that show. I watched part of an episode with my brother-in-law (he is a history enthusiast), in the middle of season three and thought, “Oh how dreary and dry.”  Then I gave it a second chance and watched it from the beginning. Well, I am on Season 3 and have been longing to watch it every waking minute (when I am not working on the Community Kitchen project or spending time with my family). Even so, how delightful a series.  And I admit, I long to watch it even when I am working on the CK project and spending time with my family. I am completely addicted. Soon, I will be caught up to the end of Season 3, and will wait like a proper lady for the start of Season 4 in January 2014.

Guess who made Charlotte Russe?  Well, of course you know Ethel made it for the girls at the luncheon at Isobel Crawley’s home (I will not put in the spoiler and tell you why she had the luncheon for the Crawley ladies made it).

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham I love her!
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
I love her! Photo Source: Pinterest — Downton Abbey Cooks

But Charlotte Russe was also on the menu as a dessert at The Community Kitchen.

Well, Lady Megan needs to go write and research. research and write.

If you are new to this blog, read this (historic background of Community Kitchen) and this (my connection to the Community Kitchen) to familiarize yourself with the origins of the this historic food memoir project.

What are some of your favorite dishes on Downton Abbey or historic time period recipes?

Food = Story.


Archival Research: Jaunts and Voyages — A Ticket to a Mansion, the Titanic and Charlotte Russe

Here I am holding The Community Kitchen archive files in the research room in the basement of the Evanston History Center.

20130724_153231

It was a delicious treat to sort through the files related to The Community Kitchen while I was at The Evanston History Center in July. I touched the same scrapbook my great-grandmother assembled, which showcased the numerous articles written by magazines and newspapers. It was so delicate, frayed bits of newspaper crumbling in my hands — little bits of weathered, yellow-with-time paper created a flurry of history snowflakes. It was a very delicate process indeed. I exaggerate. It was not that bad, but the original newspaper articles from almost 100 years ago were quite delicate. The scrapbook that my great-grandmother pasted in the articles cost $.10.  As I looked through the scrapbook, I thought of my great-grandmother pasting them in, with a proud gallant heart. I could only imagine she giggled with delight (although I doubt my great-grandmother giggled).

I took a research class in graduate school (East Carolina University). I admit, at the time of the class, archival research seemed dry and a bit boring. I now think research and archives are the most fascinating thing. I love putting on the white gloves (you must wear white gloves when touching archive photos) and taking jaunts through back in time.

jaunt: (n.) a short excursion or journey for pleasure.

I do not believe my research to be jaunts; they start that way. Then they turn into voyages, traveling across continents, decades and even centuries. History is a wonderful thing.

I just wish I lived closer to Evanston as I have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. If I lived closer to Evanston, I would be in the research room every chance I could. The Evanston History Center is quite beautiful.

This house is even more exquisite inside.

The Evanston History Center. This house is even more exquisite inside.

And I promise to post more photos soon. But if you would wish to get your how-the-aristocrats-in-America-lived fix, see this post on my Community Kitchen Tumblr site. I do post more time period photos and tidbits regularly there. So, if you look at this photo and are not local to Evanston or the area, go to the left, dare not to step on the manicured lawn, and walk down (skip if you delight as I often felt like skipping while I was there) the sidewalk on the left and you will see a staircase. This staircase will lead you down into the research room, which is in the basement. OK. I can see you would like a photo.

This is the entrance to the research room at the Evanston History Center.

This is the entrance to the research room at the Evanston History Center.

Speaking of icebergs, who is watching Downton Abbey. Oh my! I am so excited about that show. I watched part of an episode with my brother-in-law (he is a history enthusiast), in the middle of season three and thought, “Oh how dreary and dry.”  Then I gave it a second chance and watched it from the beginning. Well, I am on Season 3 and have been longing to watch it every waking minute (when I am not working on the Community Kitchen project or spending time with my family). Even so, how delightful a series.  And I admit, I long to watch it even when I am working on the CK project and spending time with my family. I am completely addicted. Soon, I will be caught up to the end of Season 3, and will wait like a proper lady for the start of Season 4 in January 2014.

Guess who made Charlotte Russe?  Well, of course you know Ethel made it for the girls at the tea party (I will not put in the spoiler and tell you why she made it).

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham I love her!

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
I love her!

But Charlotte Russe was also on the menu as a dessert at The Community Kitchen.

Well, Lady Megan needs to go write and research. research and write.

What are some of your favorite dishes on Downton Abbey or historic time period recipes?  Food = Story.


Mozart Cafe is Now Current Location of The Community Kitchen

I am very excited to have coffee at 600 Davis Street this morning. The Mozart Cafe is located there now. I will be having coffee with both granddaughters of Elizabeth Odell. Ginny and Mary Liz are the daughters of Harriet Odell Price, whom wrote the Odell family history I mention in “About the Author” page on this website (see “About the Author” tab at the top of the page on this website for more info.
“Aunt Harriet” as we referred to her was my grandma’s sister. I was nine years old when Aunt Harriet passed away. My memories of her are deep within my mind, made up of regular trips to the North Shore area and Evanston, as I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton.

I remember vividly sitting with Aunt Harriet eating ginger snaps.

Watching my grandma and Aunt Harriet as a child I had no idea, of course, of their connection to the Community Kitchen. If so, I certainly would have my notebook out and say, “Let’s start at the beginning ladies.”

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Photo by Megan Oteri: July 23, 2013 at The Charles Dawes House — The Evanston History Center

I am thankful to Aunt Harriet for writing and researching the Odell family.  Her words and spirit spill over with great light and inspiration as I embark on the great task of writing the story of The Evanston Community Kitchen, a historic slice of Evanston and American Women’s History.

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Photo by Megan Oteri: Evanston History Center Sign

I leave you with photos I took yesterday with my phone. When I return to North Carolina next week, I will post more photos I took with my digital camera. I am mostly writing posts here from my phone.

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That’s me.

Right across the street from the Evanston History Center is beautiful Lake Michigan.

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Park bench at Charles Dawes Park, across from Evanston History Center

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What a View: Lake Michigan Muse

My mom’s cousin (Mary Liz) — Harriet’s daughter and also the granddaughter of Elizabeth Odell took me on a little driving tour of Evanston this morning.

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For the sake of time management this will be a short post with some photos of Evanston. What a lovely day today with cool crisp temperatures.

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Pictures of Lake Michigan