The Hobby - Food

Food for the Tree Army - FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)

CCC posterBefore the Greatest Generation enlisted in the military during WWII, many were part of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet soup agencies – the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Spread across the United States, these young men, 17 – 25, were sent out to reforest America.  In just three generations, the United States had reduced its 800 million acres of forests to around 100 million acres.  Even in a country as large as America, that’s a lot of land.  But you can’t just hand a young man a shovel and truckload of trees and say “Go forth and plant!” 

The CCC camps became life training grounds for many young men.  C. H. Brown of Georgia tells about a young man that came to camp.  After he received his uniform, the new recruit came into the tent and sat on his cot and cried.  The CCC had just given this 18-year-old his first pair of new shoes.  In addition to food and clothing, the men of the CCC received an education. Whether it was learning to read and write or getting a high school diploma, they were encouraged to learn.

Last weekend I was fortunate to meet several of these CCC boys.  Vogel State Park, here in Georgia, has an annual reunion.  There aren’t many of the CCC boys left and all are in their 90s, but they can still remember their days in the woods with the CCC.

Although the camps were run by the Army, experienced tradespeople were brought in to supervise.  Initially, many of the camp cooks were veterans of the First World War, but as the program expanded, recruits were brought into the camp kitchens. 

CCC Camp Cook Herbert BrimenHerbert Brimen reported to Fort McPherson in Atlanta and was quickly taught to cook.  When he arrived at his first assignment, he discovered the camp had been told an “expert” was on the way.  The camp swiftly learned how little training he had.  One of the first assignments given to him by the chief cook was to get the bread for bread pudding: he grabbed a couple of loaves – there were 200 people in camp.  He was banished to working in the gravel pit. 

After a week, a Lieutenant took pity on Brimen and asked him to be a steward in the officers mess.  From there he was able to work his way back into the kitchen.  Gradually his pay increased from $5 a month ($25 was sent home to families) to finally as Chief Cook he made $20 a month.  Mr. Brimen said when they took the noon meal to the guys working in the field it was always a mystery what the food was (hot or cold) until they opened the lid of the thermal pot. 

Bill Jamerson  from Michigan has interviewed many CCC alums.   As he and I quickly compared notes, it’s obvious that camps and especially camp food was specific to regions of the country.  Hearty beef soups and pot roasts appeared everywhere, but the South seemed to have fried more chicken, whereas the northern camps got plenty of fresh blueberries in their muffins. The work may have stopped for the holidays, but not the food.

Menu Thanksgiving at CCC camp Lakemont Georgia 

The young men of America came to the CCC unemployed with no help and undernourished.  They left the CCC taller, healthier and with marketable skills.   For a person who had never been outside his small town, working for the CCC was a life changing experience; for some it was being put on a train and moved across country; to others even having a toothbrush was life changing. 

I'll have more about the CCC and its food in my next blog.  If you have stories about the CCC, don't let them fade into obscurity, share them with the Grit community in the comments section below.

One of My Heroes: Cooking Superstar Fannie Farmer

Janann headshotYes, Fannie Farmer of the candy fame, but she was much more in the world of cooking ... a superstar before "superstar" was even a word. She was a celebrity chef who loved to cook and loved to eat. She was a woman ahead of her time.

First you need to know her history to appreciate who she was and why she should be one of your cooking heroes too.

One of four daughters, Fannie was born in 1857. Against popular thinking of the times, Fannie’s parents wanted their daughters to have as much schooling as possible. The family wasn’t wealthy in the Boston sense of the word; their wealth was knowledge. One day, while a teen, Fannie woke up to discover she couldn’t walk. As far as society was concerned, poor little Fannie’s life was over. Invalids didn’t attend college or hope to work. At best, Fannie might be allowed to bake a few cookies and sell them to help support the family.

And, of course, this is why Fannie is one of my heroes; stay at home, not Fannie Farmer. As her health improved, she jumped right into the evolving cooking melee of her time. Popular theories included:

  • Cooking was a domestic science and demanding women embrace this philosophy.
  • Cooking should be healthful, a woman should think only about the care of her family.
  • Boiled vegetables and a meat was enough variety in a meal.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Cooking was not fun. It was portrayed as serious business. Then Fannie came along and changed that. Here was a cook who enjoyed eating, who enjoyed teaching others how to cook and eat. She wrote in the Companion, “It is impossible to raise cookery above a mere drudgery if one does not put heart and soul into the work.” 

Level Measuring by Fannie FarmerHow does one cook to enjoy the food? One cooks correctly with level measurements, that is how. That is Fannie Farmer’s real claim to fame – level measurements. No butter the size of an egg, no pinch of salt. A cup means just that, one cup level, no mounded up over the top, not almost to the top. Perhaps a few modern cooking show cooks could go back and think about that philosophy. In trying to make cooking easy and fun, too many TV cooks pour liberally, declaring “it’s about ½ cup,” or toss in hands full of dry ingredients while declaring they know exact amounts being added to the bowl. It’s in the details, especially with baking, it’s in the measuring details, and Fannie knew that.

Fannie Farmer cookbook coverAlthough it’s been overshadowed recently, you can still find a Fannie Famer’s Cookbook for sale. Originally published as the  Boston Cooking School cookbook, Fannie’s popularity eventually caused the name morph. She wrote other cookbooks as well, which you might just find online or at a used book store.

Fannie immersed herself in food. If she tasted an interesting sauce and the chef refused to give her the recipe, she simply put a bit on her business card and took it home to analyze later.

You may wonder if fame was all that Fannie got from her cooking. Wonder no more. By the time she died, she had invested in utilities, railroads, and a chocolate company, and had 19 different bank accounts. She owned her childhood home and land in Harvard, Massachusetts. Her love for food brought her both fame and fortune - a great combination.

Stuffed Figs and DatesAs I read her favorite recipes, it’s clear the food is from a distant past. The crowds in the early 1900s may have loved her food, but I doubt it would make anyone’s top 10 list today. Think about eating this one: Potatoes and bananas mashed together, stuffed into banana skins, sprinkled with parmesan and broiled.

She’s still a hero to me, but I’m not convinced that stuffing figs with marshmallows and candied cherries is a great recipe. (The stuffed dates tasted better.) Who's your cooking hero? Add a comment; I would love to know. 

The Grandmother of Cooking Contests--The Pillsbury Bake-off

Janann headshotPillsbury Bakeoff cookbookThere was a time when the Pillsbury Bake-Off was a REALLY Big Deal; before television was taken over by reality shows and food challenges. Everyone, even noncooks watched the Bake-off.  Like the swallows in Capistrano or the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., the Bake-off returned year after year. Back in 1949, it didn’t start out to be a national treasure.  I wonder how many years the company thought it might last. The original contest known as the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest was a classy showcase for Pillsbury flour.  It was advertising directed to America’s homemakers.  The first Bake-off was held at the elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and was hosted by CBS radio personality Arthur Godfrey.  A legal entry had to use Pillsbury’s Best Flour in her recipe. Yes, men are welcome to enter, but the only male champion won in 1996.

SmoresHumans have been cooking since fire first burned a roast, and most likely humans have been comparing the flavor of their roasted wooly mammoth against their neighbors' for just as long. Through the years there have been competitions for chefs, but what genius to have a contest for Mrs. Average American.

Originally The Pillsbury Bake-off was an annual contest, but since 1976 it has been held every other year. A staple on CBS until 2002, the list of Bake-Off hosts is a list of our changing times: Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter, Bob Barker, Gary Collins, Willard Scott, Alex Trebek, Phylicia Rashad, Marie Osmond. Apparently the all-important demographics hit even this venerable institution.  It was not broadcast from 2004 – 2006, and since then the Bake-Off has bounced around looking for a permanent home. 

Can you guess the decade?     

Starlight Double-Delight Cake - Yes, the early 50s- where else would we be but the Starlight Drive-In

Accordion Treats - had to be late 50s, when Lawrence Welk and his group entertained us weekly

Golden Gate Snack Bread - Hippies were all over San Francisco in the late 60s

 ZucchiniItalian Zucchini Crescent Pie – 1980, what can I say? We were all out growing our vegetables                          

Salsa Couscous Chicken – late 90s – Mexican and Middle Eastern –  America was discovering international was more than French croissants

Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream - this year’s winner says a lot about the current trend for combining sweet and salty or savory in our food

If you want to see the entire list check out 

For the current top prize of $1,000,000 I might be convinced to cook up something tasty before the next contest rolls around. 

I don’t know the real reasons for creating the Bake-off but I can speculate.  Here’s what I think:

1.  After World War II there was optimism in this country.  The U.S. still had a can-do spirit but there was also an emotional letdown as women returned home to babies, housework and cooking meals day after day.  All these duties essential but none carried the aura of helping defend the country. Women needed to feel useful again and what a wonderful way to do this by showcasing one of women’s creative talents

2.  Some advertising ex was tired of the food his wife was fixing and wanted her to find new things to cook.

3. Cake mixes were starting to become popular and Pillsbury needed to sell more bags of flour.

OvenThat’s my top 3 guesses why the Pillsbury Bake-off has been popular for so many year.  What are your thoughts?


Library Food

Janann headshotYou can take away HBO, cable TV and what the heck, even the television itself, and I can be perfectly happy because I have a library card and I know how to use it.

Granted, to answer a trivia question or do some fast research, the internet is a godsend but I’ll put a good reference librarian up against Wikipedia any day when real research has to be done.  Actually, it doesn’t even have to be hard core research, it can be just for fun facts too.

It’s not all about research either. Last week I found two great books on my library’s browsing shelf: “Marshmallow Madness” by Shauna Sever and “American Food by the Decades” edited by Sherri Liberman.

MarshmallowLet’s start with marshmallows.  Living in places that tend to be hot and muggy I have never tried to make marshmallows but after turning the pages of this book I may have to give it a try.  Ms. Sever has some of the best sounding titles for her creations:  Cookies ‘n Cream, Mocha Kahlua-Filled, Key Lime Pie, Creamsicle, Margarita, Fuzzy Navel, Sea Salt Caramel Swirl, Red Velvet, blonde rocky road.  Hungry yet?

Club Sandwich“American Food by the Decades” is an entirely different book.  Once you have read this book you’ll want to check your calendar for plenty of open dates for cocktail parties and church socials; anywhere you can astound groups of people with your knowledge of food trivia. Did you know the “Club Sandwich” was actually invented by someone in the 1900s?  The Saratoga Clubhouse in N.Y., where the potato chip was also  invented, lays claim to the club sandwich.  Carvel Ice Cream was started in 1929 when Athanassios Karvelas (Tom Carvel) borrowed $15 from his future wife.  And though it seems to have been part of my life forever the Egg McMuffin has only been part of the McDonalds family since 1973.

Actually the reason I was at the library last week had nothing to do with food but as usual food seems to creep into everything I do.  It was while I was scrolling through a seemingly endless roll of microfiche, reading the local newspaper from around 1898 that I found an unusual reference to food.   What I was trying to find was information for a talk I’m giving later this month on the Philippine War but through the bolo knives, Krag rifles, and information about the climate in the Philippines I found this food tidbit.  In 1898 it cost the U.S. Army 18 cents a day to feed a soldier.  By my calculation that is $5.40 for food for a month or about $140 adjusted to today’s economy.  Eighteen cents when in 1898 one meal consisting of a meat, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and a glass of buttermilk at a restaurant could cost up to 35 cents or more.  For less than the cost of one dinner the Army was feeding a solider for the entire day.   I would say I’m impressed with the Army’s frugality but then again I’m not sure I would want to eat what was being served.

BooksWhen the Hobby is Food there’s no telling what my local library has to offer. 

Patience Thy Name is Eagle...Bored Thou Art a 9 Year Old

Decorah Eagle in NestIt's Just a Matter of Time 

You only have a few more days to see the height of patience as the Decorah, Iowa, eagles sit on their three eggs.  The folks at the Raptor Research Project expect the first eaglet to hatch between March 23 and 25.  That’s this week!   If you haven’t been to their webcam, here’s where to find them  

I normally write about food, but the youngest granddaughter and I have become enamored with the eagles so this blog is tangentially about food.  Our family caught up with the Decorah eagles last year after the eaglets had hatched and stayed with them until the eaglets fledged and flew the coop, so to speak.   

We started watching this February as the adult eagles’ refurbed their nest.  It is 80 feet up a cottonwood tree.  As we watched one eagle would carefully place a stick in the nest and fly away.  Then the 2nd bird would fly in and just as carefully move the stick somewhere else.  Since my husband and I have had the same decorating issues with our furniture, I know it’s wrong, but it’s hard not to treat these raptors as humans.

Eagle with eggsWhat the 9-year-old granddaughter likes to do is show up, settle in with a salty snack in hand, and check on the progress.  But she is not as patient as an eagle. Since all the eagles have been doing recently is sitting still on their eggs she doesn’t even finish the popcorn before it’s time for her to move on.

Eagle Food 

This year the project has a new camera and the picture is clearer which means once the adults start feeding the eaglets we will really be able to see those fish torn apart.  Perhaps we’ll even be able to identify the small furry rodents that periodically appear in the nest and seem to be a favorite food of raptors.

We’re expecting to enjoy the next couple of months while the eaglets keep us entertained as they grow. 

Eaglets 2011

The Photo is the 2011 Eaglets

As I reread this post, I see that I’m not as far away from “food” as I originally thought.  After all, it seems whenever we have a special family time, food is involved in one way or another.

Girl Scouts - 100 Years of Camp Food

Janann headshotI’m a “take it or leave it” camper, with an emphasis on the leave it, but since I’ve been involved with Girl Scouts on and off since the mid-80s, I have spent a good deal of time inside tents (family size, backpacking, platform), cabins, screened porches and I’m sure other structures I can’t easily remember.  

I’ve enjoyed my time tramping through the woods avoiding poison ivy, canoeing, generally doing lots of outdoor crafts and, of course, eating and cooking food, but if I wasn't with the Girl Scouts I wouldn't be there at all. With such an ambivalent attitude to camping you’d think I would be the one jumping on the gourmet camping bandwagon; making food less outdoorsy, more homelike. Not so. I actually have a more backpacking mentality when it comes to group food; less is better. Unfortunately, most other leaders have a different concept of food in the woods.

Camp BoxMy life with Girl Scouts began about the time elaborate wooden camp boxes were on the way out. I saw a few with neatly labeled shelves for the supplies. Sure, the boxes were organized but they were heavy. Through the years, most leaders have turned to plastic totes for carrying the supplies into camp. As a "less is more" fan, this works for me.

Granted, I can understand the pride a Brownie has cooking her own breakfast on the top of a #10 can. As the adult who rounded up the cans, punched the holes for ventilation and made sure there were enough tuna or cat food cans to put the fuel in, I can honestly say “once was enough.”

Food, like most activities in Girl Scouts, is about progression. Take Silver Turtles, a campfire staple. As a leader, what I remember is that if the leaders had already sliced up the potatoes and gotten the meat into a reasonable portion size, a Brownie could quickly pile on the chosen ingredients before an adult made sure the sides were folded tight. Then another adult placed the aluminum packet on the coals and removed it when done. In their minds, the girls had cooked the entire meal. They were happy and proud campfire cooks. It got easier as the girls got older and could do their own peeling, slicing and cutting. They also got more creative with their foil wrapping. Swans would paddle onto the fire. Fish shapes swam into the heat. Perhaps a triangle or trapezoid would identify whose food it was.

Cast Iron SkilletsIf it was left up to me, we would have arrived with a large cast iron skillet, and every meal would have been cooked in that one pan – with the exception of dessert, which would be a 3-ingredient cobbler in a cast iron Dutch oven. Yes, there would be s’mores, but technically s’mores aren’t dessert. S’mores are a neccesity, every night.

SmoresOne trip, a particularly creative leader came prepared with oranges for everyone. The tops had to be sliced off, the middle scooped out and added to a dry muffin mix. Everything was then spooned back into the orange, wrapped in foil and placed on the glowing embers. A lot of work, especially considering only one person actually ate the resulting breakfast (it wasn’t me).

Girl Scouts have been proud campers since 1912. I’m glad I got a chance to be part of the movement, and I hope they continue cooking for another 100 years. 


The Hobby: Food

Janann headshot Can Food Be a Hobby? 

Hobby:   A pastime, diversion, leisure pursuit, or something you do for relaxation.  Now I don’t know about you but when my family was growing food was not a hobby, it was a necessity.  Breakfast might be cereal or toaster something before the kids ran for the bus.  Eggs, bacon and the rest were more likely to happen on a Saturday or Sunday.  By early evening dinner became a blur of casseroles, pasta dishes and boiled vegetables.  That was not relaxation therefore that was not a hobby.

Bacon and Eggs 

Since the children are grown I can now take the time to enjoy food, not just eating food, but trying new recipes and learning the whys and wherefores of why we cook certain ways. I can collect flour sifters, cookie cutters or cookbooks I’ll never use. Now I do have a hobby –Food (and pretty much everything that goes with it.)

Flour Sifters 

There’s so much to learn. 

My sinking Angel:
Angel Food Cake Cooling

Growing up I never gave it a second thought, but recently I became interested in angel food cake.  Why did my mother always cool it upside down, hanging from a Coke bottle?  The internet is wonderful, it didn’t take long for me to discover that angel food cake is really closer to a meringue than a cake and cooling it upside down keeps it from collapsing back onto itself.  That’s the theory, but when I tried to make this light as air cake part of it still collapsed.

Angel Food cake collapsed 

Why?  I’m guessing I left an air pocket when I filled the pan or my oven does not heat evenly.  Since I’m fairly certain Betty Crocker puts out a good mix it’s most likely something I have done.  I know, a good hobbyist (cook) would start from scratch but any recipe that begins “separate 12 eggs” is NOT my type of recipe.  It’s way to rainy to bake an angel food cake today.  I’ll post an update in a later blog about the success of my next attempt at the perfect angel food cake.

Beware Teenager in the Kitchen: 

Even an experienced teenage cook needs to be monitored in the kitchen.  It seemed so simple.  All the granddaughter wanted was to make a key lime pie.  I have made those since I was probably 8 years old, back in the days when you had to crush the graham crackers and mix the butter and sugar for the pie crust.  Now with the readymade crusts there are only two ingredients for a great key lime pie.  Two, that’s all.  How could she go wrong?  She’s a flighty teenager, that’s how.

key lime pie 

The Recipe and the Mistake: 

Here’s the recipe:  take 1 can sweetened condensed milk, mix with 1/3 cup key lime juice (or lime or lemon juice), pour into crust and chill.  Apparently what she heard was blah blah blah 3 blah blah.  She’s a girl so she creatively added red food coloring to make a pink pie but that wasn’t the problem, it was the ¾ cup of lime juice that was the problem.   “What’s the diff?”  I suggested she not consider chemistry as a major. Even the dog that will eat anything wouldn’t touch that pie.

What a Great Hobby: 

As hobbies go I think I have found a winner.  I can explore history, spend weekends at yard sales looking for hidden treasures, taste new ingredients, and oh yes perhaps cook a few things too.

old cream and sugar bowls