A week ago, Sunday our friends Daniel and Emily dropped off a plate of cookies at our door. Like many others, they’ve apparently been baking a lot during the pandemic. There were some Moravian wafers on the plate and some Swedish almond rusks. I enjoyed one of each greatly with my evening tea, especially the rusk. I Whatsapped Daniel later with compliments and learned that the Moravian wafers were out of a Maida Heatter book but that the rusks were from something called Favorite Recipes of Rice County Extension Homemakers 1965 (Volume IV). This, he said, was a book they’d literally found on the street and that it was a trip. He sent me some pictures. I asked if either or both of them might be interested in writing up a review or appreciation of it for the blog at some point. Emily would, he said. And a few emails and a scarily short amount of time later this wonderful essay landed in my inbox.
You may know far more than I did/do about this genre of community cookbooks. Until this weekend I barely knew anything about the American university extension system; all I knew about the University of Minnesota Extension—of which the Rice County Extension is a part—was their very helpful online guidance on home gardening in the tundra. But it turns out that groups of “exension homemakers” were and are a common part of the system all over the country and many of them presumably put out and continue to put out these community cookbooks. I spoke to someone at the U of M extension and she told me that while an informal Rice County homemakers group may still exist, they have not had an official connection for a few years now. She could not tell me how many such cookbooks the Rice County Extension had put out or when the last one was published. This, the fourth volume, came out in 1965; I found a copy of Volume VI being sold on eBay. Were there more? If the series continued into the very recent past—or if it continues today—I would be very interested to see how its contents have or have not changed over time just as Rice County and environs have.
I am hopeful that I may be able to find out more from others at the U of M Extension or from the Rice County Historical Society and if I do I will write in to the comments on this post. In the meanwhile, if you are a long-time Rice County resident or just someone who may have a connection to anyone associated over the years with Rice County Extension Homemakers, please write in below. I’d also be very interested in hearing from you if you know anything about the histories of these organizations and cookbooks more broadly, whether in the Upper Midwest or elsewhere in the country. Someone—I would hope—has doubtless written a book on these books and how they index the changing nature of domesticity and community in the US. If not, someone should.
But for now I am happy enough to read Emily’s wonderful essay on this cookbook—which is really a meditation on a community that has changed significantly in the years between its publication and its discovery by its most recent reader.
My daughter and I found the Favorite Recipes of Rice County Extension Homemakers 1965 (Volume IV) in a box of castoffs outside the home we call the “Republican House”. We live in a liberal enclave in an already progressive college town in a county that reliably votes Republican. Every August, I learn who is running against my own Democratic candidates by walking the dog by the Republican House. Each of the House’s neighbors’ lawns, like my own, offer up the opposing candidates’ signs, race by race. It’s a four-corner argument repeated for as long as I have lived here.
The Favorite Recipes of Rice County Extension Homemakers 1965 (Volume IV) is a slim volume with a bright red cover and hand-lettered titling. The art professors at our two (!) local colleges might describe the design as naif. Certainly, the stylish typesetting and modernism of the 60s had not yet reached Bendickson Printing of Lonsdale, Minnesota. When my family first moved here in 2009, Favorite Recipes would have meant very little to me. I might have leafed through and marvelled at the recipes for Lime Cottage Cheese Salad or a method for turning dill pickles into sweet pIckles (drain brine from jar, cover pickles with hot water, drain again, add hot brine of vinegar and sugar). I would have delighted in finding a recipe for perhaps the ur hot dish, titled simply: “Hot Dish” (beef, onion, stuffed olives, mushroom soup, milk, noodles, cheese, nuts, chow mein noodles). I definitely would have sniggered at the frequency with which the ingredients ginger ale, Karo syrup and marshmallows feature in sections other than “Bars” and “Cookies”. Of course, back then, I wouldn’t have known the difference between a bar and cookie.
My husband and I moved here from Chicago where I worked as a pediatric nurse. I grew up in Washington D.C., London and Toronto and spent student years in Montreal and New York City. I also spent a year in Baltimore. Baltimore was the smallest town I had lived in before moving to Northfield, Minnesota (population 20,0007 in 2009) with my freshly-minted philosophy professor husband and 6 week old baby. I didn’t know much about Minnesota. I knew our Minnesotan-born friends in Chicago behaved like migrating birds: they might flit about big cities but they all longed to return to Minnesota to have their families. I also knew that Prairie Home Companion bored me to tears and “hot dish” was a punchline.
I was thrown into the deep end of rural Minnesota when I started a family nurse practitioner program at Minnesota State University, Mankato soon after arriving. The program was oriented to students living and working in rural areas. I adored my classmates: they were helpful, fierce and smart and came from all over the state. One day, I watched as they all knowingly smiled and nodded as a classmate talked about the hog barn odor coming from a patient’s tracheostomy. I don’t know much about hogs; I have never even cooked ham. There is a recipe in Favorite Recipes for Glazed Ham Loaf with the outlandishly unkosher combination of ham, hamburger, milk, eggs and bread crumbs. Two columns over, deep in the Casseroles section, there is a brief recipe for Plant Food. I have not made either of these.
I have made Swedish Almond Rusks (p. 94). These are simply outstanding. The recipe asks you to make two long rolls of an almond dough and then bake them for 45 minutes at 300F. This yields two baguette-type loafs which you cut into ½” slices to be toasted at 250F for nearly an hour. The result is a crunchy, quite sophisticated biscotti-like biscuit. And it’s dead simple. Unusually, the recipe for the rusks does not include its author. Most recipes in Favorite Recipes include the name of their authors. My 11-year-old daughter was astonished that all the authors were men. How wonderful! But they’re not men, they’re wives. It’s “Mrs. Marvin Hermel,” “Mrs. Ebert Halverson,” “Mrs. Elmer Covert, Jr.” I point this out to my daughter and explain it was completely normal for women not to have their own name until, well, 1965 at least. The recipe authors also include the name of the author’s local branch or “affiliate” of the Rice County Homemakers Extension. Some of these names are snappy and wonderful and speak of zippy industriousness: the Forest Kitchen Hustlers, Walcott Jolly Jokers, Wednesday Workers, Merrie Matrons. Disappointingly, my affiliate is simply “Northfield City”. I’d very much like to know who was in the Lazy Daisies and if they felt shame about it.
My daughter and I realize we recognize the surnames of many recipe authors. The frontispiece lists members of the Rice County Extension Committee. I recognize the last name of a family practice physician in town, an administrator at public health, three elementary school teachers and a general contractor. Of course, I didn’t know any of these people a decade ago. When we arrived, we knew absolutely no one. Our families were a time zone and 3 Great Lakes away and our Chicago friends, unsurprisingly, remained in Chicago. However, I began working at a community clinic here as a nurse and then nurse practitioner and now the Clinical Director. Until 2012, my clinic was housed in the basement of Little Prairie United Methodist Church in Dundas, Minnesota. The church was literally in a cornfield, nearly half a mile from County Road 3, the road that bisects Rice County and connects Northfield to Faribault, the county seat. The mission of the clinic is to provide care to underserved residents of Rice County. Working there, I met communities the Merrie Matrons wouldn’t have dreamed of: newly arrived Somali refugees, migrant workers who spend half of the year in Texas, Central Americans fleeing violence and a growing, vibrant community of Mexican Americans.
In the summer of 2016, my kids and I (we grew a native-born Minnesotan in 2012) attended a community forum at a local Catholic church advocating for driver’s licenses for undocumented Minnesotans. The Republican House’s candidate for state senate spoke. He understood, he told us, about the plight of immigrants. His own grandfather had arrived from Germany and had trouble learning English. Again, he understood, he told the crowd. He really did. He wished he could do more but he also believed in “the law”. I check: his last name isn’t in Favorite Recipes. There is, however, a recipe for German Potato Salad. Favorite Recipes does go further afield than Germany. There are recipes for Arabian Macaroons and Sukiyaki as well as a recipe for pizza with an improbable milk and shortening-based crust. The recipe for Yap Yap Hot Dish features chow mein noodles. This is not without some regrettable exoticism. The word “Oriental” features heavily.
A particularly impressive section of Favorite Recipes includes suggested quantities needed to serve 50 people. Depending on your menu, this might include 20 pounds of creamed chicken, 40 pounds of roasted turkey or 12 quarts of tomato aspic. When I read this in December, 2020, while Minnesota is first in the nation for COVID-19 cases, I long to cook for 50 people. I dream of making biscuits for 50 people (3 quarts of flour, ½ cup of baking powder, nearly a cup of shortening). I want nothing more than to sit around a table and enjoy a meal with that many friends.
My clinic’s staff is mostly Latino and Somali. Before the pandemic, we shared delicious lunches together in the kitchen of our brand new clinic in Faribault. Somali sambusas and papa con chorizo may be on the same plate. My coworkers have taught me how to cook with chipotles and how to appreciate a good salsa matcha. I show off and display my big-city tolerance for spice. I learn the verb “enchilarse”. A most beloved volunteer – a retired Spanish professor – is able to continue interpreting for our patient visits via phone. She stress bakes through the pandemic and brings wonderful desserts to my stoop each Sunday for me to share with the clinic staff the following Monday. I tell her about the Swedish Almond Rusks and she makes them, too.
Neither the interpreter nor I attend the funeral of one of my favorite patients, a young man who died of COVID-19 the week after Thanksgiving. I have taken care of the young man and his mother for nearly 8 years. However, we are so close to the vaccine and the pandemic is so prevalent that we do not want to risk the exposure. Some of the contributors of Favorite Recipes likely grew up during the Great Flu Pandemic or were born in its shadow. I wonder if children of the last pandemic are dying in our current one in the nursing home outbreaks across the county. Rice County has had positive COVID-19 cases in patients aged one month to 104 years old.
I don’t know the people who live in the Republican House. I don’t know if their kitchen was run by an actual member of the Northfield City Rice County Extension Homemakers. I asked a locally grown friend if she knows who lives in the house. Of course, she does. It’s a single man, though. Perhaps the homemaker was his mother? She’s not sure. Since picking up my copy of Favorite Recipes, I feel differently about the Republican House. It is a handsome, stuccoed mock Tudor house. And, unlike in 2016, the owner didn’t put up a Trump 2020 sign despite the complement of the usual Republican down ballot candidate signs. The absence of a Trump sign was, in all seriousness, the talk of the neighborhood and (we dared to hope) a harbinger of a good election outcome. Reader, it was.
I look forward to making my way through Favorite Recipes. My husband prefers elaborate cookbooks with multiple steps and lots of advice regarding techniques and ingredients. Recipes in Favorite Recipes rarely have more than 6 to 8 ingredients and a similar number of steps. I’m determined to find more gems like the Swedish Almond Rusks. After over 12 years here, I feel very much part of Rice County and feel affection for its former Homemakers or at least their 99-page legacy. I don’t know what they’d make of my retained maiden name, long work weeks and children who have grown up with a team of babysitters and daycare and after-school programs; I don’t know how they would feel about a Rice County that looks very different now than in 1965. I hope those hard-working hustlers and merrie jokers and I would delight in each other and the county in which I now live. And, at the very least, heed the guidance on the frontispiece of the cookbook: “Be to its virtues very kind! Be to its faults a little blind!”.
Emily Carroll is a Nurse Practitioner whose writing is normally limited to chart notes about breast exams and cervices.