Hot off the Stove are you Hungry for Home-Cooked Foods, Delicious and Different?
Eddy, Don. "Hot off the Stove are you Hungry for Home-Cooked Foods, Delicious and Different?" American Magazine, October 1950, 30-31.
At first I couldn't believe it. These things just don't happen to a bumbling literary bindle stiff like me.
He called me into his office--the Editor of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE, I'm talking about--and studied my ample anatomy speculatively, peering over his horn-rimmed spectacles and puffing furiously at his cigar. Suddenly he demanded, "Eddy, what do you like to eat?"
"Food, sir," I replied with simple dignity.
That seemed to be the right answer. He ruffled some papers on his desk, murmured, "Hm-m-m!" whirled around to stare absently over the froufrou of fashionable Fifth Avenue, and knocked me looping with this:
"Eddy, I have a job for you. Find out what's happening to American home cooking, as exemplified in community or group meals where the food is prepared by the ladies in their own kitchens from their own recipes. Good food, I mean; food which has a local or regional reputation for excellence.
"Go up and down the land, every state, everywhere, and you see whether women still know how to cook. Try to find community feasts, or Harvest Home Dinners, or Old Home Week Suppers; church sociables, or lodge festivals, or dinners-on-the-ground like we used to have in Missouri--things like that.
"When you find really good food, tell us about it. Let's have a series of honest reports on American community life and the people who compose it, stressing food. I want to know whether good Americans still get together to enjoy good homey fun and good home cooking in a good American way."
"You mean," I ventured, "all I gotta do is eat my way through the map?"
"Precisely!" he agreed. "Go to every famous eatfest you can find, providing the food is home-cooked, and sample everything. Interview the ladies who do the cooking. Get their secrets and their recipes, and let's publish them. Let's see whether we can stimulate a revival of honest cooking in this bountiful nation."
I was really afraid he'd cracked his marbles. "Mr. Blossom," I said solicitously (because that's his name and because no matter what I'm thinking I'm always polite to the boss), "may I ask what brought this on? Don't you want to lie down and rest a while? Do you see pies in your eyes? Hear a joggin' in the noggin'?"
He swung around and stared at me piteously. "Eddy," he confessed, "you've guessed it. My cook is on vacation and I have been eating in restaurants--and I've had just about all I can take."
That's how it started.
For the next few weeks I bombarded epicures all over the country, using airmail, telegraph, and telephone to track down events featuring fine home food. I appealed to the governor of each state to name his favorite foodfest. In the end it was my old friend Pank--A.H. Pankow, of Pierre, South Dakota--who gave me the first hot tip. "If it's home cooking you want," he advised, "go to Eureka."
Up to then, I had thought Eureka was what the hero shouted when he bore through snow and ice the banner with the strange device, but that turned out to be Excelsior, which is what you pack dishes in. Eureka, it eventuated, is a farming settlement of 450 families, about 1,600 people, on the Milwaukee railroad at the top of South Dakota. Pankow, who can store away more groceries than any two supermarkets and personally knows 101 ways to prepare pheasant, got drooly when he talked about Eureka's home cooking.
"It's American food with a European background," he explained. "The people are descendants of Germans who lived for about a century in Russia, then migrated to South Dakota about 75 years ago. They created some of the richest farms in the Northwest, but no matter how rich they got, the women kept on cooking because they love it. The younger women have Americanized some of the Old Country recipes, but they've kept the original names and secrets of seasoning. They're having an Old Settlers' Banquet pretty soon. You'd better go."
So that's how it happened that I went from New York to my home in Tarpon Springs, Fla., by air-conditioned train (it was the middle of summer), got the jalopy out of the barn, and drove myself 2,130 miles in 3-1/2 days to this town of 1,600 people, 22 miles from a paved highway on a rolling high prairie--Eureka, S. Dak.
Among the things you don't dare to expect in an off-the-beaten-track farming town in a good hotel. Eureka has a new spick-and-span pippin run by Leland Olson, an energetic young man who also races powerboats. When he heard I was in town to find good cooks, he remarked complacently, "All you have to do is come down and meet my mother-in-law. She's the best." And he wasn't far wrong.
Before I had been in town ten minutes, I had a visitor--stocky, businesslike Ted Straub, who, with his brother, Werner, runs a furniture store and funeral parlor their father founded 60 years ago. Ted Straub looked me up, down, and crosswise, and remarked, with a grin, "It's easy to see why you're interested in eating." I explained carefully that my appearance was due to all the padding you get nowadays in those walk-up clothing stores.
Said Straub, "I hope you've got a lot of room under that padding, because we're planning to fill it out with food."
As we walked in the late afternoon sunlight across the dusty streets of Eureka, flanked here and there with weather-beaten false fronts of pioneer business houses side by side with modern buildings, Straub sketched the town's history. Hostile Indians still roamed the high prairie when the first settlers arrived from Russia to break the sod and build the shanties with it. In summer, they fought drought, insects, and the incessant winds of the plains; in winter, they battled howling blizzards and dug caves in the snow to reach their livestock.
The railroad arrived in 1887, and trainloads of immigrants poured in the following year, many from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota. By 1892, Eureka was the greatest primary wheat market in the world, shipping 4,000 carloads worth $2,000,000. During the harvest season, the local terminal earned more money than any station on the entire Milwaukee system. It is still an important shipping point.
"Our people always worked hard," Ted Straub said, "and they ate as enthusiastically as they worked. That's why you'll find the food not only tasty, but built to stick to your ribs."
The town was filling with people as we passed the Red Owl and the Luncheonette, and crossed to the office of F.C. Shankland's weekly newespaper, The Northwest Blade. From the steps, pillars of dust far out on the prairie marked still more farm families heading to town for the two-day celebration just beginning. A streamliner moaned far away, and we strolled around to the depot to watch Stationmaster Arthur Bjork, president of the Chamber of Commerce, welcome a group of old-timers, the women with shawls over their heads, the men with heavy gold watch chains stretched across their vests.
We stopped in the drugstore to visit Hank Isaak, a barrel-chested, effervescent gadgeteer who is druggist, optometrist, cameraman, mighty hunter, and a scion of early settlers. O.B. Just, the butcher, as small as Hank Isaak is huge, visited just long enough to have somebody remember that he once lived up to his name by being a Justice of the Peace. His campaign slogan should have been "O.B. Just for Justice," but said he thought of it too late.
It was dusk when he left for the drugstore- soft, high- prairie dusk with patterns of yellow incandesence splashed from store windows across the worn sidewalks, and clouds of moths dancing against the darkening sky around the street lamps at the intersections. Two cowhands rode along Main Street, staring curiously from beneath their wide sombreros as their shaggy ponies weaved through the stream of motor traffic. And from around the corner by the barred and shuttered bank, past the stand where two pretty girls were dispensing hot dogs and cold pop, music drifted lazily- the unmistakable music of a merry- go- round.
"That's the carniva," Ted Straub said. And it was- Art B. Thomas Bombshell Shows, "Rides and Concessions foe Young and Old." We walked through the Midway monopolizing two blocks in the heart of the buiness district, listened to the spielers, admired the ferris wheel, laughed at the antics of a clown band, and all at once Ted said, "Now then, my friend, let's eat."
And for the next two days I ate as I had never eaten before....
I don't know how to tell you about the borsch, but we'll start with borsch because it's the first course, the soup without which no meal in Eureka is even worth considering. I have eaten borsch in many Russian restaurants in America. I have had it made with beets, so it was pink. I have had it hot. I have had it cold. I have had it with a cold boiled potato plunked down in the middle of a platter of hot borsch, and with a hot boiled potato in the middle of a platter of cold borsch. But until you have eaten Eureka's homemade borsch, you have not eaten borsch. Period.
As I visited from home to home, I learned that 30 ladies, members of the Ladies' Aid of Zion Lutheran Church, were each making two gallons of borsch from their individual recipies for the Old Settlers' banquet, which was to be held in the church basement. First to last, I guess I tasted most of them, although I kind of lost count as I got groggy.
If you want to be facetious, you could catalogue borsch as a vegetable soup, but there's a lot more to it than that. One of the great secrets, I think, is the soup cream which goes into it, and the greatest controversy rages around whether the sour cream should be cooked into it, or added just before serving. You might think this is a trivial matter, but it is so vital that one Eureka lady and her mother- in- law haven't spoken for two years, merely because they disagree over this point.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of the add- it- later devotees, I will stick out my stubby neck to say that I prefer the sour cream cooked in.
I will never tell which lady made the borsch I prefer, but I will confess that it was Grandma Albina Straub, Ted's pioneer mother, who introduced me to stirum. You pronounce it "schteer'em," but I suspect that is only a colloquialism of "stir'em," because that's how it is made. It's really something.
Stirum begins with a simple batter, something like a pancake batter. The ingredients are elementary and the procedure very simple. Here is the recipe as Grandma straub gave it to me:
3/4 cup of sweet milk, 2 eggs, 1 tsp. salt, 1-1/2 tsp. baking powder, 2 cups
sifted flour. Stir ingredients into a thick batter.
In a heavy iron skillet or Dutch oven, melt very hot a tablespoon or so of bacon grease or other fat. When the fat is bubbling hot, turn the fire down a little and pour in the thick batter. As it begins to brown, stir constantly, crumbling it into small pieces about the size of a hazelnut. It is done when each little piece is golden brown and moderately crispy.
Grandma Straub, a fine, sturdy pioneer woman whose father raised 24 children on the wild Dakota prairies, says this concoction was the backbone of the diet in the days of the sod shanty, when food, especially in wintertime, was never plentiful or varied. "You can work all day on a plate of stirum," said Grandma Straub; "it sticks to your ribs." I could work all day on it without ever leaving the table.
I watched the Old Settlers' eyes gleam with joy when the stirum was served just as it came from the skillet. Then I sneaked out and doused mine with melted butter and warm syrup. To the pioneers, that's pretty close to sacrilege, but if you're an old pancake man like me, stirum makes a breakfast or luncheon dish fit for the gods.
And it was Grandma Straub, too, who made the fleischkeichla--pronounced "flysch'keekla." The fleisch part means meat. I don't know what the keekla part means, but the finished product is something like pigs-in-blankets--only different. If you're looking for something different in the way of a main meat course, look no farther. This is it.
I sat in Grandma Straub's kitchen and watched her make fleischkeichla, trying to write down the recipe by following her flying hands. "A dab of this," she'd say, "and a pinch of that." I'd have to stop her to measure the amounts, and she would exclaim, "I never measure; I just put it in."
She told me about the early days, how she used to sell eggs for 3 cents a dozen, butter 2 cents a pound. About a neighbor boy named Kirkland who started for the barn to feed the mules during a blizzard and was found frozen to death 2 miles away. About Mr. Meidinger, who started for a neighbor's home after a heavy snowfall, and had to slide down the chimney to get inside. And all the time, the fleischkeichla were taking form. Finally she sizzled me some in a Dutch oven filled with boiling grease. For fleischkeichla, my friend, I would even slide down a chimney.
The seasoning of the meat may be one of the secrets; I'm not sure. Another secret, certainly, is the seasoning of the blankets. Fundamentally, they are a roll of meat wrapped up and sealed tightly into a blanket of special dough, and fried in deep fat--French fried, I guess--until golden brown. Grandma Straub put mine on a plate and handed it to me. "Take them in your fingers," she instructed; "always in your fingers, never with a knife and fork."
A couple of blocks away, Mrs. Christ Flemmer--Margaret, that is--was getting ready to make halupsi when I went to call. One of the busiest ladies in town, Mrs. Flemmer is president of the Ladies' Aid and a good right hand to her husband, an oil distributor. When he is tied up, she thinks nothing of wheeling a gigantic tank truck off across the prairie, no matter what the weather. And in the kitchen, she is little short of a genius.
HALUPSI, pronounced "hal-loop'-see,"
is another very special meat dish--spiced and seasoned meat rolled
into cabbage leaves for individual servings, and baked in a casseole.
Although there's more to it than that, including a lip-smacking
topping of sour cream and tomato soup, it isn't a difficult dish
to make--at least, it didn't look difficult when Margaret Flemmer
did it--nor does it take much time. But the result is something
to write sonnets about.
If you had eaten as much soggy restaurant cabbage as I have, or as much dubious restaurant meat, you'd understand that there are some things that can't be put into words. Webster never made any words to describe the delicate aroma, the luscious satisfaction of Margaret Flemmer's halupsi.
As I watched her blend the ingredients, the diced onions, the shredded cabbage, the diced green peppers, the diced carrots, and all the other things, I asked where the recipe originated. She said she didn't know; she thought she might have learned it from her grandmother, an early settler. "It certainly came from right around here," she said, "because we've never been anywhere else." Once she made a vacation trip to the magnificent Black Hills, where Borglum's Herculean likenesses of four Presidents is a national shrine and one of the world's wonders, but she has never been outside her native state. "And never wanted to go, especially," she remarked.
I persuaded Mrs. Flemmer to organize her secret recipe into a 6-serving proportion, and no matter how small your family may be, I'd never advise you to make any less. I could eat it myself, given a little time. This is a dish which should be compulsory in every home at least once a week.
Every time I met Leland Olson, my host at the hotel, he wanted to know when I was coming to visit his mother-in-law. I never saw a man so fond of his mother-in-law. And I understood it perfectly after I had met her--Mrs. Minnie Keim, an energetic citizen and a fabulous cook--and tasted the specialty she was preparing for the Old Settlers. It was kuchen, pronounced "koo' (like a dove) -ken." After I had sampled her kuchen, I was not only kooing, I knew she was kuchen on the front burner.
Kuchen is a dessert--and what a dessert! If you wanted to insult it, you might compare it with a pie, because it consists basically of a pie-sized pastry shell filled with goody. But there the resemblance ends. I can't even begin to explain the secret of its lusciousness, but it is certainly one of the most versatile desserts you can imagine, since you can fill it with an almost limitless variety of sweet stuff.
Although, about 25 members of the Ladies' Aid were in their kitchens that day making kuchens for the banquet, each making 4 or 5. That's more than 100 kuchens, each as big as a pie. Later, there were only about 200 Old Settlers around the festive boards, yet there wasn't a smidgen of kuchen left when it was all over. That gives you an idea of how good it is.
As I watched Mrs. Keim deftly blend the ingredients, flipping the dough and stirring the fillings, I learned a little about her life. Her parents brought her from Russia as a baby. She grew up on a prairie farm 3 miles from town, one of 7 children. "I started cooking when I was nine years old," she told me proudly, "and I'll never stop as long as I live." At 13, she also became the family seamstress. Until she was married she made the entire supply of socks, shirts, dresses, and underwear. But best of all, she said, she liked to make kuchen.
Kuchen can be made in an ordinary pie tin and requires no exotic ingredients. The pastry is thicker than that of a pie, hence is easier to handle, and is made very differently. It can be filled with any kind of fruit or sweet combination. One of Mrs. Keim's 5 varieties was filled with rhubarb and raisins, another with cooked and pitted prunes. The one I liked best, I think, was a tongue-tingling mixture of cottage cheese, sweet cream, sugar, and egg--although it ran a close second to one which was flavored with peanut butter and ground black walnut meats. With the special topping that goes on every kuchen, no matter what's in it, they were something to telegraph home about.
A perfectionist in everything she does, Mrs. Keim bossed me around unmercifully when it came to writing down her recipe. "Just exactly so much," she would say, "no more, no less. Get it right." So I got it right.
The Old Settlers' banquet was scheduled for 5 o'clock in the afternoon. That morning, I had an invitation to lunch with Fred and Kathrina Scherle, who moved to town not long ago from their prosperous farm. I had been hearing about Mrs. Scherle's prowess with a kitchen stove, and had intended to visit her. This, I thought, was a lucky break. Now I'd get a few samples.
To us wispy guys, lunch is normally a bite between breakfast and dinner--a sandwich and a mug of tea, maybe; not much more. But the minute I stepped inside the Scherle bungalow and took a whiff of the aroma from the kitchen, I knew what was cookin', and it wasn't a sandwich and a dish of tea. It turned out to be a meal well calculated to separate the men from the boys, a meal to remember whenever food is mentioned.
First, husky, hearty Fred Scherle led me surreptitiously to his private medicine cabinet in the basement for a beaker of his homemade grape juice, made from big purple Concords grown and crushed with a master's hand. By the time we got back upstairs, Kathrina Scherle was taking things out of the oven and off the burners, and we sat down reverently around her table.
First there was borsch--steaming bowls of it, pungent as only borsch can be with the sour cream cooked in. Then we got down to business with homemade sausages, big and fat and seasoned for the gods, browned to an exact point which left them with a crisp outside, soft inside, and piping hot clear through. And then a silver platter pyramided with halupsi, tender as a baby's kiss, the subtle spices tempered with a delicate sweetness from a prune cooked on top of each cabbage-rolled helping.
There were homemade watermelon pickles--not the rind of the melon, but the whole melon, which grows no larger than a cantaloupe in that latitude because of the short summer and is pickled in its entirety. There were homemade dill pickles, with plenty of garlic in the brine. There was a fresh fruit salad, and sweet homemade buns. And there was something I had never had before, something I went completely nuts about--a hot potato salad.
The Scherles, I regret to report, were considerably concerned about me. When I could eat only seven sausages (as an appetizer, of course), they stared incredulously. When I finally had to pass up a fifth halupsi, they exchanged sorrowful glaces. When I couldn't finish my third slice of homemade cake (with homemade ice cream, naturally), Fred Scherle muttered darkly that I must have eaten before I came.
But this I will say: I finished that hot potato salad, right down to the last mouth-watering tidbit. And if there had been more, I'd have made room for it somewhere. So that's the recipe I wheedled out of Kathrina Scherle. It's Number 5 on this month's Recipe Parade...
Yes, I attended the Old Settlers' banquet at 5 o'clock that afternoon, and I'll bet the ladies who worked so hard to prepare the food are mad at me. Maybe when they read this report, they will understand why it was I couldn't eat a bite.
Try These Eureka Recipes
If you love good food, as Don Eddy does, you'll want to try out some of the dishes he describes in this article. Here they are. We'll send you the recipes merely for the asking. Just address Eureka Recipes, The American Magazine, 640 Fifth Avenue, New York 19, N.Y., enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
1. Margaret Flemmer's Halupsi (meat and vegetables baked in cabbage leaves).
2. Grandma Straub's Fleischkeichla (a special sort of pigs-in-blankets).
3. Borsch (soup with the sour cream cooked in).
4. Minnie Keim's Kuchen (a versatile pielike dessert).
5. Kathrina Scherle's Hot Potato Salad.
Editor's Note: Do you know of a group or community home-cooked feast with a reputation for excellence? Don Eddy is cruising the nation looking for events in which: (1) the ladies do the cooking in their own kitchens from their own recipes; (2) the menu is sufficiently diversified to provide a variety of recipes; and (3) the food, where possible, is typical of the people or the region. If you know of such an event, why not tell him about it? Don Eddy, Special Events, The American Magazine, 640 Fifth Avenue, New York 19, N.Y.
Eddy the Eater all set to pitch into the borsch, kuchen, and other delectables in Eureka, S. Dak. Wating to serve him are star home cooks (l.to r.):Christine Heer, Mary Rathke, Bertha Kretschmer, Rose Schaible, Margaret Straub, Mae Wolf
Grandma Albina Straub whips up her gastronomic specialty, fleischkeichla; her granddaughter Charlotte watches
Mrs. Minnie Keim shows off her mouth-watering kuchen, which she has baked with five delicious fillings
Mrs. Margaret Flemmer, of Eureka, S. Dak., rolls a portion of spiced and seasoned meat into a cabbage leaf to make the lip-smacking delicacy, halupsi
Mrs. Kathrina Scherle serves her husband, Fred, retired farmer, a generous helping of halupsi. On the table is the "light luncheon" which stalled Eater Eddy