I. VIRGINIA AND HER FRIENDS
Before introducing you to the 1969 cookbook Friends and Their Food, by Virginia Safford, it’s important to first point out that, in the Minneapolis of 1969, I wouldn’t have had to explain to you who Virginia Safford was.
Around the Upper Midwest in the middle of the last century, Safford was probably one of the best-known public figures in the city. Though by 1969 she had retired and was living in Mexico, for the three decades preceding, she was a travel, food and, — in the parlance of the times — “women’s page” columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune. She toured Southeast Asia, China, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and many other far-flung locales, sending dispatches back from all of them. Her writing was in that sort of breezy and conversational style characteristic of most popular mid-century print media personalities.
There is an interesting undercurrent in the work of star columnists of this time — especially the really personable writers — that the reader is meant to live somewhat vicariously through their exploits. They’re friendly, personable Minnesotans, people you can relate to, who just happen to be traveling abroad or hobnobbing with elites. And they’re inviting you along for the ride.
You can detect this quality in Friends and Their Food, a cookbook collecting recipes from the kitchens of 52 of Safford’s friends around the Twin Cities, with pen-and-ink illustrations by Virginia Bueide. These friends are not just your bowling alley or knitting circle pals, however; they’re all very prominent figures in the Minneapolis business community and society circles, the types of people who, 40 years later, still have endowments, scholarships and foundations named for them. There are many still-familiar names in there — Phillip Pillsbury, Donald Dayton, Bruce Dayton, Calvin Griffith, Russell Lund, Vern Mikkelsen. The book is a follow-up to one she wrote two decades earlier in 1944, entitled Food of My Friends, which followed a similar formula. She writes a biographical sketch of the hostess (or, in a few cases, the host), describes their relationship, and then a particular dinner she once shared with them. You get all the courses, with recipes for each.
“After all these memorable adventures in world cuisines,” she writes in the introduction, after wistfully describing the many interesting meals she’d eaten around the world — dishes like baby doe roe in Bavaria, hummus in Lebanon, fresh mangos and grapefruits purchased from outdoor markets in Mexico — “I could still return to my home in Minneapolis where I was born and always feel that Twin Cities food was among the best in the world and that the hostesses in this area set as fine a table as one could ask for.”
Twin Cities food is among the best food in the world? I feel as if I am betraying Safford’s bonhomie and goodwill by saying so, but I wasn’t sure that I could completely believe this. This is no great secret, but here’s the thing: the Midwest of the 1950s and ’60s is not generally thought of as a great period for good food, in the way that we think of good food today.
The postwar era is a time of supermarkets, frozen vegetables, pre-cooked meats, artificial flavorings, and ingredients measured out in terms of packets, cans, and boxes. This time in the urban Midwest was a fascinating, transitional, and, in many respects, almost completely unrecognizable time in terms of cuisine. Julia Child is flickering in the national consciousness, but Alice Waters is still years and thousands of miles away. Locally, the co-op movement that birthed the Wedge, Seward, North Country, and others wouldn’t reach critical mass for at least another couple of years.
Think of the strengths that we tend to associate with of our local food scene today. In fact, James Norton outlined them very nicely when The Heavy Table launched in 2009: “This is site about the Upper Midwest. We make some of the best beer and cheese in the world. Period. Full stop. There is wild game. Fresh fish. Some hardy fruits (notably: apples), and all manner of farm-raised four-legged delicacies.”
These attributes are conspicuously missing in Safford’s hosts’ kitchens.
In Minneapolis of this time, food is popularly thought of not coming from gardens and farms and markets, but from the backs of trucks that have unloaded their contents onto the shelves of the local Red Owl, Supervalu or Lunds. These trucks also provide the ingredients for the most popular and celebrated restaurants in town, places primarily named for the owners: Murray’s, John’s Place, Wade’s, Becky’s Cafeteria, Peter’s Grill, Lee’s Broiler. In fact, Safford herself more or less makes this point in a later chapter when she references “one of those ‘steak, baked potato, head lettuce with a choice of three kinds of dressing, apple pie or scoop of ice cream”-style establishments. “Too many of our so-called good eating places never vary from this menu,” she complains. “I believe, however, it is not really the fault of the restaurateurs, but rather the patrons who never seem to know just what else to order.”
So when we visit the kitchens of the local elite with Safford, we are not necessarily surprised at what we find in the pantry. Here are some of the ingredients called for in the book’s recipes: Karo syrup. “Pre-cooked ham.” MSG. “1 #2 can tomatoes.” Jello-O. Condensed soups. Marshmallows. Green food coloring. Dehydrated onion soup. “1 package frozen broccoli.” Sickly sweet Madeira wine. Chipped beef. “Uncle Ben’s rice.” Velveeta cheese. I don’t point these out simply to snicker at the prepackaged, freeze-dried tastes of our grandparents’ generation. But imagine driving out to a mansion in Wayzata or Shoreview today, sitting down for a fashionable meal with country club members, Guthrie season ticket holders and board executives, and then being served a five-course homemade meal featuring Velveeta cheese, green food coloring, and instant rice. It seems, in this farm-to-table, organic, sustainable, small-batch era, truly bizarre. It would, in fact, seem insulting.
I sound here like a food snob with no sense of historic perspective. I don’t mean to. This is probably what was in your parents or grandparents’ pantries growing up – it was in mine. It’s perfectly serviceable postwar cuisine. The thing I would like to stress here, though, is that most dishes in Friends and Their Food were not meant to be standard suburban ranch house / church basement / TV dinner fare. These were the nicest private kitchens in the Twin Cities. This is not meant to be populist fare. In four hundred pages, the word “casserole” appears only four or five times, and the phrase “hot dish” once. There is but a smattering of molded salads. Instead, we find recipes for Coq a Vin, Remoulade Salad, Vichyssoise, Ravigote Sauce, Scalloped Oysters, Scampi Thermadore, Pilaf Almondine, and Tomato Aspic with Lobster.
That is what makes the cookbook such a fascinating artifact. This is a largely forgotten form of Midwestern cooking, probably never to be mythologized in the way Lutheran church basement potluck cooking is, though just as native to the region. Despite an abundance of absurdly non-local ingredients (lobster and oysters are all over the place, for example), there are intriguing glimpses into what you might call a regional culinary vernacular utilizing quality local ingredients. There is Calvin Griffith’s “Minnetonka Bouillabaisse,” made with bass, walleye, pike and crappie, for example. Or there is krumkake and Swedish rosettes from a couple in Wayzata, and sweet curd cheese fritters from the president of Green Giant. There are many good dairy-heavy dishes, like the Coeur a la Crème with fresh fruit, from the manager of the Woodhill Country Club, “near Orono.”
What to make of it all, Safford’s “best food in the world”?
While I don’t want to oversimplify it too much, the culinary math works out for me in this way: these are dishes created by middle- and upper-class, newly suburban women swapping recipes and taking cooking classes at the local YMCA or Continuing Ed, the curriculum of which is informed largely by cues from fashionable French cuisine, as well as notions about old-money East Coast tastes. This is then filtered through the convenience of the neighborhood supermarket and its aisles and aisles of ready-to-eat food, and then infused with ideas from recipes handed down from mothers and grandmothers only two or three generations removed from the frontier. Looked at in this light, the cuisine presented in Friends and Their Food is not the hopeless compromise of tacky, pretentious dishes made with bland ingredients, as we might be tempted to think.
Instead, it’s a pretty brilliant manifestation of the domestic arts circa 1969: a modern, cheap, efficient, lavish cuisine, utilizing the best aspects of contemporary food technology, and matching fashionable, moneyed contemporary American tastes blow for blow with an unpretentious, cozy Midwestern resourcefulness. If it appears dated from a contemporary perspective, placed in an appropriate historical context, it all makes sense.
I thought it would be more fun to take a cue from Safford and throw a dinner party, using one of the meals outlined in Friends and Their Food.
And so The Heavy Table did.
The obvious choice for this meal, after reading the book, is a menu assembled by Mary Randolph (referred to throughout as “Mrs. Harrison Randolph”), which is among the most imaginative and intriguing of the fifty-two in the book. The late Mrs. Randolph was Safford’s niece, and Safford claims by way of introduction she was “never brought up to know how to boil a cup of water for tea.” From this inauspicious background, she came to be lauded as one of the region’s top dinner hostesses.
Her husband Harrison Randolph, who died in 2006 at the age of 89, was CEO of Northern Ordnance, a Fridley-based manufacturer of armaments for the U.S. Navy; he was also as a regular at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, where he was apparently quite the golfer. Harrison and Mary had several children, one of whom was the artist Virginia Bueide.
Bueide was an active Minneapolis artist starting in the 1960s, who’d studied at the school that later became MCAD and at Barat College in Illinois. She exhibited extensively, both locally and nationally through the period, and is still an active painter today. Her witty illustrations are one of the best parts of the book: simple pen-and-ink drawings of some of the dishes, notated in an offhand, loopy script. They place the period right at the end of the 1960s, but seem retro enough now to have an agreeably contemporary feel to them. I am reminded of other minimalist illustrators working today, like Jason Novak at The Rumpus, or Leanne Shapton.
Heavy Table Editor James Norton and his spouse, photographer Becca Dilley, have a nicer kitchen and dining room than I do, so they were kind enough to offer their house for the purposes of this meal. We invite our mutual friends Peter and Brooke Hajinian to join in. Mrs. Randolph’s menu is as follows:
And we adapted and served it as follows:
Buttered Party Rye Bread
Braunschweiger Pate Molded in Aspic
Chicken and Chipped Beef
Wild Rice Special
Tossed Green Salad
The Forgotten Roast
Tom Thumb Dessert
While we entered into this meal with the purest intentions, I should say first – and how could you have not detected this already? – there was probably was an dash of smugness and skepticism in the exercise. All five of us were born in the 1970s or early ’80s. We remember postwar suburban heartland cooking firsthand from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens: casseroles, finger foods, Jell-O, pot roasts, TV dinners, Wonderbread, salmon loaves, things like that.
Safford introduces her niece as “a genius in the kitchen,” and explains her cooking lineage: She’d taken classes from one Verna Meyer, “whose classes at the YMCA have helped to make Minneapolis’ hostesses among the best in the area.” Randolph brushes off the compliment by saying, “It’s all in the planning.” Before we begin cooking, James purchases all the supplies we need at Everett’s on 38th Street, a 1950s-style neighborhood grocery store and deli largely unchanged by the passage of time — the workers still wear white paper hats and aprons. We begin with the buttered party bread and the tossed salad, both of which are also largely unchanged by the passage of time, and pretty easy to assemble.
The Forgotten Roast is also a fairly easy place to start. By the time I arrive, it has been in a slow cooker for a few hours. The name turns up a few places online for similar recipes, including on cooks.com, where the instructions and ingredients are listed verbatim as they appear in Friends and Their Food. It’s difficult to say who coined the term, then, but whoever’s responsible, it’s appropriate: You just slap some chuck in some tin foil, pour a package of dehydrated onion soup and a can of condensed cream of celery soup over it, wrap it up tight, and shove it in an oven at 275 degrees for four hours. “Before serving,” says Randolph, “you will find it has made its own gravy.”
I keep referring to this as the “autogenerating gravy.” Everyone was skeptical about the dehydrated soup and cream of celery. These are the key ingredients in the sorts of mediocre casseroles and hot dishes that are said to autogenerate in church basements.
Next up is the Braunschweiger Pate, which we’ll serve as an appetizer. Savory gelatin dishes are always a tough sell, having fallen out of favor right about the time of this cookbook. Nevertheless.
2 cans consommé, undiluted
2 packages unflavored gelatin
juice of ½ lemon
dash of cayenne
¼ tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ lb braunschweiger
½ c mayonnaise
dash of brandy
Heat consommé. Dissolve gelatin in a little cold water and add to consommé. Add juice of lemon, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce. Pour half of this mixture in a 1-quart ring mold. Let partially set. Meantime, blend together the braunschweiger and mayonnaise and dash of brandy. Spread on top of partially set aspic, leaving a little space on the edges. Add remaining aspic. Chill until firm. Unmold and surround with thinly sliced, buttered dark rye bread.
“At the time of this writing, she is working hard on a new dish she plans to run the gamut of entertaining with,” writes Safford. “It is a chicken and beef casserole.” We all agree that of everything on the menu, the Chicken and Chipped Beef is the strangest and the boldest, the one that seems the most like an over-the-top satire of postwar cooking, but maybe just audacious enough to yield something truly unique. There is, once again, condensed soup, but a few others intriguing items:
8 chicken breasts, skinned
4 oz chipped beef
1 can of condensed mushroom soup
2 tbsp sherry
1 c sour cream
12 slices of bacon
In a shallow buttered casserole arrange 8 small servings of chipped beef. Wrap chicken breasts in bacon and lay a breast on top of each mound of beef. Combine sour cream with mushroom soup and sherry. Pour over individual mounds. Bake 1½ hours in a 350 degree oven. Serve on fluffy rice.
Everett’s, it turns out, makes its own chipped beef, so we have some of that for the base. The sherry, sour cream, and mushroom soup are an unlikely combination, but we faithfully dab the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts with it, and put it in the oven.
Next up is the Wild Rice Special. The wild rice used in it is perhaps the only truly local ingredient in the whole meal. Strangely enough, though, for all the times the five of us have cooked with wild rice, none of us can think of a recipe we’ve encountered that calls for it to be mixed with white rice. It seems so obvious. Other than that, it’s a pretty conventional hot dish:
1 4-oz jar of mushrooms
1 ½ tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tbsp chopped green pepper
1 c rice, uncooked combination of white and wild
3 c chicken broth
Drain mushrooms saving liquid and sauté lightly in butter, along with garlic and green pepper. Add mushroom juice and rice. Stir and cook 5-7 minutes. Put in buttered casserole and pour on 3 cups chicken broth. Bake in 350 degree oven for 1½ hours, uncovered. Season to taste.
Mary’s theory that good cooking is all about planning seems about right, as everything is shaping up to be ready to eat at about the same time. Last up is preparing the dessert, a dish called Tom Thumb.
“Wherever this dessert, that Mary Randolph lists among her favorites, got its name she does not know,” writes Safford. “Similar versions can be found but you’ll want to try this one.” The Internet has quite a few recipes for desserts called “Tom Thumbs,” and some are vaguely similar, but most of them seem to be bars. This is put in a pie tin, cut into segments. (Presumably? The instructions aren’t clear.)
10 soda crackers
¼ c finely crushed nut meats
3 egg whites
pinch of salt
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
vanilla ice cream
Roll crackers out fine. Add chopped nut meats. Add pinch of salt to egg whites and beat until stiff. Fold sugar and baking powder into egg whites. Add crushed crackers and nut mixture. Add vanilla and spread on buttered pie tin. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Let stand at least 1 hour before serving. Top with vanilla ice cream and strawberries crushed in their own juice.
With the table set, the meal began. The aspic pate was meaty and hearty and little weird in the way aspics are. It worked well spread on the rye — especially the pate, which actually fused with the mayonnaise and brandy in a pretty agreeable way. The mayo cut the iron-y quality of the pate with some heavy fat, and if you can deal with a slithery, cold meat with Jell-O mixed in, it was a great appetizer.
The casserole was about what we expected, about on par with any other mushroom and green pepper casserole you’ve eaten in your life. In an evening of Mrs. Randolph’s culinary juxtapositions, though, the wild rice and white rice mix seemed the most ingenious development. The Internet turns up a few white-and-wild-rice pilaf recipes, but blending the two rices is not a common kitchen maneuver. It works well, especially in situations where using all white rice would be too bland, and using all wild rice would be textural overkill.
The star of the evening to that point, though, was unquestionably the Forgotten Roast and its autogenerative gravy. True to Mrs. Randolph’s promise, we opened the foil, and there it was – a tender, juicy and altogether perfect roast, lying in a pool of gravy. It is the simplest, most foolproof recipe imaginable. And yet it’s so perfect. A few weeks later, in fact, I tried it again with reverse-engineered fresh ingredients – a cream soup made from scratch with fresh celery in a food processor, and a homemade dry onion soup mix. It was OK, but nowhere near as good as what I got from pouring stuff out of a can and a paper packet. Our grandparents my have been onto something with this one.
I am curious what became of Mrs. Randolph’s experiment in chicken, bacon and chipped beef, the one she planned to “run the gamut of entertaining with.” Is this a dish she trotted out regularly? Did she continue to refine it? When we took it out of the oven, the sour cream, mushroom soup and brandy had become a white, creamy sauce that smothered the piles of meat. It was pretty tasty, but seemed a little one-dimensional – the chipped beef didn’t really add anything, other than being a nice bed for the bacon-wrapped chicken to rest on. It all mostly seemed like eating – as noted – a pile of meat smothered in a lightly salted cream sauce. Not a bad thing by any means, of course, but a little heavy. I later told my mom about this dish, and she said her mom had a similar dish in the 1950s and ‘60s in suburban Cincinnati.
Finally, the Tom Thumb came out for dessert. We cut it into slices and topped each with vanilla ice cream and strawberries.
Like Mary Randolph, I don’t know where the Tom Thumb came from. I don’t care, either. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter, because wherever the Tom Thumb might have come from, I consider it solely a product of Mary Randolph’s genius. The Twin Cities must claim this dish as a hometown favorite immediately. Write R.T. an email. Or maybe Mark Dayton – his parents are in the cookbook, after all. Let’s do something about this, because the Tom Thumb was so pleasing and delicious I want to be able to get it for dessert all over the cities and hear local food snobs brag about how simple and tasty it is. In a just world, the Mary Randolph-style Tom Thumb should be invoked in the same breath as other Twin Cities-specific delicacies like Jucy Lucys, Pronto Pups, and Wondrous Punch. It belongs in the pantheon. It belongs on the “Category:Cuisine_of_Minnesota” Wikipedia page.
Like the Forgotten Roast, the Tom Thumb is surprisingly complex. It has a distinctive salty-sweet flavor, despite using base ingredients that you can obtain for under ten dollars in any gas station or convenience store. We used almonds, cashews and walnuts for the nuts, I believe, and the soda crackers were regular Nabisco saltines. With ice cream and strawberries on top, it makes for an almost perfect dessert. In the weeks since this meal, throughout the holiday season and its aftermath, I’ve probably made it a dozen times, for dinner parties, friends, and for myself.
At the end of the night, with the Tom Thumb finished, the five of us agreed that we enjoyed the meal greatly. We had trouble putting our finger on what exactly we’d enjoyed about the meal, though. It was much more sophisticated than what we’d expected, for one. But something about the meal felt so comforting, too – it was so rooted in its era, which we’d all grown up at the tail end of. We couldn’t help but think of Sunday sit-down dinners that our grandparents had made in our youth. The tastes and textures and flavors seemed so familiar. Most of it was quite tasty, and in a few cases – the Forgotten Roast and the Tom Thumb – it was exceptional. On the balance, it wasn’t at all the kitschy suburban supermarket experience we quietly imagined it might be at the outset. Despite the canned food and slightly eccentric combinations, more than anything, it was just comforting. It didn’t create fist-pumping excitement. It was just a well-planned and tasty dinner.
I thought again of what Safford has said about Twin Cities food being among the best in the world. She’d also said, though, that “the hostesses in this area set as fine a table as one could ask for.” That, perhaps, is the key. It’s not just the food, but the people. This food doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a meal is only as good as the person serving it; this I, perhaps, what makes a casserole made with condensed soup better, in its own way, than a spread of fresh mangos from an outdoor Mexican market.
Safford was such a consistently popular personality, I imagine, because her readers enjoyed spending time with her, even if it was a relationship mediated by the printed word. The warmth and friendship she relates in these stories seem genuineand speak to the best aspects of the Twin Cities’ civic character: casually cosmopolitan, unfussy, and friendly in a sincere, non-superficial way. This is what people love about the best restaurants in town, the experience of walking in, being greeted, and feeling part of something. So much of Friends and Their Food does seem alien from a 21st century vantage point, from another world entirely. But more importantly, there are parts that still seem familiar, and still fit ideas of who we are — if not, precisely, what we eat.