Brooke Hatfield

What’s at Steak: An Exegesis of the 1969 Republican Woman’s Cookbook of Meat

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If the 1969 Republican Woman's Cookbook of Meats can be trusted, then aspics aren't evil, sliced almonds go on everything, and women's first names are unimportant. "No matter how involved Republican women become in the local and national scene, we are primarily interested in our homes and families," Mrs. J. Lloyd O'Donnell, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, writes in the introduction. On page 115 there is a recipe for Uninspired Casserole. The 1969 Republican Woman's Cookbook of Meat was a fundraising tool, and perhaps a cry for help.

Mrs. J. Lloyd O'Donnell's first name is Gladys, which I only know because I Googled it; her given name appears nowhere in the book despite her prominent role in the group that put it together. And her Hot Chicken Salad recipe, which contains the aforementioned toasted almonds, crushed potato chips, pimentos, and monosodium glutamate, is as dated as her attribution. Foodways don't exist within a cultural vacuum, and any collection of recipes has subtext. As a guided tour through a hell-scape of mid-century American cuisine, the 1969 Republican Woman's Cookbook of Meat tells us what they ate. As a historical document, it hints at how they lived.

They made so many congealed meat molds! And shrimp salads, dried beef casseroles, clam chowders, cut-up hard boiled eggs as far as the eye can see, and more meats cooked in sour cream than have ever been dreamt of in our modern food philosophy! They won beauty pageants and never let anyone forget about it! [1] They went sailing with hamburger casserole, which seems really hazardous! [2]

As the name of the book implies, recipes were all submitted by women involved in Republican party, from members of local women's groups to wives of congressmen to a handful of congresswomen. (Who are listed by their own names, no honorific.) Feast upon the expected topical recipe titles: Campaign Trail Stew, Campaigners Casserole, Conservative Hamburger Soup or Governor Romney's Favorite Bean Soup. (He's a navy bean man, it turns out!)

The kitsch and weirdness of mid-century American foodways is puzzling in retrospect; how did we ever embrace dishes like Jellied Veal Loaf and Corned Beef Balls in Celery Sauce, which read like the maddest of libs? So many dishes seem absurd and abstract, ideas of food more than an actual suggestion of something you should eat. Sometimes they speak in metaphors: "Thin mayonnaise with cream." "Best ducks are those that are not allowed to fly." "Some years the meat is especially tender." [3]

Several recipes would be incredible drag names—Delmonico Steak, Saratoga Chop, Chicken Marengo—and others beg re-imagining as rom-com titles—Inside Chuck Roll, I Remember Post Roast, Everett Mudgett's Company Recipe, Ruby Life's Favorite Dish for 30 People.

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The book even has a villain: Mrs. Herb Witthauer's Cucumber Steak, a truly appalling concoction of steak and cucumbers boiled in a mixture of ketchup and water. Lars Von Trier's Antichrist is less disturbing.

But if the Republican Women's Cookbook of Meat is a story, and weird recipes and bizarre anecdotes are part of its landscape, so too are those husband names, like little record scratches at the end of every recipe. A recipe for Thermos-Cooked Wieners, which involves cooking 24 hot dogs in a gallon jug of boiling water, feels vaguely subversive, if not totally aspirational.

The very existence of the Republican Woman's Cookbook of Meat, O'Donnell writes in the introduction, "proves again that a woman can be active in civic affairs and also be an outstanding homemaker." It's the latter that feels heavy, heavier than a thousand lobsters Newburg, heavier than nothing but creamed ham for a week.


[1] The recipe for Mrs. Arizona Beer Stew includes the following note: "This recipe was partly responsible for friends encouraging me to enter the Mrs. America contest in 1957. My husband calls it Mrs. Arizona Beer Stew; I won the title and was runner-up as Mrs. America, though I didn't get to cook the stew in the contest." We get it, you were almost Mrs. America over a decade earlier. (And let's not even try to figure out how a stew could portend pageant potential. Did the bay leaves form the shape of a crown and an eating disorder?)

[2] Rep. Ogden Reid's personal note on a recipe for Hamburger Casserole would be perfect fodder for an attack ad characterizing him as wealthy and out-of-touch: "We often take this casserole when we go sailing. It is easily reheated on the boat."

[3] And sometimes they speak like an email from a Nigerian prince: "The generous butcher is long gone but the recipe still does yeoman service."

Brooke Hatfield reads old cookbooks in public in Atlanta.

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