By Hannah Meidahl
The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.
This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime.
Margaret Chase Smith, a United States Senator from Maine, spent her life defying gender roles and exemplifying the capability of women during a time when their rights were limited. She served as a prime example of what prejudices can be overcome in order to progress socially and politically. Despite her vast progression in a male-dominated field, Smith continued to be seen as a wife and homemaker, and would often receive recipes, with which she was able to form a recipe collection that highlighted Maine food and promoted the state’s agricultural sphere . Through research into her personal life and analysis of her recipe collection, specifically the recipe for ‘French Pancakes,’ information about the life of the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress can be learned and better understood.
Born from a French-Canadian mother, it is no surprise that Smith exemplified some French influence in her cooking. The state of Maine has a close connection to French Canada and the recipes collected by Smith that kept her close to her childhood and the state she loved so much reflected this. The recipe for French Pancakes seems to be a classic crepe recipe. Made simply with eggs, flour, and milk, this recipe is something that could have been enjoyed by any number of people. Both the wealthy and the working class would have access to these basic ingredients and needed utensils. Furthermore, this recipe could be enhanced by anything on hand: meat, fruit, sugar, syrup, or butter. The versatility of the recipe does not suggest any selectivity in regards to class or type of person that would have been able to eat it.
Smith’s recipe for French Pancakes contrasts in many aspects, much as her own life did. Initially, it seems to be something more akin to a thin, slightly sweet omelet, but is delicious and tastes much more like a traditional crepe when paired with chocolate or syrup. It is simple, but still somewhat difficult for an inexperienced cook. The flour lumps easily in the egg yolks and beating the whites to the correct consistency is tiring. These can be enjoyed as a sweet or savory dish, is rather fast yet is filling, and allows the cook to feel the satisfaction of crafting a homemade meal to be had with friends or family. The contradictions in this recipe allow for parallels in Smith’s life, as she maintained aspects of her domestic life while spending the majority of it in with a powerful role in a male-dominated field.
To many, pancakes conjure the idea of a sit-down, comfort meal, and a stereotypical image of a wife cooking breakfast for her family. However, so many aspects of Smith’s life did not follow this image. She broke free of many traditional gender roles by working hard from a young age and learning to support herself. It is curious that her life contrasts in so many ways to this recipe found in her collection and brings up questions about the role she played as a woman. She considered herself an advocate for women and said that “a woman should serve wherever she feels best qualified to serve”  and “hoped her victory reflected a broader change in the culture – a ‘growing realization’ as she put it, ‘that ability and proved performance, rather than sex, are the best standards for political selection just as much as they are for any other kind of selection’” . She believed in women’s empowerment and yet embraced traditional aspects of her gender role that made her feel powerful and important. She wore a dress and heels every day into her nineties and maintained this recipe collection at home, hinting at domestic work. She continues to act as a symbol of balance and of doing whatever makes an individual feel important and valued. In class, this was discussed as well, with the empowerment of women through their domestic life, emphasized especially by the writing of Catharine Beecher who believed that the “moral power” of the home and domestic life was most important for women . She claimed that “…in the home…[women] may reign a queen” .
Smith’s commitment to her work exemplified the type of person and politician she strove to be. Hardworking from the time she was a girl, Smith would reply to constituent letters the day she received them, traveled to Maine on the weekend, visited each precinct monthly, and set a record from being present at nearly 3000 consecutive state role calls . It is a fair assumption that, had Smith followed a more traditional life of a housewife and mother, she would have been dedicated to her family and an inspiration to those around, just as she was in Washington. The contrasts that exist in her recipe for French Pancakes allow a parallel for the contrasts of gender roles in Smith’s life. Thinking of her recipe creates a new image of the senator. Rather than a woman who put work over everything and refused to conform, Smith was a headstrong, talented person who allowed herself a balance between professional achievement and personal satisfaction.
Hannah Meidahl is a fourth-year Psychology major with a minor in Biology and member of the Honors Collegeat the University of Maine.
- Role of food in politics, public life focus of research collaborative inspired by Margaret Chase Smith – UMaine News – University of Maine. (2019, March 6). Retrieved April 25, 2019, from UMaine News website: https://umaine.edu/news/blog/2019/03/06/role-of-food-in-politics-public-life-focus-of-research-collaborative-inspired-by-margaret-chase-smith/
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