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 was a Maine native and a groundbreaking woman in political history. As the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, Smith maintained a domestic charm while becoming a powerful and independent politician. Smith lived her entire life (aside from her time in Washington) in Skowhegan, Maine. She never went to college and was a devoted wife to Clyde Smith, who was a member of the House of Representatives. As a politician’s wife, she honed her skills as a political candidate, learning how to connect with the people. Before Clyde died in 1940, he asked her to take his seat in the house. This was the start of her thirty-three-year career in Congress.
While in office, Smith received many recipe requests. Smith had a collection of recipe utilizing Maine ingredients prepared on her Senate office stationery, always ready to mail a recipe. Many of her recipes were heavily influenced by Maine foods traditions, such as blueberry muffins, lobster dishes, and baked beans. An anomaly within the collection is a card containing the directions to prepare Cheese Salad (chilled). Our class, “Food, Feminism, and Femininity,” has focused on Smith’s recipe collection, and I selected the cheese salad recipe for analysis for several reasons. First, I was intrigued by the mix of ingredients. Cheese salad (chilled) contains mayonnaise, pineapple, maraschino cherries, green pepper, cream, walnuts, and paprika. The instructions are also quite vague, presenting a challenge for preparing the recipe. Finally, I wanted to look more deeply into the emergence of convenience foods in the twentieth century, and the idea of what constituted a “salad” during this period.
Reading through the recipe and noting the ingredients, reminded me of another class research project focused on Maine community cookbooks compiled in the 1920s and 1930s. My classmates and I noted a prevalence of molded salads in these texts, concoctions of fruit, vegetables, dairy, gelatin, and sometimes meat that were hugely unappealing to our twenty-first-century palates. In my examination of The Wilton Cookbook compiled by the ladies of the Wilton Episcopal Church in 1922, I noted a number of recipes for molded salads such as Nut Frappe, Pineapple Cream, and Lemon Sponge. These concoctions frequently relied on gelatin to hold the ingredients and whipped cream to provide taste and texture. These recipes especially are quite “of the times” in terms of ingredients. I noted many convenience foods, including whipped cream, which Diane Tye discusses in Baking as Biography, as “a convenience food which was often mixed with canned or frozen fruit.” Tye also covers the popularity of gelatin, The Wilton Cookbook contains advertisements for Knox Sparkling Gelatin at the top of every page, indicating the company as a potential sponsor of the cookbook but also the prevalence of gelatin in popular cooking.
The insights from this research guided my interpretation of Smith’s Cheese Salad (Chilled) recipe. The “Salad” portion of Smith’s recipe collection mainly consists of recipes for salad dressing; however, in addition to the Cheese Salad, there are three other molded salad recipes. Ribbon Salad, Lime Cucumber Salad, and the simply named “Salad” that rely on combinations of convenience foods (canned fruit cocktail or tomato soup) with mayonnaise and/or cream cheese (Lime Cucumber Salad is an outlier calling for cottage cheese) with flavored Jell-O or plain gelatin served molded. These too offered some guidance for my analysis.
I had several initial questions. What is a cheese salad even supposed to taste like? How much salt and paprika? How do you serve it? It says, “freeze stiff,” so was I supposed to serve it stiff? Like ice cream? With very little information given, I decided to make cheese salad into a dip for crackers. I decided that for a dip, two packages of cream cheese would make the most sense. I decided that the chopped fruit should look like the fruit you would get in a fruit cake mix, so I chopped everything into tiny cubes. I determined that crushed pineapple would probably work better than chopping pineapple slices because they have a tendency to shred into pieces I added ½ teaspoon of salt, because that seems standard for recipes (based on things that I have cooked in the past) and ¼ of paprika, because I did not want to go overboard with a surprising flavor. In my opinion, even that much was too much—the paprika was too overwhelming. After mixing everything, I decided to put it in a rounded bowl so that when I flipped it, it would look molded. I based this decision on my knowledge of past generation’s fascination with molded salads. I will not lie; this step was quite unappealing; the mixture smelled odd and looked like lumpy, flesh-colored ice cream. While the outcome looks deceptively like a cake, cheese salad tastes like a fascinating mix of sweet and salty, and the paprika is quite evident.
Serving this dish to different groups revealed changing tastes and the power of nostalgia in the enjoyment of a recipe. When I served this dish to my twenty-year-old peers, they were all disgusted, and I figured that the recipe was a complete failure. However, when I fed the same dish to a group of college professors, whose ages ranged from 30s to 60s, they had a completely different reaction. The professors remarked that the dish reminded them of housewarming parties from their childhood, their grandmothers’ cooking, and 1950s-esque foods. Many told me about similar recipes, such as ambrosia salad or dishes involving Cool Whip, mayonnaise, and Jell-O powder. All in all, I learned that taste changes with generation, so while cheese salad might not be such a hit at a sweet sixteen, consider it if you want to make something reminiscent of decades past.
Kate Follansbee is a third-year Communications major with a minor in Economics and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine.
Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: a Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).
Methodist Episcopal Church, Wilton Cookbook (Nelson Print, 1922).