Smothered Beef: The Role of Meat in Margaret Chase Smith’s Foodways

Emma Bragdon

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 is a prominent female figure in Maine’s history. This influential woman, a United States Senator, had a collection of various recipes including a recipe for smothered beef.  For this researcher, the recipe collection raised questions about how these recipes fit into Smith’s life, especially within the context of meat boycotts and the industrialization of meat during the twentieth century. Her biography and events during her lifetime provide some insight into how this recipe may have fit into her life. 

Born December 14, 1897, Smith was the eldest of George and Carrie Chase’s six children. The family frequently struggled financially, “her parents were blue-collar laborers. Her father, George, worked for a time as a waiter, but later became a local barber. The family could not survive on his meager salary.”[1]Margaret sought work from a very young age. She worked various jobs such as a store clerk, dishwasher, and telephone switchboard operator. During Margaret’s childhood, in other parts of the United States, working-class women protested the increasing cost of meat through organized boycotts. In 1902, for example, “Jewish immigrant women from New York City’s Lower East Side boycotted the higher cost of kosher meat.”[2]Considering that working-class families around the country struggled to afford large cuts of meat during this period, it is questionable whether Margaret grew up enjoying dishes like smothered beef. A favorite Maine recipe Smith frequently served in her political life and reminisced about Saturday suppers during her youth was Baked Beans, a protein dense meal that utilized small pieces of inexpensive salt pork and was often served with hot dogs. 

Group of primarily women and children stand in front of a restaurant in Hamtramck, Michigan during the 1935 Meat Boycott. Courtesy of Wayne State University Digital Collections. 

As Margaret grew up, she began to make a name for herself. In 1919 she got a job working for the local newspaper, the Independent-Reporter. While working for the newspaper company, she started to become part of the white-collar workforce, and “interacted with the business and political elite of Skowhegan.” After working for the newspaper company for eight years, she married Clyde Smith in 1930. Clyde, a politician, helped Margaret gain her place in politics.  During this period, another meat boycott occurred, “In the summer of 1935, housewives from all over Detroit called for a boycott of meat to protest the high cost of living.” There’s no evidence as to whether Margaret boycotted meat during her marriage with Clyde, but she could certainly afford beef due to changes in status and the meat industry. 

During Margaret’s lifetime, significant changes took place in the meat industry, “improvements in transportation changed the way food was bought and sold and lowered its price. Perhaps most importantly, the combined effects of industrialization and transportation worked together to reduce seasonality.”[3] Railroad and steamship companies involved themselves in the meat packing industry, and “took an early lead in supplying livestock to urban slaughterhouses.”[4] Railroad companies worked quickly to build cattle cars and stockyards. Building ships to be able to hold cattle was a must as well as building slaughterhouses at the harbors.  These new technologies helped to decrease the cost of meat. 

During Margaret’s lifetime, significant changes took place in the meat industry, “improvements in transportation changed the way food was bought and sold and lowered its price. Perhaps most importantly, the combined effects of industrialization and transportation worked together to reduce seasonality.”[1]Railroad and steamship companies involved themselves in the meat packing industry, and “took an early lead in supplying livestock to urban slaughterhouses.”[2]Railroad companies worked quickly to build cattle cars and stockyards. Building ships to be able to hold cattle was a must as well as building slaughterhouses at the harbors.  These new technologies helped to decrease the cost of meat. 

Smith’s recipe for Smothered Beef. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.  

The recipe for smothered beef came into Margaret’s possession through her political connections. Elizabeth Sealey and John C. Sealey Jr., good friends of Smith for many years, gave her the recipe, likely around 1950 when both Margaret and John Sealey worked in politics. The recipe contains few ingredients: 3 to 6 pounds chuck or back of rump, one onion cut in half, one tablespoon vinegar, ¼ cup water, salt and pepper to taste, and enough meat for browning. The directions are simple. Brown the meat on all sides. Add the remaining ingredients put them into the iron kettle with the meat. Once the meat has started to cook, reduce the heat. Allow the meat to simmer for four to six hours. Keep the liquid to make gravy. The recipe would have involved planning based on the time it took as well as knowledge on how to make gravy as the contributor of the recipe failed to provide a gravy recipe.  

Smith frequently entertained during her political career. Here, she attends to a centerpiece. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.  

Throughout her lifetime, Margaret’s relationship with beef (a well-established status food in the United States) changed. Likely a rarity during her childhood, she may have used recipes like smothered beef to entertain political colleagues and friends later in life. Her former personal secretary, Angie Stockwell, reports toward the end of her life one of her favorite meals was baked potato, steak, and salad. A menu in her recipe collection suggests this was a frequent dinner party repast as well. One of Margaret’s appeals as a politician was that she never lost her rural Maine roots. During her campaigns, she was a frequent sight at bean suppers across the state and also entertained by offering baked beans, hot dogs, and brown bread to her husbands’ colleagues during his time in office. Her working-class roots remained a political asset. 

Smothered beef, prepared and photographed by the author. 

Note: This recipe can be easily adapted to a crockpot. Cook on high for four hours, then reduce the temperature to low for another six hours. 

Emma Bragdon is a third-year Biochemistry major and member of the Honors Collegeat the University of Maine. 


[1]Jeannette W Cockroft, “The Transformative Power of Work: The Early Life of Senator Margaret Chase,” Maine History47, no. 2 (2013), 237. 

[2]Emily L.B. Twarog, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America(Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2017), 11.

[3]Katherine Leonard Turner, How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 28.

[4]Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Empire of the ‘Jungle,’” Food, Culture, and Society 7, no. 2 (2004), 68.


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