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.

Cooking Up New Ideas: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Research through Recipes

Rachel A. Snell

The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative (MCSRRC) is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff who are passionate and curious about the role of food, recipes, and cooking in politics and public life; and eager to share those lessons with a broad audience from students to scholars to civic organizations. Members represent a range of disciplines: history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. The MCSRRC is housed within the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center (MCSPS) – a nonpartisan, independent research and public service unit dedicated to promoting the quality of public dialogue about state and national policy issues through applied policy research and community engagement – and the Honors College at the University of Maine

Smith’s personal recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library in Skowhegan, Maine. Photography by Rachel Snell.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) stood apart as a political figure, woman, and homemaker. Distinguished as a political trailblazer, she was among the first politicians openly critical of the tactics of McCarthyism, and upon leaving office was the longest-serving female Senator in history. Margaret Chase Smith is one of the most well-recognized and well-studied female figures in Maine history, but few of us would identify her as a domestic being. Most research on Smith and recognition of her role focuses on her life in the public sphere as a Congresswoman, Senator, and public figure. She was, of course, also a wife, cook, and homemaker, and she frequently relied on these roles in her campaigns. Her recipes suggest how she combined her public and private personas and how the balance of the two contributed to her success as a political leader. She was committed to bringing people together through civil discourse and often used food as a diplomatic vehicle. Throughout her thirty-three years in office, she maintained and used a recipe collection to entertain fellow policymakers and friends in Washington and at home in Maine.

Sen. Smith hosted President Dwight Eisenhower for a traditional lobster bake on the lawn of her home in Skowhegan in 1955. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Recipes demand an interdisciplinary approach as these sources transcend the boundaries of individual fields. This project brings together the researchers from multiple fields while recognizing recipe collections as sources for collective biography. In her memoir of her mother’s life through her recipe collection, Diane Tye argued, “one woman’s baking offers a contextually situated example of how a generation constructed and managed identity roles.”[1]This approach demands recognition of a cookbook or a collection of recipes as a narrative, in Anne Bower’s definition as, ”a verbal artifact that is organized and endowed with meaning by its readers” or as an “embedded discourse” in the analysis of Leonardi, representative of relationships between friends, neighbors, relatives, and broader communities.[2]  Leonardi persuasively argued that recipes are much more than lists of ingredients and methods for combining them into dishes. Rather, the intertextuality of recipes engages the reader or the cook in a conversation with context and relationships that should not be ignored. Therefore, the recipe “besides being a narrative itself, offers us other stories too: of family sagas and community records, of historical and cultural moments or changes, and also personal histories and narratives of self.”[3] Recipes not only reveal human relationships but, as historian Rebecca Sharpless argued, also “important evidence about people’s interactions with their environment and the society around them.”[4] Recipes provide a sense of the tools and materials available, dining customs, identity formation, expectations, food system transitions, the development of unique food cultures, and much more.

Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative members Dominique DeSpirito and Alex Bromley pour over Smith’s recipe collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. Dominque, a Political Science major with a minor in Environmental Science, is searching for connections between the recipes and Smith’s agricultural policies. Alex, a Food Science major, is curious about how recipes and ingredients change over time.
MCSRRC member Makenzie Baber, a third-year Business Management major, photographs one of the scrapbooks in the Library’s collections. Makenzie’s research explores Smith’s use of a blueberry muffin recipe as a campaign tool during the 1964 Republican Presidential Primary.

The primary objective of the MCSRRC is to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary student and faculty research through projects focused on recipes as sources for research. The work of the Collaborative includes cataloging and digitizing Senator Smith’s personal collection of recipes, currently housed at the Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum in Skowhegan, Maine. Collaborative members test and, as needed, update the original recipes in efforts towards the creation of an edited volume, grounded in research but written for a broad public audience, focused on the role of food, recipes, and the power of cooking in politics and public life. The MCSRRC utilizes an undergraduate research model tobring creative and innovative approaches to studying the life of Senator Smith through her recipes. This source material offers a new perspective on a well-researched figure and provides ample opportunity for students to develop research projects connected to their fields of study and personal interests. The student research posts published by The Recipes Project provides a sense of the vast research possibilities of this particular recipe collection and any recipe collection.  


[1] Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 42.

[2] Anne L. Bower, “Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings,” in Anne L. Bower, ed., Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories(Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 30; Susan J. Leonardi, “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster àla Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie,” PMLA104, no. 3 (1989), 340.

[3] Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts” in Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, eds., The Recipe Reader: Narratives – Contexts – Traditions(Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 2.

[4] Rebecca Sharpless, “Cookbooks as Resources for Rural Research,” Agricultural History 90, no. 2 (Spring 2016), 195. 

Exploring Gender Roles through a Recipe for “French Pancakes”

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 [1]. 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.

Smith’s recipe for “French Pancakes.”

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.

This U.S. National Archives film shows Sen. Smith beginning her day with a simple breakfast.

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” [6] 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’” [5]. 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 [9]. She claimed that “…in the home…[women] may reign a queen” [9].  

1948 U.S. Senate Swearing In Ceremony. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

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 [5]. 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. 


  1. 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/
  2. The history of crepes. Retrieved April 27, 2019, from https://www.kitchenproject.com/history/Crepes/index.htm
  3. Jessica, F. (2018, November 19). A history of the crepe, France’s delectable staple. Retrieved April 27, 2019, from Epicure & Culture website: https://epicureandculture.com/french-crepe/
  4. Hot off the griddle, here’s the history of pancakes. (2018, February 27). Retrieved April 27, 2019, from National Geographic website: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/05/21/hot-off-the-griddle-heres-the-history-of-pancakes/
  5. Ellen, F. (2016). Margaret Chase Smith: The Elephant Has an Attractive Face. In The Highest Glass Ceiling. Harvard University Press
  6. US National Archives. Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s Daily Schedule. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJu79FMnJtc
  7. Longone, J. (1997). Tried Receipts. In Recipes for Reading. Anne L. Bower
  8. Twarog, E. (2017). The 1935 Meat Boycott and the Evolution of Domestic Politics. In Politics of the Pantry. Oxford University Press
  9. Leavitt, S. Going to Housekeeping. In From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice

Maine’s Favorite Daughter and Blueberries

By Harley Rogers

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. 

Introduction

A congressional portrait of Sen. Smith.

Maine has a rich history of prominent female politicians. One of the most significant in the twentieth century was Margaret Chase Smith. Sen. Smith took her late husband’s position in the U.S. House of Representatives after his untimely death in 1940 and was then reelected through her own campaign. She served in the House of Representatives for three more terms before successfully running for a spot in the U.S. Senate, thus making her the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress, and the first female senator to represent Maine. She later ran in the 1964 Republican presidential primary, becoming the first woman to run for president in a major political party. She served until losing reelection to the Senate in 1972 and went on to work as a visiting professor until retiring to her home in Skowhegan, Maine. Research on Sen. Smith has focused on her political life. However, what about her at home or as a woman in the twentieth century? Like many women then and still today, she had a personal recipe collection, filled with recipes of foods for sharing, for convenience, for special occasions, and a few odd recipes.

Recipe Analysis: Blueberry Supreme

As a member of the Margaret Chase Smith Recipe Research Collaborative (MCSRRC), I’ve worked closely with Sen. Smith’s recipes and adapted several. For this recipe analysis, I sought a new challenge. I’ll admit I am partial to dessert recipes, and as a native Mainer myself, I’m especially inclined to the ones with blueberries. Some of my favorite memories of summer in Maine take place in the blueberry fields behind my childhood home. My family and I would fill 5-gallon buckets of the berries and head back home to freeze them. For the rest of the year, we would enjoy blueberry pancakes, muffins, occasionally a blueberry pie, and my personal favorite, a bowl of frozen blueberries with milk and sugar.  Sen. Smith potentially shared my proclivity for blueberry desserts: her recipes for blueberry muffins and blueberry cake were her standard response to recipe requests. Looking through the recipes, a card labeled “Blueberry Supreme” in the casserole section caught my eye. The recipe stood out not only because of the blueberries, but its location amongst recipes for hominy and almond casserole and a mushroom onion casserole.  This was not a cooked casserole, nor was it filled with vegetables. To my delight, this recipe was very much a dessert.

Smith’s recipe for Blueberry Supreme.

The recipe card describes a four-layer blueberry casserole. Starting with a base of ground up vanilla wafers, next a cream layer, then the blueberry filling, topped with whip cream and pecans. The recipe seemed simple enough until I read the recipe more carefully and realize the cream layer was composed of butter, sugar, and two raw eggs. When I called my grandmother about the recipe, she dismissed the concerns of eating raw egg and the chance of salmonella, as Sen. Smith probably did as well. When replicating this recipe today, there are concerns over the use and consumption of raw eggs in one of the layers to the casserole. In order to limit the possibility of salmonella, it is recommended to use farm fresh eggs, and for added reassurance pasteurize the eggs for raw consumption. While the FDA still warns against any raw egg consumption, it provides methods of heating eggs still in the shell to 63 degrees Celsius in order to eliminate bacteria that could be in the egg.[1]This greatly lowers the chance of contamination and makes the dish as safe as possible to eat, while still following the recipe.  

Conclusion

The Blueberry Supreme was a complete hit! The members of the MCSRRC enjoyed the dessert during a collaborative meeting in mid-April. The layers came together to create a light and sweet dish to enjoy with friends and family. When I noticed Sen. Smith never distributed this recipe, as she did with her blueberry muffin and blueberry cake recipes, I wondered if she had ever made it. As women increasingly left the home, quick and easy meals had to become staples in order for women to do both domestic and public responsibilities. As a result, recipes increasingly included processed foods to shorten preparation times. 

Smith’s collection includes many such recipes, including the Blueberry Supreme recipe, which relies on vanilla wafers as a crust, premade pie filling, and whipped cream to top it off. This recipe is a perfect demonstration of how working women managed careers while also tending to their domestic responsibilities. While Sen. Smith may not have made this recipe herself, the chances of it having actually been made are quite high because of the simplicity and reliance on premade foods in the recipe. Despite living in Maine, the recipe calls for blueberry filling from a can. This is particularly interesting because all her other recipes call for fresh blueberries, which in this case would have significantly increased the preparation time. 

This analysis demonstrates how this recipe would have been financially achievable and could have easily fit within the senator’s life. With Sen. Smith’s busy schedule, a dish like this one, which could be made a day or two in advance and served to a large group, could have fit into her lifestyle. I’d like to imagine Sen. Smith serving the dish to government dignitaries on a beautiful spring afternoon at her home in Skowhegan. While this may not have been the case, it certainly fits her love of blueberries and desire for recipes that fit her busy schedule. 


Harley Rogers is a fourth-year Political Science major with minors in Leadership Studies and History and member of the Honors Collegeat the University of Maine. Her Honors thesis, titled, “Female Political Campaigns: Just the Right Amount of Femininity,” compares media coverage of Smith and Hillary Clinton during their presidential runs.


[1]Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Safety of Eggs and Menu and Deli Items Made From Raw Shell Eggs.” Assuring the Safety of Eggs and Menu and Deli Items Made From Raw, Shell Eggs.