What’s In an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag?

By Alana Martini, published as part of the Undergraduate Series

I have been fascinated by the world of cosmetics for a very long time, and it appears that I am not the only one. Our love affair with cosmetics is almost as old as humanity itself. Large amounts of red ochre were found, dating roughly from 100 to 125,000 years ago during excavations in South African caves – these are presumed to be have been used to paint the body and the face. One might say that this desire to adorn ourselves with cosmetics is an intrinsic part of the human experience, as it is shared practice across different cultures.

From the various looks we have sported across the centuries, the Ancient Egyptian look stands out as one of the more memorable ones in the history of makeup. This is not a surprise, for the Ancient Egyptians were avid lovers of cosmetics. Their heavily kohl-lined eyes are instantly recognizable and often recreated in Hollywood blockbusters, the most famous portrayal being Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

Earlier on this year, I embarked on a project that involved studying Ancient Egyptian cosmetics and a subsequent reconstruction of a typical “Egyptian look” from the New Kingdom. This research culminated in a short video tutorial. Although cosmetics were used by both genders, my analysis focused on women only. Here are a few of the main conclusions that I have reached along the way:

In the beginning, cosmetics served a practical purpose: to protect the wearer from the harsh rays of the sun. Malachite, one of the principal ingredients used in eye paints, shielded the eyes by absorbing some of the sun’s rays, and the oil they mixed it with would catch the dust from the desert. Another prominent ingredient in eye paints was galena, which helped to prevent and treat eye diseases. Thus, a very popular combination for eye makeup consisted of malachite used as a green eye shadow and galena to line the eyes. It is not clear whether the ancient Egyptians were aware of the properties of their ingredients, but it is known that they were experts in wet chemistry, often creating mixtures that required complex procedures as long ago as 2000 BC.

However, the use of cosmetics for women went beyond practicality. There is strong evidence to suggest that, as most women today, Egyptian women enjoyed applying makeup purely for beautification. I stress the word “women” here, for only they are depicted during acts of beautification on wall reliefs.

Image 1: Painting from the tomb of Nakht depicting three women (Google images)

Judging by the evidence, it appears that women wore more makeup than men which, I suspect, has its roots in their biological difference. For instance, the contrast between facial features and facial skin is more pronounced in women than in men, and women’s use of makeup enhances this and influences the attractiveness of a given face.  In the Egyptian case, the brows were darkened and the eyes lined with kohl to accentuate this contrast. Other colours were used as well; the ancient palette consisted of blue, turquoise, terracotta, and different shades of brown and grey. Many samples of eye paint have been found in graves in the form of a paste (which has dried up over time) or more commonly as a powder.

Moreover, it has been posited that redness in the cheeks enhances “apparent health and attractiveness, particularly in female faces.” To “fake” redness, the Egyptian woman would have used red ochre, a pigment that occurs naturally in the Egyptian desert. This deep burnt orange shade was also most likely used as a lip tint, although there is no definite proof to support this. Red has been a popular choice as a lip colour through time in diverse cultures – the colour red appears to us “exciting and stimulating,” and lip redness makes a woman’s face more attractive and feminine. From my own observations, I strongly believe that this was the case, especially if we consider the vibrant lip shade on the Nefertiti bust.

Images 2 and 3: A side by side comparison between the Nefertiti bust and my modern reconstruction. I have used red ochre, and the reader will note that the lip shade is strikingly similar.

What does all of this tell us about Ancient Egyptian practices regarding cosmetics? Egyptian women, like many women today, enjoyed applying cosmetics to their face. Although an authentic Egyptian look would appear caricature-like in today’s society, there are certain elements that could easily be identified in a modern woman’s routine – the red lips or the kohl-lined eyes, for instance. Contemporary women try and achieve similar results as their Egyptian predecessors, just not in the same intensity. Beautification was an important part of a woman’s life, and it proves that we are not so dissimilar after all. The desire to adorn ourselves remains every bit as strong as four millennia ago.


Betrò, M. 2017. «Bello come il cielo»: il senso del bello nell’antico Egitto. Storia Delle Donne, 12(1), 81-96.

Corson, R. 2003. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. London: Peter Owen Publishers.

Eldridge, L. 2015. Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. New York: Abrams Image.

Lucas, A. 1930. Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 16(1/2), 41-53.

Manniche, L. 1999. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. London: Opus Publishing Limited.

Mikkelides, B. 2012. Colour psychology: the emotional effects of colour perception. In Best, J. (ed.): Colour Design: Theories and Applications. Oxford: Woodhead Publishing.

Russell, R. 2003. Sex, beauty and the relative luminance of facial features. Perception 32, 1093-1107.

Stephen, I. and McKeegan, A. 2010. Lip color affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness. Perception 39, 1104-1110.

Walter, P., Martinetto, P., Tsoucaris, G., Brniaux, R., Lefebvre, M.A., Richard, G., Talabot, J., Dooryhee, E. 1999. Making make-up in Ancient Egypt. Nature volume 397, 483–484.

Watterson, B. 1991. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Reflections on Medieval Culture Through A Culinary Lens

Teaching the Medieval Feast

Krista Murchison (Leiden University), @drkmurch

Leiden University’s English Language and Culture BA is aimed at teaching about not just the literature and language of the English-speaking world (broadly defined) but also about its culture. This means that when I design my medieval English literature courses, I encourage students to explore this literature within its beautiful, conflicted and multifaceted cultural environments—and their present-day resonances. 

One of the activities I introduced to my courses most recently was a medieval feast. Students were tasked with translating historical recipes out of their original Middle English—a language that was spoken in England between c. 1100 and 1500, years before Shakespeare was born. Once students had translated their recipes, they tried out some medieval cooking and wrote short and imaginative reflections about how their culinary creations reflected medieval culture. I’ve compiled these recipes and reflections for a ‘digital medieval cookbook’ here.

The activity was structured in a way that would allow students to lead their own learning experiences, since scholarship of teaching and learning tends to suggest that people learn better through activities that emphasize active exploration over passive listening (cf. Messineo et al. 2007). So,  students, working in groups of three or four, selected for themselves which recipes they wanted to focus on out of pre-defined sets, and they decided independently how best to approach the assignment. The resultant projects drew from an impressive range of multimedia formats, from comic strips to vlog-style cooking tutorials, and reflected an insightful understanding of medieval written and culinary culture.

In keeping with the student-driven structure of this learning task, this post will feature reflections from two of the groups who participated in the assignment. These reflections will explore some of the striking differences between modern and medieval cuisine and speak to the fascinating experience of preparing medieval food in a modern kitchen.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 58r.

For medieval writers, feasting could be political. In a widely-popular medieval legend, a well-timed “wassail” (a drinking toast still in use today) was key to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain (in the 5th century CE). One of the earliest versions of the stories comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), which is best known for containing one of the longest early accounts of King Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern (leader of the Britons) invited Hengist (leader of the Saxons) to Britain from across the North Sea. Hengist brought his daughter Rowena with him. When Rowena met Vortigern at a feast, she approached him with a full cup of mead and, in her own language, toasted him with the words “Lauerd king wacht heil!” (“Lord king, wassail!”). Rowena’s greeting was apparently so pleasant that Vortigern was enchanted by Rowena, let his guard down and drank too much. Ultimately, he married Rowena and, in so doing, enabled the Saxon invasion of England. While undoubtedly an invention, the story illustrates how the feast, in medieval popular imagination, held the potential to influence the succession of kingdoms, the building of dynasties, and the collapse of empires.

A medieval court at the table. British Library, Additional MS 19554, f. 1v.

Despite its importance to medieval writers, food has traditionally been left out of discussions of medieval culture and the value of recipes as historical documents is often overlooked. This neglect of culinary culture is due, in part, to a pervasive sense that it belongs in a domestic sphere separated from the political one, where the “real” history is thought to happen. Yet this distinction between the domestic and the political has been shown, in various domains, to be artificial; and as the Rowena anecdote makes clear, it holds little grounding in medieval culture. By shedding light on medieval culinary culture, this class project participates in a broader movement of recognizing the manifold ways in which food shaped and reflected medieval culture.

Recipes from the Forme of Cury, including “makerel in sawse” and “porpeys in broth”. British Library, Additional MS 5016, f. 7r.

The recipes for the project came from a medieval cookbook known as the Forme of Cury (c. 1390s). It was, according its preface, compiled by “the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r).  The recipes were taken from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright. I selected recipes that would be feasible to cook and that would be easily transportable, so that students could share their delicious creations with the class.

British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.

Medieval Food in the Modern Kitchen

By Ilse van Oosten (Leiden University)

After receiving a set of recipes, our group of four was responsible for all the stages of our project: translating our recipes, researching medieval food, and (perhaps the most enjoyable part) recreating one of our recipes. It was interesting to see what kind of ingredients and dishes a medieval person would have been familiar with and how food could reflect a person’s social position in the medieval period. Unlike reading literature, which can seem removed from everyday medieval life, reading these recipes felt like peering into a medieval kitchen.

Medieval cooking. From British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 108r.

Funnily enough, many of the recipes we translated were quite similar to some modern-day recipes. One recipe, named “appulmoy,” was a pudding-like version of our contemporary apple sauce. What surprised me is that many of the recipes were either vegetarian or fully vegan. The stereotype of the meat-loving medieval population was certainly called into question by these recipes. Discovering these links between medieval and modern-day cooking—the similar recipes and the mixed diet—was an unexpected and fascinating aspect of this project.

As we learned during the project, medieval recipes are a distinct text type that differs from its modern equivalent. There are, of course, some similarities; both medieval and modern recipes tend to start by giving the name of the dish as the title, and both tend to favour relatively short, practical sentences. Both also rely on some standard, formulaic phrases; many recipes in the Forme of Cury, end “and serue it forth,” which is comparable to the modern phrase “and serve the dish.” Yet medieval recipes tend to be rather sparse compared to their modern counterparts. They lack the kinds of measurement specifications and information about cooking time and temperature that are generally found in modern recipes. Medieval recipes also feature a limited set of cooking terms and are not divided up into separate steps, but are written in continuous sentences. They are much shorter than modern recipes and expect a great deal of prior knowledge from cooks. All this forced us to improvise a bit while trying out the recipes.

Although some medieval recipes did not sound too appetising, such as a “salat” consisting mainly of onions and an odd mixture of fresh herbs, some medieval recipes are really tasty and fun to make. Even though the real experience of a medieval kitchen would have been different, making medieval recipes today offers a glimpse of what went into making medieval food. Among other things, a lack of modern tools like blenders and programmable ovens means that it took much longer to prepare food in the medieval period than it does today. A modern cook trying these recipes for the first time may need to spend some time researching unfamiliar ingredients like “powdour fort” (“strong powder”) and I would recommend preparing the dish as a group, simply because it was the most fun bit of this assignment. Most recipes were not very difficult to make and offer a nice culinary experience for anyone interested in both history and cooking.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.


Medieval Food, Health, and Social Status

By Ellemijn Galjaard, Vita Jansen and Lisanne de Wolff (Leiden University)

Going into this assignment, our view of medieval food was stereotypical to say the least. We expected the medieval diet to be extremely carnivorous, unvaried and bland. However, we were surprised to find quite the opposite. An article by Rosalie Taylor revealed that medieval cooks were perfectly capable of preparing a wide variety of vegetables. In fact, greens were often left out of recipes because cooks were expected to know how to create a balanced dish without this information — not because medieval people didn’t eat vegetables. Unlike today’s cookbooks, medieval cookbooks omit specifics about boiling, blanching or sautéeing vegetables because these were thought of as general knowledge.

Indeed, many of the medieval recipes we read turned out to be far from bland. Two of the key ingredients in the recipe for Appulmoy, for example, were saffron and the aforementioned spice blend known as “powdour fort”. Compared to these powerful spices, the more generic combination of sugar and cinnamon used for Dutch ‘appelmoes’ comes up somewhat short. After tasting our home-made Appulmoy, we knew one thing for sure: the Middle Ages witnessed some great culinary creations. 

Preparing a medieval feast. British Library Additional MS 42130, f. 207v.

To understand the differences between medieval and modern recipes, it is valuable to look at Middle English cooking in general. During the Middle Ages, cookery books were not as commonplace as they are today. The audience for cookery books was generally literate and well-off, because the production of books was rather costly (Mikkelsen Talgø 8). Additionally, the ingredients mentioned in medieval recipes could be quite expensive and thus inaccessible to the lower-income households. This aspect of medieval recipes was evident from an ingredient in one of our recipes: saffron. Even today, saffron is considered exceptionally pricey, and saffron had the same reputation as an exclusive spice in medieval times. Volker Schier describes saffron as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57).

But it had medical properties: “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not only to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but served a medical purpose. J. Estes claims that  “[b]y the late Middle Ages, the therapeutic benefits of food had entered into the everyday planning of at least the grand households” (1537). Spices more generally “were regarded as both aids to digestion and evidence of a hosts’ wealth” (1537). From this evidence, we can conclude that spices in the medieval period were thought to promote both one’s health and one’s reputation. This dual purpose of spices is not prominent in modern day cuisine, although there has been an increase in recent years in using spices for their antimicrobial properties in health-conscious diets. 

Medieval baking. British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v.

Three ingredients in our recipe were hard to find, each for a different reason. The first was saffron, which can be hard to include in medieval cooking due to its cost and rarity. Although it can be a rather exclusive spice, it was available in a regular supermarket and we were able to procure some of it for the Appulmoy. But we were not able to obtain almond flour. It is today considered a health product akin to superfoods such as dried cranberries and dairy substitutes such as rice milk, but such products are not widely available. The inclusion of almond flour rather than regular flour in a medieval recipe, albeit one that was probably for the wealthy (judging from the saffron), suggests that in the medieval period almond flour was a more common ingredient than it is today. The third ingredient, “powdour fort” (or “strong powder”), was hard to find because its name was initially a mystery. We now know this refers to a mix of spices, containing pepper and cinnamon or pepper and ginger. We decided to try the cinnamon blend for our Appulmoy.

A few final tips for anyone embarking on a medieval cooking project…

  • When making medieval recipes, proceed with an open mind and an experimental attitude.
  • Do not worry too much about the right amount of pepper or cinnamon, or about the end result.
  • If you want to make sure your food turns out right, you can compare the medieval recipe with similar modern ones in order to get more exact timings and measurements.

However, this might take away from the experience, which is really the most important part: the experience of cooking something special with friends.


Baldassano, Cassandra. “Powder Fort.” Medieval Cuisine, 2012, http://www.medievalcuisine.com/Euriol/recipe-index/powder-fort. Accessed 24 August, 2019. 

Estes, J. “Food as Medicine.” Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1534-53. 

Messineo, Melinda, et l. “Inexperienced Versus Experienced Students’ Expectations for Active Learning in Large Classes.” College Teaching vol. 55, no. 3, 2007, pp. 125-33.

Mikkelsen Talgø, M. An Edition of the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Cookery Recipes in London, British Library’s MS Sloane 442. MA Thesis. University of Stavanger, 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April, 2019. 

Schier, V. “Probing the Mystery of the Use of Saffron in Medieval Nunneries.” The Senses and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp. 57-72.

Taylor, Rosalie. “More Garbage, Anyone? Eating and Cooking Meat in Medieval England.” The English Language(s): Cultural & Linguistic Perspectives, 2005, http://homes. chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/HELEncyclopedia.htm. Accessed 24 August, 2019.

Lobster Newburg: Margaret Chase Smith’s Promotion of a Maine Ingredient

Nicole Ritchey

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. 

Maine Lobster postcard c. 1920. Courtesy of the Jesup Memorial Library.

Lobster history is not new news to most Mainers or many New Englanders. Most people know about its “cockroach of the sea” to riches story. Once known as poor man’s food, this crustacean has risen from cockroach of the sea to a hot commodity. A lot of this “take off” is centered in Maine and occurred during Margaret Chase Smith’s lifetime, consequently influencing her recipe collection.

Lobsters were once so abundant along the coastline of northern New England that eating lobster was a sign of poverty. In the 1600s, it is rumored that lobsters washed up in two-foot piles after storms (History 2018). Native Americans used lobster to bait their hooks because of their availability (Willett 2013). Collected from the shoreline or speared in shallow water, lobster was eaten dead at this time. By the 1820s, Smackmen collected live lobsters using special wells in their boats that circulated sea water. Burnham & Morrill founded the first lobster cannery in 1836, the cans sold for one-fifth of the price of their Boston Baked Beans (DeBenedictis 2015). The growth of the railroad helped lobster find an audience outside of coastal areas (Willet 2013). By the 1850s canned lobster was being served as a side in salad bars. Around the same time, fishers switched to using lobster traps because lobster was becoming less plentiful in shallow waters.

Lobsterman with his (giant) catch. Swan’s Island c. 1930. Courtesy of the Swan Island Educational Society.

People would travel to the coast to enjoy fresh lobster, baffling many native New Englanders. For the coastal state residents, lobster still epitomized cheap, lower class food. Chefs discovered in 1876 that cooking live lobster “unlocked” many flavors. Live cooking became an instant hit and almost immediately led the creation of the first Lobster Pound in Vinalhaven, Maine. This was a place for local fishers to drop off their lobsters which would all be shipped live together in large batches. This centralized shipping and increased time fishers could be out. 

According to rumors, Lobster Newburg was invented in 1876. The popular theory begins in Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City. Ben Wenberg created the idea for and gave his name to the dish. Allegedly, an argument with the restaurant owner led to changing the dish’s name to Newburg (What’s Cooking 2017). The sauce used in Lobster Newburg is Terrapin sauce, used frequently in recipes before 1876 (Whitaker 2010). The first published recipe for Lobster Newburg is in Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, by the principal of the School of Cookery in New York, copyrighted in 1887. This recipe calls for a four-pound lobster and two types of alcohol (Parola 1887).

This image shows two Mainers, Sen. Smith and Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster, enjoying lobster at the Maine State Society’s annual Lobster Dinner on February 22, 1946 held in the U.S. Interior Department’s cafeteria. Courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. 

Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, Maine (about seventy-five miles from the coast) in 1897, just a decade after the publication of Miss Parola’s recipe. Maine has a two-sided history with lobster. George H. Lewis shows the role of class in the acceptance of lobster with the differences between “summer people” and permeant residents in Maine. In his article, “The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class,” Lewis argues the symbolism of lobster largely depends on socioeconomic factors. The summer people are often upper-class visitors who cultivated the idea that Maine lobster was an icon of the state. They helped drive up demand and prices and brought about a tourism boom. Year-round residents in some parts of the state often have a very negative view of lobster still. Lobster was trash food in the beginning for them, and now that prices have risen, they can barely afford what used to be the cheapest protein (Lewis 1989). 

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.

It is unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster due to Skowhegan’s distance from the coast. However, there are several recipes for lobster (as well as other seafood) in her collection, including a recipe for Lobster Newburg on her Senate stationery that she kept to respond to recipe requests. Smith regularly received requests specifically for lobster recipes, likely because of the association between Maine and lobster. In 1968, the editor of the forthcoming Republican Cookbookcontacted Smith requesting her “favorite way of doing lobster.” Smith responded with her recipes for Lobster Rarebit and Lobster Casserole which the editor responded were precisely the “regional specialties” they desired to feature (Margaret Chase Smith Library). 

Recipe for Lobster Newberg [sic] from Smith’s recipe collection. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.
Recipe for a quick lobster newburg from Smith’s collection. This recipe utilitizes canned lobster. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.

Smith frequently promoted Maine lobster. In addition to her recipes, she showcased the crustacean at social events. In 1946, she attended the Maine State Society’s annual Lobster Dinner, a continuing tradition since 1945. In 1955, during a vacation in the state, Smith hosted President Eisenhower for a steak and lobster bake at her Skowhegan home. It is likely Smith served lobster to guests in Washington, D.C., possibly because her visitors would have the connotation of lobster meaning Maine. Recipes in her collection using both canned and fresh lobster would allow her to select a recipe based on her location or her schedule – one recipe for lobster newburg using canned lobster was annotated by Smith “quick.” As a busy senator, she likely valued these recipes that were timesavers and accessible. While it’s unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster, she embraced the ingredient as increasingly emblematic of the nation’s perception of Maine food and promoted lobster consumption to help the industry grow. 

Nicole Ritchey is a fourth-year Marine Science major with a minor in computer science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine. 

DeBenedictis, E. (2015). Lobster’s Delicious History is completely Insane. Munchies, Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xy7vzw/lobsters-delicious-history-is-completely-insane

(2018). A Taste of Lobster History. History,Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/a-taste-of-lobster-history

Lewis, G. H. (1989). The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class. Food & Foodways, 3(4) 303-316.

Parola, M. (1887). Lobster Newburg. Miss Parola’s Kitchen Companion, Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=X34EAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA225&dq=lobster+newburg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hwTpT7SqEqzs2AXOkJz5DQ&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=lobster%20newburg&f=false

Smith, Margaret Chase. (1940-1973). Recipe correspondence. Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library, Skowhegan, Maine. 

What’s Cooking America. (2017). Lobster Newberg History and Recipe. What’s Cooking America, Retrieved from https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/LobsterNewbergHistory.htm

Whitaker, J. (2010). Who Invented…Lobster Newberg? Restaurant-ing through history, Retrieved from https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2010/04/19/who-invented-lobster-newberg/

Willett, M. (2013). The Remarkable Story of How Lobster went from being used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy. Business Insider, Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-history-of-gourmet-lobster-2013-8

Cheese Salad (Chilled): A Taste of Nostalgia

Kate Follansbee

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. 

A congressional portrait of Sen. Smith.

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. 

Recipe for “Cheese Salad (Chilled)” from Smith’s recipe collection. Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library. 

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 recipe and image for “Under-the-Sea Salad” from The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book(1931) provides a sense of the flavor combination and attention to presentation in popular molded salad recipes. Courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives. 

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. 

Ingredients for assembling Cheese Salad (chilled). Photo by the author.

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.

Cheese Salad (Chilled) plated for serving with crackers. Photo by the author.

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).