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.

British Beef, French Style: Robert May’s Braised Brisket

By Marissa Nicosia

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. You can learn more about the series of recipes that Marissa updated on her site Cooking in the Archives and read a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog. Marissa gives special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

And if you are near D.C., you should check out the First Chefs exhibition (co-curated by RP editor, Amanda Herbert) before it closes on March 31!


Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

The British are known for their beef. Although poultry, lamb, pork, game, fish, and shellfish abound in British cookery books from the early modern period, beef stands out. Beef is also a perennial refrain in Shakespeare’s works: The Duke of Orleans mocks King Henry’s army’s distress in the middle of Henry V by saying they are “out of beef”; Shylock ponders the difference between a pound of human flesh and that of “muttons, beefs, or goats”; Prince Hal addresses Falstaff with the moniker “sweet beef”; and in Twelfth Night louche English suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek proclaims, “I am a great eater of beef” (Henry V III.vii.155; Merchant of Venice I.iii.172; 1 Henry IV III.iii.188; Twelfth Night I.iii.82). Both as sustenance and cultural signifier, cooking and eating beef was associated with British identity in the Renaissance.


First opening of May’s book. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA.

Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook was first published in 1660 and went through multiple reprint editions in subsequent years. On the title page he promises recipes “for the Dressing of all Sorts of FLESH” and in the pages of this cookbook he certainly delivers. Under the engraved portrait of the chef, a few verses promise that May will provide “in one face / all hospitalitie” of the nation and his recipes will inspire “tables” groaning with “Natures plentie.” For British chefs this certainly meant how to prepare tempting beef dishes.

Recipe in May’s The Accomplisht Cook. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA (p. 115 and p. 116)

My brisket recipe updates May’s recipe “To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion” for use in a twenty-first-century kitchen. The following text is from the 1685 edition, but the recipe is also in the first edition from 1660 (I3v-I4r).

To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion

Take a rump of beef, boil it & scum it clean, in a stewing pan or broad mouthed pipkin, cover it close, & let it stew an hour; then put to it some whole pepper, cloves, mace, and salt, scorch the meat with your knife to let out the gravy, then put in some claret-wine, and half a dozen of slic’t onions; having boiled, an hour after put in some capers, or a handful of broom-buds, and half a dozen of cabbidge-lettice being first parboil’d in fair water, and quartered, two or three spoonfuls of wine vinegar, as much verjuyce, and let it stew till it be tender; then serve it on sippets of French bread, and dish it on those sippets; blow the fat clean off the broth, scum it, and stick it with fryed bread. (K2r-K2v)

In the French Fashion

You may be asking why I’ve turned to a recipe with the descriptor “in the French Fashion” after talking about the British and their beef. Importing wine from France was a long British tradition. May’s recipe specifically calls for “claret-wine” or French Bordeaux especially made for export to the European market. As Paul Lukacs explains in Inventing Wine, in the fourteenth century British demand for claret was so high that the British imported eighty percent of Bordeaux’s exports. Desire for French claret was “so strong that the Bordeaux wine fleet sailed twice a year—first in the fall, when the ships were filled with as much of the new harvest’s wine as they could carry, and then again in the spring when they transported what was left.” Anglo-French relations had quite a few high and low points between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century when May was writing. Nevertheless, French claret was a mainstay of British drinking and eating culture.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
The Cooking Team. Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved

Moreover, stewing or braising beef in wine was an effective way to transform tough cuts like “rump” or “brisket” into tender stews. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat explains the science behind these slow braises. Put simply: the acidic compounds of wine and the low-slow heat tenderize the tough muscle by breaking down its collagen proteins. The addition of acidic capers, wine vinegar, verjuice, and cabbage later in May’s recipe amplifies the potency of the cooking medium. As chef Fergus Henderson shows in his Nose to Tail Eating, it is a very British thing to make use of the whole animal and to use the most effective cooking techniques to render each cut into a delicious dish. A British “Accomplisht Cook,” like May, must make do with the ingredients and methods available to him even if they are, in many ways, French.

Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit: Teresa Wood. All rights reserved.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds brisket
  • 2 cups sliced yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon mace
  • 1 bottle red wine (750 ml; ideally, French claret or Bordeaux)
  • 4 cups sliced cabbage
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1⁄2 baguette or other bread

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Pat the brisket dry and then place it in a large pot fitted with a cover. Add onions, salt, black peppercorns, whole cloves, and mace. Pour in wine, cover, and place in the oven for 1 hour. After the brisket has cooked for 1 hour, carefully flip it over. After it has cooked for 1 1⁄2 hours, add cabbage, vinegar, and capers. Check it at the 2 1⁄2 hour mark. It should be tender when poked with a fork. If not, give it more time. If the cabbage is crowded, rearrange as necessary for even cooking. To serve, cut your bread into cubes and arrange them on a platter. Remove the brisket and set it on a cutting board to rest. Remove the cabbage and onions and place them on top of the bread. Reduce remaining cooking liquid for ten minutes until it thickens. Slice the brisket thinly, and place on top of the cabbage, onions, and bread. Pour the reduced sauce over the whole dish. Serve immediately.

Notes

This satisfying dish will serve four to six people. The cubes of bread that May calls “sippets” are a common ingredient in meat dishes from this period. They efficiently and deliciously soak up the rich, flavorful sauce.


Learn More

Albala, Ken. Food in Early Modern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, especially pages 164–184.

Appelbaum, Robert. Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture and Food among the Early Moderns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, especially pages 35-38.

A Recipe for Learning Atlantic World History: Student Contributions

By Zara Anishanslin

Student Jose Hernandez summed up initial reaction to finding a “recipe assignment” on an Atlantic World History course syllabus: “when you first assigned the Columbian Exchange assignment, I honestly assumed that you were giving us busy work.” Once students dove into the assignment, reactions changed. As Hernandez went on to say, “once I started researching, I realized that this was a legit assignment.”

Legit indeed. The project enhanced student understanding of the Columbian Exchange as a truly transformative global phenomenon. It also provided them with new—and at times surprising— knowledge about their favorite foods.

Cow
Stefano della Bella, Cow, Diversi animali, plate 7 (Published by Pierre Mariette, ca. 1641), Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1917 (17.50.17-256), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After Europeans introduced them to the Americas, the meat of pigs and cows became staple features of creolized cuisine. Students worked on a number of such recipes. Bryan Howell researched the empanadilla, or little empanada, a pork-based dish created by culinary exchanges among Portuguese, Spanish, Native American, and Caribbean creoles. As he put it, the empanadilla “had to make a lot of trips back and forth across the Atlantic to be what it is. And what it is is freaking delicious.”

Student Cynthia Vera researched another meat-based recipe, one that she termed “a Latin spin on a European croquette.”

Recipe for Rellenos de Papa

2 pounds russet potatoes (Vera prefers the more traditionally used white potato to the sweet potatoes in the linked recipe)

½ cup cooked corn meal, with extra for dusting

1 pound of lean ground beef

¼ cup of sofrito (sauce base)

1 packet of sazon con achote

Canola oil for frying

½ teaspoon of sale

Directions:

Cook ground meat and drain. Add sofrito mixture and packet of sazon con achote. Stir well over low heat to blend flavors and set aside.

Peel and boil potatoes until tender. Mash potatoes with salt and cornmeal, mix well. Place potato mixture in refrigerator to cool.

Once cool, scoop into balls, make pocket in middle of ball with your finger to place meat. Carefully press mixture back into a ball, thoroughly covering meat mixture. Dust in cornmeal, fry.

While the beef was the result of European colonization, corn and potatoes both were essential to American indigenous peoples’ diets. As Vera aptly put it, both were “ingredients of abundance” for Native Americans. And yet, Vera had never thought of the indigenous roots of what was to her a very familiar dish. As she reflected, “Growing up Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian I did not get the sense that my culture was heavily influenced by anything but other Hispanic cultures.” Researching her chosen dish, she found otherwise, and that recipes like rellenos de papa “speak volumes to the original cultures that did not allow themselves to be swallowed up, but instead were reborn into something else that has become a signature for today’s people.”

Students Jose Hernandez and Madeline Mercado also described their recipes—different variations of rice and beans —as edible reminders of how people retained culinary practices in the face of change. West Africans ate rice and beans, enslaved people of African descent were the laborers who tended rice in places like South Carolina, and West African cultivation practices and knowledge were likely integral to the crop’s success in the Americas.

PanDulce
Pan dulce, on display at a Staten Island bakery, Pan con Cafe. Pictured is a type of pan dulce called la concha: “El Borracho,” on the top left and “El Gusano,” top right. Photo by Sonia Martinez, 2015.

Other students found that European traditions were behind what they thought were indigenous recipes. Sonia Martinez researched pan dulce or “Mexican sweet bread,” a treat “sold everywhere, from street food stands to elaborate bakeries in the capital.” Pan dulce is an important part of Mexican holidays like the Day of the Dead, when it is eaten in the form of pan de muerto (pan dulce in the shape of crosses, skulls, angels, or tomb effigies).

Martinez was surprised to find that pan dulce “wasn’t made from native ingredients passed down from generation to generation.” Instead, it relies on wheat, a plant Spanish missionaries insisted on importing to make communion wafers.

Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, 1704–1790) The Virgin of Guadalupe with the Four Apparitions, 1773 Mexican,  Oil on copper; 22 1/4 × 16 1/2 in. (56.5 × 41.9 cm) Framed: 25 1/4 × 19 7/8 × 1 3/8 in. (64.1 × 50.5 × 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts, 2014 (2014.173) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/635401
Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, 1704–1790)
The Virgin of Guadalupe with the Four Apparitions (1773), Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman’s Council Gifts, 2014 (2014.173), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg),The Witch, ca. 1500, Engraving, Fletcher Fund, 1919, 19.73.75, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg),The Witch, ca. 1500, Engraving, Fletcher Fund (1919, 19.73.75), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another group of students focused on recipes that used ingredients that traveled east, from the Americas to Europe and, eventually, India and Asia. Some had legends attached to them. Student Ashley Olivetti delved into her grandmother’s Italian tomato sauce recipe. She found that Europeans at first feared tomatoes in part because they are part of the family Solanaceae, which includes “deadly nightshades” like belladonna, a poisonous plant that, according to Germanic folklore, witches used to summon werewolves.

Student Thomas Finn looked at vichyssoise, or French potato and leek soup, and was surprised to find that the ordinary potato has legends attached to it. When Incas from Cuzco fled before Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1476-1541), they lightened their load to travel faster under threat of puma attacks, throwing supplies into Lake Pumacocha to prevent the Spanish from using them. Among these supplies was the Incan staple ch’unu, a freeze-dried, dehydrated potato easy to carry over the long distances of the far-flung Incan empire. The Inca were allegedly on their way to the legendary city of Paititi, a never found place rumored to contain hordes of gold and silver.

Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of Foreign Merchant's House in Yokohama (9th month, 1861),  Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005 (2007.49.131a–c), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of Foreign Merchant’s House in Yokohama (9th month, 1861), Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005 (2007.49.131a–c), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Other students looked at recipes that arose due to another farflung empire: that of the British. Student Remy Rodney researched his grandmother’s “Jamaican soup,” a dish that reflects the global reach of the British in its chicken, pumpkins, yams, and Korean dumplings. Student Harmon Chan looked at Japanese rice and potato curry. First found in Japanese cookbooks in 1872, this now popular standby in Japan had its beginnings not long before, after American Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 visit began a new era of Japanese trade with western nations including Britain.  Among the things the British introduced to Japan were curry from India and potatoes from America.

As one student put it, “food is one way people define their culture.” As students learned by researching recipes of the Columbian Exchange, food is one way people maintain old cultures and create new ones, too.

Contributors’ Bios

Harmon Chan is a History major interested in exploring the history of the United States.

Thomas Finn is a senior History major who is interested in colonial American history. His family has lived in America a long time, and in the same house on Staten Island since 1820.

Jose Hernandez is a senior History major, who is minoring in African American Studies. His interests include the Atlantic World and its importance in world history.

Sonia Martinez, born to immigrant parents, is a first generation Mexican American student. She is a senior majoring in English writing and linguistics, and minors in Spanish.

Madeline Mercado majors in Social Work and minors in Spanish. Her family background is Puerto Rican, and she is interested in the history of rice in the Atlantic World.

Ashley Olivetti is a senior American Studies major. Her family is originally from Italy and now resides in Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. Her interests include researching and writing about history.

Remiah Rodney is a sophomore of Jamaican heritage. Born in London, England, he plays soccer for the College of Staten Island.

Cynthia Vera is a Latin American senior, majoring in Latin American Studies and Psychology.