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.