The Chaffee Cookbook

Brace yourself, because this is a long one.

The drive up to Chaffee was an ageless two hours fetched word-for-word from the scrapbook of my memory. We took a left where the road parted before the anomalous “Guitar Repair and Mattress Store.” It was more of a tent, really. The drive home would feature the similarly puzzling “Confederate Flag and Tie-Die T-Shirt” stand. Missouri had, after all, been a civil war border state, and Scott County scraped the southern border.

There was Logan’s Roadhouse, where I’d always been too bashful to throw the peanut shells on the floor. Such strange and familiar attractions became more recurrent the further we drove from the Springfield airport.  A small, quaint (and undyingly Christian) establishment, Chaffee had no need for an airport; its needs had hardly evolved out of the twentieth century that bore it, and the rail system cutting through its heart supported those needs just fine.

For the rail system was, in its day, the heart of Chaffee. The small town of under three thousand (and likely a great deal more cows) had emerged from a land acquisition struck between the Chaffee Real Estate Company and a local farmer. The new settlement was to serve as a rail-switching yard on the lines connecting St. Louis to the great west (with the curious assurance from the Company that the property would certainly not be used “for the dispensation of intoxicating liquors”). Chaffee, the “city with a smile,” was finally recognized by the state of Missouri in 1909, occupying all of 1.85 square miles.

The rail system supported a great many Chaffee citizens, including one Leon “Rainy” Miller, who, in turn, supported a great many Chaffee children: my mother and her four siblings. Their hometown harbored few attractions, save one of the few remaining Bintz aboveground pools where my mother spent her summers lifeguarding.

The small town of Chaffee could hardly sustain the big city dreams of my aunts and uncles, and they slowly drifted to various corners of the United States (except for the eldest, my Aunt Jane, who operates a gun range in Ozark called “The Sound of Freedom”). During the occasional summer, to pay homage to our roots under the tornado-ruffled Missouri sky, my family gathers to celebrate the Fourth of July in the way all good Midwestern folk know the Fourth is meant to be celebrated: with lightning bug-catching, sparklers, cobbler, and Bud Light.

My mom made sure we began each Missouri trip with a visit to Chaffee (though it lay in an entirely different direction from Tablerock Lake). My sister and I had weathered many moves, changes in schools, and one unfortunate divorce, so my grandmother’s house was a rare constant fixture. Adorned in needlepoint and the customary grandmotherly floral, the house was something of a relic to my Californian sensibilities. The basement doubled as a tornado shelter – and had been used for such purposes on numerous occasions – and as a social room. The yard intermingled seamlessly with the yards of neighbors on all sides in a testament to old-world hospitality. A plastic duck-head windsock perched atop the laundry line, though the head had long since lost its sock, and had begun to look rather morbid. Every hour, on the hour, a grandfather clock sounded, which terrified me in the night.

The real attraction was the pecan tree in the yard. It was a formidable feature, both brooding and proud, branches unapologetically snarled into the telephone wire as if to stake its claim in the landscape. It had undoubtedly stood longer than the rail system itself. For the price of two cents per good, unsplit pecan, my grandmother solicited our services in scouring the yard for the contents of her next pie.

Pecan pie! My grandma Margaret’s house was full of exciting treats shelved by my family’s oh-so-trendy, oh-so-west-coast diet. Close your ears, Dad! We ate syrupy baked beans, blackberry cobbler, creamed corn (if it was a vegetable, it was buttered or creamed), freezer pops, Pillsbury instant biscuits (“What’s Pillsbury? Is that the Ghostbusters monster on the can?”), and bacon.

Oh my, bacon. Truly, we had transcended.

Routine visits to Chaffee fed my bacon addition for a great many years. I am frequently reminded by my mother of an incident in which she woke up to the sight of a young me in my high chair demanding “More bake! More bake!” as my accommodating grandmother pumped out panful after panful of glistening, salty bacon.

Resultantly, this is the food I have come to associate most closely with the Show-Me State. Although the quintessential Missouri dish is not so easy to define, as one commenter on chowhound.com declared, “Whatever it is, you can bet it’s fried in bacon grease.”

When my mother and I were tasked with cooking a dish for my elementary school heritage potluck, we were at a loss: what would properly represent our family’s midwestern heritage? All of my classmates were busy preparing Banh Mi and Chilaquiles, so I wasn’t about to serve baked beans and potato, which were mainly so popular due to their affordability. We considered baking a pan of my grandma’s favorite cookies – “Scotcheroos” – but my grandma had clipped that recipe out of a Kellogg’s box. It was hardly a timeworn tradition representing our family’s rich history.

We ended up baking some chicken tenders and calling it ‘fried possum.’

As is the case with most American states, it is difficult to distinguish classic Missouri food from what has matriculated in. In 1834, 500 German settlers arrived in Missouri with the goal to establish a German utopia within the United States. Missouri’s German ancestry has contributed dishes such as “Knoephla” and “Zweibach.” “Brain sandwiches” (oh, that courageous German palette) were a short-lived menu feature, unceremoniously eradicated by the Mad Cow Disease scare, though a few stalwart menu boards still carry the frightening dish.

When one visits Missouri, though, it’s not “Knoephla,” “Zweibach”, or (God forbid) sandwiches of cow brain that the tourist thinks of as genuine Missouri fare, at least not if they’ve tried St. Louis BBQ Pork Steak or Catfish and Hushpuppies.

The culinary history of Missouri with which I am most familiar demonstrates a trend of invention in the face of limitations. Here’s a famous one: did you know that the St. Louis World’s Fair saw the invention of the waffle cone? As the story goes, an ice cream stall and a waffle stand were neighbors at the fair. The ice cream stall had run out of bowls, and the waffle stand had run out of customers. The two invented a strategy in order to solve their problems jointly, and the waffle cone was born.

Another Missouri dessert staple was born when a 1930s cake was prepared incorrectly. You may have heard of the Paula Dean-heralded Gooey Butter Cake.

Unfortunately, the need for culinary inventiveness has been encouraged within many households by unrelenting financial struggle. Missouri towns were subjected to raids during the civil war; as a border state, neighbors fought neighbors, and there was little stability within the region. Chaffee itself fell into distress when a number of regional textile manufacturing plants shut their doors, taking with them over 60% of the jobs in the region. Although one can hardly call Pillsbury instant biscuits and mashed potatoes classic Missouri cuisine, there is a reason that my mom’s childhood home was stocked with them and little else. With five children to sustain, Grandma Margaret had to stretch every dollar to the point of having the entire family share one tub of bathwater. As the youngest, my mom was last in the tub, a visible dirt ring having accumulated.

Needless to say, once my mom made her way to California after graduating with a degree in engineering, her diet underwent dramatic changes. Pillsbury instant biscuits were a thing of the past, and for my sister and I a strange, interesting window into the past.

My mom likes to visit me in my current city of Denver, where everything is sloshed in a spicy green chili. She loves being able to get almond milk in her chai tea and kombucha on tap. Denver and Chaffee exist in different worlds. As she prepared for a recent visit (it was only yesterday that she embarked on her return flight to Utah), she was surprised to hear me ask about Chaffee. Always tickled whenever I take an interest in her childhood, she obligingly packed one of grandma’s old cookbooks.

I was thrilled to receive it. The cover is a curdled yellow, fading since its publication in 1983. The cookbook was published by the PEO chapter of Chaffee, a women’s sisterhood standing for “Philanthropy Educational Organization,” and all of the recipes were submitted and compiled by PEO members. A calendar at the back of the book notes important dates in the years 1983, 1984, and 1985, including Lincoln’s Birthday, Ash Wednesday, and Yom Kippur.

The section on treating common household poisons is immediately followed by the “Where to look in the Bible” section, detailing the Bible passage numbers to consult should you ever find yourself “jealous” (Ps. 49; James 3.), “starting a new job” (Ps. 1; Prov. 16; Phil. 3:7-21.), “disobedient” (Isa. 6; Mark 12; Luke 5.), “bored” (Kings 5; Job 38; Ps. 103, 104; Eph 3.), or unable “to fall asleep” (Ps. 4, 56, 130.).

The recipe index’s alphabetical ordering of dishes was comprised of names like “Eva’s San Antonio Burgers”, “Lynn Thornton’s Sea Food Casserole”, and “Clara’s Special Potatoes”. Mom excitedly pointed out the recipes submitted by her grade school teachers, her piano instructor, and the women Grandma used to play bridge with. I couldn’t help but notice a few unnervingly racist entries (such as a taco listed as “Wet Back’s Delight”… shudder). The realization that, in a rural town in 1983, these terms would not have incurred scrutiny was uncomfortable.

Many of the recipes are familiar (hey, there’s Gooey Butter Cake on page 103), and the majority are standard, likely to be found in any American cookbook of the 1983s. Most of the names are self-explanatory, some are cryptic (one is listed simply as “The Recipe”), and I’m particularly intrigued by Hazel Thornton’s “Never* Fail Peanut Brittle”.

There is a section of the cookbook devoted to casseroles alone, which is strange to me, considering I’ve never had one. Most of the casseroles have a single-step preparation process: combine all ingredients together and freeze. The recipe book pays special heed to how leftovers can be stored and prepared, and what the leftovers can be served with to spice them up for the next day.

Even before the factory closings swept Chaffee, many families were still struggling to make ends meet. In small towns grasped tightly by Christian ideals, families of six or more get by on shoestring budgets and a single source of income. As my mom recalls, she and her siblings ate few vegetables. “It was a lot of pork, beans, biscuits, and potatoes”, she said to me as we sat down for a lunch of zucchini pasta and grape tomatoes in a walnut cheese sauce. Her favorite treat was sweet potato pie with brown sugar, which her grandmother would bake for her on special occasions.

Somewhere in a retirement home far from Chaffee, Margaret Miller passed away on September 12th, 2012. She was 83 years old, and had long suffered from a crippling dementia, a hereditary scare that my mom and I are hoping can be saved with better diet (I should go cook up some spinach…). I’m not sure if she remembered me during my last visit.

Living in Denver, I still attend the occasional potluck, though they are hardly as raucous as my Missouri family gatherings. Many of my friends have erred on the side of vegetarianism, so my bacon addiction has been quelled over time, and I do prefer Colorado’s immense selection of craft brews to the typical Bud Light. That being said, I’m looking forward to this Fourth of July on the shores of Tablerock. Perhaps I’ll even cook up some Scotcheroos.

Will this be the dish I finally cook for heritage day with my children? After diving so thoroughly into the history of Chaffee, I’ve learned that there may not be any proper dish to represent my family line.

Fried possum it is.

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