The Faded Frito and Other Food Infamies

Last week, after finishing the Joy of Cooking biography, I was inspired to cook with gusto.  I stirred up a pot of chili and planned to serve it “street food” style over bags of Frito corn chips.  It had been a while since I’d had the corn chip, invented by Texas entrepreneur Charles Elmer Doolin in the 1930’s.  I remember them being salty, greasy, and corny.

The chili was good, but the Fritos were, sadly, dull and listless.

I was disappointed.  Handy was disappointed; we even made an impromptu batch of chocolate cookies with crushed Frito dust thrown in.

They were nothing to blog about.

Nevertheless, this minor kitchen disappointment wouldn’t keep me down for long.  In my internet travels researching Joy of Cooking, I’d found an interesting food blog, dedicated to promoting the ideals behind the long-popular gastronomic tome.   The recipe was “Little Acorn Squash Macaroni & Cheese” and although the blog post began with a lengthy discourse about non-food topics, I decided to “coexist” with the opinions and drama of the blog writer because the ingredients sounded copacetic and who doesn’t like some kind of macaroni and cheese topped with buttery bread crumbs?

It was a soupy mess of squash, leeks, and ricotta cheese, saved only by the delicious crumbs on top.  Handy put on a good front and even ate seconds.

“Want some leftovers for breakfast?”


He took his “to go” box with him and I went to bed with a sink full of mustard-yellow dishes.  Oh, the infamy of wasted time and wasted ingredients.

I woke up during the early morning hours with my head split in two; a squash-shaped shiv in my brain and my stomach churning from side to side.  I needed coffee, but I couldn’t get out of bed.  I texted Handy.

“Do you feel ok?  Do you have an upset stomach?”

“Not me.”

I asked for coffee and within 30 minutes Handy arrived with a delicious steaming cup. I propped my pathetic self on the pillows and he placed the cup of life-giving coffee into my hands.  I sipped carefully.  We talked about the possibility of a casserole causing such dire affliction and then Handy described how he had lifted the lid of the leftover box earlier that morning.

As he did, my stomach began churning again and I leaned over and barfed into the trash can.  There is no need to say more.  It was a day of food infamy.

It’s one thing to write about food; it’s quite another to prepare delicious food.  One does not necessarily lead to the other.  The shining moment in the whole food fiasco was waking up later in the day and finding the bland bag of Fritos was just the tonic I needed to restore my equilibrium.

Viva la Frito!

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Bitterly Beach

On Tuesday, it was sunny with temperatures in the 40’s.  It was a day for lazy perambulation and dogs at the beach.

On Wednesday, the temperatures dropped and the wind blew bitterly.

No dogs, no driftwood sculptors, no one.  It was the bitterly cold beach, or Bitterly Beach for short.

My kind of seascape.

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The Joy Review

My cooking experiences with a cookbook called Joy started when I bought a used spiral bound paperback edition published by New American Library under the “Plume” moniker.  It must have been in the 1990’s.  Only one recipe is tabbed; “Ginger Snaps” on page 662 of the chapter “Cookies and Bars.”  My friend Shelley tells me “Joy of Cooking was the very first cookbook I ever owned and it remains one of the few that I still consult—even in this digital age where everything is available online.”

Much has been written about this cookbook and its creator, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer.  Indeed, generations of cooks have put aside wonder and “asked Irma.”  The Wikipedia entry is legendarily accurate and there is a lovely picture of the ebullient author.  Its accuracy, in part, is due to the research and thoughtful writing of Anne Mendelson in her book Stand Facing the Stove, which was referenced frequently in the entry.

Mendelson, in her preface to the 1996 book, wrote “the oddities of this book reflect the fact that it took more than ten years to complete, not the year or so I naively expected when the Becker family gave me access to a vast hoard of documents and memorabilia stretching from the late nineteenth century to the time of Marion Becker’s death in 1976.”

Ten years.  That’s a long time to work with a “vast hoard of documents and memorabilia.”  Mendelson also interviewed numerous living Rombauer and Becker relatives.  In the end, she put together an important analysis of American cooking over the last century.  Any aspiring “food writer” should read it to better understand home cooks, cook books, and cooks who read about food.

Mendelson includes two chapters within the Rombauer/Becker story, “Chronicles of Cookery 1” and “Chronicles of Cookery 2” and calls them “two long pauses in the narrative” for a distilled history of 20th century cookery and cook bookery.

These “long pauses” were apparently too long and too detailed for the Amazon book reviewer who said “This is probably one of the most boring books I have ever read…I really thought the story behind the book was going to be interesting but the way that it was written is more like a history book.”

I laughed when I read this one-star review.  Was the “reviewer” expecting a Hollywood treatment, something simmered down into an attractive Nora Ephron stock, a la Julie & Julia?  The story of Joy of Cooking is complex and the drama more nuanced.  The reviewer may have missed the following rather gothic and pivotal turn of events early on in Mendelson’s book (page 81), the moment that would lead to the creation of the cookbook:

“Some time later Elsie Holtman, the housemaid, who had paid no attention to a sound like a car backfiring, answered the phone.  It was the downstairs neighbors, who had suddenly noticed blood dripping from the ceiling.”

That was on Monday, February 3, 1930.  Irma Rombauer had gone out shopping and her husband, Edgar, shot and killed himself.  This event would change her life and the life of her family forever.

I’ll admit, I struggled with the book in the beginning.  I put it down and I picked it up.  I put it down again.  I contemplated forcefully heaving it into another room.  I didn’t fall in love with the characters and I couldn’t identify with the St. Louis Deutschtum class into which Irma Rombauer was born.  I had to go back and re-read certain sections of the book.  I tabbed and underlined.

And mostly, I learned.

Anne Mendelson, in her preface said, “What is remarkable about Joy is that it was brought into being and continued by individuals.”  What she further delineates is that these same individuals were raised within a culture that practiced traits of Lebenskϋnstler, a difficult to translate German word which roughly means to practice artistry or “life artist.”

Unlike other similar corporate cooking compendiums such as The Betty Crocker Cookbook, Joy was created by a family.  Irma Rombauer’s daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, does not have a Wikipedia entry, but you can read a fitting homage to her here, at the official website of Joy of Cooking.

Becker had creative talents and aspirations of her own which she tended in her lifetime, but ultimately, her life’s work was the perfection and continuation of her mother’s offering to the cooking universe.  Becker preferred living outside of the limelight as much as her mother, Irma Rombauer, loved being in it.  What comes through in Mendelson’s book is Becker’s passionate dedication to making the cookbook ever-better with each printing and each revision.

Happily, Joy of Cooking is still a Becker family affair and the work continues with similar dedication.  Marion’s son Ethan Becker remains involved, as does Ethan’s son and daughter-in-law John Becker and Megan Scott.

The website is informative, there are occasional recipes shared, and there’s even an I-phone app available for download which features the contents of the 2006 Joy edition.

Three cheers and five stars for Anne Mendelson, who toiled for 10 years writing Stand Facing The Stove.  Her detailed and well-researched volume is the historical summary and synthesis of what is known today about the individuals who created one of the 20th century’s most reached for cookbooks.  Almost every article written about the Joy or the Rombauer/Becker collaboration is a distillation of Mendelson’s 1996 work.

If “boring” and a one star Amazon review is the fate of well-done historical research, please…let me be boring!

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The Joy of Snowing

I recently finished reading Anne Mendelson’s 1996 book Stand Facing the Stove.  It’s a dense and interesting biography of Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer, and the cooking compendium they created, Joy of Cooking.

I picked up the book to learn about the food writing of the last 100 years.  Mendelson’s well-researched volume did not disappoint.  We meet Julie Child, James Beard, and Cecily Brownstone.  We meet two women, mother and daughter, who write and re-write the book that is most likely in your kitchen right now.

Tuesday’s blizzard was more like the joy of snowing and in this regard, I’ve spent a few hours flinging the flakes around.  My writing schedule is out of sorts and I’ve run out of time for a thoughtful composition about this amazing story.

Stop back here Monday when I revise this post and tell you more about the big book which begins with “Cocktails” and the big personality of Irma S. Rombauer who opens up an earlier edition with these cheery words.

“The chief virtue of cocktails is their informal quality.  They loosen tongues and unbutton the reserves of the socially diffident.  Serve them by all means, preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better.  They may be alcoholic or nonalcoholic.  For the benefit of the minority serve the latter with the former.”

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Spring So Beloved

On January 6, 1979, Eloise Jordan’s New Year’s column in the Lewiston Evening Journal’s Magazine was what I like to call “weather and seasons.” Looking out over the year ahead she wrote:

“We know the January blizzard that flares over the shoulder of the north, shaken with cold and the high arctic winds.  Equally well are we aware of the lure of spring, first a promise, then a retreat, at last fulfillment of bluebirds and daffodils.”

Her column continued through the calendar and then launched into a sweet sermonette about making the best of each day, regardless of the weather.

This past weekend’s frigid temperatures being a “retreat” from March’s earlier “promise,” I cozied into Sunday afternoon with a long-simmering beef stew and some daffodils from the local grocery store.  I pulled out some seed catalogs and sketched out my list.  Cold though it was, by 4:00 p.m. I was ready for some fresh air and took a walk around town.  I sallied past the usual places, like the cemetery on High Street and the old high school on Campus Avenue.  Or more accurately, the Lisbon Falls High School.  Since 1953, students have attended a unified “Lisbon” High School; prior to that time there were two high schools.  Students in the village of Lisbon Falls attended the Campus Avenue high school and students in the villages of Lisbon Center and Lisbon attended the yellow Lisbon High School.*

Eloise Jordan, who grew up in Lisbon (a little less than two miles from the Lewiston city limits) attended Lisbon High School.

The building looks a little weary today, but in Eloise Jordan’s day, it must have been quite a place.  It’s where she first began “writing stories by the peck” and learned to write poetry.

The 1924 Lisbonian, the first yearbook of its kind to be published, featured two works by Eloise; a poem called “Spring So Beloved” and a fictional story about a Russian violinist.

Here’s Jordan’s poem, from the 1924 Lisbonian,  courtesy of the Lisbon Historical Society:

Spring So Beloved

Ah!  Spring so beloved
When fair winds doth play,
And sunshine comes fleeting through leaves at noon-day

And then my beloved,
When twilight draws nigh,
I sit by my window
As day passes by.

Ah! fair are the petals
Of rosebud and flower,
When rain drops come patting
Behind the gray tower.

Ah!  Spring so beloved
When morning dawns fair,
The blue birds are winging,
And fleeing all care.

Following high school graduation in June, 1924, Jordan waited four years before going to college.  The archives I’ve studied to date don’t record her life during those years; that’s the stuff I’ll leave for the fiction writers.

There will be more of Eloise Jordan the poet when we meet up with her at Simmons College.  Until then, keep your shovels handy because it looks like it will be “Snow So Beloved” just once more this week.

*A member of the Lisbon Historical Society provided some more accurate information regarding the two high schools in the Lisbon Villages.  Merton Ricker says “the LHS you pictured…was repurposed as a grade school in 1944 and the two high schools were combined under the Lisbon High School banner…at the former Lisbon Falls High School.”  The current high school “started out as just a gym built in 1951 in an empty field what was a former brick yard.  The following year, a high school building was added to this gym and in 1953, first classes attended this new facility.”

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Six Degrees of Eloise

Last Friday, my boyfriend Handy and I had the pleasure of attending a concert.  The Maine troubadour David Mallett was playing at Auburn’s Unitarian Church.  It was Handy’s birthday, an occasion worthy of a night on the town.  And even though I had grown up hearing Mallett’s name and music around me from time to time, I’d never seen him perform.

Not knowing what to expect, we arrived early and squeezed the Jeep into a parking lot filled with tiny cars.  The church, a significant architectural accomplishment in its own right, was filling with an older crowd.  Demographic identification not being my strong suit, I’ll draw no conclusions from the graying beards and ponytails.  We took our seats and waited for the show to begin.

A tall bearded man walked down the aisle near our seats and I recognized his familiar face from long ago.

“Bob Bittenbender,” I called out to him.

He didn’t recognize me.

“Julie-Ann Baumer,” I said.  “We worked together at Lucas Tree in 1987.”

The tumblers unlocked, we talked about old times and I asked him if he remembered Mrs. Young.  He did; he recalled her superlative kindness.

The lights dimmed, Mallett took the stage; we clapped our hands and tapped our feet with the crowd and enjoyed his poetic tales set to music.  We sang along to his popular Garden Song.  There was an encore, I hugged Bob Bittenbender, and we drove home to Lisbon Falls.

It was kismet that I saw Bob Bittenbender that night, while finishing up my research and assembling my presentation on lady writer Eloise Jordan.  You see, even though I grew up reading the local paper she wrote for, I didn’t remember reading Eloise’s column or her feature articles.  I knew of her only from working with her best friend, Lorna Brown (Mrs. Young) in that dusty tree company office long ago.

How Mrs. Young’s eyes lit up when we were first introduced and I told her I was from Lisbon Falls.  She had grown up in Lisbon Falls too and had fond memories of the place.  She had numerous relatives and friends there and although I was at that young age of not caring much about the old home town, I listened to Mrs. Young’s recollections and inquiries about various people “back home.”  She frequently mentioned her dearest friend Eloise Jordan and from time to time she’d excitedly mention a recent visit or a day trip they’d taken together.

So even though I didn’t know Eloise personally, I was able to piece together bits of her life from Mrs. Young.

I lost touch with Mrs. Young when I divorced and moved to New Hampshire.  I often thought of her when I’d pass through the North Deering section of Portland and wonder if she still lived at her house on Alpine Road.  But life being what it is, we speed too quickly past the places where we might stop and we regret never having a last cup of tea with an old friend.

Lorna Brown Young died in 2012

Having known Mrs. Young, it seemed like I was only six degrees separated from Eloise Jordan.  Or as I like to call it, Six Degrees of Ayuh. 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll unpack my Eloise Jordan presentation here on the blog.  We’ll learn more about the tall thin woman who, according to one adoring neighbor, always wore a fur coat when walking from her apartment to her mailbox (“every single solitary day”) and wrote more than 1,000 columns and feature articles for the Lewiston Evening Journal.  We’ll read some of her poetry, revisit the places she loved, and meet a few of her friends.

Sit down and pour yourself a cup of tea.  And please, use a real cup and saucer, like Eloise would have done.

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Lady Alone Eloise

Eloise Jordan, a long-time columnist and feature writer for the Lewiston Evening Journal, is remembered by few who read the physical incarnation of this local paper today.  Mention her name to the digital paper’s readers and the response will be a louder silence.

Her columns and features graced the publication of my childhood and young adulthood; she wrote content for the Lewiston paper until 1989.  She died of a stroke on January 5, 1989 while visiting her dear Portland friend, Lorna (Brown) Young.  Meticulous and conscientious in turning in material before deadline, her final column was published posthumously on the Saturday following her death.  Jordan’s former Evening Journal editor Faunce Pendexter said “she did a good job for us, and she came through week after week.  She was very faithful.”

Her final column?  A recollection regarding an opera diva she had known.  Eloise Jordan loved opera and wrote more than one or two columns about it over the years.

She was born on March 27, 1907.  Her father, William Jordan, was a lumber dealer and owner of numerous rental properties in the area.  He was also noted to be a descendant of Cape Elizabeth’s Reverend Robert Jordan, who arrived here in 1631 to act as minister to the colony established on Richmond Island.  Memories of her father and mother as well as her post-Mayflower lineage would occasionally find their way into Eloise Jordan’s features and columns.

She graduated from Lisbon High School in June, 1924.  Nicknamed “Tweedie,” the high school yearbook notes she was the “school soloist” for four years and kept busy “writing stories by the peck.”


In 1928, she entered Simmons College in Boston and graduated in 1932 with a degree in Library Science.  The 1932 Simmons yearbook, The Microcosm, lists among her activities the Glee Club and the Poetry Club.

Following graduation, Eloise Jordan returned to Lisbon.  Her mother died in 1934 and Eloise became her father’s housekeeper and secretary in his business holdings.  They lived in the family house in Lisbon, which is still standing on what is now Route 196.  In an April 29, 1950 Lewiston Sun Journal feature  about her father, Eloise wrote “I traveled with him constantly, driving the car when he was on crutches with an injured foot, keeping accounts, and looking after his business when he was ill.”

In June, 1945, Will Jordan died.  Eloise, an only child, went to live in a small upstairs apartment located in a house owned by Meryl Brown on what is now the Upland Road.  The apartment, recalled as “tiny” by those who visited, had a kitchenette under the slant of the roof, a bed, and a typewriter among other things.  And it was filled with books.

Shortly after her father’s death, Eloise began writing features for the Lewiston Evening Journal.  These feature stories would run in a Saturday “magazine” section.  Her first feature ran on July 6, 1946.  On September 28, 1946, her first “column” ran with little fanfare.  It was titled “The Corn Shop” and recalled the long ago tradition of bringing the summer’s corn to a centralized location and canning it.  She would revisit this column on September 8, 1984 (almost forty years later) and write “I cherished a desire to husk corn but Father dissuaded me by saying I was not husky enough.”

She lived a “spinster’s” life, not unknown to women of her generation.  She wrote her columns, drank tea, listened to opera, and occasionally traveled.  She was a “club woman,” a member of the Women’s Literary Union and the Progressive Club, among others.

On Wednesday evening, March 8, I’ll be giving a talk about the life and times of Eloise Jordan at the Lisbon Historical Society; I’ll also read from some of her columns.  As is always the case at these events, we’ll all learn more than we anticipate from one another.

Located at 18 School Street, the Historical Society entrance and parking lot are located at the rear of the building, accessed on Berry Avenue.

The event is free and open to the public.  Refreshments will be served, tea included.

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