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A story of recipe cards, sociological inquiry and a political icon

Atruly unlikely first female candidate to run for President of the United States, Margaret Chase Smith never went to college, never claimed to be a feminist and never lived anywhere but small-town Skowhegan until she followed her husband, U.S. Representative Clyde Smith, to the nation’s capital in 1936.

Long before Mrs. Smith went to Washington, she had perfected a down-home charm for connecting with voters as a politician’s wife, bringing along their tiny dog and knitting in hallways outside meetings as well as sharing her favorite recipes. Behind the scenes, she responded to her husband’s mail, conducted his research and wrote his speeches. So, when he fell deathly ill in 1940 and asked her to run for his House seat that fall, she did. Smith became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and the first Maine woman to serve in either. No other Republican woman has served in Congress longer.

Margaret Chase Smith stirs up some batter in her Skowhegan kitchen, circa 1936-1938. Photo courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

When she ran for the presidency in 1964, Smith was still sharing recipes—handing out mimeographed instructions for Maine Blueberry Cake, Maine Baked Beans, Maine Clam Chowder and Maine Lobster Pie, all on Senate letterhead stationery. The originals, handwritten or typed out on index cards, are in the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan. When Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine Orono who leads the university’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, came upon them last year, she was intrigued in more than just a culinary sense.

“I find it so inspiring to look at the strategies that women used to be involved in politics,” Blackstone says. “Women still live with this bind of having to demonstrate their competence or commitment to all spheres.”

Blackstone connected with Rachel Snell, a history lecturer at UMaine Orono with expertise in using 19th-century recipes as biographical source material. “I had never thought of Margaret Chase Smith as a domestic person,” Snell says. “And had been completely unaware that she had a recipe collection. I was really quite curious about it.”

“In a lot of ways Margaret Chase Smith was extraordinary and unusual in that she was widowed, never remarried and never had children,” Snell says. “She almost had to portray herself as a domestic being so that she could be a likeable candidate rather than a threat.”

That homespun approach did land Smith in a controversy in 1964 during the presidential primary. Smith’s recipe evangelism irked another candidate, Nelson Rockefeller, who said that Smith was using her gender to her advantage. (He retaliated with a rich and decadent fudge recipe.)

Margaret Chase Smith attends to a centerpiece. Photo courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

For sophomore Makenzie Baber, who has Snell as her Honors College advisor, this bit of Margaret Chase Smith lore prompted a research project. She compared Smith’s 1964 culinary drama with Hillary Clinton’s cookie fiasco during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. On the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton, who was often accused of “wearing the pants” in the family, told reporters, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” She then spent the next several weeks apologizing to housewives and submitted a chocolate chip cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine for a bake-off against Barbara Bush. (Clinton won.)

Baber and Snell presented this study at a national academic conference last fall, drumming up significant interest on campus among students who weren’t even born when Smith died in 1995. And that was the beginning of the Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative.

In its simplest form, the collaborative is a bit like a book club: Fourteen or so women—the researchers happen to be women—meet once a month to discuss something they’ve read, such as “Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes” by folklorist Diane Tye, and to share a bite to eat, such as Smith’s Queen Muffins. (Only once those Queen Muffins were baked and appeared with peaked tops reminiscent of a crown did the collaborative understand where the name came from.)

On a deeper level, each member of the collaborative has a research interest on the intersection of food, politics and history. Reading between the lines of the recipe cards and other records, political science major Dominique DeSpirito is looking to see if all those Maine ingredients in Smith’s recipes show she was ahead of her time in terms of promoting local agriculture. Food science major Caitlin Hillery is looking at the evolution of recipes over Smith’s long life to see whether there’s evidence of her becoming more health conscious over time (perhaps that’s why Smith never followed the molded salad trend?). And political science major Harley Rogers is comparing the presidential campaigns of Smith and Clinton, writing an honors thesis called “Female Political Campaigns: Just the Right Amount of Femininity.”

As a Senator, Margaret Chase Smith hosted President Dwight Eisenhower for a traditional lobster bake at her house in Skowhegan in 1955. Photo courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

In sending out recipes, the majority of which were distinctively of Maine, was Smith trying to popularize Maine agricultural products? Was she playing up her traditional homemaker role to appeal to conservative voters? Or was she simply getting requests from constituents and publishers of community cookbooks and responding, politely and efficiently, with tried and true recipes from back home, where there would be no blueberries but Maine blueberries and no beans but Maine beans?

These are questions the collaborative ruminates on while sharing Margaret’s Impossible Pie (a hit) and Blueberry Cake (a miss, at least when prepared by students unfamiliar with cooking with lard).

“When people do remember Margaret Chase Smith, they remember her as a politician,” Rogers says. Smith didn’t make it to the White House or even past the primary (Lyndon B. Johnson did). But she was an influential congresswoman for 33 years. She sponsored the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which regularized the status of women in the military, and was the first senator to publicly challenge McCarthyism. “This collaborative is working to show another side of her. And we’re hoping to publish a cookbook with her recipes with vignettes and research sprinkled in.”

“Recipes are such revealing sources,” Snell says. “Margaret’s recipes were serviceable and practical. They do what they say they will.” She hesitates before adding, “If I were looking for a recipe to add to my own collection, I would keep looking.”

That said, Smith was a lot like her own recipes. And, for a politician, practical and dependable aren’t bad things to be.

IMPOSSIBLE PIE

Harley Rogers of Lincoln loves this custard-like pie made with instructions from Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe cards. It was a hit at her Thanksgiving dinner—and again at Christmas. Smith’s recipe called for “Oleo” the popular name for margarine at the time, but we’ve translated it.

1 stick margarine (if you want to be true to Smith; we’d opt for butter instead)
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour 10-inch pie pan.

Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour mixture into pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until it sets. Pie will form its own crust. Cool in pan.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who fell deep into this Margaret Chase Smith rabbit hole of recipe inquiry. So much so that she’s not sure whether she dreamed that Margaret Chase Smith gave out campaign potholders.