Annotations from the Archive: Holiday Cookery

Here in Red Cloud, it’s not yet winter, but we had our first hard frost this past week, which brings an end to gardening and many outdoor pursuits. Instead, we begin to look forward to the holiday gatherings coming up soon, often enriched not only by the friends and families around the table, but by the time-tested recipes that help to make up our traditions. Like many of our own families, the Cather family was spread across the country, and the too-seldom visits home to Red Cloud were special occasions, marked by delicious meals and family-favorite dishes. From the National Willa Cather Center archives, we take a look at some of the Cathers favorite recipes and invite you to try one this year at your gathering.

Helen Cather Southwick remembers many visits to her grandparents’ house, which we now know as the Cather Second Home. “I spent many happy days there, especially when Aunt Willa was visiting,” Southwick recalled in 1985. “Aunt Willa’s bedroom was on the southeast corner of the house and had a door that opened directly onto the [second story] porch. She liked to have afternoon tea on the porch in the summer, and my cousin Mary Virginia and I were allowed to help take the tea service up the backstairs from the kitchen and through the long upper hall.” Tea was important to Cather, and both Cather’s niece and her friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant recalled that she drank it “hot Hot HOT.”

One of the special finds from the archives is the recipe for “Willa’s Muffins,” which was discovered among the Cather family cookbooks. This recipe was included in At Willa Cather’s Tables, the collection of recipes put together in 2010 for the Willa Cather Foundation by Board of Governors member, Dr. Ann Romines. This simple cinnamon-y muffin is one of many recipes of note in the collection that speak to Cather’s love of spice cakes.

Among Mildred Bennett’s notes and research, a recipe for “Spanish Bun Cake,” served at the Hotel Royal by Harriet “Hattie” Oatman, is said to be a favorite of Cather’s. The heavily spiced cake was derived from a Latin American cake but isn’t, in fact, baked in a bun shape, writes food historian William Weaver. Instead, it was baked in a sheet pan and cut into squares and dusted with powdered sugar for serving. This, of course, makes perfect sense for hotel meal service.

Within the collection are three cookbooks: Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s 1853 edition of Domestic Cookery, which is thought to have belonged to Cather’s grandmother, Rachel Boak; the White House Cook Book from 1905; and The Home Queen Cook Book, 1901 edition. All of these recipe books show many years of use and have tucked within their pages many handwritten recipes and clipped recipes from newspapers. [NOTE: Click on links for free online editions of these cookbooks!]

From those papers, we find several more sweets enjoyed by the Cathers. “Willie’s Cake Spice Cake” is another spiced cake with raisins, but this time with the addition of some grated chocolate. “Bald Eagle Cookies” is noted as one of Mrs. Cather’s recipes, and if recipes can be judged on appearance, we can assume that the Cather “Coffee Cake” recipe, with its glazed topping made with real coffee, was one of the family’s favorites.

Lest we come to the conclusion that the Cathers ate nothing but cakes, muffins, and cookies, the books also yield several marked recipes for poultry dressing, corn bread, bran bread, vegetable soup, and “mango pickels,” which inexplicably are made with young cantaloupes, cabbage, and aromatics. Throughout the Midwest, “mangoes” were often synonymous with pickles of many types, sometimes made with young melons, green peppers, and even green tomatoes. Domestic Cookery includes several of these labor intensive pickling regimes, which included multiple rinses and repackings.

“Mollie’s Chila Sauce”—which is not a Southwestern chilé sauce as we might have expected, but instead a kind of catsup made of tomatoes, green peppers, and onions—may have come from the Cathers’ good friend Mollie Ferris. It would make a delightful accompaniment for any sandwich made with the Cather’s bread recipes, or for Libbie Holland’s corn muffins, found in the Cather cookbooks, written on the hotel stationery.

Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, we hope you’ll take a moment to enjoy a special recipe or two that reminds you of family and friends. Several of these recipes are pictured alongside this article, and more can be found in At Willa Cather’s Tables, available in our bookstore HERE