Always put in a recipe.
That was the advice of Willard Archie, publisher of the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, to Evelyn Birkby back in 1949, as she embarked upon what would become a so-far 63-year journey in writing her weekly newspaper column, “Up a Country Lane”.
Life is a choice. Do what’s important.
That was Evelyn’s advice to me just a few years ago, in June of 2010, during a lecture she gave at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. I had heard over the radio that Evelyn would be there, so I contacted her by email to see if I could attend. (I was not Simpson alum, as this was a special alumni event.) She assured me that I could and should attend, and to please introduce myself while there so she could connect a face to the name.
You might be wondering why I was so determined to attend an event that was not exactly aimed at me…..
I’ve always been interested in anything Iowa, particularly Iowa food and history. Combine the two, and that’s what I found one day more than ten years ago while browsing through the catalog of the University of Iowa Press. I came across an intriguing title, Up a Country Lane Cookbook. Previewing it online, I decided to order it, and when the book arrived at my door, I couldn’t put it down. I still can’t to this day.
I love reading, cookbooks in particular. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I read cookbooks like a romance novel addict reads Harlequins. And the Up a Country Lane Cookbook was my Harlequin, yet it was so much more. Filled with stories about various aspects of life in rural Iowa during the 1940s and ‘50s (the chapters arranged as such, with titles like “Grocery Stores and Lockers”, “Haying”, and “Country Social Clubs”), this book tells the reader even more through the recipes of the folks who lived that life. The stories are so personal and woven together; you think they could be your own. At the least, you are certain that you are listening to your grandma tell you a cherished story from days gone by, illustrating for you an intimate portrait of your heritage.
Like a true addict, I had to read more. I went back to the catalog of the University of Iowa Press to find more by the same author. At the time, there was just one title, Neighboring on the Air: Cooking with the KMA Radio Homemakers. When I saw that title, I thought I had hit the jackpot. Another cookbook with Iowa history! This title, having been published two years prior, carried the same appeal and the ability to evoke similar warm-and-fuzzy emotions as its successor.
And the author of my two-title collection? None other than Evelyn Birkby.
This would not be my only encounter with the name Evelyn Birkby however, prior to meeting her that June morning. Months earlier in 2010, Iowa Public Television produced and aired a documentary, one in which those two books collided, called Iowa’s Radio Homemakers: Up a Country Lane. As one of those radio homemakers herself, Evelyn Birkby shared her stories of a simpler time, once again.
So when I heard that she would be giving a lecture, I had to be there to meet her in person. Of course, I brought my copies of her books to autograph. And I brought something else: my own cookbook.
A few years before, my sister and I embarked upon our own journey, one in which we would ultimately publish a family cookbook featuring the recipes of our late grandma to share with our entire extended family. While discussing style and format ideas, we opened Up a Country Lane Cookbook and found our inspiration. We began collecting, compiling, and arranging recipes, stories, and photographs from all of our family members, so we could begin to tell pieces of our family’s story, rich in its own Iowa history. With Evelyn’s book as our model, my sister and I had created a treasured keepsake our family could cherish.
To show Evelyn our appreciation, since we both attributed our vision for our cookbook to the inspiration we found in the pages of Evelyn’s book, and to thank her for helping us give such a special gift to our family, my sister and I wrote a letter explaining as such, and placed it inside a copy of our cookbook, which had just arrived from the printers weeks earlier. At the lecture I attended, I handed the cookbook to Evelyn. She seemed delighted, as she enjoys collecting family cookbooks. A short time later, Evelyn shared parts of our letter and featured our cookbook in her column. As always, she put in a recipe, this time for my Appleberry Pie.
(You can imagine my own delight to have been included in one of Evelyn Birkby’s “Up a Country Lane” columns!)
That lecture that day gave me so much more than a chance to thank Evelyn and share with her what she inspired my sister and me to create. It gave me the chance to seek the wisdom of an elder, for Evelyn is far wiser than even her now 93 years. One of the things that intrigues me about life back in the 1940s and ‘50s is how those rural women managed to “do it all”, with so fewer modern conveniences than we have now, while still spending the kind of time with their families from which special memories are made. I asked her about that aspect of life back then, and that’s when Evelyn shared with me her greatest advice. She told me that life is a choice, that every day we make a choice about what we are going to do with our time; that we will spend our time on what we value, so we should choose to do what is important.
Does anyone really need to know anything about how to live a life, more than that?
I have never forgotten the words Evelyn shared that day. And I’m still paying attention to the woman, who in her tenth decade of life, has so much insight into how a wonderful life is lived. I keep up with her by listening to KMA Radio out of Shenandoah, Iowa. (I stream it live online.) Evelyn still visits over the airwaves, sharing a recipe, just as she did all those years ago, now the third Tuesday of every month at approximately 9:18 a.m. (If I miss the live broadcast, I can still hear the recorded program by clicking the “Dean & Don” tab on KMA’s website.) I also keep up with Evelyn by reading her “Up a Country Lane” column in what is now The Valley News. She still includes a recipe, just as Mr. Archie told her she should.
And I still pull out her books, pondering the recipes and rereading the stories of a time I will never know.
History never gets old.
Here’s a poignant excerpt from Evelyn’s Up a Country Lane Cookbook (1993), from the Afterword:
“During the years we lived on Cottonwood Farm, it sometimes seemed as though nothing would ever change. I would stand in the cool shadows beneath the cottonwood trees and drink in the beauty of Mill Valley, our fields, and the meandering creek. I was content in knowing that this farm, sheltering and nurturing the people I loved most, was at this moment our own. It was home…
…I can always see the long country lane that led to Cottonwood Farm. We had driven up it at the beginning of our farming adventure full of enthusiasm and hope. And we had made our way back down the lane when we left the farm for the last time. Despite the hard work and the setbacks, our years at Cottonwood Farm had made us so much wiser, so much stronger, and I hope, so much better for having been there. Best of all, they had filled each of us with a lifetime of wonderful memories of a time and a place and a way of life that will never come again.”
Thank you, Evelyn, for sharing your memories, your words, and most importantly, your wisdom.
Yours in pie,
I have been eagerly awaiting, with great anticipation, the arrival of Evelyn Birkby’s latest book (her 11th), Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa's Best-Known Homemaker. I ordered my copy months ago, and since the book was just released on September 15th, it has not yet arrived at my door. So to celebrate Evelyn’s newest book, this week’s pie on Sunday is one I chose from her Up a Country Lane Cookbook, Barbershop Gooseberry Pie. I had neither baked nor eaten a gooseberry pie until now, and I’ve always been intrigued, yet hesitant. I’ve been told by many that you really should use fresh gooseberries rather than those found in a commercial can; they can be mushy and the taste is nothing like those of fresh. Considering the extreme unlikelihood that I would find fresh gooseberries in the woods or in the store, I didn’t have much of a choice. But I figured it was a risk worth taking, and I was pleasantly surprised. While I do think fresh gooseberries would improve the quality of the texture and the taste, this pie was worth making. And what does the barbershop have to do with it? Herschel Whitehill was a local barber in Farragut, also in far southwestern Iowa, and as Evelyn notes, this was his favorite pie.
|Can you see the gooseberries?|
Barbershop Gooseberry Pie
*I have listed the directions for how I made the pie.
Pastry for a two-crust 9” pie
3 or 4 c. gooseberries (I used 2 15 oz. cans, drained)
1 c. (8 oz. can) crushed pineapple, undrained
Dash of salt
1 ½ c. sugar
3 T. cornstarch
1 T. butter
Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a small bowl. Pour over gooseberries and pineapple in a bowl and combine very gently. Spoon filling onto bottom crust, dot with butter, and cover with top crust. Cut tiny slits to allow steam to escape. Brush crust with milk and sprinkle with sparkling sugar. Cover edge of crust with foil to prevent over-browning. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes, then lower oven temp. to 350° and bake for another 45-60 minutes, removing foil the last 15-20 minutes of baking, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. Cool completely on wire rack before slicing into pie.