“You might not have guessed it, but I’ve been crazy about you ever since we went to Sunday School together.”
— Harry Truman, in a letter to Bess Wallace, June 22, 1911
Like many people, Bess Wallace Truman died in the same town where she was born. Like some, she came from a wealthy family. Like a few, she married someone from a lower social class, a farmer’s son, because she loved him. And like almost no one else, she also happened to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue along the way.
There have been unlikelier First Ladies than Bess Truman, but few I like more.
And so, despite the fact that this cookbook dedicated to Truman’s life and to her cooking, was published by the Junior Service League of Independence, Missouri, and not an affiliate of the Association of Junior Leagues International, I was too attached to it not to devote a little time to it.
Why am I so fond of Bess Truman? One story, related by the authors of The Bess Collection, sums it up pretty well:
She once rescued her brothers’ [baseball] team from sure defeat in a sandlot game. Losing by three runs in the last inning, the brothers recruited Bess to pinch hit with the bases loaded. She promptly lashed a home run and got a good dress dirty in the process.
And then there’s her courtship with Harry, which got its start over a cake plate. Harry had long been infatuated with Bess Wallace, and had cousins who lived across the street from her. When one of the cousins, who knew about Harry’s crush, mentioned that this cake plate needed to go back to the Wallace’s, he volunteered for the job, and returned two hours later saying, “Well, I saw her.” This meeting kicked off a voluminous correspondence – between 1910 and 1959, Harry wrote Bess over 1200 letters, just about all of which she saved.
She could whistle through her front teeth, she wrote down her recipes in handwriting that makes mine look like calligraphy, and she cooked just like my grandma. Tuna noodle casserole, meatloaf, congealed salad, and ginger ale punch – if it’s in Bess’s recipe file, chances are good that my Grandma McCoy has made it for our family.
During her service as First Lady, Bess’s signature recipe was one for Ozark Pudding. There was quite a stink when one Virginia woman claimed that she’d made Bess’s dessert for her family and they pronounced it inedible. Then, the recipe was published with a typo in the ingredients and more people groused, at which point, Bess simply stopped giving it out.
However, she would be forever associated with the recipe. At a 1954 dinner of the Women’s National Press Club attended by the Eisenhowers, female journalists participated in skit where “Mamie Eisenhower” was interrupted while giving instructions on how to prepare a Tex-Mex meal by a phone call from “Bess Truman,” who demanded equal time for a demonstration of her Ozark Pudding.
3/4 cup sugar
3 heaping T. flour (1/3 cup)
1 1/4 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
1/2 cup chopped apples
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 t. vanilla
1 cup cream, whipped
Beat eggs well and add sugar, beating until light and creamy Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and add to egg mixture; blend well. Fold in apples and nuts; add vanilla. Pour into a greased paper-lined dish; bake in a slow oven (325 degrees) for 30 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.
A lifelong learner, Bess also took Spanish classes while she was First Lady. When it was her turn to host the monthly class luncheon, she and her teacher, Professor Ramon Ramos, took over the White House kitchen and made Piccadillo, a Spanish meat and rice stew, garnished with pimento, olives, and raisins. Mrs. Dean Acheson, among others, assisted with the kitchen prep, while Mrs. Hugo Black and Mrs. Eisenhower helped serve.
This week, I’ll be cooking a meal that includes some of Bess Truman’s favorite dishes, as well as some other recipes collected by the Junior Service League of Independence. Having heard that Harry Truman was something of a poker fanatic, I thought about doing a menu of appetizers and hosting a poker night, but after reading more about Bess (whose cookbook it is anyways), a nice family supper seemed more in keeping with the spirit of things.
For more of Bess Truman’s recipes, in her own handwriting, visit the National Park Service Museum Collection, which includes a virtual tour of the Truman’s kitchen.