The Bess Collection

bess collectionMy dear friend, Gwen, is one of my favorite people in the universe.  In addition to writing and co-editing a popular, high profile sociology blog (yes, there is such a thing), she’s an academic who can make her own pickles, herd cattle, tell a funny story better than David Sedaris, and rescue any stray animal that happens to wander into her neighborhood, even if it’s a goat.

Gwen is also no slouch in the kitchen, and has been really supportive of me throughout this project, always quick with a comment, a tip, or an encouraging word (she even edited some of my first posts).

However, Gwen is a vegetarian, and as a result, would not eat approximately 75% of the things I’ve cooked so far.  I feel bad about this.

And so, my goals for this meal were two-fold.  First, to make a couple of former First Lady Bess Truman’s recipes from the Junior Service League of Independence, Missouri’s The Bess Collection.  And second, to make something from the cookbook that my dear friend might actually enjoy cooking for herself.

So Gwen, this one’s for you.

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

Stuffed Vidalia Onions

4 medium Vidalia onions
2 T. oil-free Italian dressing
1/2 cup sweet red pepper, chopped
1 cup zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup soft bread crumbs
1/2 cup part-skim Mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 T. fresh parsley, minced
1/4 t. dried oregano
Dash Tabasco
Paprika, optional
Fresh parsley sprigs, optional

Peel onions. Cut a slice from the top and the bottom; chop slices and set aside.

In a large skillet, steam onions in a small amount of boiling water for 15-20 minutes or until tender. Cool. Remove center of onions, leaving shells intact. Reserve centers for use in other recipes. Set onion shells aside.

Steaming the onions


Heat Italian dressing in medium skillet until hot. Add reserved chopped onion, red pepper, and zucchini; saute until tender. Remove from heat; stir in bread crumbs, cheese, minced parsley, oregano, and Tabasco.

Onions with centers removed and filling

Onions with centers removed and filling

Fill each shell with 1/2 cup vegetable mixture. Place in an 8-inch square baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake additional 5 minutes. Garnish with paprika and parsley sprigs.

Serves 4

This dish was good, and we enjoyed it, but I think it could become great with a few minor tweaks.  Most obviously, I think it should bake longer, at a higher temperature, so that the onions can really roast and soften and caramelize a little bit.  And in the future, I’d probably skip the Italian dressing, and instead, saute the vegetables in olive oil with a few simple seasonings and herbs – salt, pepper, garlic, fresh chopped oregano and basil, and a few red pepper flakes.  Maybe I’d play around with the cheese, too – Gruyere might be nice, or parmesan.

Still, the fundamentals of the dish – sweet, veggie and cheese-stuffed onions – are sound, and it can be easily tailored to your tastes.

Next up, I prepared Bess Truman’s take on a true American standby – meatloaf.

Mrs. Truman’s Meat Loaf

Dab of butter on the peas, check.  Parsley garnish, check.  Radish roses... maybe next time.

Dab of butter on the peas, check. Parsley garnish, check. Radish roses... maybe next time.

2 pounds ground beef
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons parsley, minced fine
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup bread crumbs
3 tablespoons chili sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon onion juice

For Basting

1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup boiling water
Parsley and radish roses (for garnish)
Tomato sauce (can be bought in cans)
1 can frozen peas

Combine the ingredients and shape in a loaf. Butter a loaf pan, and place meat in pan. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 1 hour, basting frequently with butter and water combination. Remove from loaf pan onto heated platter. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and radish roses. Serve with tomato sauce and green peas, to which a dab of butter is added when served.

The recipe for Stuffed Vidalia Onions said to keep the steamed centers of the onion for other recipes.  So I did.

The recipe for Stuffed Vidalia Onions suggested you keep the steamed centers of the onion for other recipes. So I did.

Serves 4

Basting a meatloaf with butter?!?  Mrs. Truman was a genius.

This slightly unorthodox method helps keep the meatloaf moist, even if you’re using a lean ground beef, and gives the top a nice color when it comes out of the oven.  I’ll also admit to being a little skeptical about the plain tomato sauce.  Where I come from, we put Heinz Ketchup on our meatloaf, as all decent, right-thinking folk do.  But I have to admit, Bess was on to something.

As meatloafs go, this one was fairly ordinary.  But ordinary is kind of what you’re shooting for with meatloaf anyways, and being ordinary has never, in recorded culinary history, kept a meatloaf from being very good, which this one was.

For dessert, I decided to test another of Bess’s favorites. Brady has been agitating of late for me to make a key lime pie. Or rather, Brady is always agitating for me to make a key lime pie. I would not be surprised if one day I came home to find he’d been disseminating inflammatory pamphlets to the cats and calling for a work stoppage unless key lime pie production is up 50% by the end of the year.

This seemed very close in spirit to my key lime pie recipe, and I figured it might satisfy his key lime jones.

Mrs. Truman’s Frozen Lemon Pie

Mrs. Truman's Frozen Lemon Pie

Mrs. Truman's Frozen Lemon Pie

2 eggs, separated
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1 cup whipped cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup crumbled graham crackers

Beat egg yolks. Add lemon juice, rind and all, with two tablespoons of the sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Cool.

Beat egg whites, add two more tablespoons of the sugar, fold into cooked mixture, then fold in whipped cream.

Line greased pie or refrigerator pan with graham cracker crumbs. Save some to sprinkle on top. Pour filling into pan and freeze.

Serves 4

Now, my contempt for the frozen pie crust has been previously documented, but ironically, I have no problem whatsoever with a store-bought graham cracker crust.  So, that’s what I used here.  I also added a little bit more sugar than the recipe calls for, but only one or two extra tablespoons.

This is a fine summer pie – light and refreshing, tart and sweet.  I had some qualms about the fact that it involved uncooked egg whites – my key lime pie recipe calls for a similar folding of egg whites into a cooked mixture, but then you bake it and put the whipped cream on top.

But then I realized that I’ve been dying to make an icebox cake for ages, and the only thing that’s stopped me is the fact that every authentic period recipe I’ve found calls for uncooked eggs.  Reading old cookbooks, it seems that our grandparents were a lot less squeamish about salmonella than we are today, and I decided that if it was good enough for the First Family, circa 1945, it was good enough for me.  The addition of the lemon juice and the freezing process also helped calm my nerves.

And look!  I’m writing this, and not dead or in any gastrointestinal distress!

Sometimes I believe that any meal that can be described thusly should be counted as a success.

bess collection“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.

Harry and Bess, on their wedding day

Harry and Bess, on their wedding day

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.

Bess Truman's recipe for coconut cookies

Bess Truman's recipe for coconut cookies

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.

Ozark Pudding

1 egg
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.