In the Kitchen in Kansas … The Food of Obama’s Mother’s Childhood

Steve Fernie)
Dorothy's Red Heels (Photo credit: Steve Fernie)

There’s No Place Like Home …
~~ Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Kansas Prairie (Used with permission.)
Kansas Prairie (Used with permission.)

Kansas is flat, real flat. Yes.

And President Barack Obama’s green leaf of choice, arugula, clocks in pretty low on Kansans’ list of comestibles.

Lee Russell)
1940s Traditional American BBQ (Photo credit: Lee Russell)

But none of this means that President Obama doesn’t love Kansas and especially its wholesome, comforting food.

That said, there’s nothing the matter with Kansas. Great food. Wonderful pies. Terrific barbecue. True, so true.

To balance things out, after writing about Barack Obama’s father’s childhood vittles, it is only fair to turn the page and look at food that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, enjoyed as a child.

In 2004, Obama told The New Yorker, “I know these people. The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrong — it’s all totally familiar to me.” His grandparents grew up in traditional small American towns, his grandmother, Madelyn “Toot” Dunham, in Augusta, Kansas and his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, in El Dorado, Kansas.

Farm JOurnal Freezing & Canning Cookbook
Farm Journal Freezing & Canning Cookbook

Speculation has it that The Farm Journal Freezer and Canning Cookbook may have sat on Madelyn Dunham’s kitchen shelf. Certainly, The Farm Journal played a vital role throughout the Midwest, and not just in farmwives’ kitchens. Other Farm Journal titles include Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, full of the recipes found at church basement suppers and ice cream socials.

BBQ Sauce (Photo credit Southern Foodways Alliance)
BBQ Sauce (Photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance)

Now, probably the only Kansas dish anybody thinks worthy of note is Kansas City barbecue. Just about every bottle or jar of barbecue sauce for sale in grocery stores across America  — smoky, ketchupy, sugary, gooey — descended from a basic recipe that originated in Kansas. Or so the legend goes.

A family friend wrote to me, after I asked her what she thought the Dunham family ate on a regular basis:

Tara Alton)
Raisin Pie (Photo credit: Tara Alton)

I am not sure what Obama’s mother might have eaten but being a farm girl from Kansas, I remember the traditional meals were Crisp Fried Chicken, Mashed Potatoes and Chicken Gravy, Garden Sliced Tomatoes, Corn on the Cob, Homemade Parker House Rolls, and for dessert there was usually a Homemade Cherry, Blackberry, Rhubarb or Chocolate Pie.  Now you know why I have always had a weight problem.  Ha!  My mother always had Ham Hock and Beans on Mondays which was her wash day.  That is still one of my favorites.  Of course there was always a lot of steaks since we butchered our own beef.  My mom used to make Homemade Bread Pudding as my Dad loved it, as well as Raisin Pies.  I remember walking home from country grade school on cold snowy days and Mom would have Homemeade Bread made and we would put butter and sugar on it.  I can still taste it.  It was so good.  One of my favorites is a little restaurant called Russell’s in Salina, Kansas that serves the best Country Fried Steak…..That is another favorite of Kansans.  My mom was a very good cook and my oldest sister is just as good and when we go back to Kansas she always makes my husband a Rhubarb Pie and me a Homemade Chocolate Pie.  I really look forward to those visits.

Paul Moody)
Chocolate Pie (Photo credit: Paul Moody)

That seems about right.

And don’t forget that President Dwight David Eisenhower called Kansas his home state. Mamie Eisenhower didn’t cook much, as she preferred to play bridge. The General  turned out to be the chef in that family. In The Presidents’ Own White House Cookbook, Ike’s recipes for Beef Stew, Vegetable Beef Soup, and Grilled Trout (Open-Fire Trout) appear, along with Mamie’s Devil’s Food Cake and Million-Dollar Fudge. But that’s the stuff of a future discussion.

Now pull up a chair, grab a fork, and dig in …

Pie, as my family friend says, plays a huge role in Kansans’ culinary culture. One pie in particular, made by pioneer women, sounds interesting — Vinegar Pie; the old-fashioned recipe comes first, followed by a version more doable for modern cooks:

Old-Fashioned Vinegar Pie

1 egg
1 heaping tablespoon flour
1 c sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat these ingredients together and add 1 tablespoon of sharp vinegar and a cup of cold water.  Flavor with a little nutmeg and pour into an unbaked pie shell.  Cover with second pie crust and flute edges.  Bake for an hour.

Vinegar Pie (Used with permission.)
Vinegar Pie (Used with permission.)

Modern Vinegar Pie
Pie crust for 9-inch pie pan

1 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup flour
1 T. grated lemon zest
½ cup cider vinegar
2 cups water
3 eggs, beaten
1 T. butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Put the pie crust into the pie pan and flute the edges.

In a heavy saucepan, mix together sugar, flour, and lemon zest. Stir in vinegar and then water, mixing well. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil; stir constantly for one minute. Take the pot off the burner, add some of the hot mixture to the beaten eggs, and stir well. Then stir the eggs gently and quickly into the hot mixture in the pan. Add the butter.

Dump the custard mixture into the pie shell and spread evenly. Bake ten minutes at 435 degrees F. After the ten minutes are up, turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F and bake for thirty more minutes, or until edges of pie shell turn golden brown. The center of the pie appears liquidy, but will solidify as the pie cools. Cool pie on a wire rack.

Jeremy Keith)
BBQ Chicken (Photo credit: Jeremy Keith)

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 1 ½ – 2 cups

2 T. olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, grated
2 T. yellow onion, grated
1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup vinegar
3 T. Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup brown sugar
2 T. paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat; add the garlic and onion and stir constantly for about 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients, reduce heat to simmer, and cook for about 25 minutes. If sauce gets too thick, add water, tablespoon by tablespoon. Adjust seasonings and use on any kind of barbecued meat. Use on meat just before meat is finished on the grill. The high sugar content of this sauce will cause the meat to burn if applied too soon.

Justin Henry)
Tomato Sandwich (Photo credit: Justin Henry)

Kansas Tomato Sandwich
Makes one sandwich

A real Kansas summer treat. In Dreams of My Father, President Obama mentions the wonderful tomatoes of hot Kansas summers.

2 slices white bread
1 T. mayonnaise
3 slices ripe beefsteak tomato
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 leaf of green lettuce

Macaroni Salad (Used with permission.)
Macaroni Salad (Used with permission.)

Kansas Macaroni Salad
Serves 6-8

For dressing:

3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 T. Dijon mustard
½ t. Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

For salad:

3 cups cooked elbow macaroni
½ lb. cooked ham, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 ribs celery, chopped
½ cup chopped dill pickles
½ cup chopped red bell pepper (or you can use pimientos)
Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
2 hard-cooked eggs, cut into wedges (for garnish)
Ground paprika (for garnish)

Mix dressing ingredients refrigerate until ready to use. Mix the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Pour dressing over salad ingredients. Mix well. Transfer salad to serving dish and garnish with parsley, egg wedges, and a sprinkle of paprika.

Old Barn (Used with permission.)
Old Barn (Used with permission.)

Kansas Cookbooks:

Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook

Farm Journal Freezing and Canning Book

Home on the Range Cookbook: Cooking with Bison

Kansas City Barbecue Society Cookbook (recipes from a society of over 2000 members)

The Kansas Cookbook: Recipes from the Heartland, by Frank Carey and Jayni Naas.

Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier, by Joanna Stratton.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

4 thoughts on “In the Kitchen in Kansas … The Food of Obama’s Mother’s Childhood

  1. I went to school at Bison, Ks, in like 1979ish. I remember they always had homemade peanut butter at lunch, I just loved it, does anyone have the recipe.

  2. Loved this post. I was surprised to see that my small-town-Ohio mother served typical Kansas meals. I’ve been a big fan of Farm Journal cookbooks for 25 years and have a nice collection, garnered from antique shows and flea markets. With that wonderful food in his genes, President-Elect Obama will have to do well.

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