This past week I was looking for a recipe, so I went to my collection of more than 3,000 cookbooks and came across a book I had not seen before: “How I Cook It,” by Virginia McDonald. The book was published in 1949 by Frank Glenn Publishing Co.
Hundreds of thousands of people traveled to the McDonald Tea Room in Gallatin, Mo., about 65 miles from Kansas City.
The cookbook contains the most popular recipes served at the tea room, many that were handed down from Virginia McDonald’s mother and grandmother. Virginia grew up down south in Texas, and most of the recipes are a reflection of this.
I was so impressed that food writer Duncan Hines wrote the foreword to her cookbook. What an honor. He also named the tea room one of the top places in America to visit. During her reign as owner of the McDonald Tea Room, Virginia was written up in Better Homes & Gardens, The Saturday Evening Post and Homer Croy’s “Corn Country,” among many books and periodicals, and in many of the nation’s major newspapers.
When Jesse and Frank James robbed the bank in Gallatin, a woman held onto her little girl and hid behind a tree. Later in life, that little girl opened the McDonald Tea Room right behind the very tree where her mother hid.
McDonald Tea Room actually started when Virginia’s husband began selling hot dogs across the counter of his hardware business. Virginia took over, and the McDonald Tea Room officially debuted in 1931 with just three tables made by her husband and covered with bright red tablecloths.
The tea room expanded over the years from one room to five. Word-of-mouth got out around Missouri, and sometimes more than 350 people would show up for Sunday dinner, making it one of the top 10 tea rooms in the entire country.
Over the years, McDonald Tea Room attracted regulars such as President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess; neighbor and department store mogul J.C. Penney and former governor Arthur M. Hyde, who once said: “Their blackberry ice should be reverently held in the hands and inhaled as you would a fragrant rose.”
Virginia died in 1969, and several different owners continued the operation and tradition until flames overtook the restaurant on July 4, 2001.
From an old hardware store to one of the top 10 tea rooms in America, this is truly a Horatio Alger story.
After reading just the first chapter, I was reminded so much of my father. Virginia said she never tried to do things like other people — she always did things her own way. This was evident even in the decorating of the restaurant. Hot food was served hot and cold food served cold, and even the simplest dishes were fixed as attractively as they could be.
The cookbook starts off with garnishes and canopies. Following chapters include salad, chicken, eggs and seafood dishes, cheese dishes, meats, and vegetables and sauces, along with bread, muffins, waffles, cakes, cookies, pastries, pies and other desserts. The final chapter covers sweet spreads and other things.
I remember the first time I ate at the McDonald Tea Room, and I sure remember the dinner rolls, strawberry jam, sweet pickled peaches and cantaloupe pickles, along with the lobster and crab au gratin and the buttered potatoes, all served family-style. I also remember that she made some of the finest iced tea that hot summer day. There’s even a recipe for the tea in the cookbook.
I treasure this cookbook now, and it is sitting on my desk at the restaurant. When I’m doing recipe development and looking for new ideas, I still think I should never forget our American roots and especially some old Missouri restaurants that were popular back in the day.
If you have a favorite memory of a restaurant in Missouri or Kansas or even an old restaurant recipe you want to pass along, send me an email at email@example.com.
Sweet Pickle Peaches
4 cups brown sugar
2 cups white vinegar
One half peck peaches
Break cinnamon sticks into small pieces and combine with sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes. Dip peaches in hot water and rub well with a towel. Stick 4 cloves into each peach. Drop one half of the peaches into the boiling syrup and cook until tender. Remove cooked peaches and drop the other half of the fruit into the same syrup and cook until tender. Cool and refrigerate.
Lobster & Crab Au Gratin
4 tablespoons butter
6 mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 pound fresh lobster
1 pound fresh crab
2 cups cream
1 cup white sauce made with cream
1/4 cup sherry wine
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons grated cheese
Salt and pepper
Melt butter and add mushrooms and shallots. Cook 1 minute and add lobster and crab, which have been minced. Stir in the cream and simmer 5 minutes. Add white sauce and mix well. Combine sherry and egg yolks and add to above mixture. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour into buttered casserole; sprinkle with cheese; dot with butter, and bake in a moderate oven until cheese is golden brown.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 62-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.