Chow Town

Taste for history always ends up in the kitchen

Oven in the kitchen of the Texas White House; the pecan pie is representative of one cooks prepared on Nov. 22, 1963, for a dinner honoring President John F. Kennedy.
Oven in the kitchen of the Texas White House; the pecan pie is representative of one cooks prepared on Nov. 22, 1963, for a dinner honoring President John F. Kennedy.

I’m a sucker for touring United States historic sites where, for a donation, nominal fee or often-free admittance, I can gawk to my heart’s content at the accouterments of strangers who lived in eras familiar to me only from books, grainy educational films or the Encyclopedia Britannica.

It’s always the kitchen — the heart of the home — that captures my attention.

In Sioux City, Iowa, where I grew up, Brugier’s Cabin in Riverside Park fascinated me. As a youngster, I accompanied my grandma to meetings at the restored cottonwood log cabin that was once part of a pioneer farm.

Researchers found that most likely the cabin served as the kitchen structure in a group of five or more used by Theophile Bruguier and his family.

The cabin smelled old and exotic to me; every time I was there, I detected a faint aroma of burning wood and maple syrup. I once asked my grandma if she smelled it, too.

“Yes, and pork chops,” she said.

Harry S Truman and his wife, Bess, lived in a 14-room Victorian home in Independence at 219 N. Delaware St. for more than 50 years. The National Historic Site allows visitors to roam the structure and see how the 33rd president — who made famous the line, “The buck stops here,” lived with his beloved wife, Bess. The simple pink-and-turquoise kitchen where the Trumans’ ate breakfast following Harry’s daily walks, was a stop on the tour I always lingered.

Recently in Washington, Ark., a tiny town listed on the National Register of Historic Places, I explored more than 30 restored landmarks and historic structures from the 19th century where guides reenact daily life at a working blacksmith shop and a printing press shop, among others.

My last stop at Historic Washington State Park was a classic Greek Revival home, built in 1845 that belonged to Simon T. Sanders, a county clerk. Following my knock on the front door, Mekicia Henry’s flour-spattered face greeted me.

An award-winning interpreter who portrays slave Betsy Carey, Henry took me through the home in character, explaining daily chores performed for the family, her words punctuated by frequent hand wringing on a long, white apron.

The tour ended in the kitchen where Carey explained she spends most of her long hours working for the Sanders, toiling over poker-red fires, preparing meals with ingredients harvested from the backyard garden, eggs gathered from the chicken house and provisions picked up from the general store.

“Lots of stews, pies and breads,” said Carey. “And cakes. Mr. Sanders loves cake.”

Henry as Carey was so good that, for a moment, I was transported back to a century when “fast” and “food” were never used side-by-side.

Earlier this spring I visited the LBJ Ranch and the LBJ Ranch House outside Fredericksburg, Texas, in Hill Country. Built in 1894 with native limestone by a German immigrant, Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird purchased the modest home from his aunt in 1951 and over the years made several additions, including master bedrooms and the office wing where the president conducted official business during his term.

Following LBJ’s death in 1973 — in a bedroom at the back of the house, overlooking a pool — Mrs. Johnson lived at the ranch part-time until her death in 2007.

LBJ was the first American president to establish a working White House away from Washington. He entertained many heads of state and world dignitaries in the home whose primary colors evoked the day’s stylish palette: avocado and gold.

Many of the Johnsons’ personal artifacts are displayed, including LBJ’s leather chair emblazoned with the presidential seal and a pillow, yellowed by time, embroidered with the phrase, “This is my ranch and I do as I damn please!”

Lady Bird’s fuss-free bedroom is decorated with pictures drawn by grandchildren and framed family photos.

Interspersed throughout the house are gifts they both received while in public service.

It’s fascinating to be in a relatively confined space with so many pieces of recognizable history within arm’s length. LBJ’s legendary phones are in each room — on desks, by chairs, the infamous one hanging on the wall of his bathroom, next to plush Air Force One towels.

Lady Bird’s conservative frocks, a departure from her predecessor’s glamorous attire, are behind a plexi-glass wardrobe that fogs up from my breath as I lean in for a closer look.

The Texas White House’s dining room table is anything but grand, set with casual dinnerware and brass candlesticks with long tapers. A vintage bottle of Sucaryl, the liquid sweetener LBJ was fond of following a physician’s recommendation to lose weight prior to surgery, sits at his place.

Affixed to a table leg, out of guests’ sight and to the left of the president’s chair, is a white telephone — Johnson was known to be obsessed with staying in touch with staff regardless of his activity and reportedly had phones in deer blinds and a radio telephone in his one of his Lincoln convertibles on the LBJ Ranch.

Four steps from LBJ’s chair at the head of the table is the kitchen — the centerpiece of my tour.

A lemon meringue-yellow dinette table and two Kelly-green chairs are situated in a slip of a breakfast nook. Orange, yellow, blue and green wallpaper covers the wall like a pop-art canvas.

To the right is a small desk with a multiple-line phone and intercom perched on a yellow counter matching the table. Suspended above are cookbooks from Lady Bird’s personal library — titles such as “The Dinah Shore Cook Book,” “Houston Junior League Cookbook,” “The Texas Cook Book” and “The Joy of Cooking” line two shelves.

Around the corner from the table for two is the place at the Texas White House where I want to stand, eyes closed, and listen for the conversations of history.

A worn four-burner commercial gas stove where cooks prepared LBJ’s favorite dishes, including chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, chipped beef on toast, deer sausage, scrambled eggs and grits and tapioca pudding, commands the tight quarters.

On the flattop rests a single, nine-inch plastic replica of a pecan pie. It’s the dessert kitchen staff baked for a festive homecoming dinner to be eaten by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson and the President of the United States, John. F. Kennedy, and Mrs. Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963, following a Dallas appearance.

The main course was a pot roast.

On the opposite wall is a clunky refrigerator-freezer. A small black-and-white television sits on top. The guide leading my tour says most likely the cooks had the channel turned to CBS, watching the popular soap opera “As the World Turns,” when Walter Cronkite broke in with news of the assassination.

What happened in that Texas Hill Country kitchen on Nov. 22, 1963, isn’t written in the history books. Chances are the cooks did what cooks do: whatever needed to be done to finish a meal, even if the intended guests wouldn’t consume it.

I close my eyes, channeling the familiar scent of pot roast. I imagine the stunned kitchen staff removing the pan from the oven, cooling the pies, watching the black-and-white television as Cronkite reports the news.

And then I imagine that the pies are sliced and eaten on that November day, in silence, as history unfolds in a world outside the ranch that is soon to become the Texas White House.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.