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Barry Schrader
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I currently write a column every other Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.

 

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Can you still smell mother’s cookies?

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................October 14, 2014

Note to readers: Barry Schrader’s “DeKalb County Life” column will appear every other Tuesday.

Not being very domestic (only making pancakes or scrambled eggs on Saturday mornings during my lifetime) I really had not given a lot of thought to the value of cookbooks and recipes in everyday life.
But all that changed for me last week when Danielle Spalenka, curator at the Northern Illinois University Regional History Center, gave me a preview of their new exhibit, “You Are What You Eat: Cookbooks as ingredients to shape identity and community.”

Of course, almost everyone can remember those holiday meals at grandma’s house or family reunions when mothers and aunts provided fabulous dishes from the “homeland,” or their family’s best-known recipes from generations back. My favorites happen to be my Aunt Lila Schmidt’s fudge brownies and my Grandma Ethel Schrader’s homemade noodles. I even got to help knead the dough, then roll it flat and cut it into strips before being boiled on the stove with the beef bone added. She also baked Kuchen (coffeecake) handed down from her German ancestors that melted in your mouth. We didn’t know about calories back then.

All these memories and sweet aromas from childhood came rushing back as Danielle showed me the scores of cookbooks and recipes they have collected for the exhibit that fill four cases on Founders Memorial Library’s main floor.

She explained that northern Illinois, like any other place in the nation, has many immigrant families that came here in the 1800s through the present day and brought with them their traditions and ethnic identities. In many cases, traditional dishes help them keep in touch with their native countries’ cultures. It could be compared with passing down

Regional History Center curator Danielle Spalenka holds two cookbooks, one from the Wurlitzer Company, at left, published for its centennial in 1956, and the other from Oak Crest Retirement Center produced by its residents around 1985. She stands beside one of four display cases of cookbooks and related culinary artifacts on display through Nov. 15 at Founders Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University. (Schrader photo)

Front cover of 1920 DeKalb Woman's Club recipe book

your native tongue to the next generation to remind them of their heritage.

They even have a case full of NIU cookbooks and photos from the 1950s showing home ec (domestic arts and household management) students preparing meals and some of their utensils. For a final exam, the women (seldom men) had to prepare a sumptuous meal, display their table-setting skills and knowledge of etiquette.

In 1973, the University Women’s Club produced a cookbook, probably as a fundraiser, and others in the exhibit come from the Lowden Hall staff and the University Library, both dated 1982.
Two that caught my attention were the centennial cookbook from the Wurlitzer Company in 1956 and the DeKalb Woman’s Club book of recipes from 1920. Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated from Germany, and many of the recipes reflect his family’s traditions as well as those of many employees and their wives from around the DeKalb area.

When we opened the fragile copy of the Woman’s Club recipe book, I spotted several names many people will remember: Mrs. Clifford E. Smith; Mrs. Seymour Hunt; Mrs. F. M. Tilton; Mrs. William Van Arsdale and Mrs. William Schafer, both of Malta; Mrs. Samuel E. Bradt; Mrs. B.C. Knodle; Mrs. Joseph Willrett; and three from Genoa – Mrs. Ed Listy, Mrs. Roberta Rosenfeld and Mrs. Will Duval.
There also were recipes for a Never Fail Devil’s Cake from Mrs. Harry Mosher, a Potato Chocolate Cake from Mrs. Ole Benson, and a Sour Cream Cake from Mrs. C. Boekenhauer. I wish I had been around to visit those ladies’ homes.

For the grand opening reception Thursday (4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Regional History Center on the fourth floor of the main library), the staff plans to prepare some cookies and sweets from the cookbooks so attendees can get a taste of the offerings from a few local recipes. The public is invited, if you can find a parking space.

But please don’t boil any Swedish lutefisk like my dearly departed mother-in-law Gladys (Hegberg) Wirsing did at Christmastime. That could stink up all four floors of Founders Library and send students fleeing for the exits!

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115