The Fact of the Matter Is. . .
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
www.GustavusHistory.org - by Lee & Linda Parker
Q. Gustavus has always been known for the culinary talents of its residents. How did this get started?
A. Without a doubt Gustavus is known for its world class offerings—from the primitive cabin table to the finest top-shelf inns! Just a couple of years ago Gustavus Inn, (originally the Bill & May White homestead—first occupied when daughter Anne was 1 year old, late 1928 or early 1929) received the coveted “Oscar” recognition of the culinary world. The Inn’s proprietors, Dave & JoAnn Lesh, were awarded the well-earned, prestigious “James Beard Foundation Americas Classic for 2010 Award”. What many may not know is that that award, like the original Strawberry Point homestead itself, had solid, honorable foundations to build on.
On GHAA library shelves sits homesteader May White’s 3 inch thick, 1899 illustrated edition of the “White House Cook Book”. To gain perspective of the historic timeframe—William McKinley was our 25th President, the Klondike stampede had claimed hundreds of gold-seeking lives, Dawson had recently burned, and Nome was finding gold on its beaches. With John Muir on board, the Harriman Alaska maritime expedition began their exploration to document the Alaskan coast—all the way to Siberia and safely back. And many of our early homesteaders were beginning to make their own journey to Alaska—although none would land on Gustavus’ shores for another 15 years.
But, it wasn’t long before Strawberry Point would have its very own White House filled with a “first family” of rambunctious children. With the 1899 cookbook in hand, our pioneers had access that reached all the way to the nation’s White House on Pennsylvania Avenue through its weekly menus and special occasion recipes. On these 600+ fragile pages they learned about hospitality, the correct use of their utensils, home remedies, and how to carve and store the land’s bounty. They could study portraits of all 25 “First Ladies”, and try to copy their riveting hairdos and latest fashion dress. Every recipe was guaranteed to be “tried and tested and relied upon to be the best of its kind”. Readers were assured that the comprehensive content had been especially adapted to the needs and wants of the average American home. And the whole package came bound up in a flexible, patented process that allowed the book to remain open and not close upon itself. It was thoughtfully finished in enameled cloth so as to be easily cleaned in the course of ordinary kitchen use.
It is easy to see why owning this book would have been a virtual prize to any young lady so lucky to acquire it. It would have made her feel totally equipped and up-to-date, even while living in the remote wilds of Alaska. The information, no doubt, would have been deemed trustworthy and beneficial considering the source. All could take comfort and refuge in the well-worn pages. After all, pioneering homesteaders expected to look after themselves. Timely periodicals of information were hard to come by and country doctors were few and far between. Unsure of a remedy? One could always consult the pages of the “White House Cook Book” for just the right poultice to apply.
Interestingly, when May first signed this extraordinary book, she was still Inez “May” Parker. We wonder if she had a premonition that someday soon she would become Mrs. Bill White in a double ring ceremony in Thane, Alaska, September 28, 1916? Following her parents 1917 move to Strawberry Point, May & Bill would first visit the flats that summer, pregnant with daughter Henrietta, and staying May through October. Five years later, May, with three children in tow, returned again to live at the Point—and eventually on to a White House (now the Gustavus Inn) of her own.
Within the pages of the 113-year old “White House Cook Book” is something for everyone. So, if you can’t think of what to have for dinner tonight, here is a recipe you can surely stir up. It’s called Game Soup. It calls for two grouse or partridges. If you have neither, use a pair of rabbits. No rabbits? Substitute half a pound of ham with two onions. Short on ham? Try one pound of lean beef with 2 stalks of celery. None of the above? Go get yourself some venison. It’s the last option but will do quite nicely.
Really? This is a recipe? I guess EVERYONE will find SOMETHING to eat tonight. Pure genius? Maybe so. Certainly adaptable to every household just as promised. Stay tuned…