Unable to convince her well-intentioned colleagues of their utter foolishness, Miss Virgie Osco had no choice but to appeal to Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. She made room amid the notebooks cluttering her desk, in a closet-sized enclosure behind the food laboratory, and wrote:
Dear Mr. President:
I write fully aware of the many burdens on your shoulders, but please hear me out. We at Cornell University’s College of Home Economics devise recipes and school lunches that are both cheap and nutritious. The problem is that they taste awful. While scientifically sound, they are a culinary and gustatory disaster. I am particularly concerned about our nation’s children, who equate food with love. What nasty message are we sending them?
“How can I solve this problem?” you ask. “By reining in the First Lady,” I reply. Her interest in scientific homemaking as a means of advancing women convinced you, when you were Governor of New York, to get legislative funding for our new building, Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, completed a year ago. I assume she has likewise persuaded you to recommend that the Federal Relief Emergency Administration adopt the family food budgets and school menus devised under the leadership of our Dean, Flora Rose.
Sir, these meals are colorless and tasteless. Alas, my colleagues regard seasoning as the Devil’s own temptation and consider spices as stimulants that lead users down the road to alcohol and heroin addiction. Seeing the homogenization of food as a means to integrate foreigners, they reject the inexpensive meals brought here by immigrants. Italian mothers are spat upon for surreptitiously collecting dandelion greens to saute in olive oil.
Mrs. Roosevelt will visit our campus next month. She is a mother of four, and I am sure (Republican rumors notwithstanding), a loving homemaker. Other rumors (of greater credibility) identify you as a lover of food—pâté de foie gras, terrapin soup, chicken à la king. Please use your influence to induce healthy skepticism in your wife prior to her trip.
Virgie Osco, Professor of Nutrition
Virgie knew the statistical probability of the President writing back was small, but FDR’s obsession with fine dining nurtured a slim hope that she’d find a sympathetic ear. Besides, she’d exhausted likelier methods to persuade her colleagues, going so far as to invite them to a home-cooked but affordable dinner of goulash soup, chicken paprikash, eggplant salad, and lekvar-filled strudel. They’d pronounced the meal delicious, then continued creating the same bland recipes as ever, as if their world bore no relation to that of the people they were making up the recipes for.
Virgie slid the letter into an envelope with the university’s red seal and licked the flap. The glue reminded her of last week’s abomination: overcooked spaghetti doused with white sauce. She surveyed the binders on her desk, where she’d recorded the nutritional content of hundreds of recipes using the same standard form as all her colleagues. For three years, Virgie had begged, in vain, to add ratings for “flavor” and “texture.” The dean had scoffed that they were orthogonal to health and nutrition. “We are in the business of science, Professor Osco, not hedonism.”
It was time for Virgie to teach her afternoon chemistry class. Her students, young women, were eager to apply the processes of transformation—freezing, heating, emulsifying—to cooking foods high in nutritional value. As new research on vitamins emerged, their overriding concern was “What is the vitamin content? How can we boost it higher?” Virgie’s experiments suggested that cooking methods, such as excessive heating, might actually destroy vitamins, in contradiction to her colleagues who believed, and had lectured the students, that vitamins were indestructible.
Virgie walked down Martha Van’s gleaming hallways to the mail chute, then back to the lab. She looked out the windows toward the bridge to the women’s dorms, beside which a power wheel churned the waters flowing from Beebe Lake into the gorge. A recent thaw had melted the ice falls plunging over the cliff, but crystals were again forming after last night’s freeze. Ithaca’s plunging gorges and steep hills were a far cry from the flat Ohio landscape where she’d grown up.
As a child, Virgie had gorged on the foods her Hungarian grandmother cooked, cheap but flavorful soups and stews laced with paprika, bay leaf, and caraway. Virgie’s mother, however, who’d been mocked by schoolmates for bringing lunches redolent of coriander and caramelized onion, served her own family only what their American neighbors ate—mashed potatoes, boiled chicken, and unseasoned vegetables. One day at age six, Virgie rebelled and refused to eat dinner. When her mother scolded her for wasting food they could barely afford, she obediently ate a bite. Lips puckered and nostrils pinched, her face twisted in disgust. Her mother dragged Virgie to the sink and washed out her mouth with soap, yelling “I’ll give you something to make a face about.”
Virige thought she’d be forced to eat the whole meal, without further complaint, but her punishment was even worse. Her mother made her smack her lips and say that the horrible food tasted good. That’s why Virgie, as an adult, was on a crusade to add taste to the American diet and, above all, to give children a real reason to say that they liked it. The job at Cornell was her opportunity to carry out her campaign by waging war in a food lab that was a scientist’s dream.
Twelve months after moving into the lab, Virgie still felt a thrill each time she entered it. Eight years ago, when she’d joined the faculty with a master’s degree in hand, they’d made do with outdated facilities in the College of Agriculture. By contrast, the perimeter of the new lab had twelve stations with the same appliances and utensils as a home kitchen, embellished with laminated Formica counters and finely calibrated scales, measuring cups, spoons, thermometers, colorimeters, test tubes, and pH paper. Virgie considered this setup a scientific advance but, to her growing dismay, a culinary retreat. The food created under these conditions was not palatable in a school cafeteria, let alone a family dining room.
Voices as thunderous as Beebe Lake Falls signaled the arrival of twenty students, who filed in after lunching on the latest laboratory concoction and rating it. Flaunting scientific rigor, they used an “edibility” scale that was wholly subjective, and invariably categorized the food as Good, Very Good, or Excellent. And why not, thought Virgie. They were judging dishes created by the same faculty members who assigned them grades. Talk about biased results!
After ascertaining what they’d just eaten, Virgie pulled the recipe card from the file box:
Corned Beef Delight Luncheon Salad
Ingredients: 1 cup boiling water; 1 3-oz package unflavored gelatin; 1 TB vinegar; 1 TB lemon juice; 1 12-oz can corned beef; 1 12-oz can peas.
Preparation: Pour boiling water on gelatin in large bowl. Stir until dissolved. Stir in vinegar and lemon juice. Refrigerate until slightly thickened (about an hour). Break up corned beef with fork and stir with peas into gelatin mixture. Pour mixture into 6½ cup gelatin mold. Refrigerate until set (about 2 hours). Unmold. Serve on salad greens, if available. May be stored up to 48 hours.
While the students calculated the meal’s nutritional value, Virgie collected their ratings to give to Mildred, the colleague who created it. No one had marked “Not Good” or “Bad.” Last month, Virgie had suggested adding an even lower level, “Disgusting.” The dean had glared.
“How did it taste?” she asked the shining faces surrounding her.
They looked at her like it was a trick question. Cora Wiley, the girl at the top of her class who Dean Rose asked to bring her lunch every day (from the Hotel Department, not the Home Economics cafeteria, using the excuse that her opinion might “sway the assessment”), stood up. “Taste is not a relevant factor in our evaluation. The salad is rich in vitamins A and C, and also provides substantial amounts of protein, iron, and calcium.”
“It provides none of the above if people won’t eat it.”
Cora tossed her dark curls. “They’ll devour it,” she said. “The dish lives up to its name and I, for one, pronounce it ‘dee-lightful.’”
Virgie, while predicting the outcome, nevertheless asked for a vote of those who agreed with Cora. Only two students had the grace to lower their eyes as they raised their hands.
When class ended, a despondent Virgie carried the ratings toward the administrative offices, and on impulse, knocked on the dean’s door. Invited inside, she found Mildred and another colleague. Dean Rose took the forms. “We were just wondering what the students thought of today’s salad.”
“I haven’t calculated the mean but I estimate midway between Very Good and Excellent.” The women smiled and Mildred took a bow. Virgie took a deep breath. “With the exception of Miss Wiley, however, I can’t say their facial expressions were commensurate with their scores.”
“Whatever do you mean, Professor Osco?”
When the dean used Virgie’s title instead of her first name, it was not a good sign, but she refused to back down. “With all due respect, the ingredients have nothing to say to one another.”
The other faculty member tittered. “Whatever does that mean?” asked Mildred.
“This salad, like so many dishes we concoct, is simply wrong. Everything is mashed, creamed, and pureed, or squeezed into a loaf, until you can’t tell one ingredient from another.”
Dean Rose smoothed her bun. “Perhaps your household can afford real butter and cream, but for those who cannot, these recipes offer the closest thing. Homemakers want the comfort of knowing they are feeding their families a nourishing meal. That is our primary concern here.”
“If you equate mushiness with comfort, we’re succeeding. But is there a reason the food can’t be perked up with a bit of flavor?”
Mildred read the recipe card. “I suppose I could add a pinch of salt and pepper.”
Virgie exhaled, loudly. “That’s not enough to disguise its blandness. Nor are the fancy names we invent. Potato Surprise, Beet Bonanza. Where is the ‘delight’ in this molded salad?”
The dean held up a thick report about what poor people were eating, commissioned by the First Lady herself, and rattled off the findings. Virginia coal miners subsisted on potatoes, bread, and beans. Oklahoma dust bowl families ate flour, lard, and Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed. “Flavor is a luxury when people are starving and their children suffer from Pellagra and rickets. Frankly, Professor Osco, your attitude borders on the un-American.”
Virgie bridled but began to doubt her self-righteousness. She’d seen pictures of ravaged faces and spindly bodies. The hardships of her own childhood were insignificant compared to the poverty of today’s families. Perhaps she alone cared about taste. The public trusted the advice of the fictional Aunt Sammie and the down-to-earth Mrs. Roosevelt. Who was she to question them?
Dean Rose plopped the report back on her desk. “I expect the faculty to stand behind our research. If you can’t, you are free to seek a position elsewhere. I receive letters every day from people who would be happy to take your place. As you know, jobs and funding are limited.”
Indeed, Virgie knew she was lucky to work at the college, pursuing a career and a mission she cared about deeply She also needed to keep her job for financial reasons; there was no family money, or husband, to fall back on. Morally and practically, this job was her whole life. Taking the recipe card, she said she’d try it for dinner, but couldn’t resist adding, “with salt and pepper.”
Back in her closet, Virgie nibbled rolled cabbage leaves sprinkled with caraway and made a cup of Postum. The roasted grain beverage, originally touted as a healthy alternative to caffeine, was now a necessary substitute for hard-to-get coffee. It was also quite tasty. I’m not wrong, Virgie told herself. I just have to be more diplomatic when I open my mouth. Food was a sensitive topic, not just emotionally but politically. She’d overheard a history professor say that the government was deliberately distributing tasteless food to discourage people from becoming dependent on handouts. Virgie couldn’t criticize the policies of FDR’s administration outright, not if she hoped to win him over as an ally. She’d have to turn his political powers of persuasion back on him.
She was absorbed in an article about the recently discovered Vitamin C when Helen Lynch poked her head in. The newest faculty member, Helen was the only one who shared Virgie’s views. However, she wouldn’t say so publicly for fear of losing her job. Her husband had been laid off and they had a seven-year-old son, Barney. Helen brought the boy leftovers from the lab.
“What was it last night?” Virgie asked. “Peanut loaf, bean loaf, or the dreaded liver loaf?” Loaves were an easy way to stretch an already inexpensive ingredient with cheap fillers. Someone had even proposed using soaked sawdust in lieu of breadcrumbs. Even the dean nixed that idea.
“Hobo Tin Foil Dinner,” answered Helen. “You know, chop a bunch of vegetables, add a dollop of fat, wrap it all in foil, and shove it in the oven.”
“Did Barney eat it?”
Helen, on the verge of tears, forced a smile. “He said he’d try it if Jim made a fire in the backyard and cooked it over the coals, like real hobos do. Jim said we needed what little wood we had to heat the house, so Barney pressed his lips shut and went to bed without eating anything.”
Virgie opened her bottom desk drawer and pulled out vials of dried basil, dill, and parsley flakes from her summer garden. They were there to enliven her lunches and snacks, but lately she wondered about testing their nutritional content as another way to appeal to her colleagues. She handed the containers to Helen. At the moment, Barney needed the herbs more than she, or even science, did. Helen, unable to hold back any longer, let her tears spill onto a stack of journals.
The women walked into the hallway and gazed out a window at the refrozen ice fall. The reflected colors of the sinking sun were as bright as Depression food was pale. Virgie still hoped to fix the diet of an entire country, but for now she would settle for saving one small child.
Four days later, Virgie got a letter from the President.
Dear Professor Osco: (Or may I call you Virgie, in solidarity?)
I generally leave it to my secretary to answer personal letters, but she handed me this one as a timely pick-me-up since I was recovering from the First Lady’s first luncheon. Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Nesbitt, the housekeeper, planned this meal right after the election. In fairness, Mrs. Nesbitt is out of her depth. She’s never cooked outside her family, but she was our neighbor in Hyde Park, and Eleanor prevailed upon her to come to Washington. They share the view that we in the White House should eat as sparingly as the rest of the nation. You may recognize the following menu as inspired by your fellow scientists.
Eschewing hors d’oeuvres, we six diners went right to the main course: stuffed eggs (five hard-cooked yolks mashed with vinegar and minced onion, with a thin coat of tomato sauce), mashed potatoes, and one slice of bread. For dessert, a ramekin of prune whip (prunes, flour, and water tortured into a paste). The cost was 7 ½ cents per serving.
Rest assured that I share your dismay at how devoid of pleasure such food is. Alas, however, I promised my wife sole sovereignty over the White House kitchen and, given the problems outside those white-tiled walls, I shall keep my word. Ergo, I leave it to you to fight the battle on the home (or should I say Home Economics?) front.
Franklin (Mr. Roosevelt)
Virgie’s hunch about the President’s interest in food had been right. She rewarded herself with a second lump of sugar in her Postum. But her thrill over receiving the letter was tempered by disappointment over his response. In FDR’s defense, she knew politicians had to be persuaded that vital matters were at stake, to wit, the health of the nation’s children. It was thus incumbent upon her to make a stronger case, and the best way to fight misapplied science was with better science. She had less than one month before the First Lady’s visit to collect the necessary data.
The matter weighed on Virgie the next day en route to Belle Sherman Elementary School, whose lunch director had requested that someone from the college visit their program. Dean Rose chose Virgie, declaring “You’ll change your tune after you hear how much they love our daily menus.”
The principal gave Virgie a tour, explaining that the school served children of both farmers and faculty. The classrooms smelled of chalk dust. Virgie sat through an assembly amid yawning girls in middy blouses and fidgety boys in bow ties. Shortly before the lunch bell, she was escorted to a steamy cafeteria reeking of sweat and disinfectant. Wooden tables and benches bore decades of carved initials. In the kitchen, two hair-netted ladies toiled at an industrial soma online shopping stove, supervised by Miss Baggard, a matron with steel-gray hair. In twenty years, Virgie surmised, she’d look just like her fellow spinster. Miss Baggard would still live in Ithaca. Virgie wondered if she would too.
The woman thrust a clipboard at her and demanded, “Are you responsible for this?”
It was the week’s menus, which Virgie knew by heart. Tuesday: Pea soup, spaghetti with tomato sauce, white rolls, chocolate pudding, and milk. Friday: Lima bean and barley soup, jam sandwich, mashed turnips, vanilla pudding, and milk. “Our laboratory has proven that these foods meet the nutritional needs of children,” she told Miss Baggard, “including milk at every meal.”
“Good, because it’s the only thing half of them consume. We’re trying your new recipe today, and it’s the worst yet.” She took the clipboard, flipped to the last page, and handed it back.
Baked Onion Stuffed with Peanut Butter
Ingredients: 6 large yellow onions; 2 cups peanut butter; 1 TB butter, melted
Preparation: Peel onions leaving the root end uncut. Put onions in a pot with water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer (about 20 minutes). Remove onions from the pot and cool. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut off one quarter of each onion removing the root, scoop out a third of the inside (save to use in a soup or stew recipe). Place onions in a greased baking dish and fill with peanut butter. Drizzle with butter. Bake 30-40 minutes or until soft. (Serves 6)
The cooks pulled trays of droopy onions from the oven as dozens of droopy children filed in and jostled for seats. The principal said grace, then excused herself. Off to eat a tastier lunch, concluded Virgie. One pupil at each table distributed the onions together with scoops of mashed carrots. Most children immediately gulped or slurped their milk. With a shudder, some began to eat, while a few older boys pretended to retch, eliciting nervous giggles. The remaining children eyed Virgie warily or stared at their untouched food.
“Barney, come here.” The supervisor beckoned a small boy who Virgie recognized from the photo on Helen’s desk. In the year since it was taken, the child’s shiny straw-colored hair had turned as dull and coarse as real straw. His thin wrists, dangling from a shirt he’d outgrown, looked as easy to snap as celery sticks. His skin was dry and scaly, evidence of malnutrition.
Virgie knelt down and asked Barney if he was hungry.
The boy looked at Miss Baggard for permission to talk. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.
“Will you eat the stuffed onion?”
“No, ma’am,” he said with surprising force and swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his scrawny neck. If only Virgie could give him a real apple, but his gums were too swollen and bleeding, and his teeth too loose to chew it. She amended the wish to a baked apple spiced with cinnamon and ginger. Also a soft peanut butter cookie the boy could savor with his milk.
Another bell rang and the children, released, went outside for recess. Some jumped rope or kicked a ball. Many leaned against the school’s brick wall, too tired and ill-fed to run around.
“Look at them.” Miss Baggard snorted. “I refuse to believe you can’t do better.”
“Are you willing to put your complaint in writing?” asked Virgie.
“You bet your beans I am if you’ll stuff it down the throats of your so-called scientists.”
Virgie smiled. “I won’t go to that extreme, but I’ll try to get a tastier item on the menu.”
“Tell them to scuttle the whole damn list and start from scratch.”
“They’ll never go for that. I’ll begin with the stuffed onions and take it from there.” Virgie drafted a letter on the back of the recipe sheet and “Miss Lucy Baggard, Lunchroom Supervisor, Belle Sherman School, Ithaca, New York” signed it with a flourish and peanut butter thumb print.
I have just returned from a visit to a local school, representative of both rural and urban populations. The children are hungry, but some would rather starve than eat the slop we feed them. Signs of malnutrition are rampant. Admittedly, this evidence is anecdotal, but the preliminary conclusion is inescapable. If I collect data on a larger sample, I can build a case for tastier alternatives. Please alert your wife and prevail upon the appropriate federal agency to provide a grant to the college, naming yours truly as principal investigator.
A study on the aesthetics of nutrition took shape in Virgie’s mind, combining quantitative data and case studies of unhappy schoolchildren, with a letter-writing campaign to Louise Stanley, chief of the Bureau of Home Economics, from the students themselves. Virgie also calculated that if she brought in grant money, Dean Rose was unlikely to fire her. She had to keep her position to save the little Barneys in this country, not to mention putting food on her own table.
Emboldened with hope, Virgie called an impromptu faculty meeting to report on her visit to the school. The dean and her colleagues, glowing in anticipation of a good result, paled like blanched cabbage when Virgie read Lucy Baggard’s statement. “As supervisor of the Belle Sherman lunch program, I condemn the foods you send us. Half our pupils will not eat them. Servings of Baked Onion Stuffed With Peanut Butter went from their plates straight to the trash. For the children’s sake, please provide us with dishes that are not only healthy but appealing to young taste buds.”
The professor who’d created the recipe scowled. “It’s chock full of protein and onions are an excellent source of vitamin C.”
“Perhaps they didn’t prepare it correctly,” said Mildred in a tremulous voice.
Virgie raised her eyebrows. “It’s only got three ingredients and two steps.”
People offered other explanations. The onions weren’t fresh or had been baked too long. The peanut butter had been stored improperly and turned rancid. Virgie disputed each excuse. After all, these were experienced cooks working in a well-kept kitchen.
Helen raised her hand, the first time she’d done so at a meeting, and spoke with quiet intensity. “My son attends Belle Sherman and is one of the pupils who doesn’t eat his lunch. Even the hungriest children often turn up their noses. Meanwhile, their bodies are shriveling.”
The dean leaned forward. “Thank you for your opinion, Helen.” Hope fluttered in Virgie’s chest at the use of her friend’s first name. “A simpler explanation is that the children had suffered prior bouts of indigestion from eating onions. Frankly, they don’t agree with me either.” Flora Rose smiled. “Of course, that wouldn’t account for all the resistance. A more likely theory is that onions are too flavorful for a child’s immature taste buds. I propose we simply modify the recipe.”
Ideas percolated. Someone suggested substituting another vegetable high in vitamins, such as winter squash. Mildred offered the radical proposition of stuffing the peanut butter inside a fruit. Apples were cheap and plentiful. Her colleagues agreed it was worth experimenting with.
Virgie gloated inside at this victory, small as it was. She decided to push for another inch of territory. “While we’re being inventive,” she said, “can we sprinkle on cinnamon? And cloves?”
Helen piped up again. “Barney likes nutmeg.”
The dean frowned. “Too flavorful.”
The following week, as the First Lady’s visit drew closer, another letter arrived from FDR.
I wish I could report a victory in the culinary war but I’ve suffered another defeat. There was a belated birthday party for me (the actual date was ten days post-inauguration while we were still recuperating), and I requested real meat. Mrs. Nesbitt served a bologna dish. Words fail me trying to describe it. Hence, I am sending you the (dreary) recipe, another Cornell creation. Unfortunately, my request for a copy was misinterpreted as approbation.
Ingredients: 4 slices bacon, chopped; 1 cup bell pepper, chopped; 1 cup onion, chopped; 1 TB garlic, minced; 1 15-ounce can pork and beans; 2 15-ounce cans chili with beans; 1 ½ pounds bologna, cut into half-inch cubes; 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese.
Preparation: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease 3-quart baking dish. In skillet, over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp (5 minutes). Add bell pepper, onion and garlic. Continue to cook and stir 5 minutes until vegetables turn translucent. Add bologna and cook 5 minutes until edges turn brown. Stir in pork and beans, and chili. Pour mixture into baking dish, top with cheese, bake 20 minutes until bubbly and cheese melts. (Serves 12)
It is rumored that dignitaries invited to the White House are advised to eat beforehand. I do not have that option, nor can I ask Congress to fund your research on tastier food when larger crises loom. Alas, your no-nonsense talk must suffice to persuade your peers.
Dismayed at this setback in Washington, Virgie nevertheless vowed to parlay her victory at home into a sustained assault. Miss Baggard had called to say the peanut better-stuffed apples were a hit, and asked that Virgie next tackle Sausage Surprise. She’d hoped to enlist Helen in the fight, but she was home with Barney who, susceptible to germs, was sick with one of his frequent colds. Fortunately, he’d been cajoled into drinking vegetable broth seasoned with Virgie’s dried dill, and Helen expected to be back at work in time for Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit.
Ready to congratulate her peers on substituting apples for onions, Virgie poked her nose inside the test kitchen to sniff out their newest experiment. Unable to detect any aroma, she asked what they were cooking up. Five professors closed ranks to block her view. “It’s top secret,” said Mildred. “A miracle ingredient that will revolutionize food. You can’t smell anything because we haven’t tried it in a recipe yet. We’ll reveal it next week when the First Lady is here.”
Virgie stepped closer but the women did not move aside. “Afraid I’ll spill the beans?” she joked, but no one smiled. Either they didn’t trust her to keep their secret, or were simply afraid that she’d criticize a project they believed to be the biggest success of their scientific careers.
By the time Virgie taught her afternoon chemistry class, all their equipment was stowed out of sight. She barely paid attention while her students analyzed their lunch, called Perky Pinto Patty, which looked like a hockey puck and probably had as much flavor. As soon as they’d washed the last test tube and filed out, Virgie raced to her office and wrote one last letter.
First, accept my sympathy over your un-festive birthday dinner. Second, in solidarity, I am sharing an equally dreary and ill-named recipe served in Martha Van’s cafeteria yesterday:
Poor Man’s Meal
Ingredients: 3 potatoes; 1 onion; 4 hot dogs; 4 TBS tomato sauce.
Preparation: Peel and cube potatoes. Put potatoes into a skillet and slice onions into pan. Add 3 TBS vegetable oil or lard. While potato and onion cook, slice hot dogs. Add sauce to potatoes, then hot dogs. Add ½ cup water. Cook until potatoes are soft. (Serves 6)
Third, and finally, if those stuffed onions were deemed “the worst yet,” I hereby warn you that Cornell’s scientists are creating something diabolical. Not just one bad dish, but a dire threat to the very essence of cooking. I understand your reluctance to usurp your wife’s power, but I nevertheless urge you to prevail upon the First Lady, who will grace us with her presence in seven days, to reject a product that violates the basic nature of food. This is more than a question of taste. It is a matter of poisoning our appetites, and our souls.
The day of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit began with a tour of the college that would culminate with the announcement of the miracle ingredient. At lunchtime, ten children from the Belle Sherman School, chosen by Miss Baggard, would be bused in to taste the first dish ever made with it. The dean showed off the new facilities while the rest of the faculty, awed by the tall, gracious visitor, trailed behind. Two professors walked on either side of Virgie, keeping her in line, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to say anything. Either one of the children would blurt out an honest opinion, or, if her prayers had been answered, the President had spoken to his wife back in Washington.
At precisely 11:30, Cora Wiley, the college’s star pupil, was ushered into the test kitchen to reveal the big secret. Without a hint of nervousness, she handed the First Lady a test tube, tied with a lavender bow, and filled with pale yellow flakes. “Ta da! I hereby present Milkorno, a cereal mixture of vitamin-enriched powdered skim milk and ground corn kernels, a wonder food that boosts the nutritional content of soups, stews, casseroles, loaves, and desserts. Experiments are underway to develop Milkoato and Milkwheato as well. All for the health of our children.”
Mrs. Roosevelt removed the test tube stopper and sniffed. She raised a quizzical eyebrow. “It’s odorless and tasteless,” explained Dean Rose, “the better to blend with whatever recipe it’s stirred into.” She said the First Lady could see and sample its wonders in half an hour, when the children arrived. “I can’t wait,” the President’s wife declared, moving her tongue across her buck teeth. She was escorted to the dean’s private powder room to freshen up before the big event.
Virgie took advantage of the break to check her mailbox a final time. Inside was a letter bearing the White House seal. She slit it open with shaking fingers.
I do not know if this will reach you before my wife’s visit, but it matters little. Yesterday, feeling unwell after a Cabinet meeting, I requested canned white asparagus to fortify me. Mrs. Nesbitt insisted none was available in all of D.C. My secretary darted out to a nearby store and promptly returned with ten cans, which I consumed in the privacy of my office. As you undoubtedly see by now, I have limited influence in the realm of food. Eleanor is, and shall remain, the First Lady of the Kitchen, having won the hearts and minds, albeit not the stomachs, of the American public. In compensation for my inability to assist your cause, I propose that you join me for a gourmet lunch one day at Hyde Park, when Mrs. Roosevelt is away on one of her humanitarian jaunts and Mrs. Nesbitt has the day off.
Ten children filed into the test kitchen, in size place, with Barney first. Miss Baggard, bringing up the rear, winked at Virgie. She had hand-picked the students most likely to reject the food they would be sampling. Staring up at the tallest woman they’d even seen, the pupils took seats on one side of a table festooned with red, white, and blue balloons. The First Lady and Dean Rose sat opposite with faculty members standing in line behind them. Virgie was boxed in the middle.
Cora distributed twelve bowls and spoons, and handed Mrs. Roosevelt a recipe card. Virgie read it over her shoulder.
Ingredients: 4 large potatoes; 1 15-oz can white beans; 1 cup golden Milkorno nuggets; 1 cup water; 1/4 cup stale bread crumbs.
Preparation: Boil and mash potatoes. Add remaining ingredients and stir until blended. Pat into 10-inch loaf pan. Dust with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees F until a cake tester comes out moist but not sticky (about 40 minutes). Slice. (Serves 6)
Barney looked at his mother, the dean, and First Lady. Cameras flashed; reporters, pens poised, hunched over the children. The boy surveyed the room, which despite festive decorations, was sterile and intimidating. Virgie, who was counting on Barney to be as outspoken as the day she’d visited his school, saw uncertainty in his large, sunken eyes. What if he was too was silenced by the threat of authority, as she’d been by her mother long ago? Suppose he obeyed the order to eat and said nothing bad about the food, or worse, nodded “yummy” like a good puppet. Virgie’s attempts at reform would be useless without the backing of the constituents she was fighting for,
She leaned forward and smiled, silently urging the child to speak. If he didn’t, she’d have to talk for him. The dean, zipping her mouth with a rigid finger, silently warned Virgie to keep hers shut. Virgie pulled back, suddenly as uncertain as Barney. If she spoke up and convinced the First Lady, she’d notch a victory forcing her colleagues to create food that filled the senses, not just the stomach. But if her remarks were not well received, she’d lose her job. She had won the skirmish over stuffed onions. If she were dismissed, no one would remain to wage the wider war.
The press corps raised their cameras. The children raised their spoons. Virgie’s tongue hung out, waiting for the sweet taste of victory, or the soapy aftertaste of defeat. Barney ate a spoonful. His puckered lips and pinched nostrils registered disgust, as his eyes beseeched the First Lady. Alarmed, but stern, she licked her own lips and raised a treasured spoonful to her mouth.