As a child, I remember saying faux-modestly to people on the playground, “My grandmother writes the Morrison County Record’s recipe column. You know, Vangie Gwost?” No one had, of course, heard of her, a) because we were children and b) because we lived quite far from Morrison County, but still I persevered. To me, my grandmother was famous. Every time I came across a paper with her byline in it, I’d stare at her tiny picture, a black-and-white newspaper version of the grandma I knew.
She wrote that column for fifteen years, from 1981-1996. For the entire time she was doing so, she technically was retired – she’d walked into the paper’s office on a whim, wanting something to do in her golden years, and moved from “freelance proofreader” to “person who spends most hours of every week collecting recipes, sifting through her various piles of paper, making food that may or may not work out, badgering her husband to clean the kitchen, and calling strangers to ask them about their lives.” From what I can tell, the level of work she put into it was downright deranged; I also think she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Grandma did not half-ass.
Though I remember reading her column as a child, I hadn’t encountered it as an adult until my mother, last year, set about meticulously scanning all of it and putting it into book form. Now, the semi-collected oeuvre of What’s Cookin’ in the County? rests on my dining room table; every time I sit down to eat a solo meal, I get to hang out with my grandmother for a while.
Intellectually I had known that she was a person who just could not. stop. working, but the column makes that very clear: the post-Depression hustle is strong in this one. Vangie has made every recipe, personally called its submitter to offer them Record Bucks (a form of town currency?? I don’t know) as a reward for participating, and in the process has learned quite a lot about everyone’s lives. “I had a real pleasant conversation with Katherine Zuleger,” she says on July 27, 1981. “She is a widow, and lives with her two sons on a farm outside of Little Rock. She celebrated her 69th birthday last Saturday and doesn’t sound like she will ever stop doing interesting things.” She goes on to tell us all about Ms. Zuleger’s love for quilting competitions (“before her eyesight began to fail,” notes Vangie sadly), card parties, and frozen bread dough.
As a turgid millennial, I’m a little embarrassed at how active everyone around her is. They’re as well-rounded as teens submitting college applications. I think part of this was due to her writing style. Vangie’s able to make the people around her sound like fascinating creators, avid workers, people who live in a small town and never stop trying to make it better. This is a sentiment that’s a little more earnest than I normally am, but still: what a treasure this must have been for people who, as a rule, lived their lives out of print. For a few inches of newspaper column, they must have felt proud of themselves and frightfully seen.
By the time I knew her, Grandma was at the beginning of a lengthy sink into dementia. She was still full of furious activity, but she found herself unable to remember the ends of things; in the column, she’d always left out an ingredient here and there (I love her week-later corrections the most; “Have you already discovered that the sugar and salt were missing in last week’s Zucchini Carrot Bread? The recipe proofreader (me) slipped up on that one,” she notes guiltily in August 1982), but now her creations weren’t always edible. I particularly recall one incident where she mistook salt for dishwashing powder, and served the resulting soup to us in Tupperware. She stopped writing the column when I was seven, and for the next fourteen years, she shifted from verbosity into nonsensicality into silence. Though I only ever knew her as someone who had Alzheimer’s, it was still hard to watch; I knew this person wasn’t her precisely, but wasn’t sure what the her were mourning had really been like.
So I’m really grateful that my mom took it upon herself to organize these. And, though I may not be a shining country example of womanhood (holy shit, I think, reading the descriptions of some of these people, how do they have time?), now that we’ve moved to the country, I’ve been making baby steps into cooking more.
Part of this is, of course, not really by choice. Miles and I now live on his farm in Wood Lake, MN, between Marshall and Granite Falls. The estate itself is perfectly bucolic. The towns around, well… they make Little Falls look like Minneapolis, and a person cannot really UberEats herself things while meeting with students over Zoom anymore. Our friends visit on occasion, but by and large, we’re left to ourselves. It’s surprising to me that I don’t mind this – I might be less of an extrovert than I thought.
I’ve spent a lot more time writing, and we’re pondering some Internet-type projects, including a YouTube series in which I make some of the more downright insane recipes from Grandma’s column and feed them to Miles. (I have no idea how Jell-O and salad dressing and cabbage can possibly fit together, but I’m willing to try.)
And I have written this column, which is about the length of Vangie’s columns (for real), in order to share with my friend Elizabeth / the rest of the world my recipe for hearty stew, which I came up with while living in a cold apartment in Germany and petsitting a massive deaf sheepdog. She asked for it, and I started texting it to her, and then realized that – like my grandmother – I am not exactly a brevity-filled person.
What can I say? A recipe must, I’ve learned, be preceded by chatter.
An onion, chopped
1-2 lb stew meat (Aldi has this, Elizabeth, even though I know how you feel about Aldi)
Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil, then simmer onions for a bit, til soft. Add the stew meat, then salt and pepper it, stirring. Add some chopped garlic – whatever’s clever, amount-wise. This stew isn’t too big on exactitude.
Once the stew is no longer pink and looks near about cooked, take either 1 beer or a cup of red wine, depending on what’s around, and add it. (As Grandma would say, “Keep some for the cook! (hic)”) Let it reduce til it no longer looks like straight-up beer or wine, just a fun soupy broth. Then add 1 can of tomato paste.
If you have fresh herbs, put some of them in now. I added chopped sage, marjoram, rosemary, basil, and thyme. I recognize that not everyone has a Mary next door with an herb garden, so this part is up to you. I hate when people get ridiculous about Fresh Herbs, but they do help.
Hooray, you have stock! Add a few cups of water and let it heat.
Once your stew is boiling, add the tougher vegetables: half a pack of peeled and chopped carrots, a few pounds of baby potatoes, some stalks of chopped celery, and a pepper or two. More onion is also fine. Again, this stew will accept many, many vegetables – it’s all about what’s in your fridge, though zucchini can get a little weird and stringy if cooked for too long.
You’re almost there! Have a beer while it heats. Vibe in the kitchen and just kind of keep an eye on that stew, salting and peppering it as you go.
When it’s boiling and the vegetables have softened, you can add a few spoonfuls of brown sugar (it’ll sweeten it), then squeeze a lemon over it. Keep adding water if it’s too thick. At this stage, you can also add any tomatoes you’ve got kicking around – ones that have weird bits are good for this if you cut the weird bits off. This phase can last as long as you like; short stew will take about an hour, and long stew can chill on your stovetop all day.
Finally, once it seems like all the vegetables are cooked and you’re maybe 10 minutes away from eating, you can add a bag of chopped kale. Salt again, then squeeze another lemon over it. Once the kale’s wilty, you are ready to eat.
Oh my god, recipe writing is much harder than I realized it was. Like Grandma, Elizabeth, I have likely left something out. If it tastes wrong, please tell me, and I will grant you my own version of Record Bucks, whatever that is.