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Iowa's Radio Homemakers: Interview with Evelyn Birkby, Part 1

posted on February 26, 2010 at 11:24 AM

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Famed radio homemaker and author Evelyn Birkby talks about her experiences living in rural Iowa in the 1950s and gives an entertaining history about Shenandoah, Iowa's radio homemakers.This interview with Evelyn Birkby was recorded on April 27, 2009 in the kitchen of her home in Sidney, Iowa.

Debra Herbold: Please tell us your personal timeline – from the time you married Robert forward.

Evelyn Birkby: I was working in Chicago when I decided to get married. Robert had been a school classmate when I was in high school in Sidney, Iowa. My father was a Methodist minister here and we moved in 1935 to Sidney. Robert was in the same high school class as I was, the senior class. Now he wasn't my sweetheart. He had other girlfriends besides me and I noticed him more than he noticed me. But we were friends and we went to the same church and he'd walk home with me maybe after services on Sunday evening. We really weren't sweethearts, but I always liked him. He went into the Air Force because now it was '36 when we graduated from high school. I went to college -- 2 years at Simpson and taught school at Carlisle and Tripoli in Iowa. In '42 my father died and that spring my mother moved up with me in Tripoli. I had the opportunity to go to the Grace Methodist Church in Waterloo as their youth director, their religious education director. I had the children's choir. I had the youth league. I had the Sunday school. I put on plays. I had a ball. I loved it there. And I loved the young people. I've always loved working with young people and I still do. I still have young friends that I love being with.

So, then I had the opportunity to go into Chicago to work at the Chicago Temple-- the First Methodist Church. It's the big church with the spire that's just two blocks from Marshall Fields downtown. I could also finish my college education because I'd only had two years of college. So, I went a year to the college just around the corner from the church. Then for my last year, I went down to the University of Chicago. I was majoring in Psychology and I had the opportunity to study with Carl Rogers, one of the great Psychology Counselor persons in the field of education. So, that was wonderful. That was one of those accidental things that seemed to be happening to me to make my life enriched, or maybe a little wiser, and certainly a lot more exciting. I would ride on the elevated train down to the college and take my classes in the morning. In the afternoon and evening I worked at the church and then I studied at night. I was young. I didn't need much sleep. And I made wonderful friends there, friends that I still have today. Sadly some of them die off on me, but they still are my friends and people I treasure.

I came home the summer of 1946 to visit my mother who had moved to Shenandoah, Iowa. When I went to Chicago, she did not want to come with me. So, she bought a little house in Shenandoah and settled in to making her own life. Now, as a preacher's wife, she had always been a part of the church, part of her husbands work. She was a musician. So, she did a lot of lovely things in the church. And she raised two daughters. One of them became quite a musician. That was my sister. My sister Ruth is six years older than I am. She really did become quite a musician -- played the violin and the piano and sang. I struggled along and enjoyed it but I wasn't ever very good at it, had fun with it but not very good. Enough so that when I raised my own family I knew when they made a mistake. I could yell at them from the kitchen, you know, and say "that's a B flat".

But I came home that summer to visit mother when I had my spring vacation. Robert now was home from the Air Force and was a Boy Scout Executive and he lived in Shenandoah. He found out I was visiting my mother, and called me up. He said he'd like to come and take me out for the evening. Well, that did it. I don't know what did it to him, but I fell like a ton of bricks, sparklers went off, sky rockets went off. Two weeks went by and I was madly infatuated with him. We went down to the state park that last evening I was home. Waubonsie State Park is not very far from Shenandoah and Sidney, and Farragut. And we went down there. Robert who, as I said was a Boy Scout Executive, he knew how to build campfires. He built a beautiful campfire. We had supper -- picnic supper, the moon was bright. I began reciting poetry, which I did a lot in those days. And before we put out the campfire and came home he had proposed. He said, "You go back to Chicago and you think about this. And if you would like to come home and spend the rest of your life with me, you come. Or you tell me if there are other things you'd rather do". Well, I went back to Chicago with all kinds of stars in my eyes. I was 27, which was not young in those days to get married. In fact, I had just read an article that said if you're a college graduate and over 25 you probably will never marry. So I had decided it's ok. If I never marry, it's ok. If I'm happy, that's the main thing. And if I can't marry and have children, then I'll teach other people's children or work in church work with other people's children. I'll find a way find a good life. But here was Robert. So, I came home. And for two months mother and I, in Shenandoah, made my clothes for the wedding, got everything all together, and came back here to Sidney where my father had been the minister because Robert's folks lived here. One of the funny things that happened at the wedding was that both my mother and my mother-in-law, Robert's mother, wore black dresses to the wedding. And one day mother was looking at my wedding picture and she said, "I had a black dress. Why did I wear a black dress to your wedding? I bought a new dress".

"Well", I said, "I know why. That was in '46. The Depressions really wasn't completely over. It was right after the war. People didn't have much money. You had to buy a dress that you would wear other places not just to a wedding". "Oh yes", mother said, "I wore that dress for a long time -- several years in fact". So, then when she looked at Robert's mother and saw that she had a black dress on too, she felt better. And I said to mother, "I didn't have a clue what anybody wore that day. I couldn't have told you that you had a black dress on. It didn't matter what you wore as long as you got there". And so we had a lovely wedding here and it was very simple. As I remember it cost a little over a hundred dollars for everything. We picked our own flowers. Earl May over at Shenandoah, gave us permission to pick mums. This was in November, 3rd of November, and the gold mums where still out in their trial gardens. "Take all you want. They're not going to last very much longer," they said. And so I went, and Robert went with me, and we picked the flowers. We decorated the church with the gold mums that Earl May gave to us, and some greenery, some green evergreen branches that we got from a friend out in the country. And then we took the gold mums and we made headbands for my sister and my sister-in-law. And they had dark green, a forest green kind of shimmery, taffety dress. And we put gold mums on individual bibles that we covered with gold fabric. And I had orchids - a white orchid with a gold center on a white bible, and that was it. The ladies of the church served cake and punch at the reception, very simple. So, then we jumped in the car and went to St. Joe for the night. We had our dinner at a nice little place on the highway that had dancing and so it was a glamorous evening. And then we went on down to the Ozarks, found a little cabin. It rained almost all week. Robert loved the outdoors and that is one of the reason he chose to go down there. We could hike and we could go out and have another picnic with the campfire. Only it rained and I didn't know very much about cooking. I made pineapple salad with cottage cheese and mayonnaise. That was our salad. And I made a cheese r______. And that was our supper. That was about all I was capable of cooking.

So, we came home and Robert had always wanted to farm. So, the first thing that he did was to take his money that he got from the government for being in the service, that he could go to college with, and we went to Ames. He studied some courses in agriculture, but by now we had a baby and we lived in Huxley. We shared a house with a family that had two little girls and a couple of extra rooms and they fixed that up so we could stay there, and it was lovely. Robert didn't finish because he had the opportunity to go down south of Farragut to a farm. First of all, he was to work as a hired man and then when he had enough money for a tractor and some livestock, he would rent a farm. So, when he had this opportunity, down we went.

We got there before electricity got in the house. So, I can say I have lived in a house without electricity for two weeks. The rural electric program went through the countryside after the war. That's when it got down in this area anyway. So, about two/three weeks after we moved into this little farmhouse we got electricity. But we had put in a heating stove that had coal and wood and then we got a little gas stove to use when we didn't want to fire that one up. It did heat the back of the house. Then we had a morning stove in the living room -- hated that thing. Oh it was so messy. We put in the fuel and then we had to take out the ashes and then you had to carry it through the house out the back door, wherever it is Robert took them because he -- he took care of the stove. But now we had another little baby on the way. Our first was a daughter Dulcie Jean and when she was two and a half then we had Bobby. We were very lucky with our babies. They were not difficult. I had a hard time with the first one because I didn't know anything. I had to learn everything there was to learn about taking care of a baby and eventually I did. I don't know how babies ever survive when they're the first babies. I think it's very difficult. I mean who -- who goes to school. I guess there are classes but not for everything. Not for everything.

My mother always said God gave babies to young people so they'll have enough energy to raise them and that I believe. So, the energy was there and we had a great time. We had a great time. We had great fun with those babies.

Debra Herbold: When did you learn how to cook?

Evelyn Birkby: When mother knew I was going to get married she said "Ok, we have these two months. I'll teach you to cook". Well, I knew basics -- a few basics because I had done my own lunches and breakfasts and things as I worked. So, she started teaching me to make pie crusts. She said things like you pinch this and you put in a little of that and you put in that until feels right and then you check the textures. I couldn't learn a thing! I didn't know what the texture was like. I didn't know how much a pinch was. I didn't know how much a smidgen was. How much is butter as big as a walnut? Well, she tried several different dishes -- just a total failure. Finally, she said, "I'm going to buy you a cookbook". She went and bought me one of these first red and white checked Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. She said, "Here. You're on your own". Well, guess what I did first thing? I started making yeast bread. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because I liked to eat and I liked to eat fresh bread coming out of the oven and mother was good at it. She just couldn't teach me how to do it. So, I got so I could do that but what I really did from then on and I still do is I threw myself on the mercy of my neighbors and my family and anybody that had a good recipe. Oh, will you give it to me? Give it to me the way you make it, not the way it comes out of the book, because you're probably like my mother. You pinched and you used a smidgen and worked with it until you got it where you liked it. So, give it to me the way you liked it.

When I got to writing my newspaper column and was on the radio then I had a whole new audience I could invite to help me. And I told them I don't know how to cook. I need your help. I think it helped me in my programming. I think it saved me. I never pretended to being more than I was either in homemaking or in cooking. And when it came to child raising, I'd ask their opinion too. You know, I've got this problem, what have you done? It was wonderful and people were so kind and so helpful.

Debra Herbold: How would you communicate with your audience?

Evelyn Birkby: Mostly letters. Most of the time on the radio I would have letters coming in. That was a day of much mail. Now we're talking about 1950 -- '49 in November of 1949 is when I first -- I started writing my newspaper column first. Accidentally, everything I seem to do is accidental. Mr. Archie, Willard Archie, was the newspaper publisher/owner in Shenandoah of the evening Sentinel which had been around forever. It had been way back in the 1800s. he had advertised in his newspaper for a woman to write a newspaper column and preferably a farm woman. So, there I was home with almost another baby and our first baby. Robert said, "You go apply for that". He said, "You can do that". I said, "I can't write". I can talk. I taught school. I'd done workshops. I'd given speeches. But I've never written. "Oh, writing is just putting down on paper what you say", Robert said.

Well, I didn't buy that for a minute, not for a minute. Then I said, "I know. I can't spell". Well, he said, "I'll get you a dictionary". And I swear, he literally put my hat on my head, which dates me because ladies wore hats then, and he pushed me out the door and said, "You go see Mr. Archie".

Well, first, he had me write a column and he helped me write it. So, I took it over with me and here was Mr. Archie in the Sentinel Office in Shenandoah. He was a big, burley man with white hair and a big -- well a big head as I remember. I mean he just looked like a very important person. Mr. Archie had this booming voice. So, I know what God sounds like-- just like Mr. Archie. I mean he filled the room. He was one of these people who just filled the room. Well, he knew the Birkby family. He knew Robert and his family. He didn't know mine so well. But he was very pleased to have me come. He said he would print my column -- hadn't even read it yet but he said, "I'll print and I'll see if people like it or not. If people like it then you continue sending it and I'll print it as long as they like it".

So, I went out the door thinking, Ha! What, a month? Two months? Maybe that's all I'll need to do this to fill the bill here? So, I went home and of course I immediately hit a blank. So, my husband helped me write the next one. Then pretty soon I had a baby. So, Robert wrote that one about going to the hospital to get a new hired man. Wasn't that sweet? And that was very, very nice. Then for the recipe he put in how to cook bacon and pork and beans, which, of course, everybody thought was the best recipe I'd ever written. It's been almost 60 years now and some people still remember that as the best recipe I ever wrote.

So, I have now worn out three dictionaries and I'm on my fifth computer, but I did start in the typewriter world. I still have that typewriter. It's an old Royal Typewriter. It's all covered with whiteout and tears. I've written five books on it. I wrote my first books on it before I got my computer.

Debra Herbold: Why do you always include a recipe in your newspaper columns?

Evelyn Birkby: Oh, Mr. Archie told me I needed to. He said everyone will always read the recipe even if they don't read anything else, which of course, melted me down to size immediately. I mean here I worked all week writing a column and all they read was the recipe? But I did what he said and I found out it was true because food is so daily. You cook, you eat everyday. And so if I had a recipe in there that people liked, well, I had given them something helpful. I had been useful. And so this was good.

The other thing I tried to do with my columns was to be cheerful because there's so many grumpy people and there's so many sad things that happen. And it just seems to me like we need more happy people, people that will lift the spirits of others. In some ways, maybe not always in the way we intended, but like when I made mistakes in my recipes and people made fun of me. That's having fun with something you don't expect. So, it did throw me into food in a big, big way. And, still, when I write books, I always have recipes in there because people expect it now. In my Up A Country Lane book, which is about our life on the farm and how I learned to do many of these things, each chapter is about part of the life on the farm. So, after the chicken chapter, I have a recipe for stewed chicken. I have how I make special biscuits with carrots in them. They're so pretty. You make a hole in the middle and put cooked peas inside and put that on top of your chicken pie.

All my recipes someone has given to me, as you can tell. I don't have an original recipe in my life. It all has a story, which leads me to my signature recipe. Behind me on the stove are my Hay Hand Rolls, and that is a recipe of mine that has gotten around the most and it wasn't mine to start with. I had been looking for a really good refrigerator dough. Most yeast dough, if you keep them a day or two, they taste too yeasty -- too strong. It almost gets sour if you keep it very long. So, I had never been very successful. One day I was out in the country near a good friend of mine Erma Fay Polk. The Polks lived just two miles north of Sidney and I was out there visiting them. I had known them when we first lived in Sidney. So, I thought well I'll stop in and say hello. They were putting up hay. Now in those days you put up hay with the neighbors. They came over to help. They brought their tractors and their wagons and their hay balers and whatever you needed. But the wife cooked and served them dinner. Erma Fay was just pulling this gorgeous pan of rolls out of the oven as I walked in the door. "Would you like one?" she said. And I said "Yes, of course they look wonderful". So, she gave me one with butter and jam on it. It was so good. I said, "I need the recipe for this". And she said, "It's one of the Fox girl's recipes. So, it didn't come from me originally". Well, we could have traced it back to great great grandma if we wanted to I suppose. And she said, "It's a refrigerator roll recipe". And I was delighted. It has 12 cups of flour. If you make bread you know that's a big recipe. I mean most roll recipes are maybe 4 cups – 3 to 4 cups.

So I took it home and made it, immediately gave it over the radio and began to get letters from people who thought it was the best bread recipe they had ever made. You could make it and then the next day make fresh rolls, and the next day too, and it would keep up to a week. You could make all these nice fresh rolls. I have given it out quite a number of times. I have put it in both my Neighboring on the Air book and my Up A Country Lane book. I'm doing a new book of my favorite columns and I'll probably put it in there too with some more stories. I've adapted it too. I've made it into a seven grain whole wheat bread now. And you can adapt it in any way you want. You know, hot cross buns, cinnamon buns, loaves of bread, makes me hungry just to talk about it.

Debra Herbold: In your Up A Country Lane Cookbook, you write a wonderful story about your friend Myrtle Brook's Banana Cake recipe. Can you tell me that story?

Evelyn Birkby: We had this neat little farm we called Cottonwood Farm because it had a long lane and it had Cottonwood Trees. And it was also where Up A Country Lane came from because it had this long lane from the road up to where the house was - which was awful when it rained because it was muddy and Robert would have to get the tractor out to pull us down the lane if we had to go somewhere. We rented Cottonwood Farm. We had many new experiences there because we'd never rented before and Robert was so intent on becoming a farmer. He loved farm life and activities. So, I kept collecting recipes. Now I was writing. The newspaper came first and then KMA asked me to broadcast with the radio homemakers, to have my radio homemaker program, which I did.

We had wonderful neighbors - lovely, lovely neighbors. And one of them was Myrtle Brooks. Myrtle lived just around the corner from us. Her husband had died. She was raising three children as a farm woman -- farm owner. She was a very strong sturdy woman. If you imagined what a farm woman looked like, you'd think of Myrtle. She was very -- almost gruff, very open, and very honest in everything she did. She made the most wonderful banana cake. Oh, it was good. She'd bring it to all the church suppers. That was her signature recipe. She was very good at it. But she would never ever give it to me. She would never give me the recipe. I asked her one day, I said, "Why won't you give me your recipe? Everybody else gives me their recipe so why don't you give me your recipe?" She said, "You will put it in the paper and then everybody can make it and I won't have anything I do that is special". I said, "Myrtle, you do all kinds of things that are special. You're raising three children. You're running the farm. You're taking the crops in. And you're deciding when to plant and what to plant". I said, "You're doing a wonderful job at just keeping your family clothed and fed and in school". I said, "That's terrific. A banana cake doesn't compare to those things". She said, "Nope. Nope. That's my major purpose, making banana cake". I went home really humbled after that conversation because I realized from the letters that I got from readers and listeners and from people like Myrtle, that too many women in that day, in the 40s and 50s, felt that their role in life was simply to be a homemaker and to cook and clean, and to see that the husband's needs were taken care of.

Part of a farm wife's job was to go to town and get some screws for the binder for the hay baler. And even the money that she made from the chickens and the eggs and the cream, they would call "chicken feed", "chicken money". And often it kept the farm going. It kept the farm afloat when wages dropped when the money for feed and what they grew dropped. It would be what the women were doing that kept the farm afloat. But it was that period when what the men did was the important thing and the women just were, you know, they they just did the other things.

Anyway I had run a recipe for bread, I think it was, in the newspaper, and I had a phone call that evening - that same evening I had had this talk with Myrtle. A lady from Shenandoah was having company the next day and she wanted a copy of that recipe because she had lost it. I just had it in the week before. She could have gone down to the newspaper and gotten it, but she didn't. She wanted to call me and I have found that every once in awhile somebody will call and want a recipe because they want to visit and that's ok. I like to visit too. These are my friends. These are my friends. So, this lady wanted the recipe because she had lost it and she was having company the next day and she needed it right away. So, I said I'd be happy to give it to her and suddenly across the phone line came Myrtle's voice, strident voice, saying "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don't give her the recipe yet. I was in the bathtub when the phone rang and I had to get it out without any clothes on and answer the phone so I could see who it was. And I don't have a pencil and paper. And I can't turn the light on to get a pencil and paper because I don't have any clothes on. So, give me a minute". I said, "Sure, we'll give you a minute".

Now one of the things that I forgot to tell you is that Myrtle listened to every phone call that came through and there were fourteen people on our line. So, there were lots of phone calls that came past her house. I resented this at first. I'd come from Chicago, for heavens sake, and here was somebody listening in on my phone conversations. Then I realized she was the communication center for the neighborhood. If a neighbor called the veterinarian then Myrtle would call the other neighbor men and tell them swho was having a problem with some of his livestock. So, the men would go out and see what was the matter. If somebody would call the doctor, Myrtle would call the neighbor women and say there's something going on up at the neighbors and so the women would pick up a jar of something or fix a fruit salad and up they'd go and see what was going on. And if somebody died, everybody got a call from Myrtle that something really serious was happening. And I began to appreciate her. So, here was another -- another real service that she served in that neighborhood.

Ok then her voice came back. "Ok Evelyn, I've gotten a bathrobe on. I've gotten a pencil and paper. You can give the recipe now". So, she took the recipe down as I gave it. The next Sunday in church she handed me her recipe for the banana cake. She said, "You were kind enough to wait and give me that recipe last week so here's my recipe for the banana cake". So, that was my story with Myrtle.

Tags: cooking history interviews Iowa radio rural Shenandoah