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Vintage Cookbooks: Nancy Drew cookbook unlocked clues to good recipes

Thursday, August 05, 1999

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ever heard of Mildred Wirt Benson? Does the name Carolyn Keene ring a bell? How about Nancy Drew, girl detective?

Ha! Thought you might know that one. Well, the Secret in the Old Cookbook Column is -- they're all the same person.

In 1927, Benson, the first woman to receive a master's degree from the Iowa School of Journalism, was paid by the Stratemeyer Syndicate to develop the character of Nancy Drew and ghost-write stories the syndicate outlined. She is credited with writing 23 of the early mystery adventures, including the first three, under the pen name Carolyn Keene. Other writers have had a hand in penning the fiction series under that name, but few knew, until 1993, that it was actually Benson who created and evolved the Nancy character so many of us still admire.

Publishers estimate more than 80 million copies of Nancy Drew mysteries have been sold since the first of the series, "The Secret of the Old Clock," appeared in 1930. They've been translated into at least 14 languages (including Hebrew, Malay and Icelandic). In the 1970s, Nancy had her own television series and, among her spinoffs -- a cookbook.

Growing up as I did in the 1940s and 1950s BT (before television), books were my entertainment and Nancy Drew my idol. For starters, in an era when few mothers drove a car, Nancy owned "a snappy blue roadster" that whisked her into an adventure or away from danger. She had loyal girl friends, Bess and "George," and a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, who went to college! She was smart, talented, beautiful and popular and had no mother to hold her down, though devoted housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, was a comforting mother figure. And Nancy had for a father the well-to-do and famous Carson Drew, "noted criminal and mystery-case lawyer," who doted on her, allowing her the freedom to take risks and to be as bold as she dared in the interests of truth and justice.

Today, Nancy is as popular as ever. Her adventures were updated and modernized in the 1970s and are still being written -- one adventure a month -- though, in my opinion, the "modern" ones are not as charming or as much fun as Benson's originals which are, thank goodness, still being reprinted.

In 1973, Grosset & Dunlap, owners of the original series, published "The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking."

I couldn't resist buying it for auld lang syne.

When my son and daughter became old enough, I introduced them to my faded, worn collection of classic Nancy Drews and we enjoyed them together.

They also got into the cookbook, which is geared for children 8 to 12 years old. (It is, unfortunately, out of print.) In elementary school, as part of their birthday celebrations, they enjoyed inviting their home- room teacher to a luncheon they prepared themselves. In 1978, they both chose "The Nancy Drew Cookbook."

According to notes in the margin, Bob, who turned 11 that year, prepared Lilac Inn Consommé (add carrot, onion, parsley and celery to canned broth), Detective Burgers (a seasoned meat mixture spooned into hard rolls), Muskoka Salmon Salad (a mayonnaise and heavy cream sauce flavored with cucumber, onion and vinegar over canned salmon) and Mrs. Nickerson's Holiday Cookies (vanilla/chocolate drop cookies topped with sugar sprinkles).

Alice Evelyn, who turned 10, made Diary Chicken Salad (cold, cooked chicken cubes in mayonnaise mixed with mandarin orange segments, green grapes, salted almonds and banana slices and piled onto a pineapple ring on a lettuce leaf), Mrs. Marvin's Magic Muffins (made with self-rising flour, mayonnaise and milk), Miss Hanson's Deviled Eggs and Wooden Lady Walnut Tidbits (a butter and Roquefort mixture spread between walnut halves).

Now 94, Benson is still writing a column, "On the Go with Millie Benson," for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. By borrowing from her own personality, she created the intelligent, independent, confident character so many of us have come to admire. Her work also inspired a cookbook my children and I could enjoy together.

Thanks, Millie.

George's Cherry Cobbler

There's no mystery why this tasty, simple-to-make dessert quickly disappears. More like a steamed pudding when it's served warm or cheesecake served cold, it's especially good topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

6 tablespoons butter
1 cup prepared biscuit mix
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1 (21-ounce) can cherry pie filling

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the butter in a casserole dish and let it melt in the oven as it heats.

In a bowl, combine remaining ingredients in order given, but don't over stir.

Pour the mixture into the melted butter in the casserole without any more stirring.

Bake, uncovered, 45 to 50 minutes or until set. Serves 4 to 6.

"The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking," Carolyn Keene, 1977.

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