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Pioneer ancestors' cookbook a delicious family legacy

Thursday, January 28, 1999

By Kelly D. Burgess , Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Growing up in Southern California, I admit the closest I ever came to adverse driving conditions was when the warm Santa Ana breezes blew sand across the road. Then I moved to Western Pennsylvania and found out there's more to winter than rolling down the cuffs of your shorts.

So imagine how ashamed I was to discover I come from a long line of pioneers that neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor ice storms, kept from their appointed rounds. No, not mailmen. Cooks.

The cookbook that turned out to be my family legacy arrived during the ice storm of a couple of weeks ago. By this time, my five children and I had been imprisoned by the weather for three days and we were ready for the distraction.

The spiral-bound book, "On the Road to Yellowstone: Favorite Recipes of Wapiti Valley," was published by the Parent Teacher Group in Wapiti, Wyo. On the cover is the first Wapiti School, an 8-by-10-foot tent. Standing in front of the tent school are five children and their teacher, my great-grandmother June Hale Brundage.

This was news, because most of the stories I've heard about great-grandma Brundage have to do with her famous pies, not her knowledge of pi. Her culinary skills are still legendary around Cody, Wyo. They made her some legendary friends as well. Buffalo Bill Cody was one of them, and he couldn't return to his ranch from a trip to his namesake town without stopping to eat one of great-grandma June's dinners and get drunk with great-grandpa Ben.

Great-grandma hated having her husband drink, and everyone knew it. One night when Colonel Cody and great-grandpa Ben were sharing a bottle of whiskey, Great-grandma spiked it with paregoric. When the two men became ill and went to the outhouse, she barred the door from the outside and wouldn't let them out. She was never afraid to cook up a little trouble.

With no formal training, she catered all the fancy parties for the wealthy folks in Cody at a time and place when people didn't know what a caterer was.

But before she was a cook, she was a teacher. She only did it for one year, but what a year it was. It wasn't until March 1910 that there were enough children in Wyoming's remote Wapiti Valley to support a school. None of these children had ever had the opportunity for a formal education and were thrilled at the idea. Few ever missed a day of school, and even the school mascot, a dog called Beans Wagoner, showed up every day - and in the school portrait, too.

In 1940 my great-grandmother, who kept a diary for many years, wrote a newspaper article about the founding of the Wapiti School. Here is an excerpt:

"We got on fine, had a perfect attendance even tho' the wet April snows almost broke our tent down several times. The boys from Morris ranch had a long hard ride against the wind, the older boy claiming the saddle with small Leonard behind him. Mrs. Morris would place a small checkered pillow in his overalls each morning which I would remove and hang on a nail until nite. When four o'clock came while the older boys saddled the horse, the pillow was neatly placed on the proper spot and buttoned in for the return trip."

The only piece of regular furniture they had was an old-fashioned double-seat desk. The youngest two children sat there, and Great-grandma taught them using an old, chipped blackboard. There were no textbooks, so every night when she went home she created her own, writing them out in long hand from her old elementary school book. She did three textbooks a night, one for each of the older students.

In spite of the primitive conditions, they did have central heating. It was a round hot air heater in the middle of the tent and regularly fed hunks of a cedar stump chipped off with an axe. At lunchtime they would share a common picnic lunch, and there was plenty of water available at the drinking fountain, a 10-pound lard pail.

School was only three months long that year. When it started to thaw in May, the river rose and it became dangerous to stay there, so they had to stop. It was time to plant anyway. By the end of the summer a frame schoolhouse had been built, and the Wapiti School had a permanent location.

My great-grandmother was asked to continue as teacher, but she declined because she had accepted my great-grandfather's marriage proposal and his ranch was too far to travel to the new school.

Instead, she married and began to build the reputation that would still trigger tasteful memories 45 years after her death. I had always been told that none of her recipes survived her, but much to my surprise there are several of them in the cookbook. They were submitted by great-aunts and cousins once or twice removed who still live in Cody and the surrounding Wapiti Valley. I never realized I had these relatives because my immediate family fled the harsh winters many years ago.

As with many young men in the early '40s, my great-grandma's two sons left their hometown for the first time when they enlisted in World War II. Great-uncle Bill was shot down over Germany in 1944. He and two other crewmen died, and one of them, 1st Lt. Herman Roath, coincidentally, was from Pittsburgh.. When their bodies were recovered in 1951, the men were buried together at a national cemetery in St. Louis.

My grandfather was mustered out in California and fell in love with the place. He returned to Cody, packed up my grandma, mother and aunt and moved to Southern California, where I grew up fighting those balmy breezes to get to the beach.

My great-grandmother's culinary talents must have skipped my generation. My mother is a fabulous cook, but I'm no more adventurous in the kitchen than I am on the icy roads. Still, maybe the next time our wimpy modern school district declares a snow day the kids and I can spend the day getting a real taste of our family history.

Brown Sugar Drops

These delicious cookies taste like brownies.

2 cakes unsweetened chocolate

1/2 cup shortening

1 cup brown sugar, packed

2 eggs

2 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

13/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

11/2 cups chopped nuts

Melt chocolate (we used two 1-ounce squares) over hot water, then cool. (We melted ours in the microwave for 2 minutes on high.)

In mixing bowl, cream shortening and sugar. Beat in eggs and chocolate. Add one-half of the flour; then milk and vanilla. Add rest of flour, salt and soda; then nuts.

Drop by teaspoonsful on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Submitted to "On the Road to Yellowstone: Favorite Recipes of Wapiti Valley" by Peggy Fowler, granddaughter of June Hale Brundage

Applesauce Cake

It would be a good snack - or lunchbox - cake without the frosting.

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup butter, softened

11/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch salt

1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 cup applesauce

1 cup raisins and nuts, mixed

1/2 teaspoon cloves, ground

Cream butter and sugar; add applesauce mixed with soda, then rest of ingredients. Pour into 9-inch square pan and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Note: The reporter's family agreed that this recipe would be better with half the cloves. She used already ground cloves, rather than grinding them herself, as the recipe called for.

Easy Penuche Icing

It's fabulous - you can taste the butter.

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup milk

1 cup brown sugar

13/4 to 2 cups confectioners' sugar

Melt butter. Add brown sugar and boil over low heat 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in milk; stir until it comes to a boil. Cool to lukewarm. Gradually add confectioners' sugar. Beat until spreading consistency. If icing becomes too stiff, add a little hot water.

Spread on applesauce cake.

Submitted to "On the Road to Yellowstone: Favorite Recipes of Wapiti Valley" by Peggy Fowler, granddaughter of June Hale Brundage

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