Let’s Hear It for the Girls! Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

Last week I got my wild, low-bush blueberries from Heath, Massachusetts. I immediately thought of Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

In case the connection isn’t immediately apparent to readers, let me explain. Recently, my friend Peter Beck lent me a 1961 edition of the Congressional Club Cookbook.

I love the book’s cover with its image of an elephant and a donkey getting ready for a party. This copy was presented to Peter’s mother by Smith, who stayed with the Beck family from time to time and inscribed the book to her hostess.

I was intrigued. I knew Smith had been a senator for many years. I didn’t know until the cookbook inspired me to do a little research that this politician from Maine ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 … or that she was a notable promoter of foods from her home state.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) grew up in a working-class family in Skowhegan, Me. Margaret Chase couldn’t afford college and held various jobs before going to work at a local weekly newspaper, one of several enterprises owned by a businessman named Clyde Smith.

More than two decades older than Chase, Smith dated her on and off for years; he was apparently quite a ladies’ man. The pair married in 1930.

Smith insisted that his bride give up working after they married so she could devote most of her time to acting as his hostess. Nevertheless, she remained active in a number of women’s organizations she had joined during her single years.

More than two decades older than his wife, Clyde Smith had political ambitions. He was elected to Congress in 1936. Margaret Chase Smith accompanied him to Washington and learned the ropes by working as his secretary.

When he became ill in 1940, he asked her to run for his seat in his stead. He died in April of that year. His wife won a special election to complete his term and then ran successfully for her own two-year term.

She stayed in the House of Representatives until 1948, when she was elected to the Senate. She would serve there until 1973.

Smith in 1963. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

In both branches of Congress, Smith was known for her support of the military, for her civility, for her care for her constituents, and for her independence. She didn’t always agree with her fellow Republicans, and she quietly but firmly made her views known.

Perhaps most famously, she delivered a 1950 speech called the “Declaration of Conscience” in which she lambasted the activities of her fellow senator, Joseph McCarthy. She was violently anti-communist, but she found the tactics of McCarthy and his red-baiting colleagues disgraceful.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” she announced.

In 1964, Smith put her name forward as a Republican candidate for the presidency. Her chances weren’t strong. She didn’t get her name on the ballot in all 48 states, and she accepted no campaign contributions. An exception to the no-contribution rule was a gift from Peter’s father, a large bouquet of roses. “He thought she would make a great president,” Peter told me.

Although she lost to Barry Goldwater, Smith made history as the first woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major American political party. She even had a female-centered campaign song performed by Hildegarde called “Leave It to the Girls.”

Smith arrives at the 1964 Republican Convention. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

What does any of this have to do with blueberries?

Margaret Chase Smith actively promoted Maine’s foods by hosting events and sharing recipes. When she ran for president, her blueberry muffins played a part in her campaign.

One of her campaign photographs depicted her holding a sign that said, “Barry stews, Rocky pursues, Dicky brews, but Margaret Chase Smith wows and woos with Blueberry Muffins!” Her rivals were Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon.

The senator’s association with food is so strong that in 2018 the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine launched “Making Margaret,” a recipe-research collaborative.

Through this group, food-oriented students, faculty, and staff in different disciplines explore the connections between food and public life.

I was unable to talk to anyone in the group for this article. (It is, after all, the university’s summer vacation.) I hope to learn more about “Making Margaret” in the future, however.

I’m always interested in the ways in which food connects people. In the case of Margaret Chase Smith, food was a way to spread the word about her state.

According to her biographer Janann Sherman, it was also a way to reassure voters and her Congressional colleagues that this female—for years, the only woman in the Senate—didn’t represent a threat to the status quo because she was essentially “feminine.”

Her baking thus became form of self-protection as well as a form of self-expression, part of a dance she performed over and over again for her political audience.

The recipe below appeared in the “Congressional Club Cookbook” and was also sent to me by the Margaret Chase Library in the late senator’s hometown of Skowhegan.

The muffins are not unlike their original baker. They appear quite simple at first glance; they don’t contain a lot of sugar or butter, and they include no spice. Yet they are chock full of flavor. I highly recommend them.

Margaret Chase Smith circa 1940, courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) baking powder
1 egg
3/4 cup fresh milk
3 tablespoons melted shortening (I used butter)

Instructions:

Wash blueberries, and drain thoroughly. Mix and sift flour with salt, sugar, and baking powder. Beat egg and mix with milk. Stir egg and milk mixture into the flour mixture, then add the berries and melted shortening (or butter).

Mix well and pour into greased muffin pans, filling each three-fourths full. Bake in a hot oven, 400 degrees, for 20 minutes. Makes eight to 12 muffins depending on size.

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12 Responses to “Let’s Hear It for the Girls! Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins”

  1. Peggy says:

    Brava for Margaret Chase Smith. What a fascinating article, Tinky. The recipe book’s cover is fabulous. I wonder how the other recipes measure up.

  2. Grad says:

    I remember Margaret Chase Smith well (that tells you something about my age). This was a wonderful article, Tinky. The Senator was a real trail blazer and should be remembered. I look forward to making these muffins. Yours look particularly gorgeous.

  3. tinkyweisblat says:

    I will let you know after I try some, Peggy. Thank you!

  4. tinkyweisblat says:

    I think it’s those lovely blueberries that make them so pretty (not to mention the pink cake stand). I’m glad you remember her, Grad!

  5. Pam Matthews says:

    So glad to get this recipe and read the info on Margaret Chase Smith – one of my heroes! If you ever get to Maine and have the chance, visit her library in Skowhegan. We went there with a group of seniors and were allowed a not-usually-given tour of her home, which is just as she left it. Fascinating.

  6. Peter says:

    To fellow readers: Tinky made Senator Smith’s blueberry muffins and shared some with us. The muffins disappeared immediately — they were delicious, intensely fruit-flavored and, unlike, some muffins, held together with a lightness, springiness and moistness that many muffins lack. Now we wait, hoping for more muffins or better still, Tinky’s announcement that she is running for the the nation’s highest office.

  7. Jane in Texas says:

    Thanks, so enjoyed this piece…. An old New Englander friend shared this recipe with me years ago, still my fav. So happy to learn of M. C. Smith’s connection, always admired her. Oh how I miss real eastern Blueberries. Thankfully, Trader Joe’s has them frozen, but not the same.

  8. tinkyweisblat says:

    I wish I could send you some berries, Jane. Pam, I’ll try to get to the library if I get that way. And Peter, I’ll only run if you’ll be my vice president…..

  9. Mary Stuart says:

    “A spoonful of sugar makes the history lesson go down”. I love it! Maybe you could start something! And of course I love little intense wild blueberries … unfortunately not available here except frozen … which I must say one can accommodate to …. but they’re not the same!

    Enjoyed so much …. now I’ll have to make mini muffins … and soon!

  10. Thank you so much! I enjoyed this posting and hearing the history behind the name. Will share so others can see it also.

  11. Anne says:

    I was fascinated by this historical article. It gave me the thought of asking you …….have you read The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan? She also wrote The Chilberry’s Ladies Choir. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend it. As a lover of food, cooking, history and resourceful women, this book ticks all the boxes.

  12. tinkyweisblat says:

    I’m looking for that book. Thanks to you, Elizabeth, and Mary Stuart for writing. I should think frozen blueberries would work just fine for baking, MS, although as you know you’ll probably have to up the baking time….

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