Patricia Turnbull Shek and Jean Rockwell Beach have each been significant spiritual forces in Saginaw for many years, each dedicating time, energy and insight to many cultural endeavors throughout the local arts community. Recently, however, the pair released what is undoubtedly a crowning achievement in the form of a cookbook chronicling nearly 140 years of secret family recipes and signature fare from top local restaurants long thought forgotten.
Titled Savoring Saginaw and produced through the generous auspices of The Historical Society of Saginaw County, the 420-page work in reality is much more than a cookbook, filled with colorful anecdotes, historical background, and even secret family cures for addressing such every day nuisances as carpet stains.
Twenty years in the making, Savoring Saginaw is organized, arranged, and written in the manner that only a labor of love could be, with dedication, a keen attention to detail, and no stone unturned throughout the pantries of mid-Michigan.
"Basically, we spent a lot of time canvassing the kitchens of various families for grandmothers' secret recipes," explains Pat. "Women would go to bridge clubs, have a few glasses of wine, and share recipes, so a lot of them wound up in handwritten form."
"What's fascinating is the history of various family recipes," interjects Jean. "Oyster shops used to be very popular around Saginaw Bay because as the lumber went out, oysters would come back on the ships."
With the oldest recipe dating back to 1871 and running up to the present, Jean adds that one of her favorite local 'characters' was Captain Eber Ward. "He was a shipbuilder and owner of a fleet of lake ships and president of the Flint & Pere Marquette railroad, and a great friend of many Saginawians. He shocked everybody when he divorced his wife and married a flamboyant beauty many years younger than he. His daughter wound up marrying a European prince but ran off with a gypsy violinist, while his son eloped with his wife's maid."
With over 986 recipes featured in the work, Patricia notes that one of her favorite cookbooks that she came upon during her research came from the 'Little Hospital Auxiliary', which was a predecessor to St. Luke's. "Saginaw featured at least a dozen of the most famous cooks in the world, and they would develop these elaborate 12-course meals with frozen alcoholic drinks served between courses, so guests could stagger their way through the next course," she laughs.
Of particular note is an enchanting section on the many famous landmark restaurants of Saginaw, including The Bancroft House, Vlassis Restaurant, Anderson's Steak House, Treasure Island, and The Schuch Hotel. "A famous writer for The New Yorker magazine mentioned Saginaw in one article that featured a chopped peanut sandwich that he discovered from our area," notes Jean.
When asked what the most challenging component of this project was, both women laugh. "Apart from dealing with all these scattered recipes and pulling them into a logical order," reflects Patricia, "I would have to say the hardest thing was getting this work published. "We wrote a letter to Citizens Bank asking for $8,000 to have the book published and received a check for $850.00. Then we went to various people around town like Art Lewis, who wanted to do it chapter by chapter, only we weren't keen on that. Eventually, I took it over to the Saginaw Historical Museum to incubate the work and leave it in a safe place, and eventually Irene Hensinger saved the day."
"I came upon the work in a box," explains Hensinger, Executive Director of the Saginaw County Historical society. "There were all these recipes and I asked the staff what it was all about because there was so much that had gone into it and a lot of history. Because we were going into a Sesquicentennial year, it seemed fitting to see that it got published, so I went to my Board to put up the money and hopefully we'll sell enough to cover the costs. It's such a personal cookbook, which it makes it quite unique." Both women admit that did a lot of work collaboratively and separately on the work, but mainly accomplished the feat of assembly by "contacting everybody we knew."
With a first run of 600 copies, Savoring Saginaw makes an excellent last-minute Christmas gift. Copies are available at The Saginaw Historical Society, The Saginaw Art Museum, St. Mary's Gift Shop, the Saginaw Club, and by mailing $17.95 per copy and $8.00 for shipping & handling per book to the Historical society of Saginaw County, 500 Federal, Saginaw, MI 48607.
Or go online to www.castlemuseum.org
Dedicated to noted Saginaw historian Ralph Stroebel, Jean perhaps sums it up best when she notes: "Recipes give us a living link to the past. When I bake Katherine Brady's Chocolate Angel Food Cake, simmer Howard Sheltraw's prize-winning Saturday night chili or freeze Mrs. George Morley's Banana pudding, I can almost feel them with me in the kitchen."
16th November, 2023