Cordova Chronicles: ‘Cordova’s Cookin’,’ and much more

Created in 1955 by the Ladies Aide Society of the Community Baptist Church, “Cordova’s Cookin’” contains 500 recipes by Cordova’s top chefs, as well as entertaining humor and artwork.

Tucked among a row of cookbooks on a shelf in our kitchen is a 192-page, spiral bound 6-by-8-inch classic titled “Cordova’s Cookin’”.

Compiled by The Ladies Aid Society of the Community Baptist Church of Cordova in 1955 as a fundraiser for the new Cordova Community Hospital, which was operated by the American Baptist Home Mission Society, it contains over 500 typed recipes that are signed in longhand by each cook.

For those of you that are fans of all the cooking shows now available on TV, this is a fascinating early version of “Top Chef”, Cordova-style; it is certain that judges on those contests would likely have choked on sample portions of some of these culinary masterpieces, yet also delighted in others.

The cookbook committee, comprised of Betty May, Myrtle Moline, Violet Simpler, Fern Smith and chair Becky Gillenwater faced a challenging task selecting recipes for the booklet, stating in a foreword, “Space requirements prevented us from using all of them.”

Personally, I think they did a marvelous job. As did Phyllis Carlson, compiler of histories; Ruth Howard, typist; and Irene Maycock, who did the artwork.

Their names, as well as those of contributors, are a “who’s who” of Cordova 65 years ago, and they produced not only a cookbook but a unique history of our fair city, filled with insight into life in small-town Alaska, as well as many a chuckle along the way.

In the introduction, historian Carlson begins with the early settlers of Prince William Sound, through the establishment of the first canneries, and then the construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, to explain the many different nationalities that contributed to the culinary melting-pot reflected in the cookbook, including English, Russian, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Filipino and American influences.

Curly Hoover owned and operated Hoover’s Movers (now the location of North Star Lumber) for many years. He was also quite a clam digger, and knew how to cook them well, as described in his recipe for fried clams.

The book is broken into sections, with considerable emphasis on local faire. The Index lists categories seafood, game and meat, berries and relishes, the gentlemen suggest, followed by breads and rolls, salads, casseroles and vegetables, desserts, and easy does it. 

It almost sounds like categories in the popular TV show Jeopardy, and for a starter, how about “the gentlemen suggest”?

There is an excellent recipe for Italian Cracked Crab, by Les Maxwell, which harkens back to the days when Dungeness crab filled Orca Inlet and could be caught right off the dock. Curly Hoover contributed directions on preparation and cooking of razor clams, another seafood that has pretty much vanished in nearby sand bars. 

Then there are characters like Rocky Rothwell, with this recipe for Boiled Fish: “Put fish in pot and boil until done!!” Needless to say, it is the shortest one in the book.

Pete Tanstad was bit more specific in his Boiled Salmon Head recipe: “Take head of salmon and cut straight across eyes. Clean. Soak in salt brine for 4 to 6 hours. Boil in fresh water, with onions added, for 15 minutes.”

Clyde Maycock, USFS District Ranger, has a Fried Trout recipe that adds this advice: “Use more salt on dollies than other species.”

Not surprisingly, seafood was the biggest category in the book, with cooks of both gender providing 67 different recipes.

While there is a considerable number of recipes for duck, ptarmigan, deer and moose in the game and meat section, I was intrigued by the number of rabbit recipes, which included Fried Rabbit, Jugged Rabbit, Rabbit with Mushroom, Snowshoe Rabbit Stew with Dumplings and Hasenpfeffer.

Charles Kinkaid not only knew about close shaves, but also how to create tasty and tender deer shanks, using his recipe in “Cordova’s Cookin’”.

Interestingly, in the Easy Does It section, instructions on how to clean rabbits are included. “Care should be taken in handling rabbits because of Tularemia; Use gloves to skin rabbits,” and “Soak overnight in soda and salt solutions before preparing.”

Easy Does It also includes other suggestions, such as “When cleaning crab, if crab is alive, put your foot on the legs and claw while removing the shell. The claw is powerful and a pinch can be very painful.” Or, “When opening a can of evaporated milk, be sure to make two openings on the top. Air must be allowed to enter the can if the milk is to flow evenly.”

Scattered throughout the book are intriguing dinner options. On Page 11 is a recipe for “You Name It”, by Jeanne Manuel: “Place unbroken contents of 4 cans (flat) salmon in a well-buttered baking dish. Top with butter, garlic salt and lemon juice. Bake till hot. Serves 6.”

Page 58 contains a recipe for Mock Ham Loaf, by Kristine Norman; and you guessed it, SPAM is a key ingredient.

Of course, many of the recipes are much more detailed and sophisticated.

The prize for the longest recipe in the book goes to Norma Swartzbacker. Her “Chioppino Stew” requires 21 ingredients and fills an entire page with 225 words of directions. I’ve bookmarked this masterpiece and plan on trying it during a stretch of blustery weather.

Then there are the delightful black ink illustrations by Irene Wilcock. Many portray original Cordova buildings that are now gone. Several are accompanied by advertisements for local enterprises, some reflecting standards of bygone eras.

For example, consider a sketch of Karl’s Gun Shop, on Second Street, with the advertisement “Doorway to a Man’s World.”

Hmmm. Not sure that would fly in the 2020s.

Famous skipper Pete Nicholoff had a recipe in “Cordova’s Cookin’”, and also ran an ad. Before the days of ferry service, he brought cars to Cordova on a barge towed by the legendary Siren.

Legendary boatman Pete Nicholoff ran an ad that harkens back to days of yore, and perhaps a glimpse in the other direction. A sketch shows his famous vessel Siren rounding a channel marker to the harbor entrance. Cars came to Cordova back in pre-ferry days on a barge towed by the Siren, and perhaps will arrive by similar method in the future, given the way things are going down in Juneau.

A humorous sketch showing an individual with torn pants clinging to a tree while a brown bear circles nearby is the ingenious ad captioned: “For a Close Shave — Club Barber Shop, proprietor, Charles Kinkaid.”

Rest assured there are countless truly marvelous recipes by Cordova’s finest cooks, and it is safe to say that most did not come from Karl’s Man’s World.

One in particular caught my eye: “Don’s Favorite Cake”, by Anita Shellhorn. I can still remember the smile on my dad’s face when he came home from work to discover that treat just coming out of the oven.

Throughout the book, several recipes are accompanied by a large black star, meaning they were a favorite of that particular cook.

I would give this entire book a huge star for its unique place in Cordova lore.

Charles Kinkaid, who evidently was a barber when he wasn’t out hunting, had this unusual advice accompanying his method for preparing tender Braized Deer Shanks: “Simmer hard for 1/2 hour — Don’t let it laugh, just let it smile.”

If you are lucky enough to have “Cordova’s Cookin’” stuck in a shelf in your kitchen I suggest it will make you both laugh and smile, and maybe come up with an exciting recipe for dinner too.

For those that don’t possess this collector’s item, check out Section 641 of the Cordova Library. You may have the pleasure of discovering an equally enjoyable second edition of “Cordova’s Cookin’”, printed in 1986, with names of many chefs that are still around to lend advice and a smile.

And when departing the library, may I suggest a stop right across the street at Laura’s Liquor Shoppe or the Alaskan Liquor Store for a bottle of fine wine to further enhance the joy to be found from following the footsteps of Cordova’s finest cooks?