by Mr Nichols, Tracer of Lost Recipes
It was 1933. A low shaft of raking light stabbed through the window of a Craftsman cottage on Santa Paula Street. A book lay half-finished on the end table by the comfy reading chair. The call for dinner rang out from the kitchen and the reader thought better of dogearing the page and grabbed for a day-old letter to mark meager progress. The book was as dull as the butter knife and after dinner it was closed up with the torn edge of the envelope sticking out like bacon on a BLT. It went back on the shelf with books of similar size and color. The envelope remained hidden in the unfinished book on the shelf for 75 years.
After the estate was settled the book came into the possession of a kindly, elderly rare book dealer. As the book was being examined the envelope was discovered. The envelope contained a recipe card with notes on it. What would the notes reveal? This was a case for Mr. Nichols, Tracer of Lost Recipes. This thrilling case takes Mr. Nichols and his faithful feline companion Sespe Red from Santa Paula all the way to the steaming jungles of Skull Island.
Sespe Red jumped onto Mr. Nichols’s lap and they got to work. The letter was addressed to Mrs. C. B. Beckley, Santa Paula, Cal. No street number was needed in 1933 as everybody knew where everybody lived. Why was the return address the RKO Orpheum Theater in Tacoma, Wash.? The plot began to thicken like a good stew. The printed recipes on the card that was folded to fit into the envelope came from Prudence Penny’s Cookery Matinée—The Bon Marché. Clues accumulated one at a time. Patience would reveal Prudence.
At one time the Bon Marché was the largest department store on the Pacific Coast. It was located in Seattle. The store sold cooking supplies and sponsored the radio show Prudence Penny’s Cooking Matinée. It was broadcast from the RKO Orpheum Theater. Prudence Penny did not exist in the flesh. She was as real as Betty Crocker. She was one of the first celebrity chefs. Prudence wrote for the Hearst newspaper chain and provided advice on cooking. There were many Prudence Pennys. Each Hearst newspaper employed a local writer and culinary instructor to play the role. Though the identity of the first Los Angeles Prudence Penny is unclear, the former editor of a California poultry industry newsletter, Mabelle Burbridge, took on the role at the New York Daily Mirror. The Chicago Herald-Examiner’s first Prudence was Leona Malek, formerly the domestic science director at a Chicago slaughterhouse. Once a writer became Prudence she could not reveal her past history or true name.
Insight into how this radio cooking show might have been produced comes from a handwritten note on the back of the recipe. “Hello Everybody—Just finished demonstrating to 800 women. It went over well and they seemed to like everything I cooked. I kept up a two hour running talk—guess they were interested because they didn’t walk out on me – Ed.” There are no clues as to how many minutes of those two hours were broadcast.
Who was Ed and why was he writing to Mrs. Beckley in Santa Paula? There must have been a strong connection because one of the four recipes that was handed out to the 800 ladies was Pumpkin Pie From Santa Paula credited to Capt. Salisbury. His note above the title of that recipe is in blue flow ink and reads, “Dear Rena: Have you ever seen anything like this—Ed.” We assume he was being ironic. Of course Rena had seen something like this. There is just enough evidence to suggest that Capt. Salisbury claimed this recipe as his own after obtaining it from Rena while on a visit to Santa Paula. Now the plot was thickening like the filling of a pumpkin pie.
Ed is listed on the Cookery Matinée recipe card as Captain Edward A. Salisbury, World Famous Explorer. He learned enough cooking on his world travels to not only hold forth to the ladies for two hours but also to have his recipes published in The Stag Cook Book—Written For Men By Men. He seems to have been secure in his masculinity.
Twelve years before his performance at that cooking show Capt. Salisbury bumped into Marian Cooper, who would later co- direct King Kong. Salisbury needed someone with writing and navigational experience for an exploratory world cruise. Cooper recommended a young photographer who had trained at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio. That was Ernest B. Schoesdack, who would later co-direct King Kong with him. We are certain that Capt. Salisbury visited Santa Paula one or more times. The proof is in the pumpkin pie recipe. It does not stretch credulity to imagine his experiences in Santa Paula resulting in him eventually setting off on a global exploration that stimulated the creation of King Kong.
The reason all this is important to Sespe Red is because pumpkin pie filling can cure constipation in cats. King Kong is also Sespe Red’s favorite film. He just loves the scenes with the big jungle cats.
John Nichols opened the John Nichols Gallery 25 years ago in downtown Santa Paula. The gallery specializes in vintage, vernacular and contemporary photography. John is one of the founders of the Ag Art Alliance, a member of the Ag Futures Alliance and the Fine Arts Committee of the Museum of Ventura County. He is a cookie judge at the Ventura County Fair and a stage manager at the Monterey Jazz Festival. His book on the St. Francis Dam Disaster was published in 2002. In addition to gallery exhibits he has also designed and curated numerous exhibits for museums around Ventura County. Visit johnnicholsgallery.com.