It was Robert Birkby who encouraged his wife to answer the advertisement for a weekly columnist in the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, now called the Valley News. He ignored her when she said she couldn’t write a column, couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to read what she had to say. Instead, he dragged out their typewriter, sat it on the table and insisted she try. Out of excuses, Birkby wrote that first column, not knowing the simple act was the first step in a career that would exceed all expectations.
Birkby’s weekly column, Up a Country Lane, is in its 63rd year of publication, with no signs of stopping. To celebrate, Birkby has put together a collection of some of her favorite columns from the past six decades: “Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa’s Best Known Homemaker” (University of Iowa Press; September 2012).
“When I put it all together, I was a little bit surprised at what it looks like,” Birkby, 93, says. “That’s my life. So that’s what it looks like and it’s been a journey.”
A journey that begins with Birkby’s first column, published on Nov. 24, 1949. From there, the book proceeds topically, from columns about her parents and grandparents, to Birkby’s years as a wife and mother. She shares stories of her family, her friends and her work. She writes about kitchen disasters and family pets, historical events and technological advances.
There’s nothing unusual about the tales she tells, which make them special because anyone can relate to them — even those who have never lived on a farm. Some stories will make you laugh and others will reaffirm your faith in people. Not every story Birkby shares is happy, but she’d be the first to tell you that death and sadness is part of living.
And that’s what “Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa’s Best Known Homemaker” is about: life. Birkby’s column is reality before it became a TV genre, mommy blogging before everyone had an online journal. Now in her ninth decade, Birkby uses her column to share her insights on aging, coping with the fact that she and Robert no longer need to prepare for old age — they’re there.
“I would joke that ‘When I’m old, I’ll do this,’” she says. “Things like, ‘We’re fixing our house for our old age, whenever that comes.’ Well, I’m saying now that I’m there, so the last chapter in the book is about my growing old and that aging is opportunity.”
And while the columns she has selected are a look back, Birkby continues to look forward.
“Every age is exciting and that’s what I keep telling people now,” she says. “Even after 90, you can find exciting things to do, and interesting people and things to think about. Life is different at different ages, of course, but it can also be very exciting if you look at it positively, which I like to do.”
The following recipe has become Evelyn Birkby’s signature dish:
Hay Hand Rolls
In large bowl, combine yeast, 1 cup lukewarm water and 1 teaspoon sugar. Let stand until yeast dissolves and mixture becomes bubbly. Add 3 more cups lukewarm water and stir in 4 cups white flour. Beat until batter is full of bubbles. Cover and let this “sponge” set for an hour or two. Stir down several times.
Add shortening, sugar or honey, eggs if you use them, salt and enough flour — white or whole wheat — to make a soft dough. Turn out on floured bread board and knead several minutes until smooth and elastic (dough will have a springy feel). Do not add any more flour than necessary. Put into greased bowls, cover and let rise in draft-free place until double.
Punch dough down and cut into portions. Knead each portion and make out into rolls. Place in greased baking pans cover with clean tea towels and let rise until double.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown on top.
You can make up portions of the dough and refrigerate the remainder to make later. This dough keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week.
To make into multi-grained bread, cook multi-grained cereal in water to cover until softened. Cool and add, along with whole wheat flour. Shape the dough into loaves, put into greased bread pans and bake as directed above.
Source: Evelyn Birkby
This is the recipe that appeared with Evelyn Birkby’s first column. The recipe was given to her by the Raymond family.
“One of the good old country customs I hope will never be abandoned is that of sharing recipes,” she wrote. “If I can listen hard enough and long enough, I’m sure the secrets of the fine cooks in our neighborhood will someday make a good cook out of me.”
Raymond’s Chocolate Drop Cookies
Cream brown sugar and butter. Add egg. Dissolve cocoa in hot water (this amount may be increased in your family likes lots of chocolate flavor, or 1 to 2 squares of melted chocolate may be used instead). Add cocoa to the above mixture.
Measure flour in the sifter (do not sift before measuring). Add baking powder. Sift together and add to mixture alternately with nutmeats.
Chill and drop by teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven.
These are good with any kind of frosting. The Raymonds use the following easy frosting:
Mix together cream or half-and-half, cocoa and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the stove and sift in confectioner’s sugar until it is the right consistency to spread. Flavoring may be added, if desired.
Source: Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living from Iowa’s Best-Known Homemaker (University of Iowa Press; Sept. 2012)