Mankato cookbook gets credit for first hot dish recipe

Joyce Nelson
Joyce Nelson polishes silver pitchers outside the kitchen of the Grace Lutheran Church in Mankato, Minn. A cookbook compiled in 1930 by members of the congregation's Ladies Aid group is being credited as the source for the first printed recipe for hot dish. Nelson found her copy of the book at a used book sale.
Pat Christman | Mankato Free Press via AP

Gretchen Townsend, who serves on Grace Lutheran's kitchen committee, was surprised when a friend showed her an article from a national magazine that mentions a recipe by a long-ago member of the church's ladies aid.

Food & Wine's January edition credits a 1930 cookbook organized by the Mankato congregation as the first written record of a hot dish recipe, The Free Press reported.

"I find that little piece of trivia about the cookbook interesting," Townsend said.

Neither the name of the woman who invented the hamburger/macaroni/canned peas concoction nor the source of the claim regarding the Midwest icon was included in "The History of One of America's Fabled Foods."

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Grace Lutheran Church Ladies Aid cookbook
The cookbook compiled in 1930 by members of Mankato's Grace Lutheran Church Ladies Aid group credited as the source for the first printed recipe for hot dish.
Pat Christman | Mankato Free Press via AP

Ann L. Burckhardt, author of Minnesota Historical Society Press' "Hot Dish Heaven: Classic Casseroles From Midwest Kitchens," was asked during a telephone interview what she knew about the origins of the comfort-food genre. The longtime editor for the Star Tribune's Taste section and former St. Peter resident had never heard the Mankato was ground zero for hot dishes.

The first cookbook that referred to hot dishes would be hard to track down, Burckhardt said.

"It's probably true that it's ours," said Joyce Nelson, 90, who, along with Townsend and other church ladies, was at Grace Lutheran Monday, cleaning tarnish from silverware.

Nelson found her copy of the 1930 collection of recipes at a used book sale about 15 years ago. The recipe HOT DISH is on Page 49, just above an ad for Artcraft Studio, one of the cookbook's sponsors.

Nelson guesses Mrs. C.W. Anderson, who submitted the formula for baking a meal entree in a covered dish, was a homemaker with a small budget and little time to spare. Housewives in the 1930s had many duties besides cooking. Casseroles (another name for hot dishes) were convenient and inexpensive.

"Scandinavians made everything really stretch," she said, referring to the church's and her Swedish heritage.

Nelson served her four children hot dishes, including one her Finnish husband, Harold, especially liked — smoked salmon with potatoes. She served her personal favorite at a recent campus ministry event

After boiling chicken on her stovetop, the meat was diced into cubes and added to a mixture of eggs, mayonnaise, celery and onions. Nelson added flair by arranging canned onion rings on top of the other ingredients.

To qualify as a hot dish, recipes should call for a combination of protein (tuna for example), a canned vegetable (peas are popular), a starch (maybe mashed potatoes) and a binding sauce, (perhaps a can of cream of mushroom). For crunch, cooks may add tater tots, chow mein noodles or crushed potato chips.

Nelson stores her copy of the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid collection at home, along with stacks of other vintage cookbooks.

Their directions are simple, "a pinch of this and a pinch of that," Nelson said.

Donna Mann, one of Grace Lutheran's historians, is not surprised a copy of the old cookbook is not on file at the church. People hold on to their cookbooks, she said.

"There are members who probably have one, but they would never give it up."

Nelson intends to bequeath her copy to Grace Lutheran's archives.

An AP Exchange feature by Edie Schmierbach, The Free Press.