Once again, it was Winnie and me behind the bake sale table, while all the real excitement of the annual plant sale swirled through adjacent rooms.
Winnie is a whiz at organizing the diverse, nearly random donations from friends of the land trust. Arrayed around us on three cloth-covered tables are blueberry cake, rhubarb and blueberry muffins, homemade English toffee, chocolate oatmeal no-bakes, fat chewy chocolate chip cookies, thin crispy chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate chip cookies with or without walnuts. There are lemon bars and blondies and brownies and the chocolate chip brownies our town calls “Congo Bars.” People say the nickname refers to First Parish Church Congregational (the “Congo” church), where they’ve been a bake sale staple for generations.
Some people head to our table before they start selecting plants because they want to be sure they get some Greek Christmas cookies before we sell out. Regulars know that plant sale day offers a rare opportunity to get these buttery delights “off-season.”
Others return to our table dragging little red wagons full of perennials behind them. These gardeners tend to look at our bake sale table with the same eyes they bring to plant selection. Some are cool and appraising:
“What do you have that’s gluten-free?”
“Do you have chocolate chip cookies that are chewy?”
Some go directly for the unusual, hard to obtain items.
“Oh good! You have Greek cookies! I need some!”
And some browse our table as extensively as they have browsed the many tables of sun-loving, shade-loving, and drought-tolerant plants with which they’ve filled their wagons or boxes. To these, I can never resist suggesting the cake squares I’ve brought—a thin, European-style tea cake made with wild Maine blueberries, locally grown on my family’s fourth-generation farm.
I grew up eating Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Cake as a “company dessert” throughout my mother’s life. Mom cut out the recipe from a newspaper, and she always pointed out to me the Good Housekeeping magazine articles that (once again) named Sen. Smith as one of the Top Ten Most Admired Women in America.
Margaret Chase Smith served 34 years in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate. She initially came to office after her husband, U.S. Rep. Clyde Smith, died of a heart attack in 1940. She was the 13th woman to succeed a husband or father in the House.
Smith won the seat herself in a general election just three months later—less than half a year after being widowed. She stared down three Republican primary contenders and a popular Democratic opponent, all male, to win, then gained re-election three times before a new opportunity presented itself.
A Maine senator announced his impending retirement, and Smith announced for the seat. She ran a Senate campaign that was short on glitter and long on gumption. She urged voters to ignore opponents’ promises and look at her record, a tradition she would continue in future campaigns. She won, and won again, and won again. In 1964, she took a brief break from her Congressional focus to join the short list of women who have run for U.S. president.
Men in the Washington press corps are reported to have openly laughed at the idea of Smith running for president. Few women served in any national political office during Smith’s early years in the House and Senate. Women had occasionally been presidential candidates for a century, usually on a suffrage or equal rights platform. Still, a woman seeking a major party’s nomination was a long way outside the box.
Smith announced her candidacy at the Women’s National Press Club in 1964. Her announcement was marked by dry wit and characteristically strong will.
“There are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House—that this is a man’s world and that it should be kept that way,” she said. But, she had concluded that she must run “to destroy any political bigotry against women, just as the late John F. Kennedy destroyed any political bigotry based on religion.”
Today, Smith’s 34-year Washington career is remembered less for her White House run than for a one-minute speech she made on the U.S. Senate floor in 1950—brief remarks that would have sparked a Twitter storm in the 21st century.
Smith’s Senate responsibilities included service on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. That gave her a front-row seat on the anti-communist crusade led by subcommittee Chair Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin.
McCarthy’s approach was branded a “witch hunt” by many. He painted as “suspected Communists” his legislative foes, government officials, and popular film stars and musicians, among many others. More than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of his slander and innuendo. Celebrities who ended up on industry “blacklists” included singer Lena Horne, filmmaker Orson Welles, aging silent film star Charlie Chaplin, and populist songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Smith expressed her concerns privately to McCarthy. Nothing changed. So, in 1950, she stood up on the Senate floor. In her 60-second “Declaration of Conscience,” Smith told her fellow party members that she could no longer countenance McCarthy’s tactics. She said: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to a political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”
McCarthy retaliated quickly, knocking Smith off the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and replacing her with Sen. Richard Nixon of California.
It is hard to estimate how strongly Smith’s intense response to McCarthy may have been shaped by life in a state so seemingly homogenous, yet so riven by prejudice. Born in the 19th century, Smith was already an adult during the era when the Ku Klux Klan grew to engage 1 in 10 Mainers. The Maine Klan “reformed” Portland city government to prevent the election of Jews and Catholics, split the state’s Republican Party, and held the first daylight parade of any Klan organization in the tiny rural town of Milo.
The Klan’s target in Maine was French-speaking Catholic immigrants from Canada—people like Smith’s maternal grandfather. Born Lambert Morin, Smith’s grandfather changed his name to John Murray in his effort to “live at peace with everyone” in his Maine community (Rom. 12:18).
Smith’s strong adherence to conscience, her diligent work across the aisle, and perhaps even her near-perfect roll call vote attendance landed her among the Top 10 Most Admired Women in Gallup’s annual poll 19 times between 1948 and 1998. Smith appears on the list more often than Mother Teresa and more often than any American First Lady except Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mamie Eisenhower. The only U.S. legislator to hit the list almost as often was U.S. Rep. Clare Booth Luce, a Republican from Connecticut who is also known as an ambassador, playwright, and an editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Smith accomplished a string of firsts during her political career. Besides being the first woman nominated by a major party for the U.S. presidency, she was the:
- First woman to serve in both the House and the Senate.
- First woman to serve by election in the U.S. Senate.
- First Senator to stand up against Joe McCarthy.
- Longest serving Republican woman in Congress (to date).
- Woman to serve longest in the Senate in the 20th century.
- First and, to date, only woman to chair the Senate Republican Conference.
She co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1945, introduced legislation that created the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve (the WAVES), and eventually racked up a Senate record of 2,941 consecutive roll-call votes. That record held until 1981.
And still, as a woman in politics, Smith shared recipes. Smith’s blueberry cake recipe is only the most popular today of those she shared with constituents and political friends. She contributed her recipe for Maine clam chowder to a fundraising cookbook published by the Gold Star Wives of America. Her blueberry muffin recipe was a campaign trail standard.
Margaret Chase Smith’s blueberry cake became a standard in my family. We grow the Maine wild blueberries it showcases. The cake has thin layers with just a skim of buttercream icing in between and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top. In my mother’s version, the un-dredged berries sink to the bottom of the layers; I toss them with a bit of flour, which helps keep some berries at the top—something that hardly matters in such delicate layers.
What I learned from this recipe is that nutmeg is the perfect spice for blueberries and that it is almost impossible to put too many blueberries in any baked good. What I learn from the life of Sen. Smith is that there can be hope even during very polarized times.
Sen. Smith’s denunciation of Sen. McCarthy called for the nation to rediscover its strength and unity, recalling her own service in the U.S. House during World War II, “when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.” Smith and others helped to spark a backlash against McCarthy’s anti-communism and the prior generation’s nativism that helped make possible the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our first Catholic president.
We find it hard to imagine today a country where we so feared the Pope’s guidance of his flock that we considered Catholics potentially disloyal to our own civil government and therefore improbable candidates for office. We had to stop and remember our own American selves for JFK’s election to be possible.
Perhaps we will similarly stop and reflect, in light of our current divisive atmosphere, on our core values as Americans. We have been a nation of diligence, community, and service. We have been a country that is formed from “the other” and has repeatedly chosen to be fearless of difference. We have been a country that sees those in need among us and finds ways to serve them, just as God urged Israel to provide from the edges of the field to those without fields of their own (Lev. 9:9–10) and to lend with generous spirit, at no interest, whatever the poor might need to move forward in their lives (Dt. 15:4–11).
Today’s divisions are not the same as those of the 1940s and 1950s. But, perhaps, Smith’s cake can be a continuing weapon in our women’s warfare against division and hatred. My mother’s photocopied version of the recipe contains an editor’s commentary, suggesting that Sen. Smith could “serve this cake to the Democratic side of the Senate and accomplish in a trice what Dale Carnegie’s book imparts: the winning of friends and influencing of people.”
At the very least, this cake is a great excuse to “go, eat your food with gladness … for it is now that God favors what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
As I stand at the bake-sale table, I point out that the blueberry cake squares are from Margaret Chase Smith’s recipe.
“Oh,” says one woman, “Let me get some of that for my husband. He always admired her.”
Sharing good food with those who agree and those who don’t is one of our womanly ways to build agreement. “In the one case it will strengthen friendship, and in the other case, it will weaken enmity,” suggested the “editress” of The Suffrage Cookbook, a recipe book published in 1915, when Margaret Chase was 20 years old, and women were not yet eligible to vote.
Who could you win with a cake that fights hate? Try Margaret Chase Smith’s blueberry cake recipe and find out.
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