Pitt Cookbook reflects shift in local food culture

By Grace Kelly / Staff Writer

Cookbooks from the past have a special quality. They show not only obvious differences in culture in general, but more specifically the differences in food culture. While scanning the shelves of my favorite part of the library, the cookbook section (yes, I am an unabashed cookbook reader), a slim spine titled “Pitt Golden Panther Cookbook” by Marilyn Ross caught my attention. 

The “Pitt Golden Panther Cookbook” reflects a time at Pitt when Dan Marino was a name still floating around college sports, when Wesley Posvar was a chancellor rather than just the name of a building and when high-waisted jeans first came into vogue. It also reflects a different food era, a time when mushroom soup was a staple ingredient for many recipes and when preservatives were seen as a good thing. The 1981 cookbook combines this retrospective view of Pitt as a University, as well as Pitt as an institution, that had its own unique food culture. 

Marilyn Ross, the director of Intramurals and Athletics here at Pitt, was responsible for the creation of this cookbook 32 years ago, copies of which were sold to raise funds for athletic scholarships. The Pitt Golden Panther Club (now the Panther Club) is a group at Pitt that is “committed to providing Pitt student-athletes with the opportunity to excel in three areas (success in the classroom, on the fields of competition and in the community). … The Panther Club serves as the official fundraising unit for Pitt Athletics.” 

The fact that a cookbook was commissioned to raise funds speaks of a different concept of fundraising, as well as food culture, in that era. Today we might raise money by holding a banquet for which one buys tickets to attend or an auction of a meal prepared by a celebrity chef. The shift doesn’t stop at just fundraising, though. Nearly every aspect of the food we eat has become more worldly and complex. Today’s food-appreciation culture — promoted by celebrity chefs, magazines and other media — has taught us that even humble ramen can become ramen that is loaded with miso, hard-boiled egg, kimchi and a dash of Sriracha. Think of it as “globalized food.” 

In 1980s Pittsburgh, food was your grandmother’s recipe for sweet rolls, green-bean casserole and Pennsylvania pecan pie. The dishes from the Pitt Golden Panther Cookbook come from a time when food was derived from humble roots, from taking what one had and creating something that was filling and tasted good. Recipes such as “Panther Potatoes,” “Post-Pitt Cream of Mushroom Soup” and “Go-Pitt Sugar Cookies” reflect this, with their University-homage names and array of accessible, affordable ingredients (i.e. Heinz ketchup and Hellmann’s mayo, which seem to be present in every recipe). But although these recipes may be seen as humble, economy-driven dishes and a seemingly complete departure from our present-day, globalized, foodie-culture food, there are some similarities. 

The new cream of mushroom soup of today’s era is a college-student staple, ramen noodles. The means may be different, but they represent the same means. While we may no longer have maraschino cherry-studded ham loaf or an array of Jell-O salads at family gatherings, these recipes transport us back to a time at Pitt that, despite being quite different, maintains a thread of familiarity — of University pride and of affordable, filling and tasty food. Ross notes, “As with all things, we have moved on … but we (still) have the same spirit.” 

Menu for a retro-inspired, affordable dinner (note: some recipes were modified slightly for a modern audience): 

Hot Mulled Cider:

1 stick cinnamon 

6 whole cloves (or substitute 1 teaspoon ground cloves)

1 teaspoon allspice

2 quarts apple cider 

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 cup dark rum or brandy (obviously omit if you are under 21)

1 lemon sliced into thin rounds

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cider and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Strain into a punch bowl or thermos. Heat rum and pour on top. Add lemon slices. Serves 12. 

Mrs. Wesley Posvar’s Chicken Divan:

6-8 chicken breasts (if thick, cut in half so you have two thinner pieces)

1 large bunch of broccoli

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream 

3 tablespoons sherry 

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 

salt, pepper

Wrap chicken breasts individually in foil and bake in oven until thoroughly done. Wash and cut up broccoli into bite-sized pieces. Cook in boiling water for about 10 minutes or until tender but still bright in color. 

To create the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan. Cook over low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add whipping cream, sherry, salt and pepper. 

Place cooked broccoli in a glass casserole dish and pour half of the sauce over it. Arrange the chicken breasts over broccoli. Cover the chicken with remaining sauce and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese. Set dish under broiler until sauce bubbles and is slightly browned. This dish can be prepared in advance and put in the freezer for several days. It takes only about 30-45 minutes in a hot oven to get it to bubble on the sides and be brown on top. 

And as recommended by Marilyn Ross, Mrs. Dick Thornburgh’s (wife of governor of Pennsylvania at the time) Pecan Pie: 

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup dark corn syrup

3 large eggs

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Prepare an unbaked 9-inch pie shell (Pillsbury pre-made pie dough or something similar). Simply place the pie-dough sheet in a pie pan and cut excess dough off edges before refrigerating. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, salt and corn syrup. Simmer until the sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, beat three eggs until foamy.

Add butter, vanilla and pecans to the syrup mixture and stir. Remove from heat. Carefully add beaten eggs and quickly stir to prevent eggs from scrambling. 

Place mixture into the prepared pie shell. Bake for 40 minutes. Let cool and refrigerate for at least one hour. 

Make a day or two in advance, if desired.

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