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Cooking at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater [INTERVIEW]

Ellie Henderson. Photo courtesy the author.

Elsie Henderson, who cooked at the famed Frank Lloyd Wright house Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh, turned one hundred on September 7.

Ms. Henderson worked for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store magnates, and later their son Edgar jr. (he preferred that jr. not be capitalized) for more than 15 years. Asked what contributed to her longevity, she said simply: “Good food.”

Ms. Henderson’s kitchen was a hub of activity at the unique Fallingwater house, hailed as the most significant private residential structure in the United States

Author Suzanne Martinson tells the story of Ms. Henderson and shares her recipes in The Fallingwater Cookbook: Elsie Henderson’s Recipes and Memories (with the late Jane Citron and chef Robert Sendall; University of Pittsburgh Press).

In addition to an exploration of dining and food, the lively book offers a slice of twentieth century social history through the experience of Ms. Henderson at Fallingwater including her observations of the eccentric Kaufmann family, her sense of historic events and race relations, and her meetings with Wright, Isaac Stern, and Senators Ted Kennedy and John Heinz among others. According to Ms. Martinson, the book began when Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater, gave her Ms. Henderson’s little brown notebook of handwritten recipes.

Ms. Martinson is a former food editor and writer for the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is a two-time winner of both the James Beard and Bert Greene Awards for food journalism. She lives in Kelso, Washington, with her husband Bob.

Ms. Martinson talked by telephone from her home about Fallingwater and its famous cook and her own work as a writer a few weeks before Ms. Henderson’s centennial birthday celebration.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: How did you come upon the story of Fallingwater cook Elsie Henderson?

Suzanne Martinson: I met Elsie Henderson in 1991 when I interviewed her for a Sunday magazine cover story of The Pittsburgh Press magazine. I was food editor of that paper and, after it closed, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We became friends and, one day, Elsie said she'd like to write a cookbook but didn't know how to go about it. Not knowing how much work it would be, I said "I'll write it for you." It took me ten years. If I hadn't retired, it still wouldn't be done.

When you met Ms. Henderson, weren’t her days as a cook at Fallingwater long past?

Long past, but she has an excellent memory. She can bring up names and dates and seldom makes an error.

Your book details Elsie’s life and her account of the people who lived at Fallingwater.

That's what made it so special: her view from the kitchen. You don't really know people until you live with them. Certainly the employees who lived under the same roof with the Kaufmanns probably knew them best. The old Upstairs, Downstairs thing.

You wrote that Ms. Henderson was a product of the African American oral tradition and didn’t keep precise records of her recipes. Didn't her recipes date back to her mom and grandmother?

Her grandmother was part Native American. She lived in the South so Elsie did not have much contact. Her own mother passed on her love of cooking. Elsie once wanted to be a practical nurse. Her mother said, "You hate blood. Why would you want to be a nurse?" Elsie decided that being a cook would be a better fit.

And Elsie grew up in Pittsburgh?

Yes. She was the youngest of thirteen children. She had eleven brothers and a sister. Her dad died when she was about two years old. Her mother was an ambitious woman who could get things done -- the go-to woman of Mount Washington, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Elsie grew up.

What was Pittsburgh like in terms of race relations?

There certainly was discrimination, but Elsie had a strong mother with a lot of spunk. One day her mother was going to buy Elsie a new dress at a department store. The saleswoman kept bringing out dresses, until her mother asked why she didn't show them [a particular] dress. The woman said, "I didn't think you could afford it." Elsie's mother got angry and said, "I can afford anything in this place. I've got eleven boys who all work. Bring out the dress."

One black person told me that African Americans weren’t allowed to try on shoes. They drew an outline of their feet on cardboard and they would be fitted from these templates. You know that you can't get shoes to fit that way.

Was Mount Washington integrated?

Yes. There were, for instance, quite a few Italians. One of the great loves of Elsie’s was an Italian. On our travels, Elsie and I have met people who knew of her family at that time. They lived on a hillside overlooking downtown. When she was a little girl, Elsie cleaned the bathroom floor of an older lady who, she said, was “crippled up.”

Elsie seldom describes a person's race. Sometimes she jokes about “being the only black face in the crowd,” but she doesn't distinguish people by race.

She's been around rich people all her life, and she said in a way the Kaufmanns were prejudiced. They preferred to have black people working for them because they thought they were more honest. I said, "Elsie, how dare you stereotype that way." She was then ninety-six and by her account “that's the new seventy,” so she can say whatever she wants.

I was impressed that she was a great reader as a child.

A tremendous reader. In fact the neighbor women worried about her. "That girl's always got a book in her hand. Doesn't she play with other kids?” Elsie said most of them didn't have a book in the house. She has always been self-educated. She took up studying French at the University of Pittsburgh when she was ninety-four.

Speaking of the French and cuisine, did she talk about Julia Child?

She never mentioned Julia Child, but on a recent trip to Fallingwater, at the observation deck, Elsie spoke French to a visitor who couldn't speak English. She continues to amaze me and inspire me.

And she quit high school to work?

She was in a hurry to earn some money. She knew Edgar Kaufmann Sr. by sight for a long time. At seventeen, she worked in “bad accounts” in the Kaufmann’s warehouse. In the olden days, when customers made their department store purchases, the store charged them and then delivered them to their house at no charge. Elsie watched the invoices come through and, if the people hadn't paid their bills, she wouldn't send out their things.

Did Ms. Henderson talk about life in Pittsburgh during the Depression and World War II?

She always had work because she was a talented cook. She thought the Kaufmanns were her dream come true because, though she just worked weekends, she got paid for the whole week. If she didn't see them during the winter when they were not at Fallingwater, mostly a summer retreat, she still got paid.

Times were hard for many. The Swift meat man said the Kaufmanns must eat a lot of premium meat, but everyone who worked there laughed. The meat was for Mrs. Kaufmann's six longhaired dachshunds. In fact, one of Liliane’s friends asked her how she could feed her dogs premium beef when everybody else was on rationing, and Mrs. Kaufmann said in her husky voice, "Well, I didn't start the war."

On weekends, Elsie would fry up a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs and Mrs. Kaufmann would watch her dogs eat their breakfast. The dogs had special custom-made mattresses for their kennels.

The house was finished in 1939?

Yes, at the height of the Depression. People around there were so grateful to get any kind of work. The house is in Fayette County, which is in the shadow of Pittsburgh, but very rural with self-sufficient people. One of Wright's axioms was that you should build with materials on site, so the locals hauled all the stone by horse to construct Fallingwater. The lumber also came from there. It was quite a feat.

So Edgar and Liliane, co-owners of Kaufmann’s Department Store (now Macy’s), had Fallingwater built as a vacation home?

It's about an hour from Pittsburgh. Shortly before he died, Mr. Kaufmann told Elsie he had ordered a helicopter so they could get there faster. Elsie asked, “Are you going to fire all the chauffeurs?" He said no, and she said she'd ride with them.

Edgar Sr. was a flamboyant person. He loved woman. He'd drag Elsie out of the kitchen and introduce her to all of Fallingwater’s guests. It seemed to Elsie that the guests looked at him “funny” and wondered, what kind of person was this who would introduce the hired help to the guests? He even danced with her around Fallingwater. He was a character and loved people, and that was why he was a great merchant.

Mrs. Kaufmann wasn't just a lady of leisure. She did the buying for the elegant Vendome shop on the top floor of Kaufmann's. She had quite the taste in art and furniture and clothes, and was a beautiful woman. A Picasso hangs over her bedside table.

And they used the house mostly on weekends?

On Thursday morning, Elsie would meet with their cook at their penthouse in Pittsburgh and ask what they ate during the week so she didn't duplicate it on the weekend. She kept meticulous records of all the guests, when they came, and what she fed them, so when they returned, they weren't fed the same recipe. Even if you fell in love with one of her dishes the first time around, you probably weren't going to see it again.

Did she save those records?

When she moved from her house, the people who helped her clean out the basement threw them away. She is still distraught. Even then, she had a sense of history and her part in it and the Kaufmann's part in it. For example, Elsie cooked for Isaac Stern and Frank Lloyd Wright.

What happened when she met Wright?

He was quite a ladies' man, too. He visited Fallingwater after a flood when Elsie was working for Edgar Kaufmann, jr., after his parents had died. Elsie met Wright at the airport, and “Junior” had six men waiting for Wright on the bridge to the house.

The architect didn't want to go on the freeway, but to be driven through Pittsburgh’s eastside where the universities are. When Wright saw the 41-story Cathedral of Learning classroom building at the University of Pittsburgh, he called it "the tallest 'Keep Off the Grass' sign I've ever seen." It wasn't modern architecture. Elsie told the architect they had to build up because there wasn't enough land. He didn't care. It was just an ugly building. People in Pittsburgh love the building.

There were many things Wright didn't approve of, including the chairs Mrs. Kaufmann chose for the dining room. She bought three-legged Italian chairs, and Wright wanted his barrel chairs in there. Edgar jr. thought his mother was right because the floor was uneven stone and these sat better. Wright wanted to control everything: the furniture, where statues ought to go,

Elsie cooked lunch for Wright. She remembered that he had crab salad, some corn sticks and sherbet. He sat alone at the dining room table.

Did Wright make a pass at Elsie?

When he first met her, he asked what she did for the Kaufmanns, and she said, “I plan and prepare their meals.” Said Wright: "If you cook as well you look, I going to have a good meal."

Didn’t Kaufmann Sr. have a reputation as a womanizer?

Elsie called him the "Greatest Womanizer in the Western World."

The Kaufmanns were first cousins, and had to leave the state to marry because first cousins aren't allowed to marry in Pennsylvania. First cousins marrying was common in Europe, and they solidified ownership of Kaufmann’s Department Store, and lived their life together, and they had affection for each other.

That's not to say Mr. Kaufmann didn't have his dalliances. One time Elsie went to Fallingwater with Mr. Kaufmanns when Mrs. Kaufmann arrived unexpectedly. Elsie served lunch, and then she went to her room in the adjoining guest/staff house. She found Mr. Kaufmann's girlfriend sitting on her bed.

It's interesting that Frank Lloyd Wright decided to build above a waterfall. I don’t think a land use agency would approve that today.

It's had some structural problems. It's flooded twice, once when Elsie was there with Junior, as she called him. The creek rose and water came rushing through the house up to the top of the chairs.

Edgar said, "Elsie, I've got the ham."

Elsie said, "At lunch, you said it was too salty."

"That was then, this is now," he said. They took the ham to the guesthouse and waited for the flood to recede. It took a long time to clean up. A horrible mess. The gardener's wife, Mrs. Green, lost her preserves, but they saved all the liquor in the basement.

Wasn't Fallingwater voted the “Building of the Century” by the Architectural Institute?

I think it was the “House of the Century.”

And wasn’t Wright older -- about sixty-eight -- when he designed Fallingwater?

The wonderful house rejuvenated his career. And Edgar jr. took it upon himself to be his promoter.

Do you get a sense of how the Kaufmanns treated their staff?

The Kaufmanns trusted their employees. They didn't even lock their liquor cabinet. Mr. Kaufmann said, "I hire talented people and then I let them do their job."

Nor did Mrs. Kaufmann interfere in the kitchen. Sometimes she'd request something and Elsie would make it. She was slender and looked like a fashion model. When there were no guests, she ate just a few julienned vegetables and little pieces of fruit.

Mr. Kaufmann, on the other hand, would snack on clove cake or slices of ham loaf. He couldn't sleep and he'd wander around at all hours of the night.

And you visited Fallingwater even before meeting Elsie in 1991?

It's a magical place: that water and the sheer beauty of it. And it's so isolated. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has done a wonderful job. It’s as though Elsie and the Kaufmanns just walked out the back door.

I was always interested in the kitchen. As a food editor, I saw many fancy kitchens, but this was a modest little kitchen but at the time it was the best you could have. There was an Aga range and all the latest equipment. I wondered who cooked there, what they ate, what they were like. There were, for instance, different sets of dishes for each meal.

Elsie really loved the Kaufmanns, who were generous people. She gave them a "12" on a one-to-ten scale.

Didn’t they use a coal stove when she started there?

Simon, the man who fed the dogs, would come in and feed the coal stove. Elsie couldn't do fine baking with that. She really liked her Mint Chocolate Angel Food Cake. Mr. Kaufmann bought her an electric range.

The Kaufmanns didn't eat prepared food. No commercial salad dressings. All the breads were homemade. Everything was from scratch. That’s trendy today.

You wrote that the recipes in your book fit with today's farm-to-table movement.

The Kaufmanns had a greenhouse with flowers and a vegetable garden. Mr. Kaufmann was a kind of gentleman farmer who hired people to do the heavy work.

At various times, they had beef cattle, a flock of lambs, and a herd of Jersey cattle. The Jersey cows had a tiled milking parlor. Even the cows lived right. At the end of the weekend, Mr. Kaufmann gave each of the people who worked for him a gallon of milk. He said he had to charge, so he charged just ten cents.

The Kaufmanns had all this fresh food available to them. If they hankered for lobster, they had it flown in. And the Kaufmanns were very athletic. They walked or swam off the calories. They hiked the woods. It's rugged there.

They were hardy people. Didn’t Elsie spot them swimming nude on her first day at work?

Her very first day on the job, she saw the boss, his wife and all their guests swimming “buck-naked.” Not many cookbook writers get to use those words.

Some of the recipes seem exotic. Are most of the ingredients readily available?

Definitely Elsie's recipes are very accessible because she worked there in the '50s and '60s.

Chef Bob Sendall, whose All in Good Taste Productions provided the food for President and Mrs. Obama at the G-20 conference, is a famous chef in Pittsburgh. Here's how small the cooking world is. Elsie cooked for H.J. “Jack” Heinz and his son, the future Senator Heinz when he was a little boy. Bob cooked for Sen. Heinz, and he has cooked for Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is married to Secretary of State John Kerry. The meals he creates are very farm to table. All locally raised fruits and vegetable. It's a wonderful way to eat. It's great to go to the farmers market and look the farmer in the eye and know she gathered those eggs or he plucked that basil you're buying.

You mentioned that Elsie's recipes are from the 1950s and 1960s. Do you see your book as a historic document?

They ate heavier at that time with more butter and sauces. It was nothing to throw in half a cup of butter, whereas now we might use two tablespoons. We still have great fruits and vegetables. We don't have to put cheese on everything to make it edible.

Some of us are eating more healthfully, but sadly I'm afraid it may be a middle-class trend. People without a lot of resources end up eating a lot of bad food. Good fresh food grown locally often costs more than processed food

Did you and Elsie cook together to reconstruct her recipes?

Elsie and I had a lot of meetings and lunches. She has also cooked me many great meals. She wrote down a list of ingredients, and we would go over the directions. There are certain standard ways you make things, like cakes and breads. Elsie considers herself a baker, although she makes casseroles and many other things.

At Fallingwater the butler cooked many of the meats on the grill. Elsie mostly made the side dishes, the breakfasts, the lunches.

For the book, Bob Sendall and Jane Citron contributed additional meat recipes and many other cutting-edge dishes. Fallingwater Cafe chef Mary Anne Moreau also provided some delicious recipes.

Many days I would be in the middle of testing something and I'd phone Elsie to ask questions such as "Do you think we really need two cups of flour?" And she'd say, “You might even need a little more.”

Generally, her recipes were right on. You could follow them and they turned out. I know they work because I've cooked them and eaten them. I guess that's how a lot of people acquire traditional ethnic recipes.

As a food editor, I was always trying to get ethnic recipes out of Pittsburgh cooks. It’s a very rich city ethnically and a lot don't have written recipes. They're in the cook’s head so you talk with them. I spent a day with one African American woman trying to get her recipe for sweet potato pie, and I never did get it in a recipe form. It was more of a dialog with her. "Yeah. I might use three sweet potatoes. If I had four, I'd use four. Or you could use six."

Elsie's recipe for sweet potato pie in the book is more specific. I myself am a recipe cook. The first time I make something, I follow the recipe exactly, then later I might add more or less of something.

One of my favorite stories about being a food editor is, the first day on the job, I walked in off the street and still had on my coat. The editor said a reader wanted to talk with me. She had a problem with a recipe. She was on the phone and said, "I want to make banana bread, but I don't have any bananas." I said, "Well, baking is chemistry, and bananas have a lot of liquid in them. If you leave those out, I don't think you would be very happy with this banana bread. And besides, about the only flavor banana bread has is banana." And she said, "Oh. OK. I'll jump on my bike and buy some bananas."

What would you like readers to take from your book?

I think it shows a family. The Kaufmanns were Jewish, but they always celebrated with their employees at Christmas. They said this is a time for family, and they'd have a party with the help at Fallingwater. Elsie thought the world of them, and they thought the world of her. And Edgar jr. tried to take care of her if she needed money. They were good people.

And for them to give their house to the people to enjoy was a wonderful thing to do. There were no strings attached. The Kaufmanns chose the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy because they thought the organization would do a good job preserving it.

In the beginning of showing the house [1963], Edgar Jr. had a strong hand in how it would be presented. He wanted people to see how they lived. He didn't want ropes or areas tied off. Turn a corner, and there's a Picasso. It's amazing, as though they just walked out the back door. And they really did just walk out the back door. Magical.

Robin Lindley (robinlindley@gmail.com) is a Seattle writer and attorney, and features editor for the History News Network. His interviews with scholars, writers and artists have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, The Inlander, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer, and other publications.