Maggie Cousins: Urban Trailblazer

I wasn’t looking for Maggie this afternoon. But her name called out to me in the middle of a UTSA Libraries list of recorded interviews you can listen to online. I wanted to hear her voice, resurrected from the past.

At first, I was disappointed to find hers was only a transcript from an interview on KLRN. But, as I started reading, I realized it didn’t matter. I could hear her.

maggie-cousinsSusan Margaret Cousins (1905-1996) had one of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever heard. Maggie lived in New York City during much of her illustrious career including time as editor of Good Housekeeping and McCall’s and at Doubleday Publishing; yet years in the Big Apple failed to tame her Texas accent. In the March 24, 1974, edition of the San Antonio Express-News Mildred Whiteaker wrote, “Authoress Edna Ferber used to visit Maggie to get the flavor of the dialogue for Giant.”

Maggie’s pitch was incredibly low, and the words drawled out gruffly from somewhere deep in her chest. Most sentences ended with her wonderful chuckle rippling through her entire body.

Of course, most of the time I was listening to her it was happy hour. You never wanted to miss it when Maggie was holding court in the huge wooden corner booth where the “River Rats” gathered five days a week shortly after 5 p.m. as diligently as if punching a job-required time clock.

Maggie Cousins, 1986 Induction into Texas Women's Hall of Fame,
Maggie Cousins, 1986 Induction into Texas Women’s Hall of Fame,

Maggie was a regular as long as she and her cane could propel her slowly huffing and puffing down the River Walk to the Kangaroo Court from her double-apartment in the Clifford Building. As a professional woman, Maggie broke the glass ceiling, inspired others to follow and never stopped writing, but the undated interview on UTSA’s website deals with Maggie in her role as a true urban trailblazer in downtown San Antonio in the 1970s:

I’ve been unusually happy in the city because when I first came I used to just walk up and down the River Walk. Sat down at Kangaroo Court one day and had a drink. Bob (Buchanan), the owner, came out and talked to me and from then on it became my place. I met all the young people that work downtown and the people that have the dreams and hopes and ideas and I was able to be in and listen to all their plans and most of them have come through with a lot of them. The wonderful young people who are downtown.

The booth in the Kangaroo Court was a great incubator and percolator for ways to improve downtown. But Maggie was one of the few “rats” who actually lived right downtown.

Here are a few of the Maggie-isms about dwelling downtown from the interview transcript:

  • There isn’t any atmosphere in the suburbs. You know, people live in large houses, have great manicured gardens, and they never go outdoors. I never see them using their lawns for any purpose.
  • I intended to have a car when I first came , and I couldn’t find a place to park. Living alone, you need a place to park and you can’t leave it in front of the building. So, I waited until they built a garage and then I was too old to drive.
  • Since the big boom in building has come and many of the old buildings have gone; when the new ones are built the rents are too expensive for small-time businesses like typewriter repair. When I moved here that was very important to me. There were three repair shops within walking distance of a block.
  • Mr. Butt, who lives in King William, has not built a grocery store for us poor people. But I presume when all these big condo projects are inhabited there will have to be a grocery store. I’ll be 95 years old. I’ve faced that.
  • I’d rather put up with the inconvenience and enjoy the things I enjoy down here. This place is within walking distance of the public library, which is important to me.
  • I have women friends who haven’t been downtown in ten years, they say proudly. I say, you gotta be crazy.
  • …I thought if I show people that they can live downtown they’ll get interested in it, but Texas people are very hard to change. But sooner or later, this generation will be interested in it.
  • If I ever get bored, all I have to do is look out the window….
  • Your lives are always made up of the past, present and future and without the past you just don’t have very much to look back on. And I think that San Antonio, that’s one of its great charms, the fact that it has some extremely fine 18th century architecture and lots and lots of 19th century architecture which I think gives it a quality that no other city in Texas has.
  • Imprint of human life on a place makes it more interesting and more attractive.

And Maggie’s imprint was rich and lasting.

I can hear her even now.

Update on June 13, 2013: Maggie’s obituary from the New York Times

Update on June 14, 2013: For more Maggie, visit these pages from When I was Just Your Age by Robert Flynn and Susan Russell:

I didn’t have any children to play with, but I had Grandpa and Grandma and aunts and people who had time to talk to me. They told me stories. That’s one reason why I became a writer.

The genius of Dorcas Reilly: More than 100 million Americans will have her dish on the table this Thanksgiving.

This is my first re-post, but it is so seasonally appropriate.

It also came to mind because some relatives I love dearly asked if I could make “the” green bean casserole.

Wait. I don’t do that.

Fortunately, I have wriggled my way into other responsibilities, but I know I am clearly in the minority:

Stock Tips:  Buy Luby’s.  Buy Campbell’s. (from May 2010)

If Luby’s stockholders read the Taste section of the San Antonio Express-News, I thought, NYSE: LUB will tumble dramatically on Monday.

A reader wrote in to the San Antonio Express-News requesting an “old” Luby’s recipe for eggplant casserole.  To the credit of the “new” Luby’s, which is promoting “healthy sensations,” the manager of an area Luby’s said she could not find the recipe.

The Express’ Karen Haram dug up the recipe from a 1994 column.  The ingredients seem more vintage than that.  In addition to eggplant, the casserole includes diced onion, peppers and celery.  Fine so far.  But the add-ins and add-ons include a can of cream-style corn, a can of cream of mushroom soup, bacon bits, two cups of crumbled cornbread and a cup of, believe it or not, shredded American cheese.  Results:  Extremely well-disguised eggplant with the capability of single-handedly supplying more than half of your sodium intake for the day.

Having not purchased a can of mushroom soup for at least 25 years, I thought nobody was cooking this way any longer.  But I am dead wrong.  My cooking evidently is out of step with the majority of America.

Dorcas Reilly gets a lot of the credit (blame?).  According to Rod Taylor in a 2003 article for Promo Magazine:

Reilly was the midwife, as it were, who gave birth 48 years ago to the mother of all comfort foods: “Campbell Soup’s Green Bean Casserole.”

The now 77-year-old Reilly was in charge of the Campbell Soup Co. test kitchen in 1955 when the recipe was created.  “My initial inspiration for the Green Bean Casserole was really quite simple,” Reilly notes.  “I wanted to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup….”

Campbell estimates that 40% of its annual sales of Cream of Mushroom Soup end up in this recipe, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the company also estimates that 1.5 million cans of Campbell’s soup are used as an ingredient to prepare dinner every day….  Although consumers use the recipe year-round in their cooking, Thanksgiving represents the pinnacle of usage with an estimated 20% to 30% of all US households making the casserole for their holiday feast.

Run the numbers on that one and you’ll discover we’re talking 17.6 million homes on the low end.  Figure that one casserole feeds six, and you’re reaching an estimated 105.6 million Americans in one meal, well over a third of the total population, and that’s on the low side as an estimate….  Consider this:  their Cream of Mushroom soup ranks as one of the six fastest moving items in the entire dry grocery category.

And think about all the additional people who purchased other brands of mushroom soup?

Taylor claims:

Last year Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate her original copy of the recipe to the museum.  Her now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card takes its place alongside Enrico Fermi’s invention of the first controlled nuclear reactor and Thomas Alva Edison’s two greatest hits:  the lightbulb and the phonograph.

That seems like a big stretch for combining cans of soup and green beans, and I could not verify the story.  The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, is closed right now as it prepares for the opening of a major exhibition, “Inventive Eats: Incredible Food Innovations,” which does, however, sound like a logical time to spotlight Reilly’s contribution to American cuisine.

But wait, is this the same country in which Julia & Julia grossed $95 million at the box office?  Paraphrasing Julia Child’s husband Paul in the film, I thought her book changed the world.

Campbell Soup Company’s stock continues to rise.

Hey, five recipes on the label of every can, all much easier than any of those through which Julie Powell plowed and blogged her way.

Forget my initial market prediction.  Buy Luby’s stock.  Buy Campbell Soup Company’s stock.