I am a Philly girl born and bred, but a while back, I tried to cook my way into being a Mainer. My idea was if I mastered chowder and baked beans and such, I could slip into “from here” status. (Note to the rest of you cooks from away: A snowball’s chance in hell.) Ahead of my All-Maine Meal, I asked Mainers of long standing – we’re talking centuries in several cases – what I should cook. One recipe came up again and again: Marjorie Standish’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake.

Along with many others, my neighbor Lorelle Courtois texted to suggest it. She wrote, “My favorite is Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake my mother used to make very simple I can look for that recipe if you want the secret is sprinkle sugar on top yum!! :)”

On the occasion of my All-Maine Meal, blueberry pie edged the cake off the table. But with Maine’s blueberry season upon us, it is time to give the cake its due.

Scratch that. Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake needs no help from me. In “Cooking Down East,” Standish’s first of four cookbooks, published in 1968 and named for the column she penned every week for years for the Maine Sunday Telegram, she wrote, “…it is undoubtedly the most popular recipe ever used in my column.”

It still holds up. I recently baked four versions of the cake for my colleagues, the original, as well as three of my own variations, and asked them to rank the cakes. To make it a blind test, I labeled each cake with a number. Standish’s original recipe, labeled No. 1, drew this response from a co-worker: “I liked 1, ONE, the best because it was perfect.”

Marjorie Standish’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake, made using Standish’s original recipe.

MEET MARJORIE STANDISH

If you are from Maine and of a certain vintage, you can skip this section. To you, Standish needs no introduction. From 1948 until she retired in 1973, she wrote Cooking Down East, a chatty, often nostalgic and ever upbeat recipe column that turned the whole state into a single shared kitchen. Her column addressed newlyweds and summer visitors, hostesses and harried mothers, dandelion foragers and blueberry pickers, camp cooks, picnickers and “thoroughly modern Maine housewives.” As Standish herself described it in her cookbook, the column “has been a melting pot for Maine recipes.”

When the Sisters of the Christ Church in Gardiner, Standish’s hometown for 30 years, held a Sisters Tea to raise money for orphan girls, Standish offered her many readers the Sisters’ recipe for mint cooler. In a July 1961 column, she printed Mrs. Walter M. Reed’s recipe for Vanilla Ice Cream (“everyone agreed that Dolly Reed’s vanilla ice cream is just right”), along with Mrs. John Sealey’s recipe for Lemon Sherbet (“young and old love Mother Page’s lemon sherbet” ). That same year, in a column on “lady golfers,” Standish published Mrs. William K. Ottmann’s recipe for Children’s Favorite (ground chuck, Worcestershire sauce, cooked peas, margarine, flour and water). Easy to make after a round of golf, Mrs. Ottmann told Standish. And an afternoon in 1952 found Standish dropping in on her Aunt Georgia, who “showed me the easy cucumber pickles she had just made….Of course, I asked her right away for the recipe…Nothing to heat up and simple to do. I think you will enjoy them.”

Cooking Down East ran in the Sunday magazine, in the early years on a page titled Homemaking and Fashions for the Maine Woman. By 1961, it was often adjacent to a column called Man’s Recipe. A photograph ran with each columnist. Standish was carefully coiffed and proper; you can’t see from the photograph if she is wearing pearls, but if you were the betting kind, you’d make that bet. The “Man” wore a tie and a chef’s toque.

In 1969, Standish was named “Press Woman of the Year” by the Maine Press Radio and Television Women. In 1973, the year she retired, the University of Maine gave her a Distinguished Service Award, and the Maine Department of Agriculture honored her for her column, which “reflects the epitome of good Maine food presented the Maine Way.”

Standish’s first book was a smashing success. An archive of clippings from the Portland Press Herald is stuffed with news of reprints; the book was printed by the paper’s books division. In 1972, for instance, news of the sixth printing begins, “When people feel as strongly as they’ve shown they do about how good a cookbook Marjorie Standish’s ‘Cooking Down East’ is, there’s just no end to the demand for it.”

The book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. While far fewer cookbooks were printed at that time than are today, so the comparison isn’t quite apples to apples, “that said, 100,000 copies of a book today would be a very strong seller,” Francis Lam, an editor-at-large for Clarkson Potter and the host of the radio program “The Splendid Table,” wrote in an email.

A colleague shared a funny story about its popularity. When retired copy editor Ken Jones started at the Press Herald in 1974, the paper’s then-public relations man got the idea to put a copy of “Cooking Down East” inside small, specially made lobster traps, along with a jar of Maine blueberry jam and a can of Snow’s Clam Chowder. “He’d literally put them in back of his car and drive them to all these tourist places, and they’d sell it. And they sold hundreds and hundreds. The book is what drove it.”

Dawn Thistle, special collections librarian at the Gardiner Public Library, knew the book from childhood; her grandparents had a copy. “Her cookbooks were in every kitchen,” Thistle said. “I thought it was a national cookbook.” Two years ago, on what would have been Standish’s 108th birthday, Thistle mounted an exhibit about Standish at the library and organized a potluck at the town’s farmers market, asking community members to bring favorite dishes made from Standish recipes. “It was a blast,” Thistle remembers. Among the 20-plus dishes that lined the table? Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake.

“It was delicious, I can tell you that,” Thistle said. “And I think it struck a chord with a number of people. It was fondly remembered by many.”

Standish died in 1998 at age 90. She is buried, alongside her husband, in Gardiner. “State loses eminent practitioner of cooking art,” the headline for her obituary for the Kennebec Journal read. “She was a wonderful person,” her friend Elsie Viles told the paper, “and with that cookbook, she will always be alive.”

Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake “is undoubtedly the most popular recipe ever used in my column,” Standish, who wrote for years for the Maine Sunday Telegram, once said.

THE FAN CLUB

The recipe made its first appearance in Standish’s column on Aug. 10, 1958, capping a long, homespun tale about her uncle, a favorite willow tree from girlhood, Gypsies and blueberry picking. “Along in the middle of the afternoon, Mother would come out around the barn and call, ‘Want to walk up to the back field and pick enough blueberries for a cake?’ ” Standish’s reminiscence concluded. “It was all we needed, a walk up into the back field was a joy at any time. Our blueberry patch was not too large, but provided us with enough berries to be used in small quantities. Mother had a blueberry cake she made just before suppertime and served warm, it was certainly a delicacy. It is called Melt-in-Your Mouth Blueberry Cake.”

Underneath her mother’s cake recipe in that column, Standish also offered a reader recipe, Under The Sea Salad, made from lime Jell-O, canned pears, cream cheese and vinegar.

The following year, July 19, 1959, there it is again. This time Standish introduces it to her readers this way:

“Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake was used in Cooking Down East last year. It met with more than usual approval. Last week, when someone told me she had made it four days in five, I decided it was up for a repeat.”

By the time Standish wrote her first cookbook – the cake is the first recipe in Chapter 9, “Just Desserts,” she introduces it this way: “A story goes with the first choice of cake recipes. Taken from one of our Maine church cookbooks, it is undoubtedly the most popular recipe ever used in my column.”

Some time ago, I mentioned the blueberry cake recipe to Maine culinary historian and Bangor Daily News food columnist Sandy Oliver. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am,” Oliver said – she knew the cake. “Marjorie Standish is an interesting lady.” When readers send Oliver recipes at the Bangor Daily News “that they claim are their own, very often they are from Marjorie Standish. They become the family recipe. Her recipes really, really had legs.”

They still had legs in November 2010, when blogger Jessica McMahon, then sous chef at the Blue Elephant Cafe in Saco, announced her intention to cook her way through “Cooking Down East,” blogging about her effort and serving one Standish dish each day as a special at the cafe.

“I grew up in midcoast Maine cooking and eating Marge’s recipes,” she wrote in her introduction to the project. “Just the words ‘American Chop Suey’ or ‘Banana Bread’ remind me of the little yellow book on the cookbook shelf. Practically everyone I know has a copy of the cookbook, as it is a standby of back to basics recipes that many people are sure to enjoy.”

McMahon’s third recipe test, for Pressed Chicken, was a bust. It involved cut-up chicken pressed in a loaf shape, cemented with jellied chicken broth and topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs, a poor man’s aspic of sorts. “It was a dish straight from the 1960s, or perhaps from before,” McMahon wrote, “and not very appealing. A learning experience nonetheless…”

Marjorie Standish’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake recipe.

She had better luck later that month. On Dec. 13, McMahon reported, briefly, on her tenth Standish recipe test, this one of Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake. “Maine and blueberries – the perfect combination!” she wrote, adding “it is a delicious recipe that the customers here at The Blue Elephant did very much enjoy…!”

I’d never heard of McMahon until I ran into her on the internet while researching this story, and she no longer works at the Blue Elephant Cafe. But the Standish cake has a famous and powerful fan whose name you certainly know. Earlier this year, a profile of this person ran in Maine Women Magazine. It ended like this:

“When she has a chance to relax, she choses quiet. ‘I love our camp on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield. I love going kayaking on the glassy clear water, and I recently finally decided to leave my cellphone behind when I kayak. That’s made a big difference. And I love to cook.’

“What’s on the menu? ‘Ah, I have an excellent recipe for slow-cooked spareribs on the grill from John McCain. Then there’d be roasted tomatoes, fresh corn on the cob, a salad, and for dessert, ‘Melt-in-Your-Mouth Maine Blueberry Cake.’ ”

The casual reference to (Sen.) John McCain is a big clue. That’s right, Sen. Susan Collins is a fan.

A Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake variation swapping butter for shortening.

AN ICON

Did any early 1980s on-trend American host throw a dinner party without serving Chicken Marbella from “The Silver Palate Cookbook”? Some 25 years later, in 2007, the New York Times called the recipe, with prunes, capers and green olives, “as classic as Grand Central.” A New York Times recipe of about the same vintage achieved similar status – Marian Burros’ plum torte, first published in 1983, and “one of the most popular recipes in the history of the Times,” according to a 2016 Times story. (The recipe actually dates back to 1960.)

So what makes a recipe an icon? I called Don Lindgren, proprietor of Rabelais Fine Cookbooks in Biddeford, to ask.

“For a specific recipe to become broadly recognized, it has to be attached to more things than just a cookbook,” he began. “Marjorie Standish was really the first broadly recognized Maine cookbook author who was writing from a perspective of Maine, and she had another platform of her newspaper work. And that book was well received and loved by people in Maine and shown by people in Maine to outsiders. Mainers would say, ‘You want to know about Maine cooking? This is the book.’ It was the right book at the right time with a person who had a larger public persona and media behind it pushing it.

“The second point, which probably should be the first point, is that it has to be a recipe that truly works and makes people happy. Nobody is going to be sharing a recipe and encouraging others to be trying a recipe unless it is something they believe in. It has to have been a success in their kitchen, both in the cooking and in the reception part.”

“I’m intrigued by that Melt-in-Your-Mouth name,” he added. “It’s a good, evocative name. Much more so than just blueberry cake. And it’s got this thing that ties it to Maine, the blueberries obviously being the key thing there.”

With check marks in every one of these boxes, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake was positioned for success from the start.

A wedge of Standish’s original cake along with a slice of a recipe that’s a variation, with an almond topping.

NEW AND IMPROVED?

My attempt last year to cook myself into a real Mainer was futile. And freeing. Since I’ll never truly be a Mainer, I figure I can mess with classic Maine recipes whenever I like. Celery in my fish chowder? Absolutely. Canned chipotle in adobo to spice up my baked beans? Bring it on. Lemon zest to give zest to Standish’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake? You betcha. Notably, James Beard Award-winning Primo chef Melissa Kelly didn’t touch the recipe when she collaborated on a Down East reissue of “Cooking Down East” in 2010. Was I being reckless?

Regardless, I plowed ahead, baking four Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry cakes. The first, I made strictly according to the original recipe, not changing so much as a smidge or a dash (except for using frozen blueberries as fresh Maine berries were not yet on the market).

For the second, I replaced the shortening that Standish called for with butter.

Variation No. 3 also used butter, and I added a flaked almond topping and almond extract.

The fourth, butter again, lemon zest and juice, plus cornmeal in place of some of the flour.

In all of my variations, I increased the amount of salt, and I modified Standish’s technique.

One afternoon last week, I laid out all the cakes before my colleagues – some from here, some from away – and invited them to eat and evaluate. A few hours later, I tallied the results.

Standish’s original recipe tied with the cornmeal variation for first place.

“I’m going with number 4 (cornmeal) in my No. 1 position because it is the one I wanted to keep eating and the lemon made it more interesting,” one taster judged, “but I do bow to the perfect classicism of No.1.”

Perfect. Classic. Marjorie Standish and her Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake live on.

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PGrodinsky

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