Do It Yourself!

Evelyn Monroe Johnson

There is really something to be said for the instruction, “Do it yourself.” It’s the best way to learn, and it’s the best way to excel at whatever you do. This is the title of the cook book Evelyn Monroe Johnson wrote for her family–her children and grandchildren. Evelyn was employed many years at the Registration Office of The University of Tennessee; but, like many of the rest of us, learned that if you will cook, “they” will come. Eventually, I’m sure she got so many requests for recipes and how to do this or that it was just easier to sit down and write them a book. Her daughter-in-law actually asked her to write down all her recipes in her own handwriting. On Evelyn’s 80th birthday, Evelyn’s family, extended family, three UT bosses, and 20 student workers who worked in her office many years ago all came to Townsend to celebrate the unveiling of "Do it Yourself". Some years ago, Evelyn moved from Union County to Murfreesboro to be near her son, Tony, and his family. Her son Danny has passed away.

While the book was written for Evelyn’s family, in many ways it is a history of Union County cooking. Evelyn grew up in Union County, the daughter of Walter and Vada Lynch Monroe–sister to L. D. She’s the granddaughter of Judge William Preston and Callie Edmondson Monroe as well as Charles H. and Della Nash Lynch. I know her recipes are drawn from both families’ traditions. Judge Monroe attended law school at Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tennessee. Evelyn still has a shoe box of letters from him written in 1911. Judge Monroe’s vote helped get the Women’s Suffrage Act passed in Tennessee. He was a circuit court judge and a state senator; however, he died much too early of Lou Gehrig’s Disease at age 53. Both Judge Monroe and Lou Gehrig were patients at the same time at the same hospital in Philadelphia, Pa. The two families became acquainted and Mrs. Monroe and Mrs. Gehrig corresponded for a while. During the Judge’s illness--Evelyn was about 8 or 9--and would sit with him and call her Mamaw Callie if he needed anything.

Maynardville had a different setting at the time Evelyn was growing up. She says Grandpa Press and Mamaw Callie, who lived a few feet from the courthouse, had a garden, fruit trees, berries, a cow and chickens and a barn across old Hwy. 33. She says her grandma cooked the freshest and best, but she never saw her have a cookbook. Evelyn recalls that her Mamaw Monroe would pin a list to her dress and send her to Walt Baker’s store. She would give her an egg to swap for candy, and he would charge the rest. One day Evelyn went to the old kitchen cabinet drawer and helped herself to an egg and went to the store. She says she looked around and picked up an angel food cake. Walt asked her, “What do you want with your egg?” She said, “Dis this.” She says he never quit telling that story.

Spoody’s Pecan Pie has an interesting lineage. Louvenia “Aunt Vene” Sharp Ousley gave the recipe to her daughter, Drama Ousley Beeler, who gave the recipe to Jessie Lynch Booker, who gave the recipe to Spoody (Mona Lynch George), who gave the recipe to Evelyn.

After some years as a Union County elementary school teacher, Evelyn’s mother, Vada, opened a restaurant across from the courthouse (her cousin, Clifford Stiner’s, buildings), called the Star Café. In no time, the restaurant was always packed. People drove from miles around to enjoy Vada’s cooking. The restaurant operated from 1952 to 1977. Some of Vada’s staff members at the Star Café were Alice McCaleb, Lorene Sexton Simmons, Johnnie Campbell and Marie Wilmouth.

"Do it Yourself" includes many valuable details and suggested brands that make all the difference in a successful dish. One detail is–it takes 13 minutes to boil a “hard boiled egg.” Evelyn also says you must use fresh squeezed lemon juice, not concentrated canned juice.

Some favorite brands listed in the book are:
1. Campbell’s Cream of Chicken/Mushroom soup (in the same can).
2. Pet and Carnation evaporated milk
3. Blue Bonnet margarine
4. White Lily flour, self-rising, unbleached
5 JFG coffee, 1 teaspoon per cup. Evelyn says you can’t read the paper through it, but neither will it walk to the table!
6. Hellman’s mayonnaise
There’s lots more advice sprinkled throughout the book.

I now have gotten up the nerve to make hot tamales using Evelyn’s recipe. I not only made them. I have used her recipe three times now. The following is an Evelyn Johnson original:

Kraut Dumplings
Bake two racks of Baby Back Ribs. To prepare, wash, salt, pepper and sprinkle with lots of onion powder. Stand on edge and pour two inches of water in bottom of pan. Cover and cook until tender. This takes two or more hours. Pick meat off bone and set aside. Strain and save broth.
One box Lasagna. Break each lasagna noodle into 3 pieces, add water and cook until tender. Don’t drain. Set aside and the lasagna will absorb the water.
Then add broth from ribs; Add 2 cans of Kraut (drained), then simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
Add the pork ribs last and don’t stir after you add the meat. You can layer the meat and noodles in a crock pot if you choose.
Serve with greens, cornbread, onion, white beans and a smile!

Oh! Weary mothers, rolling dough,
Don’t you wish that food would grow?
How happy all the world would be,
With a Cookie Bush and a Donut Tree.

Do it yourself can be purchased at the Union County Museum, or by calling Evelyn at 615-631-5605.

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