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Cather’s Kitchen

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, and 150 years later several months of sesquicentennial celebrations took place, including the unveiling of her statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. In works such as O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, the prolific author wove tapestries of common life on the prairie plains, including food, ethnicity, and place. Through this trilogy, the reader is exposed to the progression of plains flavors from the peasant pursuit of cooking with corncobs and manure in the 1880s to the wood stoves in the early 20th century.

Cather left Nebraska for Pittsburgh in June 1896 at the age of 22 for a position as managing editor at Home Monthly, continuing to write about what she knew and loved. Eventually she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City where she would pen her famous novels and live until her death in 1947.

Many characters in Cather’s novels were gritty Scandinavian, Czech, and Polish homesteaders who fled tyranny for the promise of a better life in America. Food was the center of the home and an expression of welcoming love—the crux of modern hospitality. Meals were not merely sustenance, but the “terroir”—the love imbued by the cook, the setting, and the company. Finding magic in the ordinary, the cooks in Cather’s novels laughed, prayed, and lamented at their bread boards, floury fingers akimbo as they kneaded the dough. 

Families who settled in Nebraska were forced to adapt to unfamiliar ingredients and preparations to feed their kin. Life wasn’t simpler. Cooking required lots of skill, but Cather understood more than most because she lived in the times about which she wrote, that when you grow your own food you understand and respect it. 

Cather scholars, cooks, and historians alike have recognized the author’s penchant for setting a scene using the kitchen as a literary device. In this year of celebration, Brian O’Malley, associate dean of Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts (MCC ICA), felt compelled to be a part of the conversation. Inspired by Cather’s Kitchens, by Roger and Linda Welsch, an engaging compilation of recipes, stories, and references, he developed a community education pairing dinner to celebrate the fictional prairie kitchens of Cather’s early writings.

Held on September 13 and 14, 2024, as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the life and accomplishments of this renowned Nebraska author, the dinner will explore Cather’s poetic passages alongside traditional Bohemian dishes and preserved garden bounty paired with local spirits and wine. “The experience is designed to be an homage to the works, not a faithful representation of the exact foods,” explained O’Malley.

Guests will be welcomed to the lobby of the MCC ICA with a wee shot of eau de vie accompanied by the enticing aroma of freshly popped buttered popcorn, reminiscent of Saturday evenings in front of the fire. Moving into the dining room, the first course will feature jitrnice, a traditional Bohemian meat (a cross between head cheese and sausage), paired with local Edelweiss wine and brief discussion of country scenes featured in My Ántonia.

Hearty pork belly and scratch beans will be served with local ale and then lightened a bit by a third course of fresh tomato and onion salad paired with switchel, a lemon-ginger haymaker’s punch traditionally served during harvest. The main course highlights rabbit and dumplings served with homemade sparkling lemonade, and finally a dessert worthy of the kitchens of Cather will be presented with coffee as it would be in the late 19th century. 

Other celebrations this year include the 15th annual Art and Literary Festival hosted by the Castle & Cathedral District in partnership with MCC and the National Willa Cather Center. A dramatic reading of excerpts from Cather’s acclaimed novel One of Ours will be presented at Joslyn Castle on Friday, November 15 and Sunday, November 17, 2024, and at the Red Cloud Opera House on Saturday, November 16, 2024. 

For more information about the Willa Cather sesquicentennial, visit WillaCather.org/150. To register for the dinner, visit mccneb.edu/ce and for more info about Joslyn events, visit JoslynCastle.com. 

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