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Dorothy Dean Cooking Show: A brief history of the woman – or women – behind the Dorthy Dean Homemakers Service

UPDATED: Wed., May 2, 2018, 10:37 a.m.

Dorothy Dean's home and staff: Harriet Allen (left) and Reo Lee. Entering from test kitchen is Rayleen Merman, director, in this undated photo from The Spokesman-Review archives.
Dorothy Dean's home and staff: Harriet Allen (left) and Reo Lee. Entering from test kitchen is Rayleen Merman, director, in this undated photo from The Spokesman-Review archives.

She was popular and trusted, someone Inland Northwest brides and housewives could turn to when they needed help.

With holiday dinners, drinks and decorations. With menus and games for children’s birthday parties. With any kind of domestic dilemma in the era before smartphones, tablet computers and the Internet’s instantly searchable recipes.

Dorothy Dean was reliable and reachable, practical and economical, an expert who seemed more like a surrogate mom or grandmother than a series of newspaper editors and recipe testers. The women who headed The Spokesman-Review’s Dorothy Dean Homemakers Service used the alliterative pseudonym for nearly 50 years.

Many readers believed she was real, and decades later, they still miss her. They call the newsroom, looking for replacement recipes. And they continue to treasure her leaflets, bound in worn, navy or forest green three-ring binders that are often taped together to keep the Christmas goose, sherried Cornish game hens or Patio Lickin’ Chicken from falling out.

So it’s in the spirit of Dorothy Dean that The Spokesman-Review is happy to present the Dorothy Dean Cooking Show, a day-long event on Saturday, May 12 at the Spokane Convention Center. In addition to cooking demonstrations from national and regional chefs, there will be vendor booths and “in conversation” sessions with Chad White, a former “Top Chef” contestant and owner of Zona Blanca in Spokane, John State, executive chef of Disneyland Resort in California, best-selling writers Laurel Randolph and Kathleen Flinn, and Spokane writer, poet and cookbook author Kate Lebo.

The first Dorothy Dean weekly cooking matinee took place Oct. 17, 1935. More than 80 years later, the beloved culinary character continues to be celebrated, her recipes and influence passed down from generation to generation.

Dorothy Dean fed families.

She was born in an era when homemaking was serious business, so serious in fact that the front page story about her debut promised that Estelle Calkins, the first head of the Dorothy Dean service would “teach Spokane housewives how to ‘housewife’ in the latest scientific manner.”

Husbands, the story said, “should smile.”

And life “should be pleasanter because of Miss Calkins – if wives will listen to Miss Calkins and do all the things she tells them to do.”

In addition to hosting those cooking demonstrations and publishing recipe leaflets, the newspaper’s home economics department produced an “Ask Dorothy Dean” column and operated a free telephone hotline for homemakers to get on-the-spot advice for their latest cooking – and other domestic – disasters.

How to break into one’s home after locking herself out. What to do after soaking a wild rabbit overnight in salted water – with its fur still on. What to do if your gravy turns out lumpy. How to properly set a table or truss a turkey.

Margaret “Peg” Heimbigner, the last woman to serve as the head of the Dorothy Dean service, told The Spokesman-Review in 2005 that her staff would answer some 500 to 600 calls in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. In fact, in the early 1970s, the department answered about 20,000 calls a year.

Dorothy Dean could be counted on during an emergency. But she was mostly known for offering recipes that were budget-friendly and easy to prepare.

Annual pages celebrated ingredients such as apples as well as casserole cookery, yeast breads, party cakes, cookies, pies, pickles, preserves, soups for all seasons, bridal shower appetizers, ethnic foods, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and – for Lent – fish favorites.

Instructions weren’t elaborate, usually running just a few, simple lines. That no-nonsense, three-hole-punch approach to home cooking endured through the war years and baby boom and past the Summer of Love and the 1970s until the Dorothy Dean Homemakers Service was shuttered in 1983.

Throughout the following three decades, those prized navy or green binders full of Oleo-stained pages – often a bride’s first cookbook – have been passed down to daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. Favorites have stood the test of time. Calls continue to come in.

So, in early 2017, The Spokesman-Review began re-running vintage Dorothy Dean recipes for a new generation of home cooks as well as publishing modern recipes inspired by Dorothy Dean’s simple and easy-to-follow standpoint.

That new era of Dorothy Dean is celebrated with the first Dorothy Dean Home Cooking Show in the modern era at the Spokane Convention Center and the publication of a special, limited-edition Dorothy Dean cookbook that those early editors likely would be proud to see.


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