At first, for Karen Tolstrup, Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf, the fabled Maine food writer and home economist, was a source of irritation. Karen was sorting through Brownie’s memorabilia and collectibles as a work-study job at the University of Maine’s Page Farm and Home Museum.
“There was everything from old-fashioned kitchen utensils to a peanut with her name on it,” Tolstrup said. She could not fathom what the fuss was over Brownie; her colleagues at the university only said, “You just don’t understand.”
Trying to understand is what led Tolstrup to write a biography, “If Maine Had a Queen: The Life of Brownie Schrumpf,” recently published by the Maine Folklife Center.
Tolstrup even considered Brownie as a thesis topic, but even at 4-foot-11, Brownie was just too big a subject.
“For a small woman, she was monumental,” says Tolstrup, “She had unbelievable energy; she was unstoppable.”
Born in 1903, in Readville, Maine, Mildred Brown Schrumpf grew up before rural electrification but took to modernization with zest. She loved everything the 20th century yielded from package mixes to cars. “She took advantage of every car ride she could get,” said Tolstrup, “She was no prim country gal. She was boy-crazy, but I don’t think she ever did any thing really wild.”
Brownie was the first in her family to get a college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1925. Her first job was with Bangor Gas Co., testing home ranges. She worked next for the University of Maine as an assistant 4-H Club leader, work that took her to many parts of the state as she did outreach, bringing home demonstrators up to date on efficiency in food preservation, kitchen design and farm life.
Brownie’s career helped her to gain a national reputation. She was a judge for the Pillsbury Bake-Off, which brought her to the attention of national food industries, which sometimes solicited her endorsements. She often headed a team of folks who took Maine foods to the Eastern States Exposition.
Her now-fabled column “Learn New Cooking Slants with Brownie Every Thursday” first appeared in the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 31, 1951.
“Brownie was already well known around the state,” said Tolstrup, and the paper’s publisher was glad to have someone whose writing supported the advertising. She drew material from her network of friends and readers, solicited recipes, and observed the seasons and holidays and political and worldwide events. And though, according to Tolstrup, Brownie wrote in 1955, “Maine’s reputation for good cooking was not built on mixes,” she nonetheless endorsed some food products by name in the column. “Recipes in Memories From Brownie’s Kitchen,” a collection published in 1989, sometimes call for canned or packaged ingredients as many modern recipes do, recognizing the benefit of convenience that a grown-up Maine farm girl might well appreciate.
After about 2,200 weeks and recipes, Brownie’s last column was printed on April 4, 1994, when Brownie was 91 years old. She died at age 98 in Orono. After 43 years of conversing with her community through her column, Brownie had many friends across the state.
Tolstrup writes: “It was as if she was everyone’s neighbor.”
“If Maine Had a Queen: The Life of Brownie Schrumpf,” by Karen Dodge Tolstrup, Northeast Folklore Vol. XLI, Maine Folklife Center, Orono, Maine, 2008.