'Three Rivers Cookbook' turns 40

Still selling strong (nearly 1,000 copies a year), the venture has raised more than $3 million for charity


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Jacqueline “Pat” Cavalier can still remember her reaction, more than 40 years ago, when she first heard the proposal to make a Pittsburgh-based cookbook for a charity fundraiser project.

“I need another cookbook like I need a hole in the head,” thought the then-president of the Child Health Association of Sewickley, laughing about it today.

What she — and the nearly half a million people who have since bought it — would find out was that this was not just another cookbook.

The “Three Rivers Cookbook,” which turned 40 this year, still is selling copies — nearly 1,000 per year. It is a testament to the meticulous work — fundraising, recipe testing and marketing — of a group of women in the Sewickley area. And it also stands as a textbook of Pittsburgh’s culinary history, from desserts jiggling with Jell-O and liqueur to Thanksgiving corn pudding to canned soup casseroles.

“There’s a generation of people who grew up on this,” said Elisa DiTommaso, current president of the Child Health Association, who regularly handles calls from people ordering new cookbooks because their old ones are falling apart from so much use. “These were their family recipes.”

The idea for the book was hatched by Norma Sproull, a Sewickley housewife who headed the special-projects committee for the Child Health Association, a charity founded in 1923 to provide fresh milk to malnourished children. Sproull, who died last year, traveled frequently with her husband, a vice president with PPG Industries.

On one of those trips she saw hundreds of copies of an Atlanta cookbook. She began to collect community cookbooks from cities around the country, convincing the ladies of the Child Health Association when she made her pitch: “All there is as a souvenir of Pittsburgh is a pickle pin from Heinz.”

Mary Anne Riley had taken a few cooking classes in New York City, before she moved to Sewickley, and volunteered to head up the tasting committee. All recipes submitted — 1,400 in all — were typed, leaving off the name of the submitter for anonymity. Recipes were judged on a scale from 1 to 5. “Five was the best and 1 would go down the garbage disposal,” said Ms. Riley, sitting earlier this month in the office of the Child Health Association.

For nine months, the testing and typing and organizing of the recipes consumed her life. She spent about four hours every night, after putting her 2-year-old and 5-year-old daughters to bed before working on the book. And for the first six months, she didn’t repeat a dinner.

“By the end,” she said, “my 5-year-old daughter could tell the difference between a 4 and a 5.” The committee also solicited recipes from groups that they thought would represent Pittsburgh. They traveled to a Greek festival in Ambridge looking for ethnic recipes and persuaded the chef at the Duquesne Club to share his recipes for the first time.

The women were convinced that they had a winning set of recipes. Now they just needed a proper-quality book. Child Health Association member Susan Gaca sketched dozens of iconic Pittsburgh scenes — and convinced other members of the committee that they wouldn’t look their best in just black and white. With budget for the project rising (“I thought, ‘I’m going to be the president when Child Health goes down the drain financially,’ ” said Mrs. Cavalier), the women went knocking on doors.

They were able to secure $3,500 from the H.J. Heinz Co. to pay for the red overlay for the drawings. They received money from a wealthy Sewickley couple and from the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. They used the basement of Child Health board member Susan Elste as their warehouse.

And Sproull worked her marketing magic. She enlisted Marie Torre, a popular journalist with KDKA, to promote the book. She persuaded the book manager at Horne’s department store Downtown to prominently display it.

And the books? “They just went like gangbusters,” said Ms. Elste.

The first printing of 12,500 copies sold out in three weeks. And then the next printing. And the next. At Horne’s alone, the book went on to sell more copies than any other in store history, including the Bible.

On her frequent trips traveling with her husband, Sproull always would bring a box of cookbooks along. On one visit to New York City, she visited the headquarters of Ladies Home Journal and was momentarily left alone in a room full of cookbooks from each state that had come in for a community-cookbook contest.

She fished through the Pennsylvania box and put the “Three Rivers Cookbook” at the top of the stack. It went on to win the contest, leading to a story in the magazine. It also was featured in Better Homes & Gardens and later was named to the Southern Living Cookbook Hall of Fame.

Ms. Riley remembers the photo shoot for the Better Homes & Gardens story, in which the women were told to make every dish in triplicate (and double the Jell-O) because the food would be melted by the bright lights.

Orders for the book came in not just from across the country, but also from around the world. Mrs. Cavalier recalled telling a cabdriver on a trip to Ireland that she was from Pittsburgh. “I think I have a cookbook from there,” he replied.

Because the recipes in the book are listed by name, the women sometimes would get phone calls from across the country with questions on their recipes. Ms. Riley (listed in the book as Mrs. William H. Riley, as was the convention at the time) recalled getting a call during one of the Steelers’ Super Bowl games from a gentleman in Boston wondering whether the white fruitcake would take two pans or three.

The women believe, and sales indicate, that the recipes still hold up — even in an industry now dominated by online recipes and celebrity chefs. People might not be making the aspics and the shrimp “most attractive in a fish mold,” but recipes such as a five-ingredient beef stew and a rich chocolate parcel torte don’t go out of style.

“The only criticism we ever heard about the first book was that we used a little too much Campbell’s soup, but those days, everybody did,” said Ms. Riley. The Child Health Association went on to publish three more volumes of Three Rivers cookbooks.

With money rolling in — to date, the cookbook has raised more than $3 million — the Child Health Association in the 1960s had to reassess its role as a charity organization.

“All of a sudden, we were awash in money,” said Ms. Elste. “Allocating money is not an easy thing.”

The group decided to expand its grant-making into Beaver County, to help mill towns reeling from the collapse of the steel industry. It increased its grants in both size and number, giving more money to more places. “Someone said, ‘We need to start thinking like rich kids,’” said Ms. Elste, recalling a grant-making discussion at the time. In recent years, grants have gone to causes such as facilities at the Ronald McDonald House in Lawrenceville, a preschool program at the Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania and drug- and violence-prevention programs at the Cooperative East End Ministry.

And the success of the cookbook changed the women themselves. In 1963, when the book was published, the women of the Child Health Association were largely housewives and stay-at-home moms.

The book’s introduction thanks “the husbands who have been so patient.” Descriptions of dishes in the book conjure a time when ladies spent considerable time socializing and entertaining — the Swiss chicken-ham bake is “perfect for a ladies lunch” and cheese in a bread bowl “a conversation piece that men like.”

But prompted both by a sense of accomplishment about what they had accomplished with the book’s success, and by changing times, many of the women involved went on to go back to school and re-enter the workforce. One earned her doctorate in psychology. Another became a dentist.

“All of these people who were a part of this, an awful lot of us developed careers. I watched it happen,” said Ms. Elste. “Because of our age, our place, we were ready to do more than just cook.”

To buy the "Three Rivers Cookbook": Call 412-741-3221 or write to cookbooks@childhealthassociation.org. Volumes I, II and III are available for $14.95 each. Renaissance Volume IV in a spiral, hard cover binding is available for $19.95. See also childhealthassociation.org.

Spinach Souffle

PG tested

I couldn’t find American cheese that could be grated (my Giant Eagle only sold presliced versions) so I used cheddar instead.

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon finely chopped onion

3 tablespoons flour

1⁄2 cup milk

1⁄2 cup cream

3 beaten egg yolks

Salt and pepper

Dash nutmeg

1⁄2 cup grated American cheese

1 cup chopped spinach (1 box frozen) drained

3 egg whites, beaten to peaks

Melt butter. Add onion and cook 1 minute. Blend in flour. Stir milk and cream in slowly and continue to stir until smooth and it comes to a slow boil. Add a little cream sauce to beaten yolks. Mix well. Add seasoning, cheese and spinach. Fold in beaten egg whites. Set casserole in pan of water and bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes.

— “Three Rivers Cookbook” (Child Health Association of Sewickley, 1973)

Parcel Torte

PG tested

This fantastic recipe almost didn’t make the “Three Rivers Cookbook” at all. It was a trademark recipe of one of Mary Anne Riley’s friends, who originally said she wouldn’t share it with anyone who lived closer than 4 states away. The recipe later was submitted by someone else who had attended the same East End cooking class. Ms. Riley told her friend that she had it and gave her one last chance to veto its inclusion. “Go ahead,” said the friend. “You’ll sell a million copies.”

The original recipe calls for a small amount of uncooked egg, so use pasteurized eggs if that’s a concern. It was not an issue in 1973 but it’s worth noting now that this dessert is gluten free.

7 ounces Baker’s semisweet chocolate

1 stick butter

7 ounces sugar

7 egg yolks

7 egg whites

Chocolate shavings

Sweet whipped cream

Melt the chocolate and butter in a saucepan. Add sugar and egg yolks, and beat for 3 minutes at high speed. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff (add a little sugar to help hold peaks). Fold egg whites slowly into the chocolate batter with a spatula. Pour only 3⁄4 of the batter into an ungreased 8-inch springform pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes. Let torte cool and fall. Then run knife around edge and remove frame. Pour the remaining uncooked batter over the top and chill. Garnish with the chocolate shavings and serve with whipped cream.

— “Three Rivers Cookbook” (Child Health Association of Sewickley, 1973)

Fish Paprikash Christmas Casserole

PG tested

This recipe, from the ethnic chapter of the book, is listed as a traditional Hungarian first course for Christmas Eve dinner. It would be a fair amount of effort and expense for an everyday dinner.

8 medium baking potatoes

1 tablespoon salt

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 large onions, finely chopped

4 tablespoons cooking oil

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

1 cup water

1 cup clam juice

1 cup sour cream

6 pieces carp or haddock, 1⁄2 pound each

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

6 strips bacon, thick slices

2 tomatoes, peeled and sliced

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced crosswise

1⁄2 cup butter to baste

For the potato layer: Place to raw potatoes in a large pot; cover with cold water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and peel them. Cut into 1⁄8-inch thick slices. Arrange sliced potatoes in layers over the bottom of a buttered baking dish. Season with salt and pepper.

For the sauce: In a saucepan, saute onions in oil until golden brown. This takes approximately 5 minutes. Add paprika and mix well. Add water and clam juice and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. If you have a blender, put sauce through the blender.

Mix with sour cream and pour over potatoes in baking dish. Sprinkle the fish with salt. Make a small incision in each slice and place a strip of bacon in it. Arrange fish side by side in a row on top of potatoes and sauce. Decorate with green pepper and tomato slices. Baste with butter. Cover with foil. Bake in preheated 350 degree over for 30 minutes, and finish under the broiler for 3 minutes, 6 inches away from the heat. Serve with French bread and a full-bodied white wine.

— “Three Rivers Cookbook” (Child Health Association of Sewickley, 1973)


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.

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