Taste of Tontitown

Nova Jean Fiori Watson flouring a rolled-out sheet of pasta, May 2018.

Nova Jean Fiori Watson flouring a rolled-out sheet of pasta, May 2018.

Ravioli was on my mind during a phone conversation with Nova Jean Fiori Watson. That’s not why I called her, but as we finished our business I had to ask, “Did your mother make ravioli?” I was curious because I have a circle of friends who love to cook and our next project together was ravioli.

Nova Jean has a life-long love of the Italian food she grew up with. Her paternal grandparents were Maria “Mary” Cortiana and Pietro “Pete” Fiori. Born in Italy, they came to Northwest Arkansas as young children in 1898 with their families and other Italian settlers, under the leadership of Father Pietro Bandini. Together these immigrants founded the farming community of Tontitown, west of Springdale.

Maria "Mary" Cortiana Fiori and Pietro "Pete" Fiori, 1912.

Maria “Mary” Cortiana Fiori and Pietro “Pete” Fiori, 1912. Elsie Mae Fiori Pianalto Collection (S-2003-2-736)

When she was a child, Nova Jean lived with Nona Mary and Nono Pete during the school year. In an article she wrote for the Tontitown Storia (Spring 2007), Nova Jean said that she “looked forward to the day Nona baked bread, because we would have fried bread and [home-canned] peaches for lunch.  It was sooo good.”  When Nona’s grandsons had free time, she had them kill the sparrows roosting in her brooder houses with their BB guns. “She called them ‘Chee Chee Birds.’ She would skin them, clean them and cut off just the beaks, leaving the heads. She prepared hers in the oven with oil, sage, and garlic. They were delicious. How sad that none of us bothered to learn the recipe.” In a recent email, Nova Jean recalled another specialty of Nona’s—homemade soup, which she “always started with salt pork grease from a crock in the cellar, which was replenished each time the family butchered a hog.”

Fern Haney Fiori adjusting the cake she's cutting slices from at the wedding reception for Luellen Penzo and James "Jim" Weiss, Venesian Inn, Tontitown, March 10, 1955.

Fern Haney Fiori adjusting the cake she’s cutting slices from at the wedding reception for Luellen Penzo and James “Jim” Weiss, Venesian Inn, Tontitown, March 10, 1955. Luellen Penzo Weiss Collection (S-2011-100-1)

Years later, after Nova Jean and her husband Danny Ray Watson retired and moved back to Tontitown, Nova Jean’s mother Fern came to live with them. Fern Haney Fiori grew up in an Irish family in nearby Elm Springs where, according to Nova Jean, “the teenagers and young adults mixed with the same from Tontitown.  They would mostly dance at someone’s home or any place large enough to accommodate the crowd, any place within walking distance for both communities.” In 1934 Fern married Pete & Mary’s son, Bill Fiori. Over the years Fern learned to cook a few Italian dishes from the ladies in the community.  Fern and Nova Jean had many conversations about food. In 1992 she asked her mother about the chicken filling she made for ravioli.  In a shaky hand Fern wrote, “Boil chickens pick off bone…”

I think Nova Jean and I are kindred spirits in the kitchen. Not just the joy of cooking, but exploring and cherishing the memories and histories behind the recipes.  One of the other Italian foods she’s researched is a sweet bread made at Easter, locally known as fugase. In the early 1990s she collected recipes from several Tontitown ladies including her paternal aunt, Elsie Mae Fiori Pianalto. Maybe Nova Jean and I can get together to make bread someday. Until then, I’ll enjoy making chicken ravioli. Here’s the recipe, so you can taste a bit of history, too.  Buon appetito!

Fern Haney Fiori's recipe for chicken ravioli, with Nova Jean Fiori Watson's notations, 1992.

Fern Haney Fiori’s recipe for chicken ravioli, with Nova Jean Fiori Watson’s notations, 1992. Courtesy Nova Jean Fiori Watson.

Fern Haney Fiori’s Chicken Ravioli
This is Nova Jean’s version of her mother’s recipe, scaled down from the three chickens it originally called for. Serve the cooked ravioli with a bit of red sauce (marinara) or en brodo (in broth).  Makes about 56 ravioli or four meal-sized servings.

Filling (makes 4 cups of filling)

4 cups cooked, boneless chicken meat, broken into pieces

4 tablespoons (one-half stick) of salted butter

1 celery rib, chopped into small chunks (about 1/2 cup)

1 small onion, chopped into small chunks (about 1/2 cup)

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley

2 saltine-type crackers

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnishing

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Salt & pepper

1 large egg

1-2 tablespoons chicken broth or water

Pasta Dough (makes 1 3/4 pound of dough)

3 large eggs

2 1/2 cups flour

To make the filling, melt two tablespoons butter in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Lightly brown half of the chicken and remove.  Repeat with the remaining chicken and butter. (If the chicken is browned too deeply, it will make the filling gritty.)  Once the meat is cool, grind it in a meat grinder, alternating with the celery, onion, garlic, and parsley.  Add the crackers last, to clear out the grinder.  (If using a food processor, pulse the meat and vegetables separately until chopped fine; do not puree.)

Add the cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to the ground mixture and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasonings, as needed. Add the egg and one tablespoon or two of broth or water to make a loose, but not wet, mix.

To make the pasta dough, place the eggs into a large bowl and whisk with a fork. Add the flour and mix until the dough comes together into a shaggy ball. Squeeze some of the dough in your hand to see if it holds together. If so, knead the dough on the counter for a few minutes until smooth. If not, for a crumbly dough, add a little chicken broth or water. For a sticky dough, add a bit of flour. The proportion of egg to flour is 1:2 (one part egg by weight, two parts flour by weight).

Roll out the pasta dough into sheets and form the ravioli, using a tablespoon of chicken filling per raviolo (the singular form of ravioli). Cook the ravioli in simmering chicken broth for 3-7 minutes, until the pasta is al dente. Serve the ravioli with broth or with a red sauce.  Garnish with parmesan cheese.

Nova Jean Fiori Watson's Atlas pasta maker, bought in 1960, and the well-worn dough bowl that belonged to her paternal grandmother Maria "Mary" Cortiana Fiori.

Nova Jean Fiori Watson’s Atlas pasta maker, bought in 1960, and the well-worn dough bowl that belonged to her paternal grandmother Maria “Mary” Cortiana Fiori.

NOTE:  There are plenty of recipes and videos on the Internet for making chicken broth and red sauce (marinara), rolling out pasta dough, and forming ravioli.

Marie Demeroukas is the Shiloh Museum’s photo archivist/research librarian.


 

Priscilla, Queen of the Vacuum

Priscilla the Fastidious Pig, probably at a Quality Feed Store in Springdale, Rogers, or Huntsville, Arkansas, circa 1950.

Priscilla the Fastidious Pig, probably at a Quality Feed Store in Springdale, Rogers, or Huntsville, circa 1950. LeAnn Ritter Underwood Collection (S-2012-31-74)

It’s always fun to look through photo donations because you never know what you’ll find—and learn. In looking through a batch of images donated by LeAnn Ritter Underwood I came across a photo which made me laugh out loud. A pig nosing a vacuum cleaner!

Quality Feed Store, Springdale, Rogers, or Huntsville, Arkansas, 1950s.

Quality Feed Store, Springdale, Rogers, or Huntsville, 1950s. Hubert L. Musteen, photographer. LeAnn Ritter Underwood Collection (S-2012-31-61)

The collection belonged to Mrs. Underwood’s father, Roy C. Ritter (1908-2001), who was born in the Wheeler community of Washington County. Ritter began raising turkeys and broilers in Springdale in the 1930s, just as the poultry industry was getting started in Northwest Arkansas. The broilers raised at his Arkansas Quality Farm were served at his A. Q. Chicken House restaurant, founded in 1947. He also opened Quality Feed stores and hatcheries in Springdale, Rogers, and Harrison. Ritter was a leader in the poultry industry, both statewide and nationally, serving as president of such organizations as the Arkansas Poultry Federation, the National Turkey Federation, and the National Broiler Council. Ritter was also a community leader, serving as Springdale mayor in the 1970s.

So why the pig photo? It took a few Google searches before I came across a reference in C. James Goodwin’s 1999 book, A History of Modern Psychology. In it he wrote about the work of Keller and Marian Breland, who, as graduate students during World War II, worked with noted psychologist B.F. Skinner to train pigeons to guide missiles.  After graduate school the Brelands opened Applied Behavior Enterprises in Minnesota, training animals for entertainment and commercial purposes. Their first contract was with General Mills, teaching hens to tap dance as a way to advertise the company’s Larro Farm Feed.

Animal trainers Keller and Marian Breland, from the booklet Animal Wonderland: The Story of the Keller Breland Educated Animals, 1962.

Animal trainers Keller and Marian Breland, from the booklet Animal Wonderland: The Story of the Keller Breland Educated Animals, 1962. Ernie Deane Collection (“Hot Springs IQ Zoo”), Manuscript #167, S-2012-136-63)

Their success led to “Priscilla the Fastidious Pig.” According to an article about the Breland’s training methods, not only could Priscilla push a vacuum, she could turn on the radio, put clothes in a hamper, eat breakfast at a table, answer quiz questions, and select her favorite food—Larro, of course—from that of competitors. From 1948 to 1950 Priscilla performed her act at feed-stores, county fairs, and on television. Except it wasn’t the same Priscilla. Every few months, as Priscilla grew in size, she was replaced by a new trained pig, one that was smaller and easier to ship.

Comparison of the stage and fencing in the Ritter photo with similar photos on the Internet help ID this pig as Priscilla, along with the feed box with its Larro decal. A notation on the back of the photo reads, “Frame and send to Quality Springdale,” suggesting that the photo might have been taken by a Larro representative at one of Ritter’s Quality Feed stores.

There’s another Arkansas connection to this story, as I discovered by looking in newspaperman Ernie Deane’s extensive research files, donated to the Shiloh Museum by his daughter Fran Deane Alexander. In the early 1950s the Brelands moved their company to Hot Springs and opened the I. Q. Zoo in 1955. Visitors could watch such animal acts as piano-playing cats, drumming ducks, high-wire hens, and basketball-dunking raccoons. The critters were trained through “operant conditioning,” a type of animal psychology which encouraged specific, desirable behaviors with food rewards.

So as a result of one funny photo I learned about Priscilla, the Brelands, and I. Q. Zoo. Who knew?

Marie Demeroukas is the Shiloh Museum’s photo archivist/research librarian.


 

Chasing Wild Geese

My curiosity has been piqued lately. Want to chase a few wild geese with me?

J. C. Hawkins’ 1925 panoramic photos recently brought in by Rev. John E. King on behalf of the Administrative Commission for Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church.

J. C. Hawkins’ 1925 panoramic photos recently brought in by Rev. John E. King on behalf of the Administrative Commission for Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church.

Wild Goose #1. Rev. John E. King brought in two wonderful panoramic photos of a church and congregation on behalf of the Administrative Commission for Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church (near the Washington County town of Farmington). Sadly, the church recently disbanded. The images were taken in 1925 by J.C. Hawkins of Newton, Iowa. Hawkins’ name seemed familiar so I checked our photo database. Sure enough, we now have ten of his panoramic images in the collection, all taken in Washington and Madison counties within the span of a few weeks:

  • April 22—Fayetteville High School students
  • April 22—Fayetteville Public School eighth-grade students
  • April 24—Washington School students (Fayetteville)
  • May 3—Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church congregants and environs (near Farmington)
  • May 4—Westside School students (Fayetteville)
  • May 11—Sligo Wagon Wood Factory workers (Fayetteville)
  • May 29—Aftermath of the fire on the Huntsville square
  • May 30—Decoration Day participants (Witter)
  • May 31—Church congregants at Jones School (near Wharton)

Who was John C. Hawkins? Through an Internet search I learned that in 1909 he founded the Clipless Paper Fastener Company in Newton. While he’s listed as a manufacturer of paper fasteners in the 1920 census, by 1930 he’s a hotel manager. The executive director of the Jasper County Historical Museum in Newton kindly sent a scan from A Century of Industrial Progress in Newton, Iowa, which notes that Hawkins’ company went into receivership and was purchased in 1925. So perhaps he picked up a camera as a way to earn a bit of money. Neither the director nor a county historian knew of Hawkins’ photographic activities, but now they’re intrigued as well. Perhaps they’ll chase that wild goose for me.

Grape basket, 1920s.

Grape basket, 1920s. Shiloh Museum purchase (S-2012-114)

Wild Goose #2. A researcher working on a project about the grape industry in Springdale needed two things from me—a scan of a label found on a grape basket in the collection and information about the Ozark Grape Festivals of the 1920s. As part of my research I read that during the first festival in 1925 the Springdale Community Club sent out nearly 4,000 complimentary baskets of grapes “to practically every State in the Union and to Canada.”

According to an article in the April 29, 1937, edition of the Springdale News, “The baskets provided for mailing were filled with choice Concords and bore the label of the grape associations. . . .” Even more grape baskets were sent in 1926. So I got to thinking, what if our grape basket is one of the festival baskets? The label from the Springdale Grape and Fruit Growers Union has a 1920s vibe about it. Most of the grapes grown in the Springdale area were sent by truck or rail to the Welch Grape Juice plant in bushel baskets or crates. The history of this basket will remain a mystery until a grape festival basket with its shipping label appears one day or we find an image showing the baskets prepared for mailing.

Ozark Grape Festival, Emma Avenue (Springdale), August 1926.

Ozark Grape Festival, Emma Avenue (Springdale), August 1926. Gene Thompson Collection (S-96-56-5)

Wild Goose #3. According to the 1937 article, during the 1926 grape festival “Special containers of grapes were sent to President Coolidge and to Premier Mussolini. The containers were small refrigerators consisting of veneered pine boxes 24 inches square, inside of which were copper containers holding eight four-quart baskets of grapes with a net weight of five pounds each. Ice was packed around the copper container to preserve the grapes.”

Curious to know if there was a record of the president receiving this gift, I contacted the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum in Massachusetts. The archivist there graciously checked the photos and scrapbooks in their collection, but nothing turned up. A check with a manuscript reference librarian at the Library of Congress, which has a Coolidge Papers collection, was also negative as Coolidge destroyed most of his personal papers before his death. I think the fate of the grape box and the president’s thoughts about it will remain mysteries. But there’s no mystery as to why a box was sent to Premier Mussolini of Italy. The Italian immigrant community of Tontitown supplied tons of grapes to the Welch plant over the years.

“Brightwater” apple history card, created in 1903 and featuring an excerpt from George F. Kennan’s 1892 letter.

“Brightwater” apple history card, created in 1903 and featuring an excerpt from George F. Kennan’s 1892 letter. Courtesy USDA Fruit Laboratory Card Catalog Collection (MS 365). Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library

Wild Goose #4. When I attended a recent event at Brightwater, Northwest Arkansas Community College’s new culinary school in Bentonville, I heard one of the staff members say that the apple for which the school is named is extinct. Curious to learn more, I contacted Guy Ames of Ames Orchard & Nursery in Fayetteville. Guy’s a passionate plantsman who’s been growing fruits and fruit plants adapted to Ozark conditions since 1983, including several Arkansas heirloom apples. He put me in touch with Scott Gothard in Amorel (Mississippi County). Equally passionate, Scott’s hobby is collecting and growing every Arkansas apple he can find. Both men searched their reference books and contacted friends in the field in an effort to find Brightwater.

I also heard from Sara Lee, archivist at the National Agricultural Library (NAL) in Maryland. She generously spent quite a bit of time digging for Brightwater info in NAL’s early fruit books and records. Her efforts turned up several interesting tidbits, including the June 1884 edition of  Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturalist which included a note from J.B.G. [probably nurseryman John B. Gill] of Springdale, who had mailed two apples to the periodical for review. The editor pronounced Brightwater as “excellent” and a “very desirable apple for that far down section of the country.”

Artist Bertha Heiges’ depiction of a Brightwater apple from Logan, Utah, 1900.

Artist Bertha Heiges’ depiction of a Brightwater apple from Logan, Utah, 1900. Courtesy USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Sara also sent a scan of an index card with an excerpt from an 1892 letter by George F. Kennan of Rogers. Kennan is said to have established the first nursery in the area. He grew and promoted Brightwater. He writes, “I believe [the apple] originated at Brightwater Benton Co., Ark and the tree was set by Enoch Groot [Trott, the first settler of Brightwater] in a very early day. Mr. A. [Albert] Peel bought the farm soon after the [Civil] war and some 13 or 14 years ago he called my attention to the apple. I top grafted a few trees and fruited them and believed it would be a valuable addition to our list. I give this statement at length because it is in the nurseries and is cataloged in a great many states and will doubtlessly be of interest to a great many planters as well as nursery men.”

At this point finding Brightwater, if it’s still out there, will take a concentrated effort from apple hunters who know what they’re looking for, heirloom growers throughout the nation who may have Brightwater in their collection, and contact with folks in Brightwater and nearby Avoca who perhaps have old apple trees growing on their property. A daunting task but I take heart with what Scott wrote: “If we can find it, we can save it.”

So, four questions, zero answers. That’s the problem with a wild goose chase—sometimes you run into a dead-end or the search is greater than what you have time for. But the interesting bits of history that you learn and the generous, helpful people you meet along the way sure are fun. My grateful thanks to everyone who took the time to answer my questions.

There are a number of marvelous turn-of-the-20th-century images of Arkansas fruit in the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. The National Agricultural Library is in the process of digitizing their American catalogs in the Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection.  As of February 2017 they had over 26,000 catalogs digitized!

Marie Demeroukas is the Shiloh Museum’s photo archivist and research librarian.