Brownie Schrumpf was only 4’11” but her impact on the way Mainers eat was monumental. Over a 70-year career she was a diehard advocate of Maine food and simple Maine recipes. She taught classes, gave demonstrations, appeared on television and most of all wrote a much-loved cooking column for the Bangor Daily News.
For years, her telephone rang off the hook in the newsroom with calls from people all over Maine who had questions about recipes and food.
When she died at 98 years old, she was remembered as ‘everyone’s neighbor.’
Born on a Farm
She was born Mildred Gordon Brown on Jan 24, 1903, on a farm in Readfield Depot, Maine, to Fred Brown and Nellie Mabel Gordon Brown.As a teenager, she won a Kennebec County 4-H canning contest. Her father took her to the University of Maine to enter the statewide contest. That trip convinced her she had to attend the university. Though her father had only an elementary school education, he agreed wholeheartedly.
In 1925, she graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in Home Economics, the first in her family to graduate from college. Her first real job after college was as an assistant 4-H leader. She traveled around the state giving homemaking demonstrations.
She had to quit that job because she married William Schrumpf, an instructor at the University of Maine’s Agriculture Department. During the Great Depression, married couples couldn’t both be employed at the university.
Throughout the 1940s, she gave demonstrations and classes for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service and taught camp cookery to forestry students. She was proud of her service to the people of Maine because she felt it opened a bigger world for many farmwomen. She believed extension work helped change their lives.
Bangor Daily News
On Aug. 31, 1951, Brownie Schrumpf wrote her first column for the Bangor Daily News and would continue writing it for the next 43 years.
She was already well known in Maine by then. The column made her a legend.
In researching her column, she collected recipes from friends and neighbors and amassed a collection of 400 cookbooks, including 130 community cookbooks from Maine and Canada. She published two of her own cookbooks, The Flavor of Maine and Memories from Brownie’s Kitchen.
Though she was always on the lookout for new ways of preparing food, all of her recipes included ingredients you could find in a little Maine grocery store.
Typical of her approach to cooking was her 1987 critique of a cookbook with a recipe for baked beans that called for powdered mustard, summer savory, cumin, coriander, maple syrup and brandy. "True, many Maine homemakers use some of the ingredients," she wrote. "But supper goers -- especially summer visitors -- look forward to the typical pot of beans baked with salt pork, salt, pepper and maybe an onion or an apple buried in the bottom of the bean pot."
Brownie Schrumpf traveled widely in Maine food circles and beyond. A fellow teacher once discovered her at an event enjoying a slice of cranberry nut bread. Brownie said, “This is wonderful. Where did you get the receipe?”
It was hers.
She was a judge for the Bangor State Fair and the Pillsbury Bake-Off. She was chairman of the Maine Broiler Festival Chicken Barbecues and Luncheons, and she often headed teams that demonstrated Maine food at the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Mass.
The Brownie Controversy
On at least one occasion she overreached in her support for Maine foods, according to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
She championed the theory that brownies were invented in Bangor, Maine. The basis of her argument was a brownie recipe in a cookbook published in Bangor in 1912.
But Fannie Farmer included a brownie recipe in her 1905 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
There was reason for the confusion, though: A chocolate company, Walter Lowney, published a recipe for chocolate brownies called ‘Bangor Brownies.’
She maintained her strong ties to the University of Maine throughout her life, serving as class secretary for 40 years and winning the Black Bear Award in 1957 and the General Alumni Association Pine Tree Alumni Service Emplem in 1974.
Brownie Schrumpf died in Orono on March 2, 2001. Her husband had died in 1976. Her obituary in the Bangor Daily News read, ‘Beloved ‘Brownie’ Schrumpf dies at 98.’
Photo: Postcard of 'Readfield, Maine Circa 1909' from the eBay store Web page. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.