Nettie McBirney aka Aunt Chick

Only in Oklahoma: Aunt Chick’s husband didn’t bank on column

Gene Curtis

When one of the Tulsa World’s most popular columns began in 1935, the author didn’t tell her husband about it — until after he read her first column in the newspaper.

“That crazy woman will start a run on the bank if people think she has to work!” Sam McBirney shouted as he jumped up from the breakfast table and headed upstairs to confront his wife. The “World’s Kitchen Log” column hadn’t used her full name — just Aunt Chick — but most knew Aunt Chick was Nettie McBirney, the banker’s wife. It was 1935 and the nation was in the midst of the Depression.

McBirney was vice president of the National Bank of Commerce that his family founded about 1908. Aunt Chick’s column taught a lot of people a lot about cooking: how to make good pie crusts, how to keep pie dough from sticking to rolling pins, how to keep the bottom crusts of fruit pies from being soggy and how to keep meringue from weeping. But McBirney’s fears were unfounded — it didn’t start a run on the McBirney bank. Aunt Chick had graduated from Stout Institute in Menomonie, Wis., a school that taught only home economics, and she came to Claremore in 1909 to teach that subject. Two years later, she became supervisor of home economics at Muskogee schools. She came to Tulsa in 1916 as the wife of McBirney, who was the coach of the University of Tulsa football team.

While writing her Kitchen Log column for the next 20 years, Aunt Chick also found time to write several cookbooks, most of which dealt with pies and other desserts. She also invented a pastry canvas and a cookie cutter that is still in demand. She began demonstrating cooking methods, first at Vandever’s Department Store, and later at other stores in Tulsa and in many other parts of the country. And learned a lot about cooking in the process. The women themselves developed the demonstrations with their questions, and she listened to everyone wherever she went but didn’t take anyone’s word for their recipes.

In a 1973 interview, Aunt Chick recalled meeting a woman who claimed her recipe for lemon pie was the best there was. “I took the recipe and tried it and agreed,” she said. At one of the demonstrations, she mentioned that everyone had trouble with weeping meringues — but a young woman in the audience told her she didn’t have any trouble. Aunt Chick had suggested that the pies should be baked in an oven with a temperature no higher than 325 degrees. But the young woman said she didn’t have a thermometer and never knew the temperature of her oven. She added that she couldn’t even shut the door on her oven. That was the answer to the meringue problem. “I’d stumbled onto the secret — no more weepy meringues — just leave the door open about an inch and it’ll work like magic,” she said. Aunt Chick’s first inventions were the pastry canvas, treated with a chemical, and a rolling-pin cover that prevented noodles, cookies, and pie crusts from sticking.

She later developed a heavy steel pie pan and the “Crispy Crust” pie pan that promised perfect bottom crusts on pies. Although she also developed several other kitchen gadgets, the item for which she was most famous was the device now known as Gramma’s Cutter, designed to help the cookie dough slide out of the forms. They are still available. Aunt Chick included a recipe and some sage advice in every cookie-cutter box: such as “If you don’t follow directions, Heaven help you.” or “Don’t have a neighbor show you how to do these, because you must follow these instructions.”

When Aunt Chick moved into a retirement home in 1973, she donated her collection of about 1,000 cookbooks to the Tulsa City-County Library. She had been collecting the books since 1913. Moving into a retirement home didn’t stop her cooking demonstrations; it just changed the venue. She presented her demonstrations to other residents of the center, where she died in 1982. Aunt Chick once told a World reporter that when she decided she wanted to begin writing a cooking column, she approached World Editor N.G. Henthorne offered to pay her $15 a week for the column that appeared Tuesday through Friday on the newspaper’s society page and on Saturday in a food shopping guide. She accepted. But, she added, “I would have written about good cooking for free.”

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