Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday (Aug. 27) is a day that Amy Praskac and Barbara Malès look forward to every year.
Praskac and Malès are graduates of LBJ School of Public Affairs, and after leaving Austin, they both eventually made their way to Washington, D.C., where a group of Tex-pats celebrated LBJ’s birthday every year with lemonade and sugar cookies in the LBJ Memorial Grove across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
(The Texas State Society, which hosted those annual birthday celebrations, is hosting a virtual celebration at 3 p.m. Thursday via its Facebook page. The LBJ Library will also stream a wreath-laying ceremony at the LBJ Ranch at 2 p.m. on its Facebook page.)
These days, Praskac, who is back in Austin, and Malès, who lives in Florida, look forward to LBJ’s birthday for another reason: It’s the day their fellow 1982 graduates announce how much money they are giving out for an annual scholarship for a current student at the school that bears the former president’s name.
As the LBJ School of Public Affairs celebrates its 50th anniversary, Praskac and Malès are also looking back at a quirky piece of memorabilia they made when they were students: "Getting a Piece of the Pie: LBJ School Cookbook for Skilled Generalists," a community cookbook that came out in spring 1982.
Praskac, a first-generation college student in her family, says that she attended the LBJ School in the early days "when a number of the faculty had served in the Johnson Administration," she says. She’d grown up on the Jersey shore loving food. "My mom was a great cook who wasn't happy unless she tried a new recipe on us at least once a week."
That love of recipes led her and classmate Malès to solicit recipes from their classmates, instructors and even Lady Bird Johnson herself.
Elspeth Rostow, who served as dean of the school from 1977 to 1983, submitted an artichoke dip recipe, and Wilbur Cohen, former secretary of what was then called the Health, Education and Welfare department (now Health and Human Services), shared a wordy, almost nonsensical recipe for a public policy omelet. ("A small amount of rattlesnake meat dropped into the mixture makes for interesting conversation after this meal is completely digested," he wrote.)
One of the most popular recipes in the book was likely Lady Bird Johnson’s picadillo dip, which like most of Johnson’s recipes, was likely created by the longtime family cook, Zephyr Wright, who started cooking for the family in 1942.
Like so many others before her, Praskac wrote by mail to Johnson to request a recipe, and Johnson’s staff replied with her two recipe cards: sangria and that picadillo meat dip, which Praskac says she still serves to this day "with great acclaim."
After gathering recipes, including tongue-in-cheek submissions from students who shared instructions for "making" TV dinners, Praskac and her co-editor Malès came up with public policy-themed chapter titles: Presidential Campaigns (Promises of Things to Come), Foreign Affairs, Congress (Main Dishes), Legislative Assistants (Salads, Vegetables, Breads, Soups).
"It was something like a yearbook for us and is even funnier if you know the personalities," Praskac says.
Malès’ brother and sister-in-law were in the printing business, so they did the typesetting, artwork and printing. "This was 1982, so no personal computers or desktop publishing," Praskac says. "We sold them for little more than cost, joking there was a reason why we were in public policy and not at the business school."
Praskac still has her much-stained copy of the cookbook, and she refers to it "more than just about any other project I've been involved with," she says. "There were just a couple of recipes, including seven-layer dip, we explicitly solicited because they were so popular at parties."
She also often makes "Shrimply Superb," a spreadable shrimp-based dish that she serves with crackers or chips. Her favorite desserts from the book are the lemon cookies, which are actually lemon bars baked in a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan. "They make an attractive presentation, dusted with powdered sugar, cut up, and set on a doily covered plate garnished with berries."
"My favorite thing about the recipe book is that, for me, it does still serve as a collection of memories," Malès says. "Lady Bird's sangria and picadillo dip bring back memories of our first year class outing to the Johnson Ranch, graciously hosted by Ms. Johnson."
Malès, who recently moved from Virginia to Florida, fondly remembers Mama Neuwald's Chocolate Marble Cheese Cake, from classmate Karen Neuwald’s German-born mother, that was a 24-hour project "well worth undertaking," and even though it’s been years since she lived in Texas, that seven-layer dip remains a comfort food. The most recent dish she made from the cookbook, after she unpacked in her new home, was their classmate Cliff Staton's recipe for homemade peach ice cream.
Praskac says that their graduating class has been unusually tight knit, thanks to five-year reunions that one of their classmates hosted every year until her death in 2016.
The group’s 30th reunion in 2012 was when they decided to start that fellowship, whose amount is announced each year on Johnson’s birthday. This year, the group announced it will give a full scholarship for the school year plus a summer stipend for its seventh annual fellowship.
It’s not the same as enjoying lemonade and sugar cookies on the lawn overlooking the Potomac, but it’s an excuse to break out the plastic comb-bound book and remember the people they met, the careers they started and the way they ate and cooked during those years in Austin.
Picadillo Meat Dip
Lady Bird Johnson was an East Texas native who found her forever home in the Texas Hill Country, where she and her husband, who would later become president, often hosted large gatherings. For decades, they employed Zephyr Wright as their family cook, and Wright moved with them to Washington, D.C., during LBJ’s presidency. (Wright stayed in D.C. after the Johnsons left the White House in 1969, and she died there in 1988.) Lady Bird’s recipes, which were likely Wright’s, are in the archives of the LBJ Library, which still distributes them, just as Johnson’s staff did during the years following her time in the White House. You can browse many of these recipes online, and two of them were included in "Getting a Piece of the Pie," a community cookbook from graduates of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
— Addie Broyles
1 pound ground meat
1 chopt (sic) onion
1 cup tomatoes
2 pressed cloves garlic
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon oregano (or 1 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of clove)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 chopt (sic) jalapenos
Place meat in frying pan. When it beings to release fat, add both onion and garlic. When meat has browned, add all the ingredients except the raisins and almonds and simmer 30 minutes. Then add raisins. Simmer another 5 to 10 minutes. If used as a dip, may be be thinned with tomato juice. Also good as taco filling or with scrambled eggs. May be frozen. Easy to double recipe.
— Lady Bird Johnson
These are really lemon bars, but in the 1982 cookbook, they were sold as cookies, so I’ll keep them that way.
For the base:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) butter
For the filling:
4 tablespoons lemon juice
Zest from 1 lemon
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Blend ingredients with a pastry cutter. Grease a Pyrex baking dish. Spread mixture in the pan so that it covers the bottom. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes.
Beat ingredients. Pour mixture on top of the hot pastry. Bake for 20 minutes more at 325 degrees. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while hot out of the oven. Cool and cut into squares and refrigerate. Makes approximately 2 dozen bars.
— Kent and Mariana Mathewson
This spreadable dip can be as thick or as thin as you’d like. You can use fresh or frozen shrimp instead of canned, but boil and cool them first.
3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
1 (4 1/2-ounce) can shrimp, drained and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Gradually add milk and lemon juice to soften cream cheese, mixing until well-blended. Add remaining ingredients; mix well. Chill. Serve with chips or crackers.
— Kay Albin