OURAY – Of course Peggy Cox was busy in her kitchen, the day I stopped by to chat with her about her newly published cookbook.
She was heading to Cedaredge for a family potluck later that afternoon, and her son Bob, the editor of the Mountain Valley News, had asked her to bring along some Spaghetti Pizza. The house was full of the rich, warm, melted-cheesy smell of it.
“It’s one of the recipes in the cookbook,” Peggy explained, as she pulled three large batches of the bubbling hot casserole out of the oven and set them on the counter to cool.
Peggy must have made this very move countless times over the 56 years she has lived in the little white house with red trim that perches on a grassy hill overlooking town. Smoothing her apron, she settled in for a chat at the kitchen table.
Her daughter Cindy, home for a visit from the Front Range, sat with us. She’d pulled taffy as a kid at this very table.
Peggy’s bright smile revealed how much she loves to cook. Still. For the past decade, she has shared this love with readers of the Mountain Valley News, through her popular cooking column Peggy’s Potpourri. Son Bob approached her in 2002 about taking over the column when the paper’s previous food columnist retired. Peggy has faithfully submitted a column to the paper once a week ever since. Many subscribe just to clip Peggy’s recipes.
Her new cookbook, Peggy’s Potpourri: A Collection of Recipes, Hints & Thoughts, is a compendium of the recipes that have appeared in her column over those years. It is attractively self-published through the Morris Cookbook Company.
The cover shows a beaming, apron-clad Peggy at the Mt. Hayden Rebekah’s Lodge in Ouray, standing beside an ornate antique wood-burning cookstove, with a basket of fresh-baked Butter Sea Shell Rolls – her signature recipe – in hand.
“My mom had a stove like that,” Peggy recalled.
Born in 1929 to Arthur V. Bielz Sr. and Anna Lillian (Beery) Biel as the sixth of 15 children, Peggy played an indispensable role helping her mother in the family kitchen during her childhood in Victor, Colo.
Measurements back then tended to be inexact – a teacupful of flour; a dollop of butter the size of a walnut. “We always tried to get our mother to write things down,” Peggy laughed.
Everyone in the house knew how to cook. The brothers and sisters delighted in trading off chores from time to time – the girls chopping wood and hauling coal, and the boys helping their mother in the kitchen. Their miner father, meanwhile, had worked in a bakery prior to his marriage, and often put his breadmaking skills to work for his huge hungry brood.
When Peggy was 13, she went to work for the neighboring Geddes family, who owned the Cripple Creek Times-Record.
“They cooked much fancier than my mom,” Peggy remembered. “They entertained a lot, with the table set just so.”
She learned how to make her signature recipe (remember the Butter Sea Shell Rolls?) from another neighbor in Victor – Erline Grimes.
At home, meanwhile, Peggy confessed that “us kids felt abused when we were growing up, but now I realize how lucky we were. We had a garden, and my dad and brothers hunted. We grew up eating venison and rabbit. We had homemade everything. Nothing came out of a can.”
Fresh out of high school, and already a published newspaper columnist thanks to her association with the Geddes family, Peggy married Lester Cox in 1947. The young couple moved to Ouray with their firstborn son, Bob, in 1949.
Lester worked the local mines for most of his career. Peggy joined the Woman’s Club of Ouray and the Mt. Hayden Rebekah’s Lodge, and held many jobs around town, including 23 years as Chief Deputy County Clerk. She also worked for a spell in the kitchen at St. Joseph Miners Hospital in Ouray. Zella Points was the head cook and Peggy filled in on Zella’s days off.
“Zella is the one who taught me how to make cream puffs,” Peggy said. “It was really interesting; we cooked the meals and would hoist the trays to the different levels of the hospital on a dumbwaiter.”
The patients “always seemed a little happier” when she served them this special treat. She sometimes made cream puffs for her kids, too. There were four in all: Bob, Beverly, Cindy and the youngest, William, who tragically died in a skiing accident in Ouray in 1970.
Most folks in Ouray remember Peggy now for the column she wrote for the Ouray County Herald and Ouray County Plaindealer for 40 years, under publishers Mark Bonan, Paul Baker, Joyce Jorgensen, Guy and Marcia Wood and David Mullings.
The column evolved over the years into the Ouray Nuggets, a beloved Ouray society column that shared the news of weddings, births, illnesses, deaths, family reunions, dinner parties, civic clubs ... the small and large threads that knit together a community.
An illness two years ago finally convinced her to give it up.
Although it is not officially organized as such, it is easy to imagine chapters of Peggy’s life unfolding within the recipes she’s chosen to include in her new cookbook.
Many reflect the era during which she was cooking meals for her own young family. The Tangy Roast Beef gets its tang from ginger ale and ketchup. The Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp calls for strawberry-flavored Jello. (The result? Yummy! I’ve already made it for my own family twice.)
Others – old-fashioned favorites like the Fried Green Tomatoes, Watermelon Pickles, Apple Pandowdy and Shoofly Pie – could have been made on the old wood-fired stove of Peggy’s childhood without ever opening a single can.
Quite a few recipes call for venison or elk. A few, like the Carmel Peach Crunch, can be cooked in a dutch oven on the hot coals of a camp fire.
Potluck classics like the Frog-Eye Salad, Minced Meatballs and Turkey Salad Casserole surely graced the table at many a Woman’s Club or Rebekah’s Lodge luncheon.
The Roasted Asparagus, Maple Orange Chicken and Butter Sea Shell Rolls could just as easily grace a dinner party table today as half-a-century ago.
The Citrus Salad, meanwhile, with its thinly sliced Granny Smith apples, naval oranges, pink grapefruit and fresh watercress, could be straight out of Chez Panisse – a nod to the fresh generations of friends and family that now add zing to Peggy’s life.
The notes and hints Peggy has sprinkled throughout her new cookbook are friendly and encouraging, and often lend insight into her warm, sunny character, devotion to family, and earthy sense of humor.
Of the Frog-Eye Salad, she writes: “My grandkids did not want to eat this salad when they heard the name, but liked it after they found out it really did not have any ‘frog eyes’ in it. Acini di Pepe pasta, which is a small spherical shape, may be difficult to find, but is the essence of this recipe.”
And of the Chili Con Carne: “My late husband Lester liked to make chili. You may use a variation of beans and replace the jalapeno with something milder. The chocolate is one of those ‘secrets’ that gives chili a different taste.”
The most delightful hint is found at the very back of the book: “I had to throw this in,” Peggy writes. “Beer is a great addition to many recipes. Use it in pancakes, replacing equal parts of other liquids or use it as a marinade. Bob says it makes the pancakes so light that you have to slap them back down on the griddle, otherwise they will just float away.”
Peggy’s Potpourri is not the first cookbook Peggy has published. Back in 1981, she compiled Mom Bielz’s Family Cookbook, a cookbook/scrapbook that interspersed her mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s recipes with generations of family stories and photos.
The project was a loving tribute to Peggy’s mother, a woman who spent her entire life in Victor, and died contentedly at the age of 92 never having owned a refrigerator.
Peggy’s own copy of this family cookbook is well-used, but also carefully cared for. No dog-eared pages, scribbled notes or food-splats mar it. Thirty years from now, Peggy’s Potpourri will surely be equally cherished, and well-used, by her own friends and family.
Pick up your own copy by calling the author at 970/325-4489, or order online at www.coxbooks.com. They are also sold locally in Ouray at The Cutting Edge hair salon.
Peggy will be selling and signing copies of her cookbook at two upcoming open house events at her home at 339 Sixth Street in Ouray: Sunday, July 29, from 10:30 a.m. into the afternoon, and Tuesday, July 31, from 2 to 4 p.m.
SAMPLE RECIPE FROM PEGGY’S POTPOURRI
Pastry for 2-crust pie
1/4 c. butter, melted
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
Dash of salt
10 c. apples, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 c. light molasses
1/4 c. water
3 T. butter, melted
Roll out pastry to 15x11-inch rectangle; brush with some of the butter. Fold in half. Brush with more butter; fold again and seal edges. Repeat rolling again, brushing with butter and folding. Chill pastry. Mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt; toss with the apple slices. Place in 13x9-inch baking dish. Combine the molasses, water and the 3 tablespoons of melted butter; pour over apples. Roll pastry to 15x11-inch rectangle. Place over apples; turn edges under and flute. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees; bake 30 minutes more. Remove from oven. "Dowdy" the crust and return to oven for 10 minutes. Serve warm.
Note: To "dowdy" a crust is simply press it down into the apples with a knife.