Last summer, Amy Severson, co-owner of Sevy’s, blogger, and all-around smart person, and I had what we thought was a great idea. We decided to write a book on the history of Dallas food. We began collecting bits and pieces of information and interviewed grandchildren of long-lost Dallas restaurants and food businesses. What we have found is unique and amazing and over the next few months, we will post some of the discoveries.In Part 1, we wrote about La Tunisia. Today we profile Mrs. Ida Chitwood, a courageous woman who lived in Dallas and may have been our first national cooking show star.
You all know Casey, Tre, Lisa, and Tiffany. But do you know Ida?
Mrs. Ida Mae Chitwood (nee Keener) was Dallas’ first “super star” food personality. A pioneer in Texas and across the nation, her free cooking demonstrations were attended by hundreds of thousands of women from Albuquerque to Syracuse, New York. She made headlines wherever she went. “Thousands hear Mrs. Ida Chitwood Lecture” ran across the top of the San Antonio Light on February 2, 1929. On November 17, 1933, the Chicago Daily Tribune exclaimed “Five Thousand Women of the West Side Yesterday Heard Mrs. Ida M. Chitwood.” The Chicago Tribune reported “Sophie Tucker of the Stage gets a few pointers from Mrs. Ida M. Chitwood” on November 22, 1934. Even after her popularity during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, she’s almost been forgotten in the history of Dallas food.
Ida was born in Tennessee in 1885, the fifth of ten children. The family relocated to Ector, Texas when her father, who worked for the railroad, was transferred. Ida could have had a quiet, life as a housewife and mother. In 1908, at age 23, she married farmer Loren Chitwood and they had baby girl who they named Christeen. But Loren was killed when the mule he was riding ran into a barb-wire fence and his throat was cut when the mule tried to pull away. The mule returned home without him. Christeen was only 10 months old.
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It was impossible for Ida to make the farm sustainable on her own. She and Christeen moved back in with her family, but after her mother’s sudden death the family moved to Clarendon, Texas near Amarillo.
But not for long. She continued to search for a better life for herself and her daughter. She packed up and bravely moved back to Tennessee where she found her future. The family story says Ida, who didn’t have a certificate of high school graduation, “fibbed” her way into George Peabody School for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University). The registrar of the school confirmed that she was enrolled for one semester in the fall of 1917 in the Home Economics program. On the recommendation of one of her teachers, Ida was recruited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she was trained and consequently certified in December 1918 as a Home Demonstration Agent.
With certificate in hand, Ida and Christeen returned to Clarendon and Ida became the Home Demonstration Agent for Donley County. Her job duties included traveling the surrounding countryside teaching household skills such as safe canning techniques, how to cook with the new gas ranges that were quickly replacing wood stoves, and personal nutrition. She drove around the surrounding counties by herself. In 1921 she was run over by her own car. She was cranking the engine handle when the car jumped forward and knocked her over. Obviously, this was not an easy job for a single mother, but, car wrecks aside, it allowed Ida to raise her daughter in a secure home.
By 1923 she was the Home Demonstration Agent for Tom Greene County (San Angelo), where, according to family lore, she met Houston Harte, the publisher of the local paper. He urged her to take her cooking show on the road. Within a year she took his advice. Chitwood’s family also believes Harte taught her a bit about product placement. As her classes spread to San Antonio, Amarillo, and Houston, ads featuring the products personally endorsed by Ida, filled the local newspapers. She was building a brand.
Her traveling show was not without its challenges. “Consider the skills it took for Ida to demonstrate before crowds of this size,” says Chitwood’s great-niece Theola Baker. “There were no projectors or big screens or JumboTrons like we’re used to now. All she really had to connect with her audience was a microphone and her personality. Outside of the first few rows on front, no one could have actually seen what she was doing onstage. Like old-time radio sportscasters, Ida had to create visual images in the audience’s mind of the onstage action and whatever dish she was whipping up.”
During the Great Depression, Ida’s shows opened with musical acts including Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, and Guy Lombardo. Not only did these bands open for her, they played during intermission. “My mother [Christeen] would tell me those bands were glad to get the work during the depression,” says Chitwood’s grandson Joe Luther, Jr. “There were door prizes and gift bags of free ingredients and usually a local newspaper was the named sponsor of the class, bringing the advertising revenue of the products to their pages.”
Ida and Christeen moved Westminster Avenue in to University Park in the late ’20s and Christeen enrolled at SMU where she received a degree in home economics in 1931. Post-graduation Christeen tried following in her mother’s footsteps by conducting Chitwood Cooking Classes in Amarillo and San Diego, but she returned to Dallas in 1932 and married attorney/Deputy Sheriff Joe Bailey Luther, whose father ran the city’s municipal farm along White Rock Lake.
By the mid-1930s Ida was nationally recognized. She’d published her first hard bound cookbook, Ida M. Chitwood’s Choice Recipes (Bunker Press, Fort Worth, 1927), and the corporate office for her cooking school was in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. She traveled from show to show in a customized rail car that held her equipment, supplies, and office. Why she left her traveling cooking show is still a mystery. Some have speculated that the Depression had dried up attendees while others have suggested that the wear and tear of a life spent on the road was too much for a single woman.
In 1936 a consortium of flour mills in North Texas enticed Ida to return to Dallas to run the Burrus Mill exhibit at the Texas Centennial World Fair. Ida parked her rail car at Fair Park and taught modern cooking techniques in the building modeled after a century old flour mill. The exhibit was just as popular for the fresh, hot biscuits Ida gave away. The building, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, is currently The Old Mill Restaurant. The walls are decorated with relics from the building’s history. Right after the Texas Centennial, Ida wrote wrote her second cookbook, The Centennial Cook Book, published by Southern Laboratory Kitchens (Dallas, 1936).
The Chitwood Cooking School continued for many years operating out of the Marvin Building in downtown Dallas and Ida’s did a weekly cooking show on KRLD radio. She lived in Dallas until she passed away in 1971. She had been out of the spotlight for many years. Her brief obituary neglected to mention the many places and people Ida Chitwood had touched in her life. Ida rests next to her husband Loren and daughter Christeen in the Chitwood family plot in Hampton Cemetery in Bonham, Texas.
Many thanks to Ida’s grandchildren, Joe Luther, Jr. and Prudie Luther Orr, and her great niece, Theola Keener Baker for inviting Amy to their family reunion in Bonham and for sharing such personal memories.