This month we examine cookbooks from two groups in the United States that are historically much-maligned by its citizens. I mean, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Cherokee Indians of Texas. For the purists among my Southern readers, it must be stressed that the CIA is headquartered in Virginia, and despite how you feel about Texas, it did join the Confederacy.
In 1968, the Hudson Printing Company published the Cherokee Club Cookbook, a collection of recipes contributed by club members in Longview, Texas. It’s a whopping 300-page volume with the traditional plastic comb binding. In contrast, Spies, Black Ties, & Mango Pies was published in a hardbound edition, which is extremely rare for the field of community cookbooks. Even more unusual is its subtitle: Stories and Recipes From CIA Families All Over the World. It came out in 1997, the fifty-year anniversary of the founding of the CIA—which, as anyone familiar with the tropes of espionage knows, cannot possibly be a coincidence.
I discovered both books next to each other at a used bookstore in Austin. The flyleaf of the CIA cookbook bears the following cryptic inscription: “To Harry and Mama, A very merry Xmas, Love, C____, J_____& O___ Dec ’98.” I have concealed the real names of gift givers, but it’s clear that they match my initials: Christopher John Offutt. I knew instantly that these books were meant for me to find. I’m not talking about metaphysics but essential spycraft. Someone wanted me to own these books.
My primary mission was to acquire the books without drawing notice. Paying cash would match my face to the books in the clerk’s mind. Rotund and soft, he’d never hold up under interrogation. I skulked around the music area and approached a woman with one side of her head shaved, the other half bearing an indistinct tattoo. I recruited her to make the purchase in my stead by offering a ten-dollar bribe. Fortunately, she knew enough not to ask questions. After an appropriate waiting period during which I confirmed a lack of surveillance, we made our furtive exchange in the parking lot.
To self-disclose: as a child I wanted to be a spy and read everything I could about the subject. My library holds the canon of espionage novels from Graham Greene and John le Carré to American writers Robert Littell and my personal favorite, Charles McCarry. It’s important to note that the names of both British authors contain double letters. The American writers have two sets of doubled consonants. Do not for one second consider this to be coincidence! (The careful reader will note that “Offutt” has two sets of double-consonants!)
Spies, Black Ties, & Mango Pies is the real deal—vetted by the CIA’s Publications Review Board for the elimination of classified information. A former intelligence officer turned professional food writer, Kay Shaw Nelson, writes an introduction. The book includes an interview with ex-spy Julia Child, a helpful list of foreign ingredients, and tips for the overseas cook, like dealing with tapeworms and baking at high altitudes. A variety of anonymous recollections precede the recipes, including a difficult search for okra in a mysterious desert country. The list of contributors is a who’s-who of Spy Spouses, including the wives of former heads of CIA: Cynthia Helms, Barbara Colby, Barbara Bush, Patricia Turner, Lynda Webster, Becky Gates, Suzanne Woolsey, Pat Deutch, and Stephanie Glaskas-Tenet. Each contributes a brief reminiscence about CIA life and exotic food, such as sea slugs and ostrich eggs. Patricia Turner recounts the darker side of organizing a diplomatic meal in Tehran in 1978 for a high-ranking general. After supper she learns that the general is head of SAVAK, the Iranian Secret Police, which had tortured thousands of citizens. Turner can’t sleep that night, wanting to scrub the impurity from everything her guest touched. A noble impulse. She informs us that the general was later beheaded.
Three anonymously contributed recipes bear special note: Cobra Soup, Stuffed Camel, and Elephant Stew. The last one lists these ingredients: one elephant, two hundred gallons of brown gravy, and an optional thirty rabbits. The main course serves 3,800. “If more are expected, add rabbits. However this should be done only if necessary, as people don’t like finding hare in their stew.” Espionage is serious, and I implore readers to forgive such a heinous pun. Its humor is obviously meant to distract from the vital coded message contained therein.
As a middle-aged male with high blood pressure and cholesterol concerns, I naturally flipped straight to the meat recipes in The Cherokee Club Cookbook. The section is illustrated by a man with a deformed arm holding a bow and arrow. He is shirtless but wears a mini-skirt and snowshoes, even though the town of Longview receives less than two inches of snow per year. The poultry section is illustrated with an arrowhead. I grew up in a chicken-raising culture, but in Kentucky we traditionally killed the hens by wringing their necks. I never saw anyone shoot a projectile into a chicken. The drawing is obviously infused with a hidden meaning—but for whom?
A recipe for Chicken Breasts and Rice Indienne confused me. The word “Indienne” refers to a painted textile imported to Europe from India in the 1700s. Perhaps club members ate wool and silk. Or it was a coded message? My wary vigilance increased in the Pickles and Preserves section. Inexplicably, it was illustrated by a papoose containing the face of a baby that appears to be a terrifying dwarf with a nice haircut. Undoubtedly this was intended to identify a foreign agent—but friend or foe?
The meat section included recipes for Barbecued Franks (nothing more than hot dogs in Worcestershire sauce) and Charlie’s Ham Balls (which I won’t touch, let alone eat). Then a pair of recipes took my breath away—one for Swedish Meat Balls and the other for Real Swedish Meat Balls. Reading cleverly between the lines, something of a clandestine nature was clearly going on between “Frank” and “Charlie” in “Sweden.”
You may wonder why I approach the Cherokee cookbook with such heightened misgivings. By virtue of its secret nature, the CIA must cloak itself in mystery to protect its operatives. Strangely enough, I was unable to learn much about the Cherokee Club, a members-only private entity listed as a nonprofit recreation center established in 1951—at the height of the Cold War. It has its own restaurant but only members—or their secret guests—can enjoy the fare. The name of the Texas town where it is quartered, Longview, is a vital clue to the club’s true function because intelligence organizations must by definition take the “long view” of clandestine activity.
The two cookbooks overlap in many entwining ways, as to be expected with cryptography. A successful espionage analyst is trained to recognize patterns and draw conclusions of vital interest. After weeks of daily effort, I deduced the following covert pattern: a preponderance of terminology appears in both books, such as the nouns milk, cup, flour, egg; the verbs heat, cook, simmer, stir; and such modifiers as thick, well, grated, and very. These words are part of an intricate device for hidden transmission of information. When carefully analyzed together, the cookbooks reveal themselves as codebooks for covert communication. Alone they are utterly useless, but united they stand.
Cryptology is an ancient art going back to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Greeks, but a more recent development is the use of a numerical code for communications. With this in mind, I ascertained that twenty-nine years separated the publication of these two cookbooks. Even a cursory scrutiny of the number 29 reveals its significance for both cuisine and intelligence gathering: 29 is the atomic number for copper, considered the best heat conductor for pots and pans.
On page 29 of the CIA cookbook is an anecdote about Goat Entrails Stew. The same page of the Cherokee cookbook offers a recipe that requires a pound of canned Vienna Sausages, which, as everyone knows, is composed of various animal entrails. The CIA cookbook takes us to the city of Vienna, Austria, and a recipe for Karfiolsuppe or Cauliflower Soup—which has 29 ingredients. The Cherokee Club cookbook has a recipe for Cauliflower Salad—on page 229!
But all codes are useless without the key. Since the books were meant for me to find, I combed my memory of 1968, year of publication for the Cherokee cookbook. That summer I turned eleven and read Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. (Un-coincidentally, that year was the final season for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the first American TV series featuring spies.) Harriet was also eleven. She carried a notebook and pencil in order to record her observations in secret, a habit I immediately copied—and still do. By the end of the novel, her notebook is captured by the enemy, a humiliating defeat. She endures grueling interrogation and is compelled to print an apology in the school newspaper. It is a false retraction—known in tradecraft as disinformation—but she learns the ultimate espionage principle: it’s okay to lie to others, but you must always tell yourself the truth. This is a habit I continue to maintain as well.
I searched Harriet the Spy for a link between it and the cookbooks. Nothing relevant was on page 29 or 129. However, on page 229 of the first edition, Harriet’s enemies staged a parade of “The Spy Catcher Club.” The book was an overt warning not to violate the eleventh commandment of espionage: don’t get caught. But the code-key lay elsewhere. Harriet’s best friend is a guy named Sport, which reminded me that in 1968 I played Little League for the Indians. My position was catcher and my uniform number was eleven. Even then, unseen forces were manipulating my fate, as will soon be explained.
While the rest of the country was suffering a hangover from the previous Summer of Love, I was being groomed to eventually find two cookbooks more than forty years later. In short, I had my eureka moment—baseball was the key, established by Moe Berg. A graduate of Princeton and a lawyer who spoke several languages, Berg played catcher for fifteen seasons, notably with the Cleveland Indians. He was also a spy. His baseball card is displayed at the CIA Museum, available to view by appointment only.
A basic tenet of numerical cyphers is adding a number’s individual digits until discovering the secret sum buried within. The formula for 29 is simple: 2 + 9 = 11, and 1 + 1 = 2. Eleven is thus the middle cypher, obviously referring to Walter Bedell Smith, the second director of the CIA, and Ken Smith who wore number 11 when he played for the Atlanta Braves. Lest the skeptic find this hard to digest, I hasten to point out that Dick Porter played for the Cleveland Indians wearing number 2 on his uniform, and Porter Goss was a Director of Central Intelligence. Four former DCIs were named Bill, and four professional baseball players named Bill wore the number 29. These are undisputed facts.
Two recipes from the “cookbooks-as-codebooks” deserve close scrutiny. Tellingly, both are desserts. The first is CIA Cake, contributed by Lynda Webster, wife of former DCI Bill Webster. The cake’s name is actually an alias, or in spy parlance, a “legend.” Originally termed FBI Cake, it was served to J. Edgar Hoover who liked it so much he threatened an investigation if he didn’t get the recipe. Mrs. Webster changed its name when she prepared the same treat for her husband.
The Cherokee Club Cookbook offers a pie recipe that is hidden away in the pastry section like a sleeper cell awaiting activation. It is none other than Jeff Davis Pie, contributed by Mrs. Jasper Allbright. For the sake of Yankee readers, Jefferson Davis was President of the Confederacy during the war between the States. Charged with treason after surrender and capture, he was imprisoned for two years and later lived at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis where he allegedly developed a strong taste for pie.
My original intention was to include both recipes in their entirety but that ran afoul of the interests of national security. Unfortunately I was compelled to eliminate some elements of the CIA cake. Professional censors suffer at times from “redactional fatigue,” which results in overlooking sections of the text that should have been eliminated. This can provide a window into the secret goal of the actual redactor. It is a lot of work, but the patient reader can find certain clandestine parallels between recipes, infer connections between these coded works, and draw the buried conclusions.
An unfortunate truth of espionage is that the public only hears about the errors of the CIA; their success stories are never revealed. The opposite is the case for cooking—culinary flops are forgotten while the great meals are remembered long after. The smart cook strives for the best of both worlds—in the field and the kitchen—behaving as a clandestine operative of cuisine. Here are the essential rules for cooks and spies: Discard your failures swiftly. Learn from mistakes. Identify saboteurs such as a clumsy prep-cook or a spouse who hides the salt. Take credit for others’ work and blame your mistakes on underlings. Most importantly: keep your top recipes secret.
Jeff Davis Pie
4 egg yolks, beaten
3 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. allspice
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups milk
4 egg whites
Cook, stirring constantly until it thickens, and pour into a 9" baked pie crust. Top with meringue made from 4 egg whites and 1/2 c. sugar and 1/4 tsp. vanilla. Brown in 375° F. oven.
13/4 XXXX sifted XXXXXXX
1/2 XXX XXXXXXXXXX XXXXX powder
g XXX XXXXXXXXXX XXXXX
1/2 tsp XXXXXX XXXX
1/2 XXX XXXXXX XXXXX
1 tsp XXXXXX XXXXXXX
1 3/4 XXX XXXXXXXXXX XXXXX
4 XXXX, separated
X XXX XXXX
Sift XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXXX powder, and XXXX, set XXXXX. Cream XXXXXX. Add XXXXXXX and XXXXX and XXX XXXX; XXX XXX yolks. Add dry XXXXXXXXXX and XXXX, alternating a little XX X XXXX. Beat XXX whites until XXXX XXXX XXXXX, but are not yet XXXXX and dry. Bake in XXXXXXX oven for XX to XX minutes.
Serve to an appreciative XXXXXXXX—or family or friends!