Thyme Capsules: Recipes from Pittsburgh Mayors, Past and Present

By / Photography By Michael Fornataro | February 23, 2016
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This month, Pittsburgh is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its incorporation as a city! The City of Bridges will commemorate with a year of festivities, set to culminate on First Night Pittsburgh 2017. As we’ve witnessed a culinary renaissance with a divine new cadre of chef-driven restaurants, we look back on fond memories (evoked by delicious cooking aromas!) and into the vintage kitchens of Pittsburgh’s political families. 

MAYOR EBENEZER DENNY (The first Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From James McQuiston, a historian and relative of Mayor Ebenezer Denny via Ann Denny, Ebenezer’s cousin:

“Despite being involved in supplying food for American armies for much of his life, Ebenezer Denny does not appear to have taken the time to jot down any favorite Denny family recipes — no doubt because he was most often fighting for his life and that of the new United States of America. However, twice in his war journal, during the Southern campaign of the American Revolution, he mentions that he and his fellow soldiers were relegated to nothing more than ‘Indian meal’ for their sustenance, due most likely to thousands of men on both sides of the conflict trekking over the same farm lands foraging for food.

We know ‘Indian meal’ as corn meal today, and luckily, the very first American cookbook was published shortly after Eb was returning from his Revolutionary War service and entering his service in the Northwest Indian Wars, which relied heavily on Fort Pitt as a central point from which to make forays into enemy territory.

In the 1796 ‘American Cookery,’ written by Amelia Simmons, the author presents one of the most common uses of corn meal during that period, which was to make a dish known as Johnny Cake.

Johnny Cake was essentially a corn meal pancake — in its simplest form, just cornmeal and water, but, when possible, salt, molasses, milk, wheat flour, and/or shortening might be added, if available.

Simmons’ basic Johnny Cake recipe, no doubt enjoyed by Ebenezer Denny dozens if not hundreds of times in his long military career, reads like this:

‘Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint of flower(sic) — bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two-thirds of the Indian meal, or wet two-thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff, and bake as above.’

Further research shows that the scalding process helped stiffen or reconstitute the cornmeal so that it would stay together once it hit the fry pan. Sometimes the entire skillet would be filled with this corn meal ‘pancake’ and flipped when cooked well on one side. Other times, smaller cakes about three inches in diameter would be poured and flipped. In times of dire straights, where no pan was available, the dough would simply be poured on hot coals and allowed to harden into an edible meal. Also, when no other additives were available to enhance the corn meal, some of the corn might be less-well ground, in order to add further substance to the final pancake.

When possible, soldiers were provided with fresh meat, and sometimes a rice mash (in the South), but the Johnny Cake was the one reliable food that could be carted into the battlefield and cooked easily. In fact, it is thought by some that the original name was actually Journey Cake, but was corrupted to Johnny Cake. Either way, this corn meal pancake kept Ebenezer Denny alive through some of his most severe military adventures.”

MAYOR MATTHEW B. LOWRIE (The fifth Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From Jackie Lowrie, his great-great-great-great-great-grandaughter: 

2 cups baking molasses
1 cup shortening
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking soda
6 cups flour


  1. 1. Melt the molasses and shortening together, then pour over sugar. Mix well.
  2. 2. Sift cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and baking soda with part of the flour. Add to the molasses mixture.   
  3. 3. Add more flour until batter reaches desired stiffness. Chill overnight.   
  4. 4. Preheat oven to 350ºF.  
  5. 5. Roll out the dough to -inch-thick or less. Cut into squares and bake for 5-7 minutes.

MAYOR ROBERT LIDDELL (The 31st Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From Marlene Marchese Robershaw, the granddaughter of Robert’s sister-in-law, Edith Pauline Barker. “This was the only thing I saw my grandmother bake. She and my mom would pour something over this cake four days before Christmas. They never told me what it was. Now I know it was either brandy or rum — shame  on Grandma! She was always such a prohibitionist!” 

1cup dried fruit (raisins, prunes, or a mix of both)
½ cup sugar
½ cup molasses
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup milk
1 egg
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour


  1. 1. Cut the dried fruit into thirds, then soak in a bowl of hot water.   
  2. 2. Stir sugar, molasses, oil, milk, egg, nutmeg, cinnamon, and baking soda together. 
  3. 3. Drain the dried fruit, and stir into the batter. Add flour until stiff.   
  4. 4. Lightly grease a cookie tin. (You will not be using the lid.) Fill with batter, and place the tin in a pot of water, covering only one-third of the tin.   
  5. 5. Simmer with the pot’s lid on until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean (about 30 minutes). 

Optional steps: Soak the cake with brandy or rum before serving, or serve with a rum or brandy sauce over it. Whipped cream makes a nice topping, too!

MAYOR RICHARD CALIGUIRI (The 55th Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From Richard’s widow, Jeanne. “This one was a favorite salad of his. Notice how he incorporated some made-in-Pittsburgh products into the sweet and sour dressing.":

Yield: 4-6 servings

1 cup vegetable oil
⅓ cup Heinz ketchup
½ cup sugar 
1 small onion, diced 
¼ cup Heinz white vinegar 
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 
pound fresh spinach, cleaned and torn into pieces
pound fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced lengthwise
½ pound cooked bacon, crumbled 
3 hard-cooked eggs, diced 


  1. 1. Blend vegetable oil, ketchup, sugar, onion, white vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce in a blender for 1 minute. 
  2. 2. Divide the spinach among 4-6 salad bowls. Top with mushrooms, bacon, and eggs.
  3. 3. Toss with the dressing and serve.

MAYOR THOMAS J. “TOM” MURPHY, JR. (The 57th Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From his son, Thomas, and daughter, Shannon. “This is a more modern take on a recipe my father’s grandmother always made. We still make it every Thanksgiving,” says Thomas: 

Yield: 8 servings 

8 oz tub Cool Whip
½ cup sour cream
11 oz can mandarin oranges, drained 
20 oz can pineapple, drained
1 cup seedless grapes, halved
1 cup Granny Smith apple, cubed
1 cup coconut flakes
cups miniature marshmallows (preferably fruit-flavored)
¾ cup chopped nuts, (preferably pecans, walnuts, cashews, or pistachios) optional


  1. 1. In a large serving bowl, fold Cool Whip into sour cream.  
  2. 2. Fold in the mandarin oranges, pineapple, grapes, Granny Smith apple, coconut flakes, miniature marshmallows, and chopped nuts.   
  3. 3. Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving.

MAYOR ROBERT E. “BOB” O’CONNOR, Jr. (The 58th Mayor of Pittsburgh)


From Bob’s widow, Judy “Bob was a meat and potatoes man, so he enjoyed pot roast.”:

3 pounds chuck roast, trimmed
5 potatoes, sliced in half
2 sweet potatoes, sliced in half
6 carrots, cleaned and sliced
4 onions, sliced in half
6 whole mushrooms
Steak seasoning
Beef gravy


  1. 1. Flour the chuck roast and cook over medium-high heat until brown.  
  2. 2. Cook chuck roast, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and mushrooms in a crock pot on low for 6 hours.  
  3. 3. Season with salt, pepper, steak seasoning, basil, and beef gravy to taste.

MAYOR WILLIAM PEDUTO (The 60th Mayor of Pittsburgh) 


From Eva Peduto, Bill’s mother, as told to his uncle Frank Peduto. “As is typical with most good Italian cooks, exact recipes are not written down. And this is the case with Eva Peduto’s ox-tail soup. The main thing she stressed was that all of the ingredients had to be the freshest and the best quality. She would get them in the Strip District and other good shops. She prepared it like a vegetable soup, only with ‘real good’ ox-tails.”: 

3 spoonfuls butter or fat
4 small ox-tails, chopped with fat removed
1 organic carrot, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs parsley
2 quarts cold water or stock
1 can Italian tomatoes
2 stalks fresh celery, chopped
1 potato, chopped into large pieces
Pastina or rice
Grated Italian cheese


  1. 1. Melt the butter or fat in a large pot. Brown the ox-tails, then mix in carrot and onion.   
  2. 2. Place the bay leaf and parsley in a cheesecloth bag. Add the spice bag, water or stock, tomatoes, celery, and potato into the pot. 
  3. 3. Bring to a boil, then simmer until meat is tender (2-3 hours). 
  4. 4. Strain off the fat and remove the spice bag. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. 5. Add pastina or rice, and simmer until cooked.
  6. 6. Serve with a topping of grated Italian cheese.

Special thanks to Gloria Forouzan of The Office of Mayor William Peduto


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