Let’s take a look at a program widely known from the 1950s-1970s, at least to Michigan folks. If you were within the vicinity of the WJIM-TV station, you were likely tuning into Martha Dixon’s The Copper Kettle.
Long before Martha Stewart hit the airwaves with her signature catchphrase, “And that’s a good thing,” nine years before Julia Child appeared on public TV in 1963, and before Galloping Gourmet hit US TV in 1969, Martha Dixon was the trusted source for home cooks, at least in Michigan. It would become the source material for two beloved cookbooks you can view below.
Martha Dixon Cookbooks
WJIM-TV, Channel 6
Station owner Harold F. Gross was apprehensive about the whole TV business. He wasn’t so sure about TV at the time. So, he covered his bases. He had the new station designed as a motel, so if things with TV went south, he could easily convert the space into something more profitable. Yes, it even had a pool.
WJIM-TV was the new kid on the block. Signing on May 1, 1950; the station was named for station owner Harold F. Gross’ son, Jim (isn’t that cute?). Some say that station was won during a game of cards gone right. If that’s true, it makes sense you would want to tread carefully.
Known as WLNS-TV since 1984, Michiguide states it is now the second oldest broadcasting station outside of Detroit.
New Station, New Programming, New Host(s)
Lansing, Michigan local TV station WJIM Channel 6, now WLMS, began broadcasting, “Martha’s Dixon’s Copper Kettle” in 1953. Winifred Breithaupt Olds was the first host, according to her obit, and hosted until 1955.
However, a different article from The State Journal in Lansing, Michigan dated Sunday, September 20, 1953, announces the first air date of “The Copper Kettle” show as the next Monday.
That’s not all. The State Journal article also reveals the new kitchens in the WJIM-TV studio made just for the show. How fancy! What a great way to generate a little excitement. The article also shares the name of a different host. Wait, what?
Former Lansing, Michigan native and 1943 graduate of the School of Home Economics of Michigan State College, Anita Lincoln was going to “be showing tested recipes, preparing meals, and practicing her culinary arts for the television audiences each day,” according to the paper.
Anita Lincoln became the head dietician at the University of Baltimore, until broadcasting caught her eye, and she changed directions. She headed to Chicago, Illinois to become part of the home economist staff at a food company there. Funny enough, the paper lists the actual address for Anita’s parents, “Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Lincoln! Isn’t that a riot?
So, was Anita Lincoln the first host of “The Copper Kettle” or did something happen? Did she change her mind about relocation, thus making Winifred Olds the first host? Or did Winifred Olds replace Anita Lincoln? Does anyone know for sure? I sure would appreciate knowing the correct dates.
As for Winifred Olds, first host or not, she was an important part of growing the show and getting it off the ground.
Olds performed in over 40 local productions between 1942 and 2012 in addition to over a dozen directorial and production team credits. She also hosted the cooking show “The Copper Kettle” on WILX-TV from 1953-’56. In 2005, Olds won a Lifetime Achievement Pulsar Award, and in 2010 she received the Robert Busby Award for “Overall Contributions to Theater and Community.” Her final performance was in Starlight Dinner Theatre’s “Steel Magnolias” last year.“
She was a master of entrances and exits,” said her longtime friend Linda Granger, who directed her in “Magnolias.” “She just had this presence that made you pay attention to her. Sometimes when she appeared in a doorway, she’d have to wait for the applause to die before she could deliver her first line. It was magical.”
Her dramatic entrances were not confined to the stage. Dick MacLachlan shared a story about a trip Olds took to New York with some friends who found themselves cornered by a giant (hands held three feet apart) cockroach. Olds burst into the room, dispatched the beast with a heavy boot and chided the women for being scared with an “Oh, for God’s sake.”
Winifred Olds sounds like one fun lady! Doesn’t she just look like someone you’d want to be pals with? But, Winifred was moving out of the Lansing area to Detroit, Michigan. Someone needed to fill her place—and fast.
Meet Madeline Ver Planck: The Long-Time “Martha Dixon”
Madeline Ver Planck was familiar with “The Copper Kettle,” in the form of “guest.” As food and service supervisor in hotel and restaurant management at Kellogg center at Michigan State University, Winifred Olds had reached out, inviting Madeline to appear as her guest on the show.
From what I can tell, Kellogg Center holds State Room Restaurant, with fine casual dining. The timeline fits, as the restaurant opened Sept. 17, 1951. If that is where Madeline held a position, it was an impressive achievement. The Kellogg Center was the “first laboratory for hotel management,” and the first Kellogg Center for Continuing Education. There are eleven such sites today, according to the Kellogg Center and Hotel Conference Center website.
Madeline shared how months after her guest appearance, someone she referred to as “Finch” had reached out to her to take Winfred Old’s place. I later discovered the same reference in her cookbook. Madeline meant Vice President of WJIM-TV, Howard K. Finch.
She was just 33 at the time, but the Kellogg Center wasn’t her only resume point. Madeline had been in the business already, as dietician at The Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Now, you may know the lakefront venue as a fancy pants family resort or romantic getaway, named “the best US beach” (and plenty more) by several noteworthy names. That wasn’t always the case, as the Glen Arbor Sun points out. Back in the day, you could get a room at The Homestead for $5 a night!
Then, however, it was a winter camp type of place for boys, while in the summer it was more for “resorters,” according to The Homestead website.
Madeline next worked at Cat Key Club Hotel in Cat Cay, Bahamas — a private island, located 50 nautical miles from Miami. She referred to it as “that fabulous spot” in her cookbook. At least, I assume she means Cat Cay and not South Cat Cay. Either way, Madeline served as the dietician, though I can’t seem to find mention of that specific hotel. The closest I get is Cat Cay Yacht Club. Does anyone know more about that?
Becoming Martha Dixon of “The Copper Kettle”
Martha Dixon was the alter ego? Stage name? TV station branding? of Madeline Ver Planck. I’m not sure if the show began as “Martha Dixon’s” or changed. Her first TV hosting gig, “The Copper Kettle,” was to be a 30-minute program. Instead, it became a full 60-minute program, reads Madeline Ver Planck’s obit, informing the central Michigan audience for 25 years.
“The Copper Kettle” was different from other shows in the area. Unlike those TV programs with a focus on fashion, “The Copper Kettle” was “interested in everything that a homemaker wants to know about,” according to an interview with Madeline Ver Planck. Area guests included chefs, people from various clubs and organizations, local news, fashion, and of course Martha Dixon’s on-camera cooking.
“Serving quality food is a rewarding experience,” said John Gilbert of Gilbert Chocolate Company in Jackson, Michigan. High school-aged Madeline took the statement to heart. It was something she never forgot, and included his quote and its impact on her in her cookbook’s intro.
John Gilbert, self-made Michigan millionaire, certainly understood the power of feeding others. While there’s plenty to read about this interesting man, and his chocolate business, I thought you might enjoy the info below to get a better idea of why his simple statement would matter.
During World War II, the U.S. government placed orders for about 300,000 pounds of Gilbert’s Chocolates that were shipped throughout the world to members of the Army, Navy and Marines. The chocolates, called “Caballeros,” were in ornamental metal boxes that looked like treasure chests.Leanne Smith, Peek Through Time: Candyman John O. Gilbert Left a Sweet Legacy, MLive, January 21, 2019
While Madeline may have seemed like a good fit to host the show given her interest in food service, her experience, and the fact that she’d even appeared on it already so she was familiar with the way it worked, she wasn’t involved in broadcasting. Madeline wasn’t sure if she wanted the position. She already had a job. In fact, she had already planned a month-long vacation. She kept her vaca plans, using the time to think it over.
While on vacation, she realized the fun she had with her two sons, and wanted that to continue. If she agreed to appear on “The Copper Kettle,” then the afternoons would be her own, and give her more time with her family. She accepted the offer. But, her job didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling. Madeline supervised the catering there, sold advertising, and gave tours of the station.
As she said in “The State Journal” article (1961) I already referenced above, “It’s a job without a time clock. I know what I have to do.” I wonder how much free afternoon time she actually had, as her show grew in popularity. Between sales and tours and the rest, how much of her afternoon was eaten up by the work that had to get done? What a busy lady!
When Madeline wasn’t working on the show or spending time with her family, she had plenty of other outside interests. Collecting recipes was one of her hobbies (sounds familiar, right?). Receiving fan mail with favorite recipes tucked inside must have been wonderful. I wonder if she had binders or envelopes full of them? How much fun would that be to go through, read, and test those recipes? Madeline also enjoyed horseback riding and reading poetry or biographies.
Subscribers to “The Copper Kettle,” appear to have received recipes each week to coincide with the weekly broadcast, according to Capital Area District Libraries Local History Online section. If you have these recipes, it looks as though the library could use certain years, like 1975 for example, to fill-in-the-blanks.
Interestingly enough, in a 1961 article, she mentioned she had featured two recipe booklets on the show and had received 2,500 requests for them “so far.” It’s safe to say that Central Michigan trusted “Martha Dixon’s Copper Kettle.”
The recipe subscriber mailings continued even after the show ended. Until 1983, subscribers received a special holiday recipe list. After that point, “The Copper Kettle Cookbook 20th Anniversary Edition” became available and the freebies ended.
Madeline Ver Planck may have passed away July 9, 2009, but her recipes and legacy remain. “The Copper Kettle Cook Book” is still consider a “must have” by so many folks. A Michigan bakery owner had a Martha Dixon Day back in 2012.
My mommy owned Martha’s cookbook, and I remember as a child, staring at it wanting to eat all the beautiful food pictured on the cover, especially the desserts. My mommy was honored to be on Martha’s show as she demonstrated cookie baking, and still talks about the experience with proud fondness. Martha Dixon’s sweet disposition, easy expertise in the kitchen, and her lovely smile made her a dear mentor to me and many others. In retrospect, I think given her cooking and media talents, I am sure she would have been a contender for a national show today; a well deserved feat for such an admirable woman.Linda Hundt, Memories of Martha…, Sweetie-licious Bakery Café, February 6, 2012
Martha Dixon’s Cookbooks
I have a copy of Martha Dixon’s Copper Kettle (thanks, Mom!). It is a wonderful read and obviously well-loved, with spatters and stains on so many pages. I love that! It’s 6″ x 9″ x 1 1/2″ (ish) and weighs in at roughly a pound and a half with 480 pages.
My copy does have a messed up index due to what I assume is a printing error, as every two pages after a two-page spread are missing. For example, my index listings jumps from Seafood to Stuffed Orange (with a pair of blank pages between). I have the December 1963 second printing. Ah, so frustrating. The lack of pages makes it impossible to find specific recipes since the book is arranged by more than course, so be sure to check any prospective copy before you commit to a purchase.
The chapters are:
- Salads and Their Dressings
- Poultry, Game, and Fish
- Sauces for Meats, Fowl, Fish, Vegetables
- Relished and Fruits to Accompany Meat and Fowl
- Rice, Noodles, and Dumplings
- Eggs and Cheese
- Casseroles and One-Dish Meals
- Stuffing for Fowl
- Quick Breads
- Biscuits and Rolls
- Doughnuts, Coffee Cakes, and Muffins
- Ice Cream Desserts
- Fruit Desserts
- Sauces for Desserts
- Country House Desserts
- Cakes and Frostings
- Candies and Confectioneries
- Sugar ‘n’ Spice Contest Recipes
This cookbook doesn’t include images, but it is interspersed with illustrations by Ilse Eerdmans Weidenaar. After a little digging, all I could see was the obit for Reynold H. Weidenaar (ex-husband, an artist), mentioning that Ilse was an accomplished painter. Her family published the cookbook. I’d love to see more of Ilse’s works. Her illustrations are excellent.
Cookbook readers will enjoy reading through this one. My “Copper Kettle” cookbook is fun to read because Madeline offer puts in a sentence or two or a big paragraph about the recipe. Madeline doesn’t always offer up commentary, but with plenty of recipes including text, you get a little story or a note about who gave her the recipe or background on where a dish came from, like the case of her Shrimp Sarapico, which came from Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, Florida. Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world! How cool to have a bit of that in an unexpected place, like the pages of a Michigan-based TV show.
My sincere wish to everyone who uses my Copper Kettle Cook Book is: “Bon appétit!”Martha Dixon, Preface: Martha Dixon’s Copper Kettle Cook Book (December 1963),Page 10.