For the love of brown what?

Jan 5, 2005 at 12:00 am

Grandma Fay Nicoson Campbell left behind a true rarity — two actually, one rarer than the other. And both arose as part of a Depression-era moneymaking scheme — two actually, one on the part of my grandmother.

The first is the Junior model of the Brown Bobby doughnut-maker, manufactured by the now-defunct Food Display Machine Corp., of Chicago.

The second is Grandma’s handwritten recipe for her version of the peculiar triangular doughnut. When Googling for others, all I found were a few requests for any Brown Bobby recipe.

I’m going to answer those requests, but first share it with you.

The Brown Bobby maker was promoted as a “greaseless doughnut machine,” that could serve as the basis of a thriving home business or even could be taken to the land of honey by big thinkers who had enough gumption to start franchise stores.

All you had to do was buy a Junior machine (yield, six per batch) for $52, or a Senior model (yield, one dozen per batch) for $100. Of course, the purchase price of either included advice from the manufacturer “for the life of your machine,” ad materials and other trivial promotional stuff.

Food Display Machine contended that the Senior model could turn out 180 Brown Bobbies an hour, which could be sold wholesale at 18 cents a dozen for a gross profit (after materials cost) of $14.40 a day. Of course, if you were just supplementing your income with a Junior operation, you could do so “without interfering with your household duties.”

That was Grandma Campbell. Now bear in mind that this was during the Depression, when a horse-drawn milk wagon of the sort Grandpa C used to deliver milk house-to-house for Borden’s could be had for around $25, less than half the payout for a Brown Bobby Junior machine. Then there was the cost of ingredients, which the manufacturer was happy to provide as a kit. But my grandparents, both good Scots and of thrifty farm stock, were smart enough to suspect that individual ingredients were surely cheaper than a kit. After buying one kit, Grandma wrote to Food Display Corp., to suggest that her idea was the way to go.

I have to give it to the company. A Mr. G. L. Parkand answered her letter on March 14, 1931, saying, “We frankly admit in our literature, Mrs. Campbell, that from your own fresh mix made by the formulas furnished with the machine, you can not only produce a better product but the production cost will be much less than when the prepared mix is used.”

So for a time — we don’t know how long — Grandpa peddled Grandma’s Brown Bobbies from his milk wagon. I don’t know what they charged, but I recently found a 1941 menu from the Black Cat Café in Honolulu that had them on its menu, two for a nickel.

The most important point here is that Grandma’s Brown Bobbies were very, very tasty with a cake-like texture and a lightness that isn’t found in fried doughnuts. We must’ve eaten a ton of them over the years.

When Grandma died, my sister, Deb Talmage, assumed the mantle of Brown Bobby queen, having learned how to make them from Grandma, who gave her the perfectly operating old pea-green machine.

As wonderful as Grandma’s version was, Deb managed to make a couple of improvements, like lowering the cooking temperature after filling the machine — similar in function to a waffle iron — to get a more golden than brown finish. She also sometimes substitutes dried cranberries for raisins. And Deb uses a mixer, while Grandma did the work by hand. For the holidays this year, she made an estimated 200 Brown Bobbies for family, and another 200 or so for friends.

That sounds like a lot, but believe her when she says, “You can’t eat just one.” With me, it’s more like four, or five or six or more.

While Brown Bobby machines are extremely hard to find, they do show up now and then. One from Ohio recently sold on eBay for $785 — without recipes. I also found a note from a guy who’d located a company that would duplicate the machine, but using aluminum instead of cast iron, for about $1,500.

If you want to give it a go, Salton’s Maxim DN20 doughnut-maker, which bakes instead of fries, lists for $39.95.

So here’s a very, very rare gift, from my family to yours. I don’t know the yield, but it won’t be enough.


Fay & Deb’s Golden-Brown Bobbies

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening (Grandma’s choice over butter in the original “formula”)
3 eggs, well beaten
2 cups fresh buttermilk (another Grandma innovation)
1 teaspoon each of salt, soda and nutmeg

2 teaspoons baking powder
4 scant cups of flour
1/2 cup raisins, soaked in just enough hot water to cover.

For glaze or frosting:

Stir a little milk into powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.

1. Cream together shortening and sugar. Beat in eggs, then buttermilk. In another bowl, sift together the dry ingredients.

2. Drain raisins. (Deb saves the soaking liquid to capture the fruit flavor, then adds it to the wet mixture, compensating with a little extra flour.) Lightly toss raisins to coat in the dry mixture “so they don’t sink to the bottom of batter,” Grandma wrote.

3. Add wet mixture to dry, and combine well.

4. Turn machine on high, and pour in batter. Close cover, turn to low and bake for 13-15 minutes.

5. Glaze or frost. Serve.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]