SHENANDOAH, Iowa — Shenandoah's fried chicken dinner icon is retiring next month at age 84˝.
For 20 years, Emmy Bengtson and her sister Mary Ann Waltz worked side by side cooking for the chicken dinner buffet at the Elks Club, feeding up to 300 people two Sundays each month.
When Bengtson's sister died on Christmas Day 2012, life changed for Bengtson.
“I wanted to keep cooking for the Elks until I was 85, but I think 84˝ is going to do it,” Bengtson said. Mary Ann was 2˝ years younger than Bengtson.
Many of Bengtson's family members help cook for the Elks. “My family helps fry the chicken, but they're tired too. We have a very close family and great gatherings, always have.”
She can still lift 50 pounds of potatoes and touch the floor with the flat of her hand. “I do that every day, so I don't lose it. But I hate to admit it — I think I'm getting old. It's all too much to do now. I have to have knee surgery, and it's time to relax with the family,” she said.
Although “Emmy's Chicken Dinner” is what's always been posted on the Elks Club's sign on Highway 59, Mary Ann actually fried the chicken, Bengtson said. “I don't know how I got my name on the sign. I just make the vegetables and most of the desserts. We just shared.”
The pair began cooking the dinners when Mary Ann quit her job and Bengtson sold her restaurant to care for their parents, who were ages 89 and 92.
Bengtson owned the Anchor Inn in Farragut, now named the Admiral Inn.
Years ago, Valley News columnist Evelyn Birkby invited syndicated columnists Jane and Michael Stern to Bengtson's restaurant. The Sterns were so taken by her cinnamon rolls that they wrote a column about them in the gourmet food, wine, and travel magazine Saveur.
“I gave them the recipe to publish, but they changed it from a gallon of this and that to a cup of this and that,” Bengtson said, laughing.
She received cinnamon roll orders via letters and phone calls, and shipped them all over the country.
She revealed her secret ingredient: “It's just my grandmother's recipe. I always saved the water from boiling potatoes for the next morning's cinnamon rolls.”
Bengtson has thoroughly enjoyed cooking for the masses.
“You know, when a cake turns out beautifully or a pie crust turns out perfect and everyone tells you how good it is, that's your pay for what you've done,” she said.
She learned her craft from her widowed grandmother, with whom she lived, just half mile from her parents.
“I stayed with her so she wouldn't have to be alone, so I got the best of both worlds.
“When I was 12, Grandma said, 'It's time for you to learn to cook.' She was an excellent cook who could whip up the best meals. I learned to measure with a handful of this and pinch of that, so I had a natural love of cooking.”
Her favorite food is coconut cream pie.
“I love to make pie, and I love to eat it. I really don't have a favorite meat, but I suppose it is fried chicken,” she said.
Her favorite thing to make is dessert, which is the largest section in her cookbook, “Emmy's Home Cooking.”
Her cookbook can be purchased for $10 at First Heritage Bank in Farragut, or call Bengtson at 712-385-8229.