Gourmet Dude-Ranch Cook

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The Crook family, circa 1945

Edith Crook was a legend in her own time.

Edith Crook was a legend in her own time and remains so today. She was a remarkable woman who took on many roles over 30 years: successful truck farmer, source of refuge for Japanese families during World War II, inventive cook during the divorce ranch years … and she is renowned worldwide for her booze-enhanced fruit cakes. All this happened on the This Is It Ranch, a bucolic spot about 10 miles south of Downtown Reno.

A Surprising Beginning

Considering how well Crook adapted to Nevada life, it is surprising to discover she was a “poor rich girl from Syracuse, New York,” according to her son, Rusty Crook, who still lives on the family property.

As a young person, she led a sheltered life. Then she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1943, her second marriage, to Peter Crook, brought her and 9-year-old Rusty to Nevada in search of a ranch property to look for what Peter called the “three As”: affordability, availability, and accessibility. While touring property south of Reno, Peter turned to Edith and exclaimed, “This is it!” thus giving the land its name.

The 35 acres had mature trees and lush meadows. Peter quickly learned about agriculture, and the family grew vegetables and produced turkeys, chickens, and ducks for area restaurants and casinos. Their truck farm made good money.

A source of farm help came in 1944, during World War II, when three Japanese-American families were relocated to the ranch instead of being placed in one of the government’s internment camps. The families were offered a share of the ranch’s profits. They built chicken coops, greenhouses, and lathe houses, and they oversaw the crops. Their extensive agricultural knowledge helped transform This Is It Ranch into a productive and profitable operation. The FBI checked on the families weekly, according to Rusty, and the ranch “fed a lot of Reno.”

A Fruitful Guest Ranch

In 1947, after the war, Edith discovered a skill that made her famous: cooking gourmet meals. The ranch became a haven for the divorcees who came to Nevada for their required six-week residency. Rusty said the family knew all the lawyers in town who directed guests to the ranch. The rural location provided the anonymity and discretion that guests, such as heiress Alicia DuPont, sought during their stay.

Edith was a self-taught cook, but she had the advantage of knowing good food, thanks to her privileged upbringing. She set out to recreate that world in her kitchen, favoring French cuisine. Three meals daily were included in the residency. When word got out that chateaubriand, veal cordon bleu, crêpes, and soufflés were on the menu, the six slots at the guest ranch always were full.

“We didn’t make much money, but we ate like kings and had a good life,” Rusty says.

While still operating the guest ranch, Edith branched out with a fruit cake business. She used her grandmother’s recipe and made everything from scratch. An advertisement, published in the Reno Evening Gazette on Dec.12, 1953, read, “The most delicious fruit cakes you have ever eaten. These cakes are home-made, full of creamery butter, fresh eggs, and fruit mellowed in brandy.”

According to Rusty, the cakes weighed two pounds each and were loaded with enough brandy that Edith bought it by the case. In 1951, she began accepting orders and offering free delivery. Her client list included locals and the rich and famous. She had standing orders for 50 cakes for Reno casino owners Bill Harrah and Pappy Smith of Harolds Club. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the first lady of the Republic of China, also was a regular customer. Edith produced between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of cake annually and kept the business going for more than 30 years.

The ranch was reinvented again in the 1960s when Rusty created This Is It summer camp. Drawing on his reputation and athletic skills, his day camp was popular for decades. When it closed its doors in 2013, it was the final chapter of the rich agricultural and gastronomical history of This Is It Ranch.

Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.

Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.

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