Category Archives: THINGS I REMEMBER

CHRISTMAS MANIA

Originally posted November, 2012.

For Biff and Bill, two of my younger brothers

Christmas has always been, throughout my life, the most special holiday of all. I was one of seven children and we were encouraged at a very young age to give presents to one another, our parents and our grandparents. Consequently, as Christmas approached, there would be much giggling and whispering, along with outraged threats when one became annoyed with a sibling. “Just for THAT, you aren’t going to get a Christmas present from ME!”

Of course, those threats were never carried out and as Christmas approached, we all fell pell-mell into a frenzy of shopping, making and wrapping up presents. I remember Santa ornaments made out of walnut shells, a lot of Woolworth’s hair nets and cards of bobby pins, and a bottle of nail polish that had a cap resembling a fingernail. There were dozens of bottles of Midnight in Paris cologne on my mother’s vanity and odd little gifts like miniature German-American dictionaries.

For we didn’t, of course, have much money–this was in the early 1940s after the end of World War II. The gifts we children made or bought were devised out of our own ingenuity or resources. We didn’t have any such thing as an allowance, and it was difficult to earn money. We did, though. We mowed lawns and shoveled snow; I sold greeting cards from Cardinal Craftsman for my mother, to the neighbors; we picked apples from my grandmother’s back yard trees and cherries from our own back yard. We ran errands for all the neighbor ladies (usually good for a nickel—but sometimes all you got was a cookie…it was considered bad etiquette to ask in advance how much you might get for running an errand. You ran the errand, and then crossed your fingers.
We collected soda pop bottles which were worth two cents each, and cashed them in. When we got a little older, there were babysitting jobs and paper routes and for my older brother, Jim, setting bowling pins at St Bonnie’s bowling alley (before automatic pinsetters were invented). He also had a parttime job working for Durkee Foods, where our Uncle George worked and occasionally brought home items that had expired dates on them. sometimes the expired cans of biscuits would explode when you began to open them.

We saved old gift wrap and ribbons from one year to the next and ironed out the paper and ribbons. We made tags out of old Christmas cards, construction paper and those little stickers that didn’t stick to anything else.

Throughout all of this, as Christmas approached, we memorized Christmas songs—hymns and tunes like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. I happen to belong to the generation that remembers when Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman were first released. We had the sheet music for piano and learned all the words. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my grandmother’s club that year.

We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet and we practiced these melodies ad nauseam, until everyone around us was thoroughly tired of hearing them. When we got tired of hearing each other, my mother would sit down at the piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think, the only Christmas song she knew how to play. She never had lessons and played entirely by ear. Incredible, when I think of it. She was actually pretty good. And because she never could read music, it was probably also why she pushed so hard for us to have music lessons. **

My younger brothers and I went downtown, in Cincinnati, once a year – sometime just before Christmas and a few times right on Christmas Eve day. We’d have our hard-earned pennies and nickels and dimes tightly guarded against potential pickpockets—sometimes as much as a dollar—to shop for Christmas presents. We took the bus from Fairmount to the downtown area, do our shopping, visit all the department store Santas (we knew they weren’t the real Santa but each one was good for a peppermint stick) and have lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter as well. You could get a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle, and a coke, for fifteen cents. We three shared one sandwich, one coke. Bus fare each way was a nickel, leaving us at least seventy five cents to shop with.

Not too many years ago, my childhood girlfriend Carol confessed that she was always jealous of me on those shopping trips.

“ME!” I exclaimed, “Whatever FOR?”
“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than
anybody else.”

My brothers and I have fond memories of those shopping excursions.

Late in the afternoon, we’d board the bus, elated with our purchases and go home to wrap them up in ironed-out previously used gift wrap. I think we ironed out the ribbons too (this was long before pre-made bows became available).

“The funny thing is,” I told my friend, Carol – “I was no more than ten years old when I began taking my brothers downtown. Can you imagine letting one of your own children do that at the age of ten?”
Times have changed, we agreed. **

We listened, from Thanksgiving on, to Santa Claus reading children’s letters on the radio –all the way from the North Pole! That, we knew, was the real honest to goodness Santa. The Santas in Department stores were just helpers.

And throughout all of this planning and preparing, none of us lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. It was there for us to see in the crèche made up of almost-life-size statues in our church. There was a living nativity downtown at Garfield Park that we visited every year too. Real animals. Real Mary and Joseph. Not a real Baby Jesus though. We had advent calendars and we sang Christmas hymns in church and school. We went shopping with our mother and got new shoes at Schiff’s, and a new hat and outfit to wear to church on Christmas morning. I think some of the new clothing was ordered by mail.

Christmas was celebrated, officially, at our house on Christmas Eve. We children were usually sent to my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue, for the afternoon. If my brothers and I had gone shopping that day, we went to grandma’s house afterwards. There wasn’t a hint of Christmas in our own home prior to Christmas Eve. Then my father would come with the car to pick us up. His cousin, Barb, who was my godmother, was often with him. Everyone piled into the car to go home. As we pulled up in front of the house, we would see the lights on the Christmas tree through the living room window. Sometimes snowflakes would begin to fall.

“He’s been here! He’s been here!” all of us children would shriek, tumbling out of the car and up the steps to the house. My mother would meet us at the door. “He’s just leaving!” she’d cry. “If you hurry you might catch a glimpse of him from the back door—“

The pageant never changed. We all shouted the same words every year. My mother’s responses were always the same. We’d fall all over one another trying to catch a glimpse – too late! He was gone – but oh, boy, see what he’s left behind!

The tree would be in a corner of the living room—surrounded, it seemed to our childish eyes, with a tremendous wealth of toys and presents. My mother would call out the names on the packages, one by one. One year she was in the hospital right up until Christmas. She came home to be with the family and had to return to the hospital shortly thereafter. (In retrospect, I think this was a year when she had a miscarriage, followed by a blood transfusion, which led to a bout with Hepatitis—she was in the hospital for most of one winter).

I realize now that there weren’t so many presents under our tree—and much of it consisted of what we gave to one another and the bulk of gifts from our parents were practical –generally socks and underwear –but the delight was always there. My two younger brothers always asked for (and seems like they always received) gun-and-holster sets, like Roy Rogers wore, and wind-up trains that never seemed to last from one year to the next, although my older brother Jim had a Lionel train set that survived a lot of childish abuse.

At a very young age, I developed a great love for books—one of my favorite Christmas memories is the one when my brother Jim gave me five – FIVE! brand new Nancy Drew books. It was heaven.

Is it any wonder that the joy of Christmas spilled over into my adult life? At our house, we began “thinking Christmas” as early as May, when the first raspberries ripened to make raspberry jam. Later, we made pomegranate jelly and pomegranate cordial, and I would begin stocking up on nuts, chocolate chips, sugar and flour, to make fruitcake and cookies. I collected a huge assortment of Christmas books and magazines and the pages often became dog-eared from so much handling as Christmas approached. Every member of the family had their particular favorite cookie and no matter how often I resolved “not to let everything get out of hand this year” by the time I’ve baked everyone’s favorite, every container in the house is filled to the brim with cookies.

When my sons were really little, I’d buy gifts all year long and wrap them as soon as possible, to hide in a closet far out of the reach of inquiring eyes and poking fingers—but no matter how secretive I thought I was, my son Chris’ packages always had a finger hole punched through each one of the packages that had his name on it. (One year, I overlooked an entire box of wrapped gifts and didn’t find it until after Christmas – but we were celebrating Hanukkah with my girlfriend Rosalia and her family, so I took the gifts to her house to give to my sons as Hanukkah presents. They thought celebrating Hanukkah was just fine).

Christmas catalogs started arriving in the mail around in September—happily, I was not alone in my mania and a number of friends shared my enthusiasm; we’d swap catalogs and go through them until they were almost in shreds from handling. The children would go through the catalogs too.

“I want this,” they’d say. “and this…and this…and this…”

We saved fruitcake tins and collected baskets of all sizes. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if each of our friends didn’t receive a goody basket when they came to visit. One year, the boys decorated “gingerbread houses” made out of graham crackers. Another time we made gingerbread boys and girls for all of the children. We have, on different Christmases, baked dozens of different kinds of cookies and confections…not so difficult to do, really. I would make up batches of cookie dough to freeze or refrigerate—this could be done months in advance—then spent a week (evenings only since I worked full time) baking up one batch after another.

When I was a newlywed, our first Christmas tree ornaments were some old glass blown ornaments from Germany that had belonged to my husband’s mother. The original hooks had been lost and my husband, when he was a teenager, had twisted bits of flexible black wire on them instead. We still have those glass ornaments with the black bits of twisted wire. Way back when, I started collecting ornaments – originally with the thought in mind that as each of my sons got married, they would have a collection of their own ornaments. My collection grew so much that it became impossible to get them all on one tree. So we added a second tree. Then a third. Our last Christmas in Arleta in 2007, we had eight Christmas trees throughout the house.
Whenever I went on vacation somewhere, I’d look for a Christmas store—amazing how many cities have one! (Favorite Christmas stores? One near Carmel, California that my sister Becky and I discovered one year, and one in Atlanta, Georgia where we had flown for a niece’s wedding).

Ornaments make great gifts too and over the years my many nieces and nephews have received an assortment of homemade ornaments from Aunt Sandy. One year they received clothespin soldiers, another year a friend’s mother made up crocheted snowflakes for me. Still another Christmas the children received ceramic gingerbread boys and girls that a penpal of mine in Maryland made up for me. And another Christmas, a penpal in New Jersey made up tiny clothespin gnomes for me. Christmas ornaments, I always felt, were the ideal gift – they’re put up on a tree for a short time during the holidays, no one ever tires of seeing hem and remembering where they came from—and every Christmas, and those ornaments bring back memories to the recipients.
The plaster of Paris crèche in our home was purchased piece by piece in dime stores back in the late 1950s; many of the pieces are chipped from being handled repeatedly by my sons when they were little. They liked to re-arrange the figures. One year we somehow misplaced St Joseph and had to have one of the Wisemen stand in for him.

One year, I fulfilled a lifelong desire to make an entire gingerbread house (it was a lot of WORK and I don’t think I will ever attempt it again–Bob did a great deal of the work putting all the parts of the house together) – and another year when we were in northern California for Thanksgiving weekend, we found a Lionel train, fulfilling another lifelong dream. (Then I didn’t want the younger children handling the Lionel train, so we began buying battery-operated oversized train sets).

When I was living in Florida, I acquired two penpals who loved Christmas as much as I, and we forged a special friendship, sharing memories and exchanging (what else?) homemade ornaments.

Christmas is too commercialized, you say? I don’t think so. There are still many of us around who love Christmas, who have never lost sight of the fact that Christmas is our celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.

Christmases, from the time you begin to create a family until your children are grown and bringing their children to Grammy and Grandpa for Christmas—are a collection of memories and maybe that’s what much of Christmas is all about – all those memories, spanning decades, going back to your own earliest childhood.
**
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.

Sandra Lee Smith

Advertisements

THEN ALONG CAME THE BETTY CROCKER PICTURE COOKBOOK

In 1950, perhaps noting the huge success of the Better Home & Garden Cookbook which was first published in 1930, General Mills introduced Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, also in a ring binder. However, unlike BH&G, the Betty Crocker cook book made no effort to encourage housewives to add their own recipes and didn’t include blank pages with which to add recipes. But, it WAS a picture cookbook, often providing step by step photographs or graphic art illustrations.

Before the first red-and-white cookbook was released to the public, however, employees of General Mills received a special limited edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with a presentation line on which an employee’s name was written, and below it was printed “With the Warm Good Wishes of General Mills …. And signed underneath that was the handwritten name “Betty Crocker.”

Some years ago, my supervisor at the office where I worked – who had become a good friend as well – offered this special limited edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book to me; the person it had been presented to had been her MOTHER although it was her FATHER, who had worked at General Mills. I happily accepted the book which came in a cardboard case of the same dark blue as the book itself. Unlike the first edition released to the public, the limited edition had a red, yellow design on a blue denim-like background—kind of a Pennsylvania Dutch motif. The book has been kept in the case for over fifty years so, needless to say, it’s in very good condition.

The binder edition of the Betty Crocker picture cook book that was released also in 1950 has a red background and a white design (actually, the design is identical to the limited edition except the limited edition has a red and yellow Dutch design while the binder cookbooks has a white design on a red background (I think I have seen this design on quilts). I have four of these first edition cookbooks; none have held up very well; the covers have deteriorated over the years and I discovered that some of the first pages are missing in almost all of the books. I think only one of them is completely intact. Because of the way the books are put together—in a binder which can be opened and closed – it was easy for the holes to wear through the paper and perhaps pages were simply lost.

It’s easy to see why they are so desirable amongst collectors; the graphics are especially charming and Betty Crocker begins the cookbook with the assumption that her readers don’t know a thing about cooking. We learn how to measure, we learn the meaning of terms; there are explanations of herbs and a dictionary of special and foreign terms.

The original Big Red Cookbook was immediately popular with a postwar audience seeking basic cooking advice and simple recipes that took advantage of several then-new convenience products.

After selling more than 3,500,000 copies of the first Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (and many printings), a new and revised edition was published in 1956. I believe this is the book with a cover depicting a pie, roast turkey, corn on the cob and cookies. I am unable to find a copyright date in either of my copies of this edition, which was published by McGraw-Hill.

In 1961, Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book was published and this is the edition I first owned but now my memory has suffered a lapse. I have believed for years that this book was a wedding present – but I got married in December of 1958 – so how could this be? I can’t explain it. The 1956 edition doesn’t look as familiar to me as the 1961 one does.

In any case, the 1961 edition had undergone a complete facelift. Many of the cookie recipes in this cookbook are the very same ones I began experimenting with as a young bride. It was this 1961 edition with its paintbrush cookies that I began making for gift-giving. I remember making salted peanut crisps, Jumbles, Kaleidoscope Cookies and Brownies. From the chapter for Desserts I learned how to make tapioca cream and old fashioned rice pudding, old fashioned bread pudding and Lemon Cake Pudding. There was also a Hot Fudge Pudding and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake that I made frequently for my family – by then a husband and one son. And once, I tried my hand at the Baked Alaska. It didn’t turn out right and I wrote to Betty Crocker to complain. General Mills sent me a response that is buried in my cake file somewhere—I never tried to make Baked Alaska again, though.

Instruction was and still is the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book’s strongest feature, and any beginner cook can benefit from the many how-to features. These include step-by-step directions with photos, tips for kitchen timesaving, and troubleshooting advice. The book also includes several comprehensive glossaries (those on cooking terms and ingredients are particularly good).

So, what cookbook was a wedding present in 1958? I don’t know. My emotional attachment is to the 1961 edition. And, I hadn’t started buying cookbooks in 1958 – or 1961. That didn’t start to happen until 1965 when I began searching for club and church cookbooks.

I guess I’ll never know! Meantime I have 8 of the ring binder cookbooks, dating from 1950 to 1961! (*I was non-plussed, as I googled the cookbooks trying to pin down publishing dates, how MUCH some of those old cookbooks are selling for—five hundred dollars? You have to be kidding!)

Happy cooking – and happy cookbook collecting—and may all your cookbooks be worth a fortune!

Sandra Lee Smith

APRONS

The following was written–and posted–in 2011; since then I have added more full size aprons to my collection and aprons are just as hot four years later as they were in 2011.

A few years ago, a girlfriend and I were in an antique store when I came across a “vintage” bib apron, perhaps 1940s, – and fell in love.
“Could you make something like this for me?” I asked my girlfriend, who sews (I don’t sew. I cook. We can’t all do everything!)

She said she could, and she did–and now I have three of these big aprons, with big roomy pockets and I am seldom without one.
I found myself re-discovering aprons and wondering why, when you watch the chefs on the Food Network – none of them ever wears an apron! (I have ruined many a blouse or dress from cooking sans an apron–but these days you’ll seldom find me without one).

The aprons of my childhood bring to mind the voluminous ones worn by my Grandma Schmidt, who was as round as she was tall. Her dresses reached her ankles and her aprons were equally long and wide with huge pockets. I discovered, a few years ago, how handy aprons with pockets are when you go out to check the tomatoes in the garden and find yourself with handfuls of ripe tomatoes and no basket to put them into. The apron pockets work well. I also fill the pockets with clothespins when I am hanging linens or sheets on the clothesline. (Yes, some of us do still hang things on the line-but that’s another story).

Years ago, people didn’t have wardrobes the size of ours, today–and aprons, which could be easily washed, protected good dresses which might not have all been washable (never mind that everything had to be ironed too–perma-press hadn’t been invented yet) . I think the only times I ever saw Grandma without an apron were when she was going downtown (plus hat, dressy shoes, her handbag, and stockings) or to church. My mother also wore aprons but most of the ones in which she was photographed, were the half-size aprons. I, myself, need a bib apron because the spills and splashes usually land somewhere on my chest.

Aprons have a respectably long history, too – the earliest mention of an apron is in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve discovered they were naked and fashioned aprons from fig leaves. In the middle ages aprons became especially well known, as European craftsmen wore aprons as part of their everyday garments–old paintings of blacksmiths invariably picture them wearing a big old leather apron of some kind. I remember, as a child, the big white (well, originally it was white) aprons worn by the butcher in the butcher shops where my grandma went to buy a chicken or a cut of beef. There are also aprons used by carpenters which have many pockets to hold necessary tools. (hmmm, I think I would like to have one like that).

The apron worn in the kitchen was a fixture for more than a century, until the late 1970s–when it seems to have disappeared from our culinary landscape. Perhaps it has something to do with the perfect housewife image portrayed by the fifties–you know, “Father knows Best” and mother is always pictured wearing an apron with a wooden spatula in one hand, standing over the stove (Shades of Ozzie and Harriet?) Then women became liberated and burned not only their bras but also their aprons.

I always had a few aprons but they had been relegated to a seldom used linen drawer. Now, I have aprons within easy reach on several hangers on doors in the kitchen and I am not in the least embarrassed to be seen wearing one. (Some of them are really quite stylish, I think – and I love the pockets. Along with clothespins and Kleenex, I am usually carrying around my cell phone and digital camera).

For Christmas, my penpal/friend/and computer guru, Wendy, sent me two wonderful very retro looking aprons. Then my penpal Bev brought me a neat apron that she bought on a recent trip to Alaska – it has chocolate moose all over the print – and the her daughter brought me a new very-valentine-ish apron when she visited. Four new aprons in one year…can life get any better than this?

And not long ago I discovered a really great website dedicated to aprons after it was written about in the Los Angeles Times. Everything old is new again! I love it.

I am still mystified, however – how do all those people on the Food Network manage to cook entire meals (without wearing an apron) and without getting any of it on themselves?

If you Google “aprons” you will find a whole lot more websites devoted to this topic!

Happy cooking!

Sandy

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it on my blog around 2011 or 2012. Bear with me as I go back in time once again to reflect on my favorite hobby and pastime for all of my adult life: Christmas.

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY
It’s July and I have begun thinking about Christmas. Well, to tell the truth, I really start thinking about Christmas in January. This goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when I was raising four little boys and would search for clearance sale items right AFTER Christmas.
There is so much to plan and do for the holidays, but mainly my thoughts center around Christmas presents which are now stored, such as they are, in a spare bedroom. Throughout all the years we lived in Arleta, Christmas presents were stored in a very large built-in hall cupboard that I called (obviously) “The Christmas cupboard”.

Back in the day, I would send a box of books to my pen-pal, Eileen, in Australia. You had to get your overseas packages to the post office by September, so they would reach their destination by December (this was for surface rates. Airmail will get there a lot faster but costs quite a bit more). I used to send at least one box of books to Eileen each year. We loved the same authors, Eileen and I.

But our lives have changed quite a lot; we are now retired as are most of my penpals For years I sent Christmas parcels to all of them, little things picked up here and there along the way—or books. Now, no one can afford to exchange gifts although I still do exchanges with several of my penpals. My penpal Bev and I stopped exchanging Christmas presents but still do gifts for our birthdays which are on the same day.

I save up recipe booklets and inserts from cooking magazines to send to penpal Eve, who also lives in Australia—but there’s no timeframe for that. I just seal the envelope when it’s full. Indeed, all of our lives have changed and hardly anyone can afford to send gifts—not just the gifts but the cost of postage. Isn’t that sad?

I like to send some magazines and maybe a couple of jars of jam to my brother Bill every so often, not necessarily for Christmas. Ditto my brother, Jim. My sister Becky and I exchanged boxes of things throughout the year—often books—not for any particular reason – just because.

And speaking of my brother, Jim, I will always remember that he gave me my first books – five Nancy Drew mysteries – when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was an unforgettable moment in my life. What I discovered, then, was that it was not enough just to read the books: I had to own them, too).

However, all of this being what it is, I still continue to make up batches of jellies and jams, pickles and relishes—and start around in May when fresh strawberries become available in our supermarkets. My friend Bev often brings me some pureed blackberries when she and her husband visit me before heading for Arizona in January, to meet up with other Oregonian snowbirds for the winter. Blackberry is my favorite; not a lot gets given away.
I will still make little loaves of banana bread (and save up ripe bananas, mashed and measured in one cup increments, in the freezer) and I love to make fruitcake—but who is there to give fruitcake to any longer?

I like to make cookies and candy in the fall, to give as Christmas gifts—and last year my grandson, Ethan, became my sous chef in the kitchen as we made some Christmas cookies. He wanted to give Buckeye Balls (a kind of peanut butter candy that is dipped in melted chocolate to look like a buckeye) – those are very popular and well known in Ohio, my hometown, but not so much here. We bought pretty little boxes with plastic openings on the lids, at Michael’s and while I directed in the kitchen, Ethan actually made the buckeye balls and packaged them to give to some of his favorite people. He and his sister, Savannah (who is now 17 and not as preoccupied with cookies anymore) have been making cookies with me since they were very young children, maybe starting out around the age of eight.

I send cookies and candy to the claims department at the office where I worked for 27 years, with the help of an employee who lives in the Antelope Valley and does a delivery for me ever since I moved up here. I also send a jar of jam to friends who are still working there.
A word about cookies – some, like lebkuchen and gingerbread cookies can be made well in advance and allowed to mellow in a tightly closed container. A lot of cookies can be wrapped tight and stored in the freezer until the holiday draws near. Some are too fragile (such as meringue cookies) and shouldn’t be made until right before Christmas.

And I can’t recommend making them at all if you live in a humid State such as Florida. (This is the voice of experience talking—I lived in Florida for 3 years). Meringue cookies do keep pretty well in a dry climate such as the high desert, where I now live. If I am going to glaze or frost cookies, I don’t do that until I take cutout cookies out of the freezer just before Christmas, and then add my finishing touches. Gifts of cookies can be given to the girls at my post office, to my mail carrier, to my mechanic, or other service people who are in my life. Who doesn’t enjoy a box of freshly baked cookies? Last year, Ethan helped me take two large trays of cookies to the nurses at the chemo center where Bob underwent treatment throughout the year.

I have written in the past about the Christmas cookbooks in my collection – but this year, I would like to tell you about just one Christmas cookbook although there are dozens in my cookbook collection. And, since I have also written in the past about my own childhood Christmas memories, I thought it would be nice to share those of other (somewhat more prominent) writers.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” is a collection of Christmas memoirs and recipes offered by famous chefs and cookbook authors. It was published by Kitchen Arts & Letters/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. It is available on both Amazon and Alibris, some copies for as little as 25 cents, others – such as Alibris – has copies for 99c. But a word of caution—I found copies of the same book with the author being listed as Evan Jones or Martha Stewart – they are just contributors to the book itself. I will attempt to include a photograph of the book I am referring to. Amazon.com does have some other cookbooks with the very same title but judging from the covers, they’re not the same book.

And goodness knows—there are hundreds of Christmas-themed cookbooks and memoirs as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of cookbooks about cookie making. Before we moved to the desert, a friend came and created a spreadsheet for me on my computer—I logged on all of the Christmas/cookie titles and found I now have over 500 (yikes!) – a far cry from the days when my sons were children and most of my cookie recipes came from Farm Journal cookbooks or recipes I found in December magazines and cut out to put into a 3-ring binder, or cookie recipes exchanged with penpals. When one binder of recipes became too full to hold another sheet of paper I started another cookie binder – and when that was full….well you get the picture. I now have 7 binders for cookies. The oldest one was started in 1958 when I got married.

Included in CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES are contributions from Bert Greene, Marion Cunningham, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Helen Witty, Irena Chalmers, Julee Rosso, Beatrice Ojakangas, Evan Jones, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Betty Fussell – and others! And, although there are recipes included with each memoir, the recipes are really secondary to the thoughts and recollections of the various writers.

‘IT’S a lot like getting married,” Irena Chalmers offers. “There has to be a beautiful solemn bride in a long white dress and everyone gasping a she comes down the aisle. And all of us, craning to catch a glimpse of her as thought we had never seen her before. And then a heart-stopping moment when for a terrible second we all fear that he really has forgotten the ring. And then, of course, the best man finds it in his other pocket and the tension makes the relief all the sweeter. And in moments they are safely across the high wire and the vows are all completed and the organ is crashing out the Wedding March and the couple is dancing down the aisle and all the guests break out from orderly rows to greet the bride and groom, and each other, and the party is ready to begin….It’s like that,” she notes, “with Christmas dinner. Once you’ve embarked on it you’ve got to go the whole way: do it up properly with the plumpest turkey that ever there was and the sage and onion dressing and the chipolata sausages and the lumpy mashed potatoes and the gravy and the Brussels sprouts and the gooseberry sauce. And then, when there is not an inch of room left, the lights are turned out and in comes Father carrying the plum pudding borne on the silver platter….”

“Maybe the way to say it,” suggests Evan Jones, “is that Christmases make a mosaic of nostalgia. My memories begin with the year the first ice skates were the parental gifts for my siblings and me, and there is an odd bit of sentiment for the friend whose handmade cradle, much later, was his celebration of my own first child’s inaugural Christmas….”

Edna Lewis recalls Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….”

Craig Claiborne, writing of distant Christmases, states, “The Christmases that pass most often through my mind are from my early childhood, the most dramatic being when I was about four years old, and in a moment of innocence, set my family’s home ablaze…”

Betty Fussell recalls in brilliant clarity, a Depression Christmas on her grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, while Jane Grigson writes that one of her earliest memories is of her father singing at Christmas. She says he had a “lovely tenor voice, clear, unaffected, warm, and joyful”. *(Grigson’s memory of her father singing made me think of my mother playing “Silver Bells” on our upright piano—she couldn’t read music and played entirely by ear).

Bert Greene remembers that while he is a Christmas lover, his mother was not. “Her yuletide animus,” writes Greene, “was undoubtedly affected by a traumatic childhood experience. She had been chosen to play Scrooge in a school production of Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL when she was about ten or twelve, and spent the better part of her lifetime, and my own, sneering, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ whenever the first snows fell. She was also a woman who, for one thing, hated shopping and, for another, hated cooking…”. Bert goes on to explain how the Christmases of his childhood were celebrated – during the Depression, when his family lost their house, silver serving dishes and wedding crystal—and the story he tells is heart-warming. When Bert’s mother complained that she didn’t have the Christmas spirit and “it will cost a fortune”, Bert took over. He volunteered to do all of the work and shopping—but he ran out of money and had to ask his mother for more.

His mother said “Just how much do you think it will cost to finance this damn foolishness?”

Bert recalls, “I dreaded to tell her. Ten Dollars”.
“TEN DOLLARS?”

“Even as I write this,” says Bert, “almost fifty years later, it is hard to believe how much that amount of money actually represented. My mother and I stared at each other a long while, weighing the momentous sum before she carefully unbuttoned her coat. There, on the street, without glancing up or down, she quickly remove a bill from her boodle, a small bag that she always wore tucked into the top of her brassier.

‘Make it last,” she said wryly. “Try not to come home too late. And for God’s sake, don’t tell your father!”

“The party was a great success” remembers Bert. “All of the relatives ate well, demolished the desserts, and played games, and those who drank sang dirty songs afterward. All the cookies we made were carried off like Tiffany bibelots….” ***

(Bert’s story reminds me of the annual trips I made downtown (Cincinnati) when I was a child along with two younger brothers, sometime in December for a number of years. We might have no more than two dollars to buy presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings. My brother Bill’s money was mostly pennies, in a little change purse, that he held tightly in his fist to present any pickpockets from taking his money. It begs the question—how DID we manage bus fare, gifts for so many people—and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter? I can only compare it with the loaves and fishes in the bible story.) And we wrapped all of our presents with old gift wrap paper that was ironed to get the wrinkles out.

Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks are familiar to all of us (including her “Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies”), tells the story of World War II, when she was a young mother with a one-year-old daughter. Her husband was in the army and her brother in the navy. Maida was living at home with her parents. Professionally, she says, she was a fashion illustrator—but her hobby was cooking. She tells the story of baking and mailing cookies to everyone she knew in the service. When the New York City USO wanted cookies for a big Christmas party, Maida began baking. “I baked those cookies,” she recalls, “from early until late every day for weeks. My only problem was getting enough boxes to pack them in. Food shortages and rationing (butter and sugar were strictly rationed) didn’t bother me, as there were always friends and neighbors who wanted to help. They gave me their ration coupons, they shopped for me and they helped pack the cookies. The filled boxes lined the entrance hall and the dining room flowed over into the living room. The day before Christmas a neighbor piled the boxes into his truck and my mother and I went along to deliver the cookies to the USO at Times Square. Gasoline was rationed but this was a priority delivery….”

“If I counted the cookies,” she writes, “or the number of recipes, that special Christmas, I don’t remember it now. One thing I do remember is that none of those cookies was dainty. They were all he-man cookies. The ones that had raisins or nuts had lots of them. The chocolate cookies were very chocolate. The spice cookies were very spicy. In a way, that one baking experience influenced everything I have baked since….”

(Maida provides the recipe for her mother’s gingersnaps, which I think I will have to try when I start baking Christmas cookies this year. Another cookie that has entered our lives—I was making batch after batch for a few months this year—is a molasses cookie that I found in the L.A. Times SOS column. My youngest son says they are like “a crack cookie” – you can’t stop eating them).

Helen Witty, whose “Fancy Pantry” cookbook is a favorite of mine, starts her memoir off with “Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of a family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been established on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East, and my father, from the West, met in the Pugent Sound country, married, moved to Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where snow and sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that came from somewhere was firmly maintained: the celebrations of Christmas Day began after breakfast, not before…” Helen goes on to relate her family Christmases, and sums up, “As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a not-for-everyday breakfast…”

Her Christmas breakfasts reminded me of the many special Christmas breakfasts I prepared when my four sons were children, I’d bake a variety of sweet breads and stollen, but the piece de resistance in our household was always pork chops and gravy, a big pan of homemade biscuits, home fries and eggs, or occasionally, what I called a Mexican breakfast casserole. My husband’s mother was from Bluefield, West Virginia, and I learned the art of making what we called “white gravy” from her. If not pork chops, I’d fry cube steaks and then put them back into the white gravy after it was made.

There are heartwarming stories from twenty-five chefs and cookbook authors in “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES”. I’ve just given you a sampling—a small taste.

As the holidays draw near, we become busier and busier with shopping and addressing Christmas cards. During the years that Bob and I went to Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving weekend, I would take my cards and address book with me to start working on my cards and letters.

Last year (2011) was the most difficult Christmas. It was the first without Bob, who had shared my life for 26 years. I would have liked to go off and ignore the holiday, but was coaxed into putting up one of my trees—and my grandson, Ethan, was determined to put up the Snow Village, because it was one of those things his grandpa put up every year. I realized that so much of what we did—all the decorating inside and out—was accomplished only because Bob was such a willing spirit. He loved doing it. He loved the compliments.

Then a few angels made their way to the fireplace mantel and I found myself baking cookies and showing my grandson how to do some things. He and his sister also made gingerbread houses, from a kit we bought at Michael’s. After Christmas, I thought it was a good time to go through all of the ornaments and tree decorations; most had been packed in boxes and stored in a shed. I had some water damage to some of the boxes. Kelly took me to Walmart where I bought 20 large red and green plastic containers, and methodically went through all of the boxes, repacking everything in plastic containers that are now stored in Grandpa’s workshop. As I worked, I set aside all bear decorations/tree ornaments to send to my penpal, Betsy, who collects bears—with a suggestion that she put up a small bear tree. She liked the idea. I know I have to downsize but it’s a mammoth project that will take a lot of time to accomplish.
I hope we all will take a little time to reflect on Christmas, and what it means to each of us. These twenty five food writers have done just that. They have reflected on the Christmases of their pasts and have shared those memories with us. And much of what they have written reminds me so much of my own Christmas memories.

Author Julie Rosso sums up Christmas memories with words that all of us might appreciate: “Those years are long gone,” she writes, “and since that time there have been many Christmases in faraway places—some just like those of having as a child. We’ve found ourselves in Paris, New York, Vienna, Rome, Monte Carlo, and the Caribbean at Christmas time, and while it is ever so nice to visit other countries at Christmas, I’d give almost anything for one of those Christmases in Michigan, just once more”.
I haven’t spent any Christmases in other countries – but I would like to spend one, just once more – in Ohio, where it always seemed to start snowing on Christmas eve before we went to midnight mass.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” was published by Kitchen Arts & Letter/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1988. It is available on both Amazon.com and Alibris.com; prices start as low as 4 cents on Amazon. Alibris has copies for 99c.

FANCY PANTRY BY HELEN WITTY is available on Amazon.com starting at $2.40 for a soft cover copy. It also has some ridiculous prices, such as $129.99 for a hardbound copy. Alibris also has the book for $2.40 – and copies priced at $251.99 and $241.74. I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for a cookbook you can get for far less.

Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies is available on Alibris.com for 99c. I couldn’t find the EXACT same title on Amazon.com so am not listing it. She does have a number of cookie cookbooks listed.

Well, I have rambled on long enough with you. Cookie recipes are available on my blog along with some photographs of previous cookie baking marathons. I woke up one morning recently and realized that Christmas will never again be as sumptuous as it was for Bob and myself, for several decades, especially in Arleta where we put up 8 Christmas trees. That idea of spending Christmas in Ohio is becoming more appealing. I hope your holidays are cheery and bright.

Sandy@sandychatter

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS

Previously posted in 2013, yesterday was the 4th of July, Independence Day, in the USA. I thought it would be a good time to re-post the following:

First, let us start with the history of Memorial Day:
Per Wikipedia: Memorial Day is a United States Federal holiday which occurs every year on the final Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day (and often called this when I was a child), it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.

By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries. One year, when Bob and I were in Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, we saw thousands of little flags planted on the beach.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead. The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. There is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia decorated soldiers’ graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, PA, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.

The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War, more than 600,000, meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.

Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary of the GAR, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.

People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s, much of the war time rancor was gone, and the speeches usually praised the brave soldiers both the Blue and Gray.

By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world. Ironton, Ohio, lays claim to the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Its first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since. However, the Memorial Day parade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, predates Ironton’s by one year. **

The ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park became nationally well known, starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle.

Speaking of parades, when I was a little girl, we walked to St Bonaventure Church in South Fairmount, wearing white clothes and carrying little flags and it was there that the Memorial Day Parade began. Students of St. Leo’s who played musical instruments lined up to march in the parade. When the parade began, we walked from St Bonnie’s – down Queen City Avenue until it ended at Beekman Street – over Beekman until we came to Baltimore Street, and then up Baltimore until we passed St Leo’s and came to the Baltimore Pike Cemetery, which happened to be next door to my grandmother’s house. At the end of the parade, children were given a popsicle and dignitaries of Cincinnati made speeches.

For weeks prior to Memorial Day, my mother and aunts made artificial flowers out of tissue paper and crepe paper. The dining room table would be covered with artificial flowers for weeks. They made bouquets of the artificial flowers to sell along with live flowers from my grandmother’s garden. We children stood on the corner at the entrance to the cemetery, crying out “Flowers for Sale!! Fifty Cents! (or maybe twenty five cents by the end of the day). A lot of flowers were sold this way and Grandma would give each child a quarter for our participation in this family fundraiser.

I can’t even imagine, today, how long of a walk that was for young children. I think it had to be about five miles long. I remember how my legs ached at the end of the day. I don’t think any of us, at such a young age, understood the significance of the parade or our marching. But we’d do almost anything for a free popsicle. 

Occasionally, my cousin, Johnny, or my brothers Biff and Bill, and I would go up to the cemetery next door to my grandmother’s. The lower part of the cemetery was all grassy grounds—the graves were far above at the top of the cemetery. I would search for my playmate’s grave—Lonna May Wright was a playmate in kindergarten and first grade—who was killed by a truck while she was roller skating in the street.

Her grave had an angel headstone which made it easier to find. I don’t remember who told me that Lonna May had been killed—I think it might have been my aunt Dolly. Family members surely knew that she was my playmate. Someone probably pointed out the dangers of skating in the street – no one would have overlooked the opportunity to implant a life lesson. I searched until I found Lonna May in my first communion group photograph. When I think of memorial day, I am irrevocably reminded of Lonna May. It might not have been the intention of the founders of Memorial Day – but I think it became a reminder to all of us, everywhere, of those we have lost in life. And so, this year, even though I am far from the cemetery on Baltimore Street, I will be thinking of Lonna May, a cute little girl who died far too young.

If I were in town and visited old St Joseph cemetery – I could take flowers to the graves of family members and uncles who served in world war II.

Memories are made of this. We remember for many different reasons.

–Sandra Lee Smith

PLAYING RESTAURANT

As a child growing up in the 1940s, there were five children(including myself) and two adults to be fed. My mother baked bread in large turkey roasting pans twice a week and that supplemented our meals. She once told me she had ten dollars a week to spend on groceries during that period of time and for the most part, meals were repeated every two weeks or so. It is baffling to me that there were ever left overs–we were always a hungry bunch of kids – unless whatever was cooking on the stove was something one of us didn’t like. I didn’t like rice or cabbage but mostly I loathed Hasenpferrer–stewed rabbit that had been soaking for 3 days in vinegar and spices. The rabbit was one my father killed going hunting once a year. Once, when I was a very young child, I saw my father clean the rabbit in the kitchen sink. I dreaded supper anytime I came home and smelled that sickening sweet-and-sour mixture cooking on the stove. I wasn’t as clever as my brother Bill who would go to Aunt Dolly’s after school (not far from his school) and would call home to find out what was for dinner. If it was something he didn’t like, he would morosely hang around until Aunt Dolly would say “Billy, would you like to stay for dinner?” Of course he would! Aunt Dolly was a fabulous cook. It wasn’t until I was an adult and living in California that I had an enormous realization–it wasn’t the cabbage or the rice that I hated — it was the way my mother cooked things; cabbage would go on the stove at 9 am for supper at 6 pm. It was always a slimy mess. Rice, which we had with stewed chicken on a Sunday, was a sticky ball of goo. (Billy says he LIKED that kind of rice) I had to be introduced to Rice Pilaf and other great rice dishes to understand that my dislikes were due not to the food itself but to the way my mother cooked them. (and I think THAT was because she cooked the way HER mother cooked and food out of a can was cooked for an hour to be on the safe side and protect you from botulism).

Well, that was us in the 1940s and going into the 1950s. If there was ANY amount of a leftover item–even a tablespoonful – it would go into small covered dishes and into the frig. (I think aluminum foil was unavailable during the War. All we had to wrap anything in was wax paper. Mom never threw out anything.

Well, from around the time I was about 9 or 10 years old, I looked after my younger brothers all the time. In the summertime, when mom was working, I had to figure out what we could eat for lunch–and playing restaurant was born. I would dig through the refrigerator for any kind of leftovers and write everything down on a “menu”. Then Biff and Bill could choose their lunch which I would reheat and serve. Voila! no more leftovers and the next day I would have to come up with something different – unless we had more leftovers from the night before. It was just something that I dreamed up to make leftovers an interesting game for my siblings. And you know–I never resented or disliked looking after my younger brothers–they were just my brothers to look after.

Sandra Lee Smith

A RENAISSANCE WOMAN-MY AUNT DOLLY

“ A HIGHLY CULTIVATED MAN OR WOMAN WHO IS SKILLED AND WELL VERSED IIN MANY FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE, WORK, ETC., AS IN THE ARTS AND SCIENCES” – Webster’s New World College Dictionary

In Memory of Evelyn Neumeister Schmidt—My Aunt Dolly

She was a Renaissance Woman
If ever there was one;
Beautiful, blonde hair and blue eyes,
She could have been royalty;
She carried herself with regal ease.
Her father was enchanted with her tiny features
And winsome ways;
“She’s just like a little doll!” he said;
“We can call her Dolly” and so they did.
She took classes once her children were grown;
Her specialty was art—oils, charcoal—she could
Draw or paint—whatever captured her attention.
I hardly knew her when I was growing up and
Moved to California when I was twenty-one,
But came to appreciate her wit, talent, creativity
And vitality and her wonderful, gentle laughter
When I became an adult and my children were grown.
I was able to visit her home on North Bend Road
Many times, often with my sister, Becky, sometimes
With my brother Bill—a few times on my own;
She was the kind of aunt you wanted to have
All to yourself.

When she was recuperating from spinal surgery
In 2005, I was able to go “take care” of
Her for a couple weeks—and some years
Later, in 2012, I was able to go again to her
Home in Port Orange, where she had
Relocated, and I was able to cook and bake
For her.

My visit to Florida in 2012 would be the last
Time I had the opportunity to spend time
With this one-of-a-kind-aunt—who learned to
Bake at the elbow of my grandmother when
Aunt Dolly was only a teenager. She became
Our link between a grandmother who had
Passed away in 1959 but left a legacy of recipes.

Throughout my house there are some of my
Aunt’s paintings—but the one treasure most is a
Painting of my paternal grandmother, Susanna
Gengler Schmidt, that Aunt Doll6y copied from an
Old photograph of my grandmother as a young
Woman.

As I was preparing to return to California in
2005, my aunt asked me if I liked that painting.
“Of course!” I repli4ed, “It’s one of your best
Paintings!”
She asked if I would like to have it.
“Absolutely!”

Like my aunt, the painting of Grandma Schmidt
Is one of a kind. It hangs over my fireplace
In Quartz Hill, California.

Aunt Dolly’s professional name was
Evelyn Neumeister Schmidt—but to all her
Adoring nieces and nephews—she was always
“Aunt Dolly”.

Today, May 10, 2015, would have been
Aunt Dolly’s birthday.

–Sandra Lee Smith