Food for thought & more!
Food is our common ground,
a universal experience.
Food was a tradition in itself when I was growing up. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles endured the Great Depression and its after-effects. No one ever took food for granted after that. Scarce times brought out the creativity in the cooks in my family. I enjoyed their culinary gifts throughout my life, either first-hand or through my mother’s cooking.
The matriarchs worked their magic, turning morsels into meals. And we ate those meals with great relish because we never snacked between meals. As good Catholics, we ate meatless on Friday nights, year-round. During Lent, Ash Wednesday was also meatless.
Things like a salmon loaf, macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, and creamed tuna on toast were just some of the items on our meatless menus. Adding a side of vegetables, a glass of milk, and a serving of Jello completed the meal.
Jello was a staple at our table during the 1950s and 1960s. It was an affordable and sneaky way to get children to eat their fruits and vegetables. You could put mandarin oranges in orange Jello, fruit cocktail or bananas in any red Jello flavor, and shredded carrots and chopped celery in lime Jello. The last was one of my favorites—crunchy and refreshing.
Because of our family’s Irish heritage, potatoes were also a favorite. Fried, baked, boiled, mashed—any way the cook decided to prepare them, we’d eat them. Bread was also a must. A meal without it didn’t seem complete. My mother’s generation learned to bake bread from the previous one, who learned from the generation before that. And so it went going farther back in our ancestral annals than we can measure.
My mom only baked bread periodically. The time-intensive labor couldn’t keep up with the consumption rate in our house full of children. It was easier to buy a loaf of bread from the grocery shelf.
Wonder bread was one of the most popular choices in our household. I often took a slice of this soft white bread and formed it into a doughy ball. With all of the air holes kneaded out of the piece, it seemed more filling.
When my sister Rita and I worked at the bakery during high school, bread outweighed doughnuts in popularity as a treat from there. And it was almost as good as having homemade bread in the cupboard.
|Molly & Casey Miller look on as their grandmother, Marguerite Maloney, makes bread in Erin Prairie, WI (c.1981)|
I never learned from my mother how to make bread, so my daughters never learned breadmaking from me. But both generations witnessed it and enjoyed the end results.
After my parents and five younger siblings moved from North St. Paul to Erin Prairie in 1977, I think Mom may have baked bread more often. But she would never be able to compete with Aunt Edie, our family’s most renowned bread maker. Aunt Edie and Uncle Jim owned a dairy farm in Erin Prairie and had nine kids. Uncle Jim would not eat store-bought bread. So, Aunt Edie baked it every day.
My most vivid memory of Aunt Edie is in her kitchen, where the family, the farmhands, and any guest who may have been visiting, ate their big meal of the day at noon. She was a non-stop whirlwind in a cobbler’s apron and hairnet, forearms dusted with flour to her elbows, with something baking in the oven and simmering on the stove. Mixing bowls and pots and pans piled higher and higher on the counter and in the sink as the meal unfolded. She lovingly brought her body and blood to those at her table just as Christ did. I don’t remember ever having wine at that table. Still, her daily bread was all any of us ever really needed—or wanted.
|Aunt Edie was the queen of her kitchen who served food to guests with a side of love.|
In 1995, Edie, her daughters, Debbie and Patrice, and daughter-in-law, Pam, compiled family recipes to publish a cookbook called “Beams Dreams and Donahue Delights.” Beam was Aunt Edie’s maiden name. There was no recipe for Aunt Edie’s bread in the cookbook, though. I’m sure the only place it was ever inscribed was on her heart. However, the recipe below was also one of her bread-based-crowd-pleasers, and she generously shared it in the family cookbook:
2½ c. flour
3 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. white sugar
1 tsp. salt
¾ milk, whole, scalded
1 pkg. dry yeast
Pour scalded milk over sugar, salt, and butter in mixing bowl. Stir until butter melts. Add egg—beaten—or use a whip. Mixture should now be warm, not hot. Stir in flour. Mix well. Put out on floured board and knead a few times. Replace in unwashed bowl. Let it rise for 1½ hours. Roll out on lightly floured board, ¼ to ½-inch thick. Spread with soft butter. Sprinkle with white sugar, brown sugar, and top with cinnamon. Roll up like a jelly roll. Place in a greased pan with open side to the inside. Cut in ½-inch slices, but only far enough to keep them attached on the inside. Lay on its side. Let raise ¾ hour. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Bake 10 minutes more at 350 degrees. Frost, while still warm, with powdered sugar frosting. Top with chopped nuts and pieces of maraschino cherries. (Can add coconut to the inside filling or on top.)
Mom Beam& Edie Donahue
Food traditions also showed up on holidays. My grandfather John Donahue’s Christmas favorite was oyster stew. There were few fans of this creamy soup in the family other than him. But even for years after he died, a big pot of it simmered on the stove as part of our holiday fare. Perhaps Mom continued to make it to have her father near on Christmas. Eventually, she noticed the large amount left and quit making it.
One Christmas food that endures for me is Mom’s steamed cranberry pudding. It was part of our family Christmases for a s far back as I can remember. The bread pudding with its sweet buttery cream sauce is like putting a memory into my mouth.
My own family doesn’t care for it, so I usually only make it every other year. I freeze the leftovers and then enjoy the decadent dessert myself for the next couple of weeks.
This pudding recipe also made the cut for the family cookbook. Its popularity in our family throughout the years is evidenced by the names credited to the recipe. Mae Ryan, the first woman on this list, was born in 1899, so, to date, this recipe has entered its third century. I suspect Mae got the recipe from her mother, who was my great-grandmother, Winifred Lavelle, born in 1874.
Steamed Cranberry Pudding
¼ c. dark or white syrup
¼ c. molasses
½ c. water
1½ tsp. soda in hot water 1 2/3 c. flour
¼ or ½ tsp. salt
2 c. raw cranberries, sliced
Mix all above ingredients together and steam for 1½ hours in 8 or 9-inch covered greased ring mold. (Note: For those using the more contemporary Instant Pots, follow these directions for steaming: Put about three cups of water and your steamer rack in your Instant Pot. Place the pudding bowl, lid side up, in the pot. Set the vent to the steaming position, and steam for 15 minutes. Then flip the vent to the sealed position, cook on manual, high pressure for 20 minutes.
½ c. butter
½ c. cream 1 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Cook until smooth and serve over warm pudding.
Mae Ryan, Connie Hebert, Marguerite Maloney , Mom Agnes Donahue, & Grace Norton
This is the covered ring mold I use to steam cranberry pudding
Aunt Grace Lavelle/Norton was also one of our family’s most esteemed cooks. Her fried chicken took center stage at the Lavelle/Donahue Reunion she organized each year. It was always held the third week in July at Mary’s Park in New Richmond. While we all brought dishes to share, Aunt Grace’s chicken was the most anticipated fare at that gathering. I’m still on the hunt for her recipe but, like Aunt Edie’s bread, the chicken recipe may have gone to the grave with Aunt Grace.
Some males shared recipes, too. Specific amounts in their ingredient lists were sparse, but instructions were clear-cut. My favorite recipe from the men is from my first cousin, Dan.
Dan’s Fish Fry
Fish caught fresh and filleted.
Saltine cracker crumbs or Salted pretzels
Beat eggs. Add cracker crumbs or pretzel crumbs. Put a small amount of corn oil in the fry pan over pretty hot heat. Add some butter. Brown on each side. Serve hot with the rest of the meal made by your wife. Use Coleman stove in garage or yard to save on the mess and smell in the house.
As I’ve pondered our family’s food history, I realize now that the food itself was not the tradition. Instead, it served as the foundation on which we built so many other family traditions and values.
Gathering each night to break bread together, share our days with each other, and forge a strong family bond. Joining others at a welcoming table to rub elbows with and learn from the diverse company seated there. Celebrating holidays as a joyful congregation where we always embraced each other and remembered those who were no longer with us. Reuniting in large groups of our extended family helps us remember who we are and learn which way to go. And always, consideration for those around us, and life laced with humor to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.