Thursday, December 1, 2011

Forgive Me (Part I)

Forgive me but I come from a long line of women who placed importance on Food they crafted and shared. And why should I ask for forgiveness?  After writing this, I am really not quite sure.  We seem to be living in what my experience tells me are "strange times".  I grew alongside master cooks. At first, I stood on a chair beside them, later on a succession of stools growing shorter, and later I found my feet firmly on the ground.  They were not perfect cooks, but they were my considerable teachers.  These days, a lot of people don't cook and they don't know how to cook.  Some even have kitchens just for show, but you couldn't really cook there. These elements of strange times make me sad.  I am grateful to these lovely ladies for their remarkable spirit of preparing food for the ones they loved.  Furthermore, these days, I am once again happily outside the loop.
  • My Mother Dorothy Brenz Bloskovich collected recipes.  Her countless clippings from newspapers and magazines, her cookbooks and subscriptions to magazines (including Southern Living), and her careful instructions on recipe cards and the back of any piece of paper at hand gave birth to a collection of recipes which seemed to have no beginning and end.  Her notes included:  "so and so likes this" for every member of the family.  She was an expert pie maker.  Those pies were served up in our home but they also went on excursions far and wide to church suppers, to ice cream socials and picnics, and to families in special transition:  new neighbor, family experiencing a death, family with a new baby.  She was the one who would march into the house after a long day of work and sit down at the phone with paper and pencil in hand to organize a meal for a family in need.  Furthermore, she seemed to shine in graciousness, organization, and table appointments.  She never called herself a cook which was a surprise, but we did.
  • Aunt Mary Bloskovich Bryson was owner and operator of the "Argonne", a restaurant in Des Moines in the 40s and early 50s.  Word has it that people waited in long lines out the door just for a place at one of the tables.  When my family and I would visit her and Uncle Wayne in Kansas City (later Aunt Ann too), every meal before us was a feast.  She had the best potato salad, which inspires mine today.  She made barbecued ribs which cause me to salivate just thinking about them.  And her lasagna was an art form.  She called it "LAH sig NAH".  I do not know if she knew how to pronounce the word, but she sure knew how to make it. As a growing girl, I would often spend 2-3 weeks there in the summers.  She was in a bridge club of 8 ladies who would show up for delicate foods served royally on china and linens on card tables in her tiny stuffed living room.  That was the first time I ever saw, heard of, or tasted a Stuffed Tomato, which was all the rage at the time.  She stuffed Tomatoes with Tuna Salad. I remember them sitting happily on their iceberg lettuce leaves in her downstairs refrigerator.  I admit that I haven't carried on the tradition of making Stuffed Tomatoes.
  • Mary's sister, Aunt Anna Bloskovich, was a waitress at Mary's restaurant too, where both were cooks.  Apart from the restaurant, Aunt Anna excelled in the old Croatian cooking.  That probably came from living with her Mother Dora Budiselich Bloskovich until Grandma died in1966. If a person wanted to cook one of those old favorites, she was the one to ask just how to do it. When I was in between my 9th and 10th grade year, Aunt Ann and Grandma had just arrived in Kirksville.  Aunt Anna made amazing homemade bread which was soft and yellow.  I thought her bread was so good that she should enter it in the County Fair.  I promised that if she would make it I would ride my bicycle from their apartment at 401 West Jefferson to the fairgrounds to take her bread.  Sure enough, I picked it up, placed it in my bicycle basket, and began pumping those peddles as fast as I could on the long way to the Fairgrounds. Sadly, I fell on my Bike and the poor loaf of bread didn't survive in a form that was fit for showing.  I felt terrible.  But at least she knew that I thought her bread was the best around.  Aunt Ann like Aunt Mary cooked with an amazing flare.  Their hands and arms were going in all directions, ingredients and mixing bowls just magically appeared at the right time as if part of their own grand play.
  • My favorite memories of Grandma Dora are of her in the house at 1111 East 9th Street in Des Moines.  We would have traveled those 150 miles to Des Moines for very special trips.  In those days (late 40s and early 50s), travel was a very big deal.  Upon arrival, we would be greeted by aromas from a country far away, a royal feast for us (especially my dad) who were honored guests.  Even at a young age, I felt like I was a visiting royal.  I remember one specific trip there when I was in the 3rd grade.  When we arrived, which was late on a Friday night, I had never seen a table so laden with food.  I am surprised that it held up.  I remember eating the best Fried Chicken I think I had ever had.  I ate 4 legs and 3 wings.  I simply chowed them down.  I could hardly stop.  I can imagine my Mother was aghast, but my Grandma and my 2 Aunts loved every bit of it.  I remember making bread with Grandma Dora.  She spoke only a few words of English and I spoke only a few words of Croatian.  But we spoke volumes through the bread that she made.  That soft pillow of bread dough bore our hand prints as we kneaded it just to the right moment. Her Povitica has become a standard in our family.
  • And I cannot forget Aunt Lula Myers Hart.  She took care of my brother and me when we grew up as our parents were both working, a matter which was highly unusual in those times of the 1950s and 60s.  Aunt Lu fixed basic foods from the simplest of ingredients.  Some seemed to bear the stamp of the Depression Era.  My favorites were Hamburger Hot Dish, Peach (or Berry Cobbler), and Raisin Bars drizzled with the tiniest bit of powdered sugar icing.  Aunt Lu usually had fresh warm cookies or bars awaiting my brother and me when we arrived home from school.  She also fixed our dinner.  Mom and Dad would arrive home tired and worn out at about 5 pm.  She had that hot meal waiting for us, while she gathered up her things and Dad took her back to her tiny apartment.  I always thought one of the best gifts for working parents and their children was to come home to the aroma of food especially prepared.  (That didn't happen to me, except on occasions when I used the Crock Pot.) Aunt Lu made the best Homemade Noodles.  I still can see them all covered with flour while they dried on the wooden board.  When I went off to college and took a food preparation class, I asked my professor, Dr. Dorothy Pearson, if we would make Homemade Noodles. I just assumed we would.  They were standard, right?  Much to my chagrin, I found out Homemade Noodles were not in the curriculum, but Mrs. Pearson did point out a recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. 
  • Aunt Louise Brenz Wells (later Glassburner) would have feasts awaiting us when we would arrive at their 35 acre farm just east of Sublette.  Her famous Roasts would tickle and tease the senses as we walked into that little Farm House.  They inspired the Roast that I make to this day. Her Thanksgiving Dinners could have been featured in rural farm magazines.  We would walk into her house through the small and narrow kitchen which had a row of windows and door on the east.  That old Kitchen Pump with its icy cold water in winter held its place of pride through all those years when they did not have running water.  One of my favorite memories was her Fiesta Dinnerware which seemed to make Rainbows radiate from her cupboards.  I loved her Macaroni and Cheese with the little bits of Pimenta throughout. She was renowned for her cakes:  Angel Foods and Hawaiian Orange Chiffon.
  • I should not leave off Aunt Ruthie Brenz Griffin.  While she lived on the west coast and we rarely saw them, she and Mother were always trading recipes, especially in the latter years.  About 20 years ago, Aunt Ruthie helped us reclaim the tradition of Steamed Pudding, which was from their English Mother, Lottie Hart Brenz.  I also remember that during the special times that Aunt Ruthie came, the table appointments were works of art.  Everything just gleamed.  One of my favorites was the little hand made place cards telling people their special places to sit.  We all had a hand in making the table pretty, which I loved.
  • Of all my foods experiences, one that has shaped me has been that cooking was something that was a shared experience.  Everybody helped in some way, especially the girls and the women.  (My Dad was fine cook in his own right and he was an excellent and speedy dishwasher.) From the time I was wee little, I always had a place to help.  Over time, my aprons got bigger and I learned more and more.  I began to contribute solo too.
  • I shall close with another entry about Mother.  One of the things that I learned from my Mother was that the food should look pretty on the plate and on the table.  You don't just plop food down.  You consider how it will be presented in the best light.  This little entry takes a side trip too.  One of her favorite places to go on very special occasions was the McDonald Tea Room (1931-2001) in Gallatin, Missouri. Virginia McDonald (b.1887-d.1969) was widely known for her culinary creations (she was also known for her big hats).  She had a cookbook and was the subject of numerous articles.  Her restaurant was a destination spot long after she had passed.  Her gifts were inspirations to Duncan Hines.  Yes, Duncan Hines was a real person.  Virginia McDonald believed that food should look pretty on the plate.  That included embellishments.  I loved that.  To me, the plate became just another canvas to paint. 
  • ~~~~
    Regretfully, I do not have pictures of all of the above in the kitchen or close to that beloved "power central" of the household.  I suppose that the work of the kitchen was considered a bit mundane for the taking of pictures.  Plus, the subject may have wanted to look her best in front of the camera's eye.  And she did look her best when she was in the middle of those preparations.  
    While I had posted images of Aunt Ann and Aunt Mary earlier, I moved them to another post.  The above pictures of Mother's new kitchen in December 1951 are much more fitting for this entry.  She and Dad had just built their new house and moved in November.  I can only minimally know the pride that she put into the design of this magical place.  This marvelous staging area was all set for culinary expeditions and wonders, for teaching me some valuable tricks for the life time.

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