Who would I invite to dinner? That’s easy–everyone!! There’s a slew of people, dead and alive, I need to ask questions of: When is your birthday? When did you die? Where were you born? Who were your parents? Why can’t I find you in the census? And that’s just the short list.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s allowed. And it would end up being a really long blog. So I will pare (see what I did there?) it down to two. Yes, that’s still probably cheating (I seem to have a problem with that), but “my blog, my rules.”
I never knew either of my two grandmothers, so sitting down to eat a meal with them would be a wonderful treat for me. Maybe for them, too, as I was named for each of them. Grandma Meintzer was born Wilhelmina Carolina Christina Moeller in 1892, but everyone knew her as Minnie. That’s the name on every document I find for her, from
the 1900 census, on. Even her Social Security card has her listed as Minnie–and her tombstone!
She spent much of her adult life cooking for a living. She worked at Bartelme’s Inn in Shermerville (now Northbrook), Illinois, I believe, until it closed. Then she was the cook in the dining room at Briargate Country Club, in Deerfield, while her husband was a grounds keeper and took care of the 19th Hole (bar, for you non-golfers). Even during the Depression, when Grandpa wasn’t always able to find work, she had employment. She was noted for her pies, and today it’s a perpetual hunt for “good” lard to make her crust with. And yes, we’ve smuggled it in from Illinois, when all I could find in Indiana came in a tub!
Minnie knew exactly how much apple to add in to her jelly or jam to have it gel properly (no Sure-Jell back then!). And within the family, her Ice Box Cake is legend. Most of you would call it Banana Pudding. NO! No bananas, and made in a spring form cake pan. No pudding mix, either–from-scratch egg custard (2 batches), which likes to be finicky and sometimes fail. It is the same custard she used for her banana cream pie. Those 2 recipes were (according to my dad) THE reason he married Mom. Perhaps there were other reasons, too, but those definitely sealed the deal. Ice Box Cake was the only kind of birthday cake my mom had growing up, and it was the only cake my dad ever had for his birthday after he got married.
Of course, the reason Ice Box Cake was the birthday cake in the family, was because Minnie couldn’t bake a cake to save her soul. Hard to imagine, right? I guess she could manage Angel Food, but a standard cake? No way. She was too much of a “pinch of this, pinch of that” cook, and the chemistry needed for a pan or layer cake is not very tolerant of that.
Grandma Haws was born Victoria Barbara Schweiger. Unlike Minnie, she was NOT “Vicky” and would not answer to that name. She would correct you the first time you made that mistake, and that was it. She grew up in the restaurant business, and it was how she ended up meeting her husband, Edward M. Haws.
When Victoria’s father, Ignatz, arrived from Bavaria, he was leaving the family’s cheese-making business. In Glencoe, Illinois, he purchased the building at 375 Park Avenue (now a historic building) and opened a butcher shop. He sold that building after a couple years, and moved to the building on the corner–367 Park–and transformed it into a restaurant. As far as I know, most of the family worked there at one time or another, including my grandmother. When my grandfather moved down from Wisconsin to find carpentry work, he “boarded” with them. I’m not sure whether that meant he had a room there AND took his meals (in the 1900 census, they DID have lodgers living with with them), or if it simply meant he got his meals there–breakfast and dinner in the restaurant, and a lunch pail to go. Either way, love was in the air, and they married on 21 April 1914.
As far as I know, Victoria did not work after marriage, but she managed to feed her family through the Depression, stretching what little they had the best she could. She disguised the meager amount of meat available by mincing it small and mixing through a big bowl of mashed potatoes (my dad’s favorite dish). She left a recipe legacy of her own: Rich Oatmeal Cookies, Wesson Wonder Brownies, and Ice Box Rolls in a clover leaf shape.
Beyond recipes, though, both grandmas understood the importance food and family and passed that value onto their children and grandchildren. Holidays and special food dishes are important, but no more so than everyday dinners, weekend breakfasts, or even popcorn on movie night or s’mores around a campfire. It’s not about the food, whether fancy or plain, but about the time together, preparing, eating, telling stories, reminiscing, planning for the future, and just hanging out. I’ve see this time and again:
- Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners
- times when I suddenly had extra teenagers I hadn’t given birth to, joining us for dinner
- beach-house weeks with our kids and grandkids, where the cooking duties are shared (everyone taking one night) to split the work load
- photos posted on Facebook by cousins cooking with THEIR grandkids, demonstrating these values are still being transmitted to later generations
So yes, I’d like to have dinner with these two ladies: to visit and laugh with them, thank them for the rich legacy and traditions they left (without realizing it?) their descendants, and to make sure I’m not missing any critical recipes!