Peanut Butter Fudge and Snowy Delights


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Peanut butter, milk and sugar were all the ingredients Daddy needed to make homemade fudge. Dinner was over. The dishes were done. Pajamas on and teeth brushed. We were ready for bed. But then…we would hear Daddy puttering around in the kitchen, opening and closing the cabinet doors and drawers, asking Mother for the whereabouts of the objects of his quest. He was looking for a bowl, a spoon, a pot, a pan, waxed paper and a reason to satisfy his sweet tooth. He rummaged through more cabinets finding the peanut butter and sugar. He retrieved the milk from the refrigerator and with pot and spoon in hand; he was geared up to prepare peanut butter fudge.

From the living room, we heard the quiet metallic sound of a pot being placed on top of the stove and patiently waited for the sweet treat we knew would follow. Unlike most men of that era, Daddy liked to cook and it wasn’t unusual to find him in the kitchen with Mother preparing a meal or his favorite bedtime snack, which was fudge. When there was no cocoa or peanut butter to be found, he made plain old vanilla fudge, which was equally delicious. He started by melting the butter or peanut butter, and once softened and almost liquefied; he added copious amounts of sugar. Remember-sweet tooth!

The two ingredients merged into one as the crystals dissolved from the heat of the melting butter and through the action of the continuous stirring. Burned sugar and peanut butter on the bottom of a pan was no fun to clean, so careful attention to continuous stirring was required. The sweet combination of the ingredients permeated the entire house and with anticipation we waited for our bedtime treat.

Waxed paper was a kitchen staple in our house and made the perfect surface on which to pour the hot mixture. Daddy tore the measured piece of paper from its cardboard container and placed it in the pan he selected to house the fudge. When sufficiently cooked and thickened, he poured the mixture onto the waxed paper and we eagerly waited for it to harden and cool. If we were really hungry for that late night sweet treat, he put the fudge in the refrigerator for ten or fifteen minutes to speed up the hardening process. Once hardened, he pulled the wax paper out of the pan and placed the candy onto the table to slice into small pieces. We were allowed only one taste, but we went to bed satisfied, knowing that there would be more treats tomorrow. And of course, we were marched right back into the bathroom to brush our teeth again.

In winters because snow was a regular occurrence in Indiana, we were often treated to a different late night delight-a snowy delight-during the cold days of January. On those cold blustery nights when the snow was fresh and clean and his sweet tooth was begging to be satisfied, Daddy went outside to collect a pan of snow. He added the pure white, crystal powder to sugar and milk and somehow magically transformed the snow to ice cream, or snow cream as we called it. He added vanilla extract for flavor and if we had Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the house, the vanilla snow cream would be converted to chocolate snow cream with a squeeze and a few stirs. The icy taste of the natural, homemade treat was a sweet tooth’s dream come true.

This week I had the very last of my silver amalgams replaced with a crown. I thought about how much the procedure cost and what a pain it was to go to the dentist to have the procedure done. Then I thought about peanut butter fudge and snow cream and my father cooking in the kitchen all those years ago and I decided….that trip to the dentist wasn’t so very bad after all.


Medicine, Old Wives’ Tales and Special Concoctions of the Fifties


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My great-grandfather W.A. Proctor, M.D., practiced medicine for more than twenty years in the late nineteenth century in Homer, Kentucky before settling in Auburn, Kentucky with my great-grandmother, Annie Chick and their eight children. While I never met either of them, stories of their lives were part of the oral history of my family. In the fifties, medicine was taking its rightful place in history as the Salk vaccine was introduced and children received the recommended vaccinations to prevent smallpox, polio, diphtheria and other debilitating diseases of the time. There was debate as there is now, but the realities of polio were severe and life-threatening and the eradication of the disease was a significant milestone for those of us living in the United States. While the progression of modern medicine continued with each new discovery or drug, the reliability of homeopathic medicine solved many of the problems then, as it still does today and continues to have ts remarkable place in history. And, I am certain that as Mother raised her four children, she often relied on the Old Wives’ tales that had been passed to her from her own mother and grandmother, regardless of the fact that her grandfather was a doctor.

In the 50’s there were no nurse advice lines or internet searches for the latest cure or treatment for the common cold, stomach ache, minor bumps and bruises or the undiagnosed malady of the day. There were no urgent care centers either, so a trip to the doctor was reserved only for desperate situations and home remedies for milder ailments were common. When Sissy and I were sick with an upper respiratory infection, Mother generously rubbed camphor oil on a cloth, or quite possibly a rag, and safety-pinned the cloth to the inside of our pajamas against our tiny flat chests which rattled with fluid when we coughed. The coolness of the camphor against the skin and the mild anesthetic effects of its ingredients helped alleviate some of the discomfort of the illness. The continuous sound of mist escaping from the humidifier that rested on the floor, aided our breathing, as we inhaled the vapors of the camphor oil and relaxed into an easier sleep.

A camphor oil rub for a congested chest, baking soda for a bee sting and warm Jell-O® for a case of diarrhea; these were the remedies of the day. My favorite was the warm Jell-O®. Mother boiled water, poured the sugar crystals in a bowl and stirred in one cup of boiling water, followed by either a cup of cold water or a cup of ice, into the bowl. She stirred the ingredients until the crystals dissolved and cooled. Still warm, she then split the concoction in two. One for each of us.

Of course, that was if we were both sick at the same time. Inevitably duo-diseases occurred as we shared the same bedroom; and by virtue of our closeness in age, we passed the virulent bugs back and forth between us. In the fifties, it was not uncommon for parents to want their children to pass communicable diseases between all of the siblings. It was much easier to deal with two kids with chicken pox in close proximity than it was to have incidences of the illness spread out over days and often weeks, considering the incubation period of each particular disease.
Sissy always seemed to attract the disease first, which always made me mad. Just once I wanted to give her something. More than likely it was because she was older and went to school and I stayed home with Mother, unexposed and uncontaminated. First the measles-not the three day variety, but what was referred to as the hard measles, which lasted more than a week and required us to stay in a darkened room. The red, prickly rash and the continuing fever which accompanied this variety of measles were more serious than the three day variety and caused our parents much greater concern. My contracting the disease was not an issue because once Sissy brandished the symptoms; I followed the same path with an identical rash, fever and lethargy. This pattern followed for chickenpox and every other bug she brought home from school. When Sissy contracted the mumps, I slept with her in the small twin bed solely for the purpose of contracting the disease. I never came down with any symptoms, but years later when a job required proof of disease, a blood titer revealed that yes, in fact I had contracted the mumps at some point in my life. Once again, I was the victim of sisterly contagion.

Warm Jell-O® and baking soda weren’t the only home grown remedies Mother used. We ate bananas and milk toast and at times were treated to a broiled T-bone steak and some other liquid chocolate concoction that required a trip to the drug store and a conversation with the pharmacist.

I have no idea why a broiled steak was on the menu when we were sick, but from our sick beds, we smelled the mixture of odors coming from the kitchen as Mother broiled steak and prepared the Jell-O® to settle our stomachs and keep trips to the bathroom at a minimum.

Smoke curled out of the crack left open in the oven door while the fatty portions of meat browned to a crisp as Mother leaned over and carefully watched the bright red coils of the broiler finish the remainder of the steak. Once our sick lunch was ready, we cautiously chewed the bite-sized portions Mother cut and drank the warm liquid to wash down the meat. Bananas followed as the remedy for diarrhea relied on the properties of the pectin in the Jell-O® and the bananas to solidify the goods. I have never quite understood the value of the broiled steak. Perhaps Mother just wanted an excuse to serve us a T-bone, which was a rare and special treat in our house.

Mother was rarely sick, but I remember a time when she was confined to the bed for the day. Daddy was off to work and the two of us were left to care for her. We were no more than five and six at the time and we certainly couldn’t re-enact the broiled steak, milk toast or warm Jell-O® for that matter, but we repeatedly retrieved bananas from the kitchen and spent the rest of the day curled up beside her with our heads lying on her chest. Even sick, she seemed to be taking care of us, providing the protection, warmth and security that only a mother can give. The oldest of the old wives’ tale passed from one generation to the next, and not a tale at all.

Christmas and the Gifts for Life


Mother and Daddy celebrated their wedding anniversary several days before Christmas making that time of year, special in many ways-anniversary, Christmas, then New Year’s. Regardless of our financial circumstances, Daddy always gave Mother an anniversary gift. And, whatever the gift, it was always wrapped, sporting a bow.

Once the adult celebration passed, my parents lavished their total attention on us. In our small house, we had no fireplace upon which to hang stockings, but we always greeted Christmas morning with a living room overflowing with presents, meticulously wrapped and sporting holiday bows. Our parents assured us that a lack of a fireplace and chimney would not deter Santa’s visit, as he would quite simply venture through the front door, left unlocked for that special night. We anxiously went to bed, leaving a plate of cookies and milk for Santa, and restlessly wrestled with ourselves until we fell asleep. Quietly constructing bicylces and other toys and wrapping gifts late into the night, the secrets of parenting on Christmas Eve remained sacred for at least another year.

Santa brought the eight-millimeter movie camera and projector around my eighth or ninth Christmas. On Christmas Day and for years afterwards, Sissy and I hammed it up in amateurish style, kissing each other under the mistletoe, dancing to Elvis Presley and showing off our new baby brother. The sounds of his crying and the crooning of Elvis were absent from the showing afterwards, but the laughter in our eyes were the silent sounds that illustrated the happiness that flashed across the screen.

In one of those first clips, I remember how Mother stood, with one hip out to the side as her hand rested strategically on her waist. The other arm hung at her side holding a beer, which she tried to conceal from view. She posed, she grinned, and she saluted her audience. We rarely saw Mother drink anything but coffee or iced tea, so we viewed these antics on film as unfamiliar and strange, but funny at the same time.

In that particular piece of celluloid Mother, seemed tall and quite thin with long brown hair that framed her face and highlighted the attractive grin that complimented her facial features. She had an oddly shaped nose, which detracted slightly from her looks, but her remarkable smile illustrated her character and personality. Her teeth were straight across the top except for that one crooked tooth-her left lateral incisor to be exact-which rotated slightly toward the four front teeth. My grandmother and maternal aunt also touted that one crooked tooth-a family trait that passed from one generation to the next.

As I recalled Mother’s silly stance on that Christmas Day, I thought about another time when I watched the old films of my childhood and remembered a not so perfect time in our lives when Mother was very ill and I was home for a visit. With the exception of the whirring of the projector, the images appeared on the screen in silence. Two little girls stepped out of the house holding the hands of a small blond-headed boy between them. One of the girls was red-headed and the other was dark-headed. The girls were wearing matching dresses and their hair was pulled back into curled ponytails, tied with a bow. I remembered those dresses. Mother made them for us. Sissy hated the color because of her hair-redheads were not supposed to wear pink-but Mother used the fabric because she liked me in pink.

Behind the three of us, Mother stood waving and smiling with that infectious grin of hers. The four of us, then waved simultaneously as though cued by the invisible cameraman. It was Daddy, of course. And Sissy, in her usual fashion, turned her head away, put her hand up to her face, and ran back into the house. Laughing to myself, I remembered how she always did that when she did not want her picture taken. I looked back at my own image, standing there smiling and waving to my father.

As I stared at the film, I saw in my own smile, a very familiar face. The two expressions were almost identical even though twenty-five years separated them in age. The teeth were straight except for that crooked left lateral incisor, which rotated slightly toward the center. The infectious grins stared back at me and I realized the greatest gift I received from my mother. It was not wrapped and it did not have a bow, but its value has been remarkable. I share this gift as often as I can-with my family, with my friends or with a stranger in need, giving back to others the gift Mother graciously gave to me.

Thank you for my smile, Mother. Thank you for my beautiful smile.

Divine Intervention


Heavenly divinity-at Christmas time! Divinity was one of my favorite sweet treats of the fifties and it only appeared in our house during the Christmas season. Making divinity with Mother was part of the annual Christmas cookie tradition we shared, even though it was a candy, and not a cookie.

On a day during the holidays when Mother decided to bake, we usually began with Mexican wedding cookies drenched in powdered sugar. Then the more difficult and complicated sugar cookies shaped like Santa, a candy cane or a Christmas tree. The butter rich oatmeal coconut cookies with either walnuts or pecans were also on the list, and warm from the oven, Mother allowed us to taste the cookies that fell apart when she lifted them off the cookie sheet. The richness of the butter took over the presence of the other ingredients, and it often required a batch or two before she perfected the mixture, usually adding more flour as she experimented.

After the cookies were finished it was finally time to make the divinity. Mother started with sugar and corn syrup-Did I mention that divinity was very sweet? She combined the sugar and corn syrup on the stove stirring and cooking, while either Sissy or I whipped the egg whites. The one holding the hand mixer used two hands to control the device, while the other one of us held the bowl in place to keep the whirling speed of the attachments from forcing the bowl into its own uncontrollable spin. Making divinity was definitely a team effort.

We whipped the egg whites until they became very stiff peaks, holding the bowl upside down to test the readiness of the egg whites. If they were stiff enough, nothing slid out of the bowl. If not, well you can imagine-with liquid dripping down the sides of the bowl, we returned to the task of whipping the eggs!

When the sugar mixture was ready, Mother gradually added the stiff egg whites to the combination that she would turn into a divine display of artistry. Sometimes she added pecans to the ingredients and at other times, she added food coloring to make the divinity either red or green. The red was more often a pink rather than a red, but fulfilled the requirements of the traditional holiday colors of red and green. When we were very adventurous, we had a mixture of red, green and white divinity, or just red and white. We never knew what the end product might look like.

Once all the ingredients were combined, Mother dropped a spoonful of the mixture onto sheets of waxed paper creating bite-sized mounds with pointed and swirled tops, which were similar to her meringue on cream pies. It did not take long for the candy to harden and voila, our divine creations were fully realized. We placed the small mounds of the delicious treats in our mouths, and finally, in decorated tin containers to keep them fresh, or to give to neighbors and friends as gifts.

Simple, sweet and delectable. Heavenly and divine. A perfect treat for the season!

It is almost Christmas and I think it is a good day to bake. I will turn on the Christmas lights, fire up the oven, plug in my iPod to my holiday music and check out the refrigerator to see if I have any eggs and corn syrup. Yes, it is a perfect day to bake. If only Sissy were here to help me hold the bowl…

Double Blades on Frozen Ponds


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Double blades graced the first pair of skates I owned-owned in the sense that they were hand-me-down skates from a neighbor down the street. The two blades on each skated helped manage the difficulty of balancing on ice, moving not so gracefully forward on the ice or remaining upright. These skates sported red leather flaps which wrapped across the top portion of my feet  with a leather buckle strapped across my ankles, and were similar to the roller skates of the day. They were designed specifically for young children, or first time skaters, such as me. The Pond at Woodmere Asylum

Most of the kids we knew ice-skated as skating was a typical outdoor adventure in the cold, Indiana winters of the fifties. When the temperatures reached the low 30s and 20s, and the local ponds and lakes froze over, we found any piece of frozen water we could glide and slide across, either gracefully or more likely awkwardly with flailing limbs. In the alleys between the houses in our neighborhood, there were often long strips of frozen water from a recent rainstorm that afforded us a small opportunity to skate, but we always preferred the frozen ponds of the Woodmere Asylum.

Unlike during the summer, when our parents forbade us to enter the cornfields owned by state mental hospital (which sat behind our house) no such restrictions were enforced during the winter. During those icy cold winters, we skated on the frozen surfaces sitting in front of the imposing structures of the looming, architecturally beautiful buildings. The hospital openly allowed us to skate on the ponds and there was no charge to skate or anyone to supervise the activity. There were no signs posted to warn us of thin ice, and the frozen ponds were open for business-all day or any day, with the knowledge that we skated at our own risk.

The temperatures needed to hover around 30 degrees for at least a week, with a forecast of continued freezing weather, before parents even considered letting us skate on the ponds. The adult in charge, who was usually Daddy, carefully checked the ice for cracks or any weaknesses, before he allowed any of us to step foot on the surface, and no one was allowed to skate solo. We always had a partner and it was not unusual to skate hand in hand with Sissy or a friend.

If there was any indication the ice was not rock solid, we returned home until the temperatures remained cold enough to guarantee a skating outing in the next day or two.   When the time was right and armed with hats, gloves, long pants and skates slung over our shoulders, Daddy or one of the other parents bundled us up once again and transported us the short distance to the ponds of Woodmere.

Some of the mental patients had access to the grounds and could be seen walking with caretakers or family members throughout the property. We generally avoided any contact with them, but occasionally they came and stood by the side of the pond and watched us skate or stared vacantly into space. None of them bothered us and besides, we had our protector watching over the ice, our audience and us.

We took advantage of this open availability and skated as often as possible, because once the winter ended and spring arrived, the restrictions on being allowed on hospital property resurfaced, and our travels to that world ended.

I only saw my father skate on one occasion when he borrowed skates from one of the older teenage boys in the neighborhood and skated with us. In spite of his athletic prowess, he failed miserable at skating. He wobbled crazily on the single blades and after that first fall to the ice, he decided skating was not in his future. After the experience of falling, he watched from the edge of the pond, making certain his children and the other kids were safe and free from danger of any kind.

I graduated from double blades after that first year to my very own pair white leather skates with a single blade. Each Christmas thereafter, ice skates made the list to Santa. I didn’t always find those new skates under the tree, so I to be content with Sissy’s hand-me-down skates, as there was a perfectly good, used pair of skates that fit me already.  At a certain point in time, our skate sizes matched, and I soon found my own new pair of skates under the Christmas tree.

I cherished those new skates and painstakingly dried the blades after coming off the ice. With a single, careful swipe between two fingers, I removed the excess liquid from the blades and then placed the rubber blade guards on each blade, to keep them sharp and to protect myself from cuts. Daddy kept them polished, just as he did with all of the shoes of the house,  and afterwards hung the skates by their shoelaces in the utility room until the next snowfall or week of icy temperatures.

Fortunately, there were never any serious accidents at the ponds and other than bruised egos, sore bottoms and skinned hands, we skated accident free for many winters. The ice itself was rough and uneven and the ability to maneuver the imperfections in the ice helped hone our individual skating skills. Skating forwards and backwards, around the rink in pairs or in a group, we soaked in the freshness of our youth and the cold, winter air.

Eventually, a large indoor stadium was built to accommodate basketball games for the University of Evansville, the annual Shrine Circusindoor skating and other events. We traded our frozen ponds for cleaner, smoother ice and a slightly warmer environment. Daddy now sat in a stadium seat to watch us and hot chocolate was available out of a vending machine, but we still came home to Mother with rosy cheeks, cold bottoms, scuffed up skates and bruised egos.

I skated throughout my childhood and often fantasized about skating in the middle of the rink, twirling effortlessly in a beautiful sparkling costume, mesmerizing the crowd with my skill and grace. What I actually ended up doing was making frequent trips to the ice rink at five and 6 AM with my son and his friends, for hockey practice and games. I took my hot chocolate with me and proudly watched from the sidelines as he beautifully glided across the ice, both forwards and backwards, maneuvering between the other boys on the ice and gracefully striking the hockey puck with finesse and accuracy as it sailed into the net.  That was more special to me than any rhinestone costume or the cheers of an admiring crowd.

Whether on the smooth surface of today’s ice rink, or on the natural bumps and imperfections of the weather-induced frozen terrain of Woodmere’s ponds, slipping, falling and conquering the ice was the epitome of life in the fifties-simple, joyful and natural.  Entertainment in the non-digital age.

Thanksgiving Day and Turkey Necks Nb


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As children, Thanksgiving Day began very early for us as either we traveled to Kentucky to visit family, or we celebrated at home. At home, turkey was served around two o’clock in the afternoon, which meant the turkey went into the oven very early in the day. Our turkey was always the iconic Butterball brand from Swift and Company, where Daddy worked. The company awarded their employees a turkey or ham on holidays, so the family was guaranteed a big, fat juicy turkey on this day. Daddy took charge of preparing and roasting the turkey, and making the dressing and giblet gravy. Those dishes were his specialties, and he started around 6 AM to begin his preparations for carefully roasting and basting the turkey throughout the day. The aromas of boiling giblets and melting butter woke us and we joined in the preparations, mixed in with frequent interruptions to watch the floats, the marching bands and the celebrities in the Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.

Mother executed the process of baking the pies, the sweet potatoes and the green beans. As very young children, we usually enjoyed the jellied cranberry sauce that came in a can, but as her culinary tastes changed, she experimented with homemade cranberry relish, which included chopped nuts and oranges, and “a little bit of this and that.”

If we did not stay in Indiana for Thanksgiving, we traveled to Kentucky to visit our aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Trying to visit both sets of grandparents in one day created a bit of a logistic nightmare for us. Nevertheless, we successfully ended up visiting everyone in one day.  Daddy carefully planned the visits, because we knew we would eat a Thanksgiving meal twice that day; lunch at Mamaw’s, and then later in the evening, we ate dinner at Mama and Poopdeck’s, where we spent the night. The next year, we switched the order of the visits. Two Thanksgiving meals in one day made it overall, quite the caloric laden holiday.

Mother and Daddy instructed us “not to tell” either set of grandparents, that we had already eaten Thanksgiving dinner. I am not sure why we couldn’t just say we had already eaten, but it was extremely important to our parents to ensure that each of their parents, in turn, assumed they were the primary providers of the turkey and its trimmings.

Both of my grandmothers were fantastic cooks; they treated us to real butter and whipped cream, turkey dressing thick with the juices of the organ meats, and sumptuous pumpkin and pecan pies. We didn’t worry about cholesterol and calories in the fifties and the journey through the smorgasboard of holiday foods and the ritual of the family gathering was certainly worth a few pounds more.

When we went to Mama and Poopdeck’s for Thanksgiving, there were always many extra people there. Cousins, great aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. The adults sat in the dining room and the kids ate at a smaller table in the kitchen. I remember one year in particular when Mother’s sister, Kay, and her family celebrated Thanksgiving with us in Springfield. There were nine kids that year, as the youngest on both sides and the family had not been born yet-no Yordy or John.

My cousin, Nancy Jean and I were in the kitchen sitting on stools watching Mama prepare the organs and extraneous body parts for the giblet gravy-a nasty task. She placed the liver, the heart, the gizzard, the giblets and the neck in a pot of water, salted and peppered the concoction and boiled the parts until they were thoroughly cooked and tender. We smelled the aroma of the steam as it wafted throughout the kitchen and watched her work her magic with the preparation of the food. No one in my family ate the turkey neck. It was the one body part that was discarded or reserved for the current dog of the house. Apparently, when there are six kids in a family, no food is wasted or thrown away so when my cousin, Nancy Jean proudly announced she was going to eat the turkey neck, I stared at her in surprise and retorted “No one eats a turkey neck-that’s for the dog.”

Nancy Jean was older, tall, and skinny, and always portrayed this air of confidence and independence that I admired. I tried to convince her of the indelicacies of eating a turkey neck, but regardless of my advice, when Mama retrieved the neck from the pot,   she eagerly picked up the neck and devoured the tender meat on the bone. All I saw was dark, stringy turkey meat that did not look the least bit appetizing. Nancy Jean threw down the gauntlet and proudly finished off the neck, challenging anyone to try to stop her. I was not going to stop her-she was older and taller than me.

The irony is that she has been a vegetarian for decades and would now never consider eating any part of a turkey, let alone a neck. I suspect that the last turkey neck she ate was in Mama’s kitchen in Springfield, Kentucky in the fifties. The memory of that particular Thanksgiving remains with me and reminds me that this holiday is about family, sharing our blessings in life and celebrating the people we love.

Nancy Jean was named after Mother, who died on ThanksgivingDay in 1990. John F. Kennedy died on this same day, and I like to imagine that he came down to greet Mother and guide her through her next journey. On this special day, I hope Nancy Jean enjoys this Thanksgiving with her family and friends around her and thinks about her Aunt Jean.

Nancy Jean-Kentucky Cousin-Vegetarian-Namesake

As for me, I am off to Sissy’s for the day. Her husband is in charge of the turkey, and Sissy and I have the rest of the meal covered.  I am thankful that I only have to eat one Thanksgiving meal, but the cranberry relish will be less than perfect. Mother never wrote down her recipe, and no one has successfully duplicated the exact taste or texture.  I am certain it was “a little bit of this and that” with, as always, she threw in that special Strange touch. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 In loving memory of my mother


4-29-25 to 11-22-90

The Grande Dame-My Other Grandmother



The dictionary defines a grande dame as a “highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman,” which absolutely describes my other grandmother, Georgia, or as we called her, Mama (with the “a” pronounced as in the word “hat”). Of course, she would deny the elderly part of the description and preferred being considered middle-aged. She always lied about her age anyway, and we never knew how old she really was until she died.  Elderly or middle-aged-it did not matter to us.

She was definitely elegant in that southern way of hers, and beautiful. She was royalty in her own right-if not in her own imagination. She was always dressed exquisitely and with perfectly applied make-up in place. She had beautifully manicured nails on feminine dainty hands and she moved them gracefully as she spoke in a slow, more formal manner. Her silvery tinted hair was always impeccably coiffed and contributed to her stylishness. She loved the color purple and had many outfits in one shade or another of the color. Her hair actually had a tint of purple to it, so the combination of colors from head to toe, suited her perfectly. Jewelry adorned her ear lobes, neck, wrists and fingers. She was rarely without various pieces of jewelry at any given time. She wore a silver bracelet that had a charm for each of her eleven grandchildren, with our names and birth dates inscribed on the charms. Perhaps the inscriptions helped remind her of her grandchildren’s  birthdays, but then again, probably not. She wasn’t exactly Johnny on the Spot when it came to remembering our birthdays, but she had other great attributes.

Besides loving to fish, play bridge, cook and engage in typical grandmotherly activities, Mama loved to smoke and drink. And regardless of its impact on her health, she loved her Kentucky bourbon and had a fondness for vodkas, particularly in a Blood Mary. At one family gathering, I remember her asking me, “Do you think I could have one more of those Bloody Marys?” I readily obliged but reduced the amount of alcohol in that second drink, which was the prudent and responsible action. I was not going to be responsible for a broken hip.

She also loved to go to the horse track, which is probably where we inherited our love for the ponies. The track smelled of horses and the crowd of people fighting to buy that one lucky ticket; in that arena, she was in her element. She could smoke and drink to her heart’s content, and bet on horse after horse in one afternoon. Like Mother, Mama always won a race or two, or three or four, but the trick was to get her to quit betting and go home with her winnings. She chose not to listen to reason and usually stayed to place that next bet, on that next long shot. She just had too much fun at the track, and more often than not, she lost everything she had won and went home empty-handed. Happy, but empty-handed.

As small children, when we visited her in Kentucky for a weekend or holiday, Sissy and I always knew we would have to bathe when we arrived and put on the dresses Mama had bought for us.  This made Mother so mad and she complained about this the entire trip to Kentucky. Mama wanted us to look pretty as she paraded us around the neighborhood visiting friends, and I guess that meant wearing a dress. Apparently, slacks or shorts were unacceptable for such a visit and regardless of what we wore-when we arrived, we would have to change our clothes.

I loved soaking in her bathtub, which was an old-fashioned claw foot tub with a rubber stopper on a chain. For me, bathing in that tub was elegance personified. I also loved getting dressed up and visiting the neighbors who would greet us from their chairs or rockers on the wrap around porches of the day.  The neighbors always knew we were coming so Mama must have prepared them ahead of time, ensuring their rapt attention during our visits. Remember, I am the Leo, the plain brown-haired daughter, so I loved visiting and showing off my new dress. Mother named Sissy after Mama, so I know it was also a treat for my grandmother to introduce her namesake to everyone.

As we grew older and the other two babies arrived, the dress code lessened and we were not required to parade about the neighborhood as much. Mama and Mother were always fussing about something or another, whether it was making us wear dresses or some other issue that caused friction between them. That age-old dynamic between mothers and their daughters was to be expected.  At the end of the day though, I would not be who I am today without my Mother, who would not be who she was without the Grande Dame, my Mama-purple hair and all.

Time to get dressed. I’m having lunch with a friend. A hot bath, a new dress and visiting with a friend. I think I will order a Bloody Mary, too.

Toasts of the Town


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White bread was a staple in every household in the fifties and primarily used to make sandwiches. The bread was sliced thin and sold in a long slender plastic bag with the word Wonder Bread emblazoned on the bag. Fried bologna and mayonnaise, Peanut butter and bananas, cream cheese and olives-whether it was used for sandwiches, toasted or eaten smothered in butter, no Midwest kitchen would be absent the proverbial loaf of Wonder bread. As the main ingredient of a sandwich, it was difficult to be creative with white bread unless cutting off the crusts counted as being creative. We weren’t allowed to cut crusts; it was wasteful and there was absolutely no reason not to eat the crust. Mother told us that the crusts were the most nutritious part of the bread, but I doubt that her statement was true. It was more than likely a ruse to encourage me to eat the crusts. There were no wasted crusts in the Strange house.

Creativity with bread arrived in the form of toast. All different kinds of toast. Orange toast, milk toast, cheese toast, chipped beef on toast, cinnamon toast. These were the Strange versions of creativity with toast and we ate every kind of toast imaginable-true gastronomical delights (except for chipped beef on toast).

Have you ever heard of orange toast? I don’t know anyone who knows what orange toast is except my siblings, my cousins and our kids. No recipe today could match the simple and delicious version of this childhood treat, which is clearly connected to the memory of Saturdays mornings when we were allowed to sleep late and lounge around in our pajamas watching Howdy Doodie.

By the way, orange toast was not made in a toaster. We didn’t own an actual toaster, but we did have an oven, so Mother made all of our versions of toast in the oven, under the broiler. For orange toast, she used nothing more than white bread, butter, sugar and orange juice. It was delicious.

Mother always freshly squeezed the juice with an old-fashioned clear glass juicer, which was a kitchen necessity at that time. Frozen orange juice concentrate did not arrive on the scene until the late 50’s so a juicer was a kitchen necessity at that time. After squeezing the oranges, she separated the seeds from the bottom of the circular juicer and then added 1 teaspoon of sugar to the juice. She placed pieces of the white bread on a cookie sheet and arranged four slices of butter on top of the bread-four squares on one square.

She spooned the sweetened juice onto each slice and popped the cookie sheet into the over under the broiler, leaving the door to the oven cracked so that we could peek in and watch our delicious treat materialize. As the broiler coils turned a bright reddish-orange, we watched the butter melt and the edges of the bread crisped and darkened in color.  The juice bubbled as the liquid heated up and the bread became toast. When the orange toast was done, Mother used a spatula to lift the toast off the cookie sheet; otherwise, the toast fell apart with the softness of the middle portion of the bread-now toast-tearing easily.

From the plate, I chose to eat the delectable crispy edges of the toast first. Or maybe the mouth-watering soggy, sweet middle part of the toast, or maybe I cut the toast in two and ate the crispy edges and the soggy middle together. Regardless, the entire experience only lasted seconds as I enjoyed every scrumptious bite.

Milk toast?  That was a very different experience. I had to be sick to get milk toast and no one wants to be sick. I would venture to say that the words milk toast reminds most people of timidity and little joie de vivre. The comic strip character, Caspar Milquetoast was the reference for this image, so those people would be correct. However, what I think of when I hear the words milk toast is comfort food-Mother’s special treat when we were sick. It probably has medicinal value, but as a child, I felt infinitely better after a batch of her milk toast. After a night of fever or stomach ache, I would smell the aroma of the warming milk from the bedroom without having to even ask. From my bed, I anticipated the arrival of the warm bowl of milk poured over, once again, that iconic piece of white bread-toasted, that is.

Back in the kitchen, Mother sliced butter into the hot liquid and then added salt and pepper to the steaming concoction. The black flecks of pepper floated to the top of the liquid and jumped out from the whiteness of the milk and the melted butter. She allowed the mixture to cook, while she once again broiled her buttered bread in the oven, toasting it quickly so that it would be ready for the steaming hot milk.

When it was ready, Mother carried a tray to my sick-bed, careful to keep from spilling the heated liquid. She placed the bowl in front of me and steam rose over the bowl and into my face as I leaned over to capture the delightful aroma of the mixture. No matter how sick I was, I eagerly placed my spoon into the now softened toast and cut it into small pieces. Soggy, sweet, buttery and salty. When I finished the bread, I scooped cooling liquid into my mouth as my whirling stomach settled and the fever dissipated into oblivion.

Sick or well, I hated chipped beef on toast. And right now, I’m off to the grocery store to buy a loaf of white bread and oranges. It’s going to be cold in the morning and I just might lie around, drink coffee and eat orange toast. I wonder where that juicer is. And, I probably should buy whole wheat instead of white-my cousin reminded me that whole wheat is after all, healthier.

Mamaw’s Big Ben


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Part of the thrill in going to Kentucky to visit my cousins and other relatives, was to help prepare and sample the delectable homemade biscuits made by Mamaw. This truly was a ritual that took place almost every morning you spent with her. Whether it was during one of our visits to her or one of her visits to us, biscuits were always on the menu.

She was one of those truly grandmotherly types, who wore the plain cotton house dress that buttoned up the front, black orthopedic shoes and elastic bands around the lower part of her thighs, which held up her stockings. Towards the end of the day, the elastic bands appeared around her ankles, as she must have tired of the binding higher up on her legs, but was not yet ready to take off her hosiery.

Her silver peppered hair always looked as if it had just been permed, and the tight curls lay in ringlets against her scalp. She didn’t wear any jewelry that I can remember, but wore lipstick on special occasions. Inevitably when visiting, she always asked me to bobby pin her hair after she washed it.  She sat in the bench in front of her dressing table and I stood behind her, looking at the two of us in the mirror. She kept her bobby pins in one of the two milk glass,  chicken-shaped containers, which graced both sides of the dressing table. To begin the task, I carefully separated her hair into small sections, wrapped the hair around a finger, placed the coil against her scalp and then positioned bobby pins in a criss-cross fashion to hold her hair in place. Mamaw’s job involved handing the bobby pins to me one at a time. We talked the entire time I was fixing her hair, which generally revolved around stories about my father as a child or other people who had died. I often teased her that she knew more dead people than I knew who were living.

Once I had finished pinning her hair, I wrapped her head with a hair net to hold the sections in place. She went to bed secure in the knowledge that in the morning-Voila!-she had a head full of curls. We slept in her full-sized bed and as I dozed off to sleep, I listened for the sound of the trains, which passed her house nightly. The train’s whistle and the clanking of the train’s’wheels against the metal tracks mixed in with the soft snoring of the older woman I loved.

In the morning, the visit’s ritual continued as she adroitly and artistically set about making her batch of biscuits. First, she found the rectangular box of Diamond brand matches that she kept on top of the gas stove. In one quick action, she struck the wooden match against the strip of flint, which was on either side of the box, and the smell of sulphur permeated the air. She lit the over and began gathering her baking ingredients on top of the small kitchen table.  She mixed the flour, baking powder, ice water and lard and the magic of the motion mesmerized me. She never measured her ingredients, but used her watchful eye to determine the appropriate amount of “this and that” as she carefully weighed the texture of the dough with eyes and hands, which were  slightly knotted and gnarled, with closely trimmed and unpolished nails. She worked the dough furiously in the crockery and melded the dryness of the flour with the moisture of the ice water and the smooth, white, greasy lard. No one bakes with lard now, but it was a staple in Mamaw’s kitchen and was the one  ingredient, which gave her biscuits their flaky, rich texture and taste.

Once mixed, she gathered the dough in a ball, sprinkled flour on the table’s top and began the artful kneading of the dough. She punched the dough gracefully, yet forcefully, continually alternating between adding additional flour and rolling the dough around in her hands until it lost its stickiness. When she deemed the dough ready, she pulled her old, wooden rolling-pin out of the cabinet, floured the table and the rolling-pin to keep the dough from sticking and used the force of her hands to roll the dough into a less than perfect circle, which was a half to one inch thick. She used a jelly jar, which had a small opening, dipped in flour, to cut the dough into the pre-cooked circles.

She repeated the reshaping and rolling of the dough until she didn’t have enough dough left over to roll. At that point, she gathered all the scraps into one large biscuit, which was not symmetrical in shape or height. This leftover biscuit was her special biscuit-the biscuit that all her grandchildren wanted to eat-the privileged biscuit.

If Sissy and I, or one of our cousins both at her house, we would have to draw straws or pick a number between 1 and 10 to see which of us earned the honor of having that particular biscuit. That biscuit was called Big Ben.  To Mamaw, Big Ben was the memorial biscuit in honor of my grandfather Benjamin Robert Strange, who we called Papa, and her husband.

Whoever received the honor of eating Big Ben, smeared it with butter and some of her homemade plum jam. She never told us why she named a biscuit after Papa, but I suspect that she made biscuits for him often and he loved her biscuits, and this was how she honored him after he died.

I made biscuits for my own children on occasion and carried on the tradition of Big Ben that was a special part of my childhood; the careful attention to the process of mixing the dough, the rolling and cutting, the gathering of the scraps into one large biscuit, the smell of the gas oven being lit and the taste of the plum jam on my lips.  A sausage biscuit at McDonald’s? Ha! Can’t even come close to my Mamaw’s Big Ben.