Showing posts with label family history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family history. Show all posts

16 August 2014

Sunday in Frenchtown: The Old House

My great-grandparents and their children, on the balcony.
Welcome to Frenchtown, tucked away along the river on the west side of town, home to many of my hometown's French Canadian immigrant families in the late 1800s.

The building above was likely built when the area was subdivided in 1863, and enlarged over the years. My grandparents moved in after their marriage in 1883, and raised their five surviving children, plus my great-grandmother's daughter from her first marriage, in the six-room flat above the store.

They took out numerous mortgages over the years, and it appears the structure was remodeled in about 1914. That was around the time my grandmother, a middle daughter, moved into the now-closed general store area with her husband and young daughters, my older aunts.

In 1930, the building was converted into a family home, and it received additional updates in 1960. The photo below was taken about 1954. At that time, the third generation, my grandmother's daughters and nieces were chatting on the front steps after Ascension Thursday mass, with Grandma Annie leaning against a pillar.

The old house in 1954, taken from the southeast side.

In the intervening years, the house became a focal point for holidays and family gatherings, most notably summer stays with Grandma Annie and Réveillon Open Houses on Christmas Eve. Finally in 2003 with Grandma Annie gone for more than two decades and a maiden aunt  living their alone, it was sold to a loving family who carefully gave the building its most massive rehab ever, converting a two-flat structure into a one-family home. My siblings and I couldn't be happier. The house has entered its third century under good stewardship. The owner tells me she feels friendly vibes there. That would be Grandma Annie and her parents; they loved that house.

I have my own house to love, also built in the 19th century, but I drive past the old house when I need a boost. It's sacred to me now, the simple clapboard structure.

21 February 2007

Lenten Sacrifice, Memere's Candy Jar and Billy Gumbo

Growing up Catholic, we took Lent seriously and were encouraged to give something up. Usually it was candy.

Nowadays that doesn't bother me in the least, but it was a difficult sacrifice for a child. My resolve rarely lasted a week. I'd be fine the first three days, and would feel highly virtuous, a feeling I like more now than I did then.

But within two days of Ash Wednesday, I craved sugar with an intensity that made my teeth chatter, and I usually found some way to sneak red licorice or chocolate into my mouth. (Giving up red meat would have been a far easier sacrifice back then, as I loathed the stuff and resorted to all sorts of ingenious ways of avoiding it.)

The entire family (except my father) was sacrifice-prone for the dreary weeks leading up to Easter. Candy jars would go unfilled until Holy Saturday when no one could wait any longer and the deprivation generally ended.

My father ignored such things, as he ignored religion. But he relished the culinary customs of Catholicism. On Shrove Tuesday, he'd prepare some fatty dish and hum "Jambalaya" under his breath, always deliberately mishearing the lyrics so he could ask, "Who's this Billy Gumbo fellow, anyway?"

During Lent, he'd order lobster and clams and shrimp, having some of it flown in from the East Coast (a huge extravagance in those days). It was for the restaurant, of course, but we enjoyed it, too: Lobster with chive-y butter, clam chowder, oysters, scallops, shrimp - oh my!

For school-day lunches, there were fish sticks and French fries and macaroni-and-cheese.

Today I try to give something up, not for religious reasons (I stopped practicing when I got it right), but because it feels good.

Note: The candy dish belonged to Mémére. I noticed today that it has a few small splashes of red paint on it, same as Annie's pressed glass goblets (Sept. 25, 2006).

10 February 2007

Onion Salad with Roquefort and Bacon

During my first semester at college, my roommate Vivienne and I talked about food incessantly and prepared food almost as often as we talked about it.

We were trying very hard to become gourmets or at least decent cooks, and we made lots of dishes with rice, mushrooms, leeks and garlic. The tiny Pullman kitchen in our apartment-style dorm got a real workout, and we were constantly scouring local markets for new culinary finds.

I must have come home for the holidays jabbering on and on about cooking because that Christmas Grandma Annie gave me not only the cheese basket I talked about on Feb. 5, but also my first cookbook.

It must have been a last-minute gift, for it was a cookbook culled from her own large collection and it had her name written inside: Mrs. H.J. Doran. This she covered up with a strip of paper that bore my name in capital letters, produced no doubt on her battered Underwood.

It was a first edition of “Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy Cookbook,” a small, handheld cookbook that now sells for up to $75in the online auctions.

By the time Annie gave it to me, many of the recipes were already outdated. But others were classics, and for years this was my only cookbook. I augmented it with a few French cookbooks that I picked up cheap at the used booksellers on Madison’s State Street.

A Meaning Beyond Recipes

I can tell which recipes I used again and again, for those pages are stained, and there I’ve jotted down notes and calorie counts. Among my favorites were Spanish Rice, Chicken-Rice Bake, Miroton of Sea Food, Chili Con Carne, Tuna-Broccoli Casserole, and Peanut Butter Cookies.

Of course, many of the recipes I did not make, believing as I did at the time that great meals come from the heart. I rarely used cookbooks for recipes, only inspiration.

The book must have meant something to me even in my callow youth, because at one point I wrote, “First cookbook, Christmas gift from Grandma” inside the cover.

It means so much more to me now.

It is an historical document of sorts, a primary source for understanding the way people ate in the 1950s, that time of unbridled optimism when convenience foods were viewed as miracles of progress.

The cookbook is also part of my grandmother, for it sat among her own collection for decades, unused, until she thought I needed it.

For more than 25 years, it has been among my equally vast collection of cookbooks and has held a place of honor there. I could not fathom giving it away, even though I have not used it in years.

But I opened it the other night and I don’t think I can accurately describe the wave of something — nostalgia? — that poured over me.

I felt good, I felt comforted, I felt wrapped in love and security.

Perhaps this humble gift was more than a cookbook, I thought. Perhaps it was — it is — part of me in a way other cookbooks, other books even will never be.

A Culinary Epiphany

Great food artfully prepared dazzles me and sweeps me off my feet. It is like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe for the first time.

Humble dishes nourish my soul in a way nothing else can. They are like an old friend, or a good and long marriage.

Here is one from the book that I think stands up across six decades, with a little tweaking. I lowered the salt and added bacon.

Onion-Roquefort Cheese Salad

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 ounces Roquefort cheese
  • 1/4 cup bacon, cut into small chunks or bits
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • dash sel de fleur
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash paprika
  • 4 sweet onions, thinly sliced or cubed


Blend all ingredients, save for onion. Pour over onion and chill. Serves six. This would be a great side for hamburgers.

Well Worth Checking Out: For a thoughtful treatise on seasonal food choices, please read the Feb. 1 post at Lucy's Kitchen Notebook.

Also, there are two blogs, one new and one not-so-new, I'd like to call your attention to: (1) Charles at Bi-Coastal Cook, which is new and out of Maryland; and (2) the not-so-new but oh-so-spot-on Molly at My Madeleine, who also writes about taste, memory and experience as well as food (thanks to Terry B of Blue Kitchen for the link. I will be adding these to my blog list later today.

Thanks to Chris L. at The French Journal and to Erika at Tummy Treasure for links and mentions of B-Day and thanks to ChrisB at Ms. Cellania for the link today.

As part of my desire to be kinder and gentler, I vow to be better at thanking people for links.