Once upon a time, there was a woman named Julianna. She was born in Poland in the mid-1800’s but immigrated to upstate New York around 1900. There, she married a man named Marcin, and had a baby named Martha. Occasionally Julianna, Marcin and the baby would travel to Chicago to visit with relatives. It was there in the Windy City, in a busy house, that Julianna met a little boy named Allen.
The first time Allen met Julianna he was scared to death of her. To him Julianna seemed very old and very gruff. But Julianna, who was well-intentioned at heart, just settled in her old Polish ways, possessed a special skill. A skill so special that it could charm anyone, even a scared little boy named Allen.
Juliana’s special talent was baking and her most charming confection was a twisted bread called babka. Everyone in the busy house in the Windy City loved Julianna’s babka. The best in all the land, boasted her proud husband Marcin, who had a belly as round as Santa’s. Everyone agreed. Even the little boy named Allen, for as soon as he took his first bite of the cinnamon flavored treat he watched all his fears of this old woman fly right out of his head. It tastes like Christmas, he proclaimed! From that point forward, Julianna no longer seemed quite so scary. She returned again and again to visit and quickly became little Allen’s most anticipated house guest. As long as she brought the babka, that is:)
That’s a true story from the family archives. Julianna was the second wife of my great, great grandfather, Marcin who hailed from the pretty pastel city of Poznan, Poland in the 1800’s. The little boy named Allen was my dad who was born in Chicago in the 1940’s.
This information all came courtesy of a notebook of memories my dad filled out about a decade ago. Somehow this information of the famous babka got overlooked in the curiosity department and I never got the chance to ask my dad more about Julianna, Marcin and the famous yet mysterious family bread. A few days after my dad died, I came across the notebook of memories again and was reintroduced to the story of the babka.
Even though Marcin and Julianna shared 10 kids between them, there is no known recipe that’s been passed down through the family. Marcin’s daughter Jozefa, (my great grandmother) died from burns sustained in a kitchen fire when she was just 37, leaving eight children behind. That terrible family tragedy left little opportunity for conversation about lineage, ancestors and recollections when it came to Marcin and Julianna. No one wanted to dredge up the sad circumstances surrounding Jozefa’s death in order to understand the family that came before her. So a silence fell on that side of history. For a long, long time distant relatives became just a blur of hazy facts and faces. I’m on a mission now though to learn more about my great great grandparents and about that beautiful pastel city where they came from…
It will be a tricky endeavor since I’m dealing with foreign languages and far-off places, but they deserve the effort and it will be fun to see what gets discovered. In the meantime, this one little snippet of a food remembrance from my dad is a cherished link to knowing more about the lives of family members who lived over a century ago.
Because I’d never seen, or even heard about babka before it was referenced in the notebook, a new baking adventure was definitely in order. I scoured my vintage cookbooks but found absolutely no mention of it. Luckily, a great recipe was discovered online and the babka came into being in October. Two weeks ago, I posted it on Instagram and shared the story about Julianna.
It turned out to be a really fun and interesting baking project. If you are as unfamiliar with babka as I was, it is one of those cinnamon based desserts that is like a little slice of heaven for the season. Buttery, warm and full of aromatic spice, it tastes like a cross between a cinnamon role and a coffee cake. Fittingly, (for this story anyway!) the word babka means grandmother in Polish and is a traditional heritage food of both Poland and the Ukraine. Historians suspect that it may date all the way back to the 16th century.
Babka comes in two classic variations – chocolate and cinnamon – and can be augmented with a variety of toppings including streusel, nuts, raisins, spices and dried fruit. Usually it comes in two shapes as well – either round or loaf style. I chose to make the cinnamon version and baked it both ways – in loaves and rounds. The round version turned out to be a little fancier looking but the loaves are a bit easier to slice, so it comes down to your preference. Either way, it’s a winner of a recipe that tastes great at all times of the day, and is equally enjoyable at breakfast, during a mid-day snack or a late night nibble.
The key to an ultra flavorful babka lies in the freshness of the cinnamon. So if you can, try to find a spice shop in your neck of the woods that offers it freshly ground which would be most ideal. Luckily, as if Julianna was supporting my endeavor, a lovely new spice shop just opened up in my city, so I used Supreme Saigon cinnamon in my recipe. If you don’t have a good spice shop in your area, no worries, you can always order some online or buy a brand new container from your grocery so that you can experience the full bouquet of flavor.
Making babka from scratch is a three step process, but don’t let that intimidate you, as this is a very easy dessert to make. The only downside to homemade babka is the amount of time (about six hours) it takes to make from start to finish. That’s because it is a yeast bread and requires time to rise twice. It is well worth the wait though. It also freezes well, so if you were feeling extra ambitious you could double or triple the recipe and stack the babka up in the freezer for homemade goodness all winter long!
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, 1/2 tsp sugar and the lukewarm water. Stir to combine and then set aside for about 10 minutes so that the yeast can foam.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla, mixing until everything is blended together. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, scald the milk and then remove the pan from the heat and let it rest for 1 minute.
Using a hand mixer, combine the water/yeast mixture, the milk, and the melted butter to the flour mixture and blend to incorporate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time.
Continue mixing on a low to medium speed for 7 full minutes until the dough is shiny, elastic and smooth.
Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a warm damp towel. Allow to rise 1 to 2 hours.
While the dough is rising make the simple syrup by combining the water, sugar, and vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Next make the filling by combining all ingredients in a medium bowl and mixing thoroughly. Set aside.
When the dough has risen, cut it into two equal halves. Roll out one half on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 1/4″ inch thick. Try to roll the dough in as rectangular shape as possible.
With a sharp knife trim the rounder edges of the dough so that they form straight lines, which makes the babka braids look more tidy down the road.
Next spread half of the filling evenly all over the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch rim around the edge. Ideal tools for this are a frosting knife, a spatula, the back of a spoon or even your fingers.
Then starting at the bottom edge, tightly roll up the dough (jelly roll style) to the very top edge.
Once your dough is all rolled up and resembles a log shape, trim each end with a sharp knife and then cut the log length-wise down the middle to expose the filling inside.
Now that you have to halves of one log, braid the two halves together, alternating one section on top of the other so that it looks like this…
Place the braid in a greased springform cake pan.
Repeat the above steps with the other half of the dough. And then curl the second braid inside the first braid and smoosh the two braids together lightly (like you are squeezing a basketball between your hands) so that it creates some space between the sides of the pan and the dough.
Finally, drape a moist kitchen towel over the pan and set aside to rise for 30 more minutes.
While the dough is rising again , preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the babka in the oven for 40 minutes, then take it out and brush the top of the bread with two light layers of the sugar syrup. Return it to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
When it is ready, the babka will be a golden brown on top and the internal temperature will be 185 degrees. Place the pan on a cooling rack and brush the top with three more light layers of the sugar syrup. Let it cool for 10-15 minutes before removing the babka from the pan. The sides will be be rippled with ribbons of dough…
Slice and serve either warm or at room temperature. The babka pairs really well with a cup of strong coffee, tea or espresso.
Thanks to its bountiful size and rich texture, it makes an ideal holiday food since it can serve a lot of people, transports well and can be frozen for months ahead of time.
When I first posted the babka story on Instagram, several people sent messages requesting the recipe, so I’m pleased to be sharing it here on the blog today. I loved this bread so much that it is now going to be a new annual holiday baking tradition in my house. And I hope it becomes one of yours too. When my dad first met Julianna, she was in her 90’s. I love that she was still baking for her family at that age and still possessed the ability and desire to convince a small little boy that sweetness can be found even behind a sometimes gruff exterior.
Cheers to Julianna, Jozefa and my dad for providing glimpses into past family lives, to Helen and Shannon for providing the recipe and to Savory Spice for opening up shop just in time for this cinnamon-filled baking adventure. Hope you guys will be just as smitten with babka as I am.
Last week I went in search of Mr. Blandings. More specifically I went in search of Mr. Blandings’ dream house. A challenging feat on both fronts since Mr. Blandings is a fictional character and his real life dream house no longer exists. This adventure of the seemingly impossible was all sparked by a little snippet of information about a clever marketing campaign produced by Hollywood in 1948. The movie company was promoting this film…
a romantic comedy starring one of the most beloved actors of the twentieth century. But before we get into the story of searching for a nonexistent man in modern day, we must first travel back in time to the 1940’s, an era when creativity flourished, outside of the box thinking was encouraged and unusual situations were captivating the country. The first half of the decade was spent in World War II. On the home front that meant conservation, frugality, victory gardens, rations, fundraisers and bond drives. It was a test in patience, positivity, confidence and emotional endurance as people lived day to day waiting to hear the fates of their loved ones away at war. In those first five years of the 40’s people got used to making do, going without and utilizing every last bit of everything. Thankfully, in 1945 the war ended and Americans adjusted once again to a new normal as they recovered from years of uncertainty. By 1948, two and half years after World War II ended, America was ready for some fresh air and some new perspectives. A glance at that year’s pop culture highlights tells all about the country’s enthusiastic push for progress and for ideas that were new and stimulating and fun. Post war, post trauma, post sacrifice, 1948 embraced some big ideas that were remarkably different, refreshingly new and spectacularly exciting. Let’s look…
It was the year that Land Rover debuted, bucking tradition with their new all-terrain vehicles complete with a steering wheel that was located in an unusual spot – the middle of the front console. Tailfins showed up on Cadillacs, a nod towards sleek aviation design and a feeling that your car could take you anywhere. Monkeys were welcomed into NASA’s elite as they became astronauts bravely rocketing into space in order to test conditions so that men could make it there themselves a few years later. America’s affable laughable cartoon bird, Woody Woodpecker had a top 40 hit song on the radio, sharing the same spotlight with singing legends Doris Day, Perry Como and Ella Fitzgerald. Brand new air ferries started shuttling around the sky, transporting people and their cars from one city to the next. And most exciting of all, on the kitchen front at least, was a man named Blandings who built his dream house. And then he built seventy three more.
While all of these interesting pop-culture tidbits of 1948 are worthy of their own individual blog feature, it is Mr. Blandings who is the topic of our post and our road trip through history today. He created a sensation that took up the last four years of the 1940’s, filling people’s heads with dreams of possibility on the home front. It all starts in 1946, when he was the subject of the runaway bestseller called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a fictional account of a real-life adventure experienced by the author Eric Hodgins. In the book, Mr. Blandings embarks on the ultimate quest – the American dream of the 20th century – buying a house for his wife and family.
To Mr. Blandings of 1946, a dream home meant extra closets, a private bath in each bedroom, a game room for him, a sewing room for her and plenty of outdoor space for the kids. It meant everything that his cramped Upper East Side New York City apartment lacked – peace, security, space and a good dose of nature. One day, when he just can’t stand the close city quarters a minute longer, he adventures out to the country to have a look around. One thing leads to another and a new domestic life comes into sight. In the book, it looks something like this, thanks to illustrator William Steig…
The Blandings choose the Connecticut countryside as their ideal homestead, and a historic house that was loved for both its shabby, need-of-repair appearance and its supposed storied place in American history. What develops as the family starts planning a move from NYC to Connecticut (just a train ride away!) involves a series of new house woes that they never expected including demolition and reconstruction.
Throughout the story, mishaps and unexpected scenarios test the metal of all that makes up Mr. Blandings, the man and the mission. At every corner, he and his wife are met with a new challenge. Nothing goes quite according to plan. There are time delays, contractor issues, escalating costs, tricky neighbors and all sorts of digging, drilling and hammering surprises. An everyman story, a timeless tale, an homage to hope, optimism and the struggle to succeed, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House resonated strongly with the heads and hearts of the American public of the mid-20th century, many of whom were experiencing their own construction trials and tribulations as the building industry boomed during the post-war years. The book was such a hit that two years after its debut, Hollywood made a movie out of it starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
Just as entertaining as Eric Hodgin’s story, the movie was also an incredible success. Practically all of America fell in love (again!) with the Blandings and the predicaments they encountered. In addition to dealing with the baffling world of home construction, Mr. Blandings also frets over a relationship between his wife and a long-time family friend while simultaneously juggling a deadline for an advertising campaign at work. The trailer doesn’t really do the film much justice, but it does give you a glimpse of the humor that peppers both the book and the movie…
We never really get a good sense of the house the Blandings wind up building until the very end of the movie when the finished product is revealed. It turns out to be a beautiful colonial-style farmhouse set on a few dozen acres of rolling countryside…
The real-life house that Eric Hodgin’s book was based on was built in Connecticut in the late 1930’s. The real-life house featured in the movie was built on pastoral studio-owned property in Malibu, CA in 1947. That makes two real-life houses built for the telling of one story. But by 1948, an astounding 73 more houses are added to that real-life list. These houses are built in 60 different cities across the country thanks to a very clever and very generous marketing campaign put together to promote the film. RKO Pictures and SRO Distribution Company teamed up with contractors, construction crews, designers, utility conglomerates and furniture companies all over the U.S. to build not one… not two… not three… but seventy three (73!) Blandings Dream Houses that were then raffled off in local contests. Not only was it epic promotion for the movie and the time period, but it was also an exciting opportunity for advertisers to showcase new products and cutting edge technology for the modern home.
General Electric was a big national sponsor advertising all their latest products including wiring, appliances, air conditioning and even electric blankets. Many of their innovations greatly affected the kitchen and laundry areas, turning those rooms into two of the most technologically-advanced places in the entire house.
Imagine how exciting and inspiring this campaign must have been back in post-WWII days when everyone was trying to get back on their feet and recreate their own semblance of home and shelter. The average house price in 1940 was about $3,000.00 (equivalent to $32,000.00 today) and the median household income was $956.00 a year (equivalent to about $17,000.00 today), not totally unaffordable by modern comparisons (the national median income today is $59,000 and the average U.S. home price is $230,000) but the Blandings dream houses in 1948 all came equipped with the most modern features, stylish interiors and the latest innovations which greatly extended their value.
For people who loved to cook, the idea of winning such a modern home would have been fantastically exciting, as the Blandings Dream Kitchen was one of the most modern and efficient rooms in the house.
In the 1930’s and early 1940’s most American kitchens looked something like this…
… a collection of precariously placed appliances and furniture of all styles that mingled with exposed heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing fixtures. While these 1930’s kitchens were perfectly functional they weren’t necessarily set up for ideal ease, comfort or organization. By the time the Blandings declared their dreams in the 1940’s, kitchens were becoming much more aesthetically pleasing and helpful. Built-in cabinets, long counter tops, hidden utilities, ventilation hoods, picturesque windows, bright colors and designated dining nooks made cooking more efficient, enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. You’ll notice that these 1940’s kitchens below also utilized corners, shelving and seating to maximize floor space.
When the movie first premiered in New York in March of 1948, ad campaigns began rolling out across the country announcing the Dream House Build-Up, so that by June when the Blandings were in theaters nationwide, the excitement and anticipation was at a fever pitch.
Each of the cities that participated in the big build invited the local public in to view their custom version of a modern dream house. What was especially intriguing about this promotional campaign is that not all of the houses built in each city were an exact replica of the Blandings dream house or its colonial style. Some cities chose to build houses that were more suited to their own local climate or aesthetic. The one built in Knoxville, TN was a one story rambler…
This one in Milwaukee was a smaller cape-style cottage…
In Oregon, the dream house contained elements of brick and siding…
Most of the Blandings promotional houses were built in suburbs – the big city shadows where land, space and freedom offered opportunity for the American dream to grow and spread. From Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington; from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Pacific Coast of California; from the top of Minnesota to the bottom of Texas fictional dreams were determining real-life destinies. Which brings us back to the modern day road trip that I embarked on last week.
Excited to see that Nashville was listed as one of the “Dream” cities, I went in search of Blandings in my own neck of the woods. This is what the Nashville dream house looked like in 1948…
Unlike the one built in Knoxville, the Nashville house was built in the exact same style as the one in the movie. Located in a very pretty section of town, noted for its gorgeous old growth landscaping and stately historic homes, I was excited to see what the Blandings dream house would look like now. Here is what I found…
Pretty! But not exactly the same house as the one pictured in the newspaper advertisement…
As it turns out the original Blandings house was torn down in the 1970’s. This new house occupying the spot now was built in 2016 and sold for $1.6 million. A little more expensive then 1940’s home prices:) Although it’s not a historical design, it is fun to see that the roof line, dormer window and landscaping are quite similar and complimentary to the original Blandings style. Perhaps this house designer was a 1940’s fan himself!
As I was about to drive away, an old man came out from a garage across the street. A much more modest house in size and scope, this old gentleman was shuffling down his driveway with the help of his cane, wearing a wool sweater, pajamas, bedroom slippers and a determined look. I suspected that he was headed towards his mailbox. Immediately I thought of Blandings himself and I waved to him. But he didn’t wave back. Obviously he wasn’t our hero of book and screen, but in that moment I imagined that this stooped over grey-haired guy, trembly and slow was once was a young man with a wife and two kids. I imagined that he used to live in a small apartment in a big city and that one day, he too got fed up and set out to build his own dream house – the sprawling brick ranch that he still lives in now. Obviously he wasn’t Mr. Blandings. But then again… maybe he was.
Cheers to dreamers and to real-life houses that inspire books that then inspire movies that then inspire more dreamers and more houses! And cheers to Mr. Blandings, who is not real, but feels very much so.
If you are interested in reading the book that sparked this nationwide love affair seventy years ago, find it in the shop here. If you live in one of the dream cities that built a Blandings house please comment below and tell us all about your famous local icon. We’d love to hear more about it!
Eight. That’s how many days there are to go. It’s almost here! Then one thing turns into another. We end and we begin. We change and we grow. This year, the day falls on a Monday. The exact date – September 23rd. Then it’s official. The first day of Autumn arrives. How exciting! To celebrate the season, I have a fun new gardening project for all you do-it-yourself-ers out there who like to keep your hands busy in the dirt in the off-season when summer turns to fall and fall turns to winter and the outdoor garden is at rest. It doesn’t require much effort, time or expense but it does call for a little imagination. It will last forever if you want it to and it will make you look at things in your cupboards in a whole new way. Most importantly, it gives new purpose to old items that sometimes get left behind on a shelf or forgotten about in storage.
I’m so excited to introduce the succulent set…
…real plants growing out of old china serving pieces. If you’ve inherited pieces of your family’s china and are not quite sure what to do with them or how to incorporate them into your daily life, or if you just want a planter with a little bit of one-of a-kind personality then designating a vintage sugar bowl or a creamer or a serving dish as your new garden vessel is a fun way to go. Let’s look…
This Japanese Majolica creamer is from the 1940’s. Due to some cracks on the bottom it no longer holds water (or cream!) so it makes an ideal container for varieties of succulents that prefer well draining soil. All it needs is a little water once a week and it’s ready to grow. Keep it in the sink for a few minutes and the water drips out through the cracks, then it is good to go until its next watering seven days later.
Vintage sugar bowls like this one above, made in England, fit perfectly into shelves or small spaces. Your very own unexpected mini garden greenspace place!
This vintage coffeepot from the 1940s lost its lid somewhere along its 75 years of travels. That makes it no longer the most suitable vessel for hot coffee but it certainly makes a pretty container for eye-catching flower power in the form of a petal shaped succulent.
With their long shape and roomy width, gravy boats make great table centerpieces. They can usually accommodate more than a couple of mini plants depending on size. For wedding reception decorations, they offer the symbolism and sentimentality of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”
Ideal plants for this type of pairing project, many succulents don’t require a lot of watering and come in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes. As they grow, the plants can be transferred to larger and larger containers like this one – a two-handled vegetable dish from Salem Pottery’s Commodore pattern which debuted in the 1940’s. Because of its larger size it can accommodate up to seven 2.5″ inch succulents or just a few bigger individuals that have outgrown their smaller holders…
Authentic crazing, staining and chippy details add interesting, quirky personality to your space that you can’t find in modern day planters. They also easily fit on window sills, ledges, mantles and counter top nooks. Choose one that matches your interior aesthetic, or the colors of your kitchen, or reminds you of a good memory and you’ll instantly add a bit of happy energy to your space. Old dishes love to remain useful helpers. Matching the old with the new creates balance and harmony and reminds us that imperfections are the stuff of life. Beautiful! This antique gravy boat below is over 100 years old but still looks as fresh and pretty as ever thanks to its classic shape.
The trio below have no cracks to worry about so they are ideal holders for succulents and cactus that prefer to be spritzed with water, rather than doused, every now and again. Add some some pea gravel to the bottom of each vessel before adding dirt and certain succulents will be happy with just a tiny bit of water every now and again.
Another possibility is to gather them all up and make a hanging wall display with the help of a crate…
That makes an instant collection and an engaging garden that you can cultivate and tend to all year round. Usually all that is required for succulents is bright natural light, a sunny alcove or close proximity to a window.
With all their color choices which range from light gray to soft pink, bright green to dusty blue there is great fun in matching plant to planter and then watching them grow and sprout new additions.
If you need a vintage serving piece to start your garden you can find the ones above in the garden section of the shop. Succulents are available at most garden centers, nurseries, farmers markets or sometimes even the floral section of the grocery store. I recommend getting your planter first, then your succulent second, so that you can determine the appropriate drainage condition, color and shape for plant and planter.
Hope this brings a little fun your way on our second to last Sunday of summer. Cheers to new gardens, old dishes and the joy they both provide:)
In the historic baking world there’s a legend that springs from a yeast bread. Depending on the sources and the provenance of specific recipes, facts about this legend vary widely and wildly. In some tales she’s a 17th century girl, in others an 18th century woman. She was French. She was English. She was colonial American. She was an ordinary teenager, she was a famous baker, she was a lowly domestic servant. She had a name that was either Sally or Solange or Madame or Marie. She was a real human being but she then again she was a fake and then yet again someone else’s flight of fancy. For three centuries, this baking icon has tumbled through time on the flimsiest of resumes. This is the story of Sally Lunn and a cake (or it might have been a bread) that made her famous.
This weekend, after coming home from the market with a batch of blackberries that were so deliciously ripe they smelled like wine, I discovered a vintage recipe that is as difficult to describe as the lady it was named after. Called Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn, it came from Meta Given’s 1957 Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. Surprisingly, out of a stack of forty different vintage cookbooks spanning the early 1900’s to the early 1980’s, Meta’s book was one of just a few that contained any recipes for fresh blackberries at all. Homemade jam and blackberry pie unified the books that did include the fruit, but Meta’s was the only cookbook that combined blackberries with a cake in the name of Sally Lunn. I love any recipe that is unique and stands out. The name Sally Lunn sounded curious and since I’d never heard of her before I had a feeling this might be fun to share with you too.
Like the age old conundrum of who came first – the chicken or the egg – there are two different variations of a baked good that purportedly made Sally Lunn famous. One was a yeasted savory bread that looks like a cross between a bundt cake and a hamburger bun…
and the other is a sweetened tea cake that looks like something between a blueberry pancake and a cobbler…
You wouldn’t be wrong to call either variation a Sally Lunn, even though they are two completely different types of food. Because of that, her name has popped up in recipe titles in a myriad of ways. There’s the Sally Lunn Bun, Virginia Sally Lunn, Sally Lunn Bread, Sally Lunn Cake, Sweet Sally Lunn and just plain old Sally Lunn among others. Likewise, in indexes, you’ll find her popping up under L for Lunn, S for Sally or more specifically under category sections that include Cakes, Breads, Desserts, Baked Goods, Tea Cakes, Yeast Breads, Coffee Cakes, Coffee Breads, etc. So how could one possibly mythical person be identified with two types of very different yet specific baked goods over the course of hundreds of years?
As it turns out no one knows. And thus far it has been impossible to authentically identify any true source that leads to Sally and the bread and cake that share her name. Lots of ideas about her float around. She was a teenage maid servant named Sally Lunn who delivered a newly invented bread to her master of the house, who in turn delightfully named it for her. She was a talented French baker named Solange, who escaped to a bakery in England where she began to make a popular brioche-style confection that looked like the rising of the sun. She was a working class woman in 18th century England crying out her name in the streets as a sales tool for the bread that became her trademark. There’s even a historic eating house in England that speculates they might have been the site of Sally’s original bakery in the late 1600’s.
I like to believe the theory that Sally Lunn was an actual baker living in 1700’s England. The story details how she invented a sweet yeast bread that became very popular at first locally, then regionally, then across the sea. With this theory, it makes sense then that references to Sally Lunn would have shown up in early American cookbooks, a favored recipe brought over by the English as they colonized America. Possibly, at some point in history, when yeast either became too expensive, or there was a shortage, a non-yeast cake version was invented by some other creative and clever baker in the 1800’s who used all the same ingredients of Sally Lunn bread minus the yeast. Thereby keeping the name Sally Lunn in the recipe title. By the time, the 1950’s rolled around perhaps Meta made her own creative choice by marrying blackberries into the non-yeast version Sally Lunn cake. Whether this is an accurate assumption or not, no one will ever know for certain unless some of Sally’s baking notes happen to show up. But with all this mysteriousness that surrounds Sally and her two contributions to the baking industry, I think she’d be happy knowing that at least her name stayed attached even though the origin story didn’t. It is after all, the ultimate branding success story, 1700’s style!
Meta Given was a legend in the culinary world in her own right. A nutritionist at heart, she set out to write some of the most comprehensive cookbooks of the 1950’s that included recipes for people across the entire economic spectrum. Her books featured everything from thrifty staples like squirrel stew to elegant French dishes with layered sauces and nuanced flavors. Her mission was to make cooking fun, enjoyable and accessible for everyone while also making it nutritious and creative. I’m so pleased to present her lovely sweet treat of a dessert that highlights the juicy, sun ripened flavors of blackberries nearing summer’s end. What I love about this cake in particular is that it is pretty healthy – using small amounts of sugar, butter and flour. The blackberries really keep the cake moist and add a familiar sweet tart flavor similar to cobbler but with a velvety more dense consistency like a blueberry pancake. If you wanted to add an extra dash of sweetness you could drizzle the whole cake with honey or follow Meta’s suggestion of adding a lemon sugar glaze once the cake is out of the oven, but I loved it just as it was… simple and summer-y.
Meta Given’s Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn Cake
1 pint box of freshly picked blackberries (enough for 2 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons salted butter, softened
2/3rds cup sugar ( I used raw cane sugar)
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sour cream*
1/2 cup whole milk*
(*Note – The milk measurement was left out of the original recipe, but was included in a revised edition in 1959. I used the sour cream/milk combination but you can also substitute those two ingredients for 1 cup of buttermilk).
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter well an 8 1/2″ inch springform cake pan.
Drop berries into a bowl of cold water to rinse and remove any stems or leaf debris. Swish berries gently and then by by hand remove them to a colander to drain. Once the berries have drained in the colander transfer them to a medium size bowl and gently toss them with 1 tablespoon sugar. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
In another bowl, whip the butter, sugar and egg together until creamy. Stir in lemon juice using a wooden spoon and then add the flour, sour cream and milk, blending until smooth.
Gently fold in the blackberries until just well distributed. Turn batter into prepared pan.
Bake until golden brown (about 40-55 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once ready to remove from oven, let cake cool slightly in pan on a cooling rack before serving either lukewarm or at room temperature.
In addition to enjoying the end-of-season fruit harvest this month, Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn cake also freezes well. So if you choose that storage method you’ll still be able to taste the warm days of summer even on the coldest winter nights. And because it does have a pancake-esque quality to it, it wouldn’t be terrible to serve it for breakfast or even alongside a summer salad for brunch or lunch. This Fall, I’ll share the other version of Sally Lunn as we dive into bread baking season to see how these two, and if these two compare in any way other than by name.
In the meantime, cheers to Sally and to Meta for baking delicious food that withstands not only multiple decades but multiple centuries too! If you are interested in learning more about Meta and her cookbooks, find a few in the shop here. The Williamsburg Cookbook will also be heading to the shop shortly as well, in case you want to catch up on your colonial fare before heading into the holiday season. Find that one coming to the cookbook section shortly. And finally, this cake was styled using the lovely vintage 1960’s Italian cut glass cake stand which you can find in the shop here.
Happy August! As promised in the last post, here is the article written for Artisans List that highlights the beauty and joy of a vintage style picnic. We’ve got just six weeks left before Autumn officially starts, but rest assured that doesn’t mean that picnic season, as we most traditionally know it, is over. There are plenty of Fall foliage opportunities for all you Northerners intent on a day trip and a dine out in nature. If you happen to live in the Southern half of the hemisphere than lucky you – everyday is a good day for a picnic no matter what time of year. When we settle into the cooler months, I’ll also be featuring two outside of the box picnic ideas – the carpet picnic and the car picnic – both which promise to hold as much fun as their summertime counterpart. So stayed tuned on that front. In the meantime, six full weeks of summer still await. From somewhere I can hear a basket calling your name…
Twentieth century foodie, gourmand and all around good cook, James Beard declared that “picnicking is one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life.” Indeed. No other dining experience seems quite so decadent. The fresh air, the natural setting, the creative food choices, the deliciously idle intentions. Picnics have a wonderful way of engaging all of our senses in such a fantastic way. It’s almost overwhelming.
Those first few moments at picnic’s start – when you are dizzy with the view and the weather and the notion of doing nothing but relaxing and reveling in food and friends – is satisfaction enough. But then a truckload of simple delights follow one right after another. There is that liberating sensation of kicking off shoes and wiggling bare toes in soft grass. The crisp, snapping action of the picnic blanket as it unfurls from containment, joyfully sailing on the breeze before floating to the ground. There is the laying out of the carefully wrapped food parcels and the first sip of a celebratory toast. The giddy laughter, the bird songs, the sound of leafy trees dancing on the breeze… suddenly you are aware of the musical vitality of nature and yourself in it.
On a picnic, the world shines newly bright with details mostly overlooked in the hustle bustle routine of everyday life. It is an activity that encourages you to stop and to breathe and to melt – into your surroundings, into your friends, into the food that makes up your lunch or your dinner or your breakfast time snack. Yes, picnics are a triumphant and pleasurable experience. And there’s no better season for them then right now. In today’s post, we will be discussing the art of of the vintage picnic – how it came to be, how it shaped us, and why we still need to celebrate it now. Highlighting a handful of old, but still very relevant recipes, this post also offers suggestions on how to build your own vintage picnic experience so that you too can succumb to the relaxing style of outdoor eating that our ancestors favored so long ago. It’s history in a most delicious form, unveiled, just as we are about to round the corner towards the 4th of July, the most popular picnic holiday of the year.
This idea of eating outdoors from a basket on a blanket is no trend. It has been around for centuries and has taken eaters on a plethora of picturesque adventures. But it wasn’t always a simple act. At first, outdoor dining began in grand style. Lavish entertaining in lavish settings. In the 1700’s, there were the hunting after-parties which made glorious outdoor feasts of animals bagged from the day’s sport. Garden gatherings in the 1800’s involved fine china, silverware and fancy dress. Plein air luncheons in the early 1900’s focused on seasonal foods, artistic creativity and exquisite manners. Today, picnics involve technology fueled cooling mechanisms, compartmentalized backpacks and fitted amenities made for details and devices. Needless to say, the desire to picnic has never been lost, but the way we eat outdoors has evolved quite a bit over time.
Nowadays, anything goes when it comes to picnic style and presentation. An impromptu paper bag lunch for two in a city park can be just as engaging as a thoughtfully prepared country basket for six. But just like any activity worth doing, there is a certain art form to a well produced picnic that makes for a more pleasurable experience. The vintage-style picnic favors china plates and real glassware, classic cocktails and linen napkins, and most importantly, homemade food. It is the sort of affair that wraps you up in a long, restful lazy day adventure fueled with time-honored tradition and attention to detail. It discourages anything fast or obtuse- like technology and frenzied time schedules and plastic utensils. It champions a slower, simpler and more relaxing rhythm. The type of experience that not only feeds your appetite but also your senses, your spirit and your sanity. Basically, a vintage-style picnic is a big, long break in your day meant for resting, relaxing and restoring through small details… the time-worn touch of an old plate, the taste of an heirloom recipe, the time-out of technology, and the tune in to your natural surroundings.
Legend loosely states that the word picnic stemmed from the French pique-nique which derives from the action of picking and selecting small spots or things. Originally, pique-niques were more like potlucks, in that all invited guests were asked to contribute a little food or drink for the group to share together. But it was England, in the 19th century, not France who created the picnic in the modern sense that we know it as today. Both a mealtime and a leisure activity, the English made picnicking a deliciously long-term and lengthy event that could last all day and well into the night if done right. They played games, read books, plucked instruments, talked, sang, painted, swam, flew kites, played sports and generally just all around enjoyed themselves while snacking on small plates of assorted foods from wicker hampers and baskets.
In America, prior to the Civil War, there were no lackadaisical, carefree picnic outings. If any outdoor eating occurred before that time period, it was eating en masse – generally a large sociable event where whole communities of people turned out to enjoy a barbecue or a church social or a political rally. The Victorians ushered in more intimate, family-style picnic parties, rambling in close proximity to home, as their appreciation of nature and outdoor enthusiasm bloomed in the late 1800’s. But the rise of the automobile, the building of the U.S. highway system, and the introduction of drive-up motor lodges and nationals parks all encouraged a whole new independence when it came to on-the-go eating as the 20th century began. Suddenly, the English style picnic took hold as Americans began exploring their more easy-to-navigate country. Economical, spontaneous and available to everyone, picnics naturally turned destinations into dining opportunities. All you needed was a basket, a blanket, a small collection of foodstuffs and an adventurous spirit. Outdoor eating euphoria had arrived!
Back in earlier centuries, outdoor eating meant bountiful quantities and dramatic fare. Whole animals roasted over fire pits, multiple courses served by domestic staff, exotic ingredients, rich foods, elaborate presentation. But as outdoor dining began to evolve over time into smaller parties and simpler affairs, the food that accompanied it changed also. As serving staffs diminished and people became more independent, picnics and the baskets they represented, became simpler – filled with foods that could be easily made, easily transported and easily unpacked. By the time the mid-20th century rolled around, there was a definite type of picnic fare anticipated and defined by the activity. Fried chicken, salads and deviled eggs topped the favorites list, along with hot dogs, sandwiches, pies, cakes, bread and fruit.
The picnic basket spread out before you in this post highlights vintage recipes that capture that same essence of familiarity and practicality, while also providing a well-rounded balance of flavors and tastes. Vintage recipes include Sicilian-Style Marinated Olives, Oven-Fried Chicken, Deviled Eggs, Cheese Straws and Blueberry Tart. Americanos join the party as a refreshing aperitif to toast the season and the stars.
Ranging from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, these recipes came from a handful of treasured vintage cookbooks. They pair gourmet creations from famous chefs like James Beard with regional favorites from lesser-known sources, like the ladies of the Junior League of Huntsville, Alabama. Covering all matters of taste from sweet to salty, savory to sour, they are considered traditional picnic foods, but each contains an unusual twist in the form of a cooking method or an ingredient pairing that makes them both interesting and innovative. Whether you make all of these recipes at once for your next outing or just focus on a dish or two to sample and try, you’ll discover that all of these options listed here are steeped in simplicity. Almost all of them can be made a day or two ahead of time, so that your restful day of picnicking doesn’t include you running around the kitchen like a crazed cook.
And, just one more note before we get to the recipes. While food is obviously the main attraction in a picnic, the vintage-style picnic places just as much importance on the accessories that go along with it as well – a.k.a. the servingware. While it is true that we may no longer entertain as formally as we did in centuries past, there is something lovely about incorporating some little niceties into your basket in the form of linen napkins, china plates and glass drinkware. These details add an elevated aesthetic to your picnic that reflects the elegant English versions of yesteryear, and really just makes for a nicer overall dining experience. A cocktail enjoyed from a plastic cup or a homemade dessert pierced with a plastic fork is never quite the same experience as using real glass and real flatware. Even James Beard agreed about that point. “Skimp on all the other dishware if you have too – but never on the glassware for your cocktail,” he advised.
A few vintage items featured in this post are a handwoven picnic basket from the 1930’s, a matching set of W.H. Grindley hotelware salad plates made in England (also in the 1930’s) and a handful of embroidered vintage linens in various shapes and sizes. Vintage restaurantware dishes in general are a great choice for picnics because they are heavy duty and aren’t quite as fragile as delicate ceramic or porcelain dishes. Salad plates or bread and butter plates are also the perfect size for your small snack needs and aren’t as bulky to pack as dinner sized equivalents. Likewise, vintage tablecloths make ideal picnic blankets thanks to their soft fabrics (decades of washing and drying!), variety of sizes and nostalgic designs. As you build your vintage accessories collection, you’ll also notice that these elements have a fun way of engaging people in conversation too. Each item in your basket expresses its own unique story. When packing all these elements up I like to designate the sturdy picnic basket for fragile foods, a separate tote bag for the servingware and linens and an additional tote for drinks and ice. That way everything remains intact from the moment you leave your kitchen to the moment you arrive at your destination.
Americano (serves 1)
1 1/2 oz. Campari
1 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth
3 oz. Club Soda
Twist or Slice of lemon or orange for garnish
Add the Campari and vermouth to an old-fashioned glass. Add ice cubes and club soda. Stir to combine. Garnish with a slice or twist of lemon or orange.
Marinated Olives, Sicilian Style (from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, 1985)
1 pound Ligurian, Nicoise or Greek Olives or a combination, drained
8 cloves garlic, cut lengthwise in half
Zest of 1/2 orange
Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Combine olives, garlic, citrus, fennel and rosemary in a large bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice and oil. Marinate, stirring occasionally at room temperature at least 24 hours.
Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half and remove the yolks to a small bowl. Mash yolks with sardines, onion and parsley. Blend with mayonnaise until you reach ideal consistency then fill each egg half. Chill in fridge until ready to pack into your picnic basket. These can be made up to 24 hours in advance. * If you don’t have a portable egg carrier, disposable muffin tins make a great alternative.
1/3 cup butter, melted but cooled to room temperature
6 cups corn flakes, crushed
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, parsley and melted butter in a shallow dish and mix thoroughly. In a separate shallow dish add the crushed cornflakes. Dredge each piece of chicken on both sides in the butter mixture and then coat them on each side in the cornflakes. Place the prepared chicken on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until chicken is golden brown and crispy. *Note: This chicken recipe will loose its crunch factor the longer it sits. So if you are picnicking, this should be the last dish you make before packing the picnic basket and heading out the door. That being said, it’s still wonderful hours later or even the next day, but the corn flake coating will have a more breaded consistency rather than a crispy crunch.
1 lb. New York State sharp cheese (or any sharp cheddar), grated
3/4 cup butter
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
smoked paprika for garnish
Leave both the cheese and the butter out overnight on the counter to soften. The next morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together (except the smoked paprika) in a medium bowl by hand. Knead the dough until it turns into a consistency like play-doh. Form into a ball shape. On a lightly floured pastry cloth, roll the dough out firmly to 1/4 inch thickness with a wooden rolling pin. By pressing it into the cloth with the rolling pin, you’ll be able to smooth out any crumbly or wrinkly areas as you work. Using a small star shaped cookie cutter, cut out the stars and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden in color. Let stars cool on a rack and dust with smoked paprika just before serving.
Homemade Blueberry Tart (recipes adapted from the Smitten Kitchen and Martha Stewart)
For the tart shell:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
9 tablespoons very cold (or frozen) butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon together. Add the chopped butter pieces and blend with with a fork until the mixture resembles small bread crumbs in various sizes. Add the egg and mix until combined. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
Butter a 9-inch tart pan (the kind with a removable bottom). Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth and roll out to a size big enough to accommodate an extra 1/2 inch of dough in diameter when placed in the tart pan. Add dough to pan, trim any excess dough beyond the extra 1/2″inch that hangs over the sides. Fold the remaining 1/2″ inch of dough back into the tart pan, so that you are re-enforcing the side walls with an extra layer of dough. Pierce crust all over (bottom and sides) with a fork. Place tart pan in freezer for at least 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from freezer and place directly in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tart shell turns a soft golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.
For the blueberry filling:
6 cups fresh blueberries
2/3 cup cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt
In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups blueberries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let berries simmer, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes.
In a small bowl mix the flour with 4 tablespoons of water until smooth and then add to the blueberries in the pan. Next, add the lemon juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Let the mixture thicken for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 3 1/2 cups of blueberries. Immediately, add this hot blueberry mixture to the tart shell.
Sprinkle the remaining cup of fresh blueberries across the top of the hot mixture, gently pressing the berries down so that they stick into the hot mixture enough to bind them together. Place the tart in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or at most overnight.
Additional Picnic Companions
One of the joys of picnic fare is the ability to snack and nibble on little bits of food at whim throughout the day. Since the original pique-nique days, small has been the favored size and serving proportion. For that purpose, a wooden cutting board filled with fresh fruit, a sampling of cheeses, cured meats, fresh herbs and bread offer an infinite number of little edibles that can be combined in interesting ways with the food options listed above. From chicken baguette sandwiches to cheese and crackers to deviled egg wrapped prosciutto, variety runs the gamut. The picnic board here included rainier cherries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goat’s milk Gouda, cave-aged cheddar, blueberry Stilton, herb stuffed salami, thinly sliced prosciutto, Genoa salami, a bouquet of fresh herbs and a French baguette.
Finally, when bellies are full and appetites satisfied, the vintage-style picnic experience celebrates and salutes the pursuit of leisurely activities. There’s no rushing to clean up or clear out once you finish eating. The whole, blissful idea behind a vintage-style picnic is to stay awhile and relax into yourself and your surroundings. One of my most favorite picnic activities is bird watching and tree scouting. I usually tote along a couple of species guides and a pair of binoculars, so that I can identify what’s flying over and growing up around me. Other fun activity suggestions (depending on your setting) include painting, sketching, walking, kite flying, playing cards, reading, talking, napping, swimming, collecting and just appreciating the people and places that share your afternoon.
The world is a beautiful place. Time is a priceless gift. Eating is a ceremonial act. The art of the vintage picnic reminds us of that. Just as it has in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Wherever your picnic adventures take you this summer, I hope they are magical and delicious. Cheers to dining out in nature. Hope it is your best meal yet!
One of the highlights of the summer so far has been the start of a new collaboration with a fellow history-centric company. I’m so pleased to introduce you all to Artisan’s List, a nationwide directory geared towards the historic home improvement enthusiast or anyone interested in defining their space with handmade touches and artistic refinements.
As a go-to resource for niche projects, Artisans List is a dream come true for people who just want to get stuff done. If you have a vintage sofa to reupholster (me!), a backyard fruit orchard to plan, an addition to add onto your house or are trying to hunt down a blacksmith for hand-forged drawer pulls, you’ll find just the right expert to work with at Artisans List.
There, in the dynamic world of creative pursuits, you’ll discover makers of handmade pots and pans, landscape architects, historic home renovation consultants, furniture makers, blacksmiths, stone masons, roofers… basically all the people that can help turn your home project ideas into realities – from the roof line all the way down to the basement floor and everything in between.
As a resource guide made up of traditional craftsmen and skilled tradesmen AL is a beehive of interesting information, ideas and inspiration that continues to grow more dynamic each day. The whole concept of the directory was born out of the lack of an online community that catered specifically to the local home restoration marketplace state by state. So the founders of Artisans List are very intent on making the site an informative, educational, and useful tool for people all over the country. Each of the AL vendors are vetted to make sure that their business and/or skill is authentically produced and professionally handled. Most of the companies have been around for decades, and even generations which means vast portfolios, passionate voices, and trusted relationships. Exactly the kind of care and expertise you need when it comes to planning and executing a project for your treasured space.
Amidst this talented pool of professionals, you’ll also encounter an active and interesting community of do-it-yourselfers who are looking for ways to build a more thoughtful and storied lifestyle. That’s where the Vintage Kitchen comes in. Every other month, I’ll be writing a piece for the magazine portion of the Artisan List site that features a vintage recipe and the history behind it.
The first piece came out at the end of June and is all about picnicking. If you missed the mention of it on social media a couple of weeks ago, no worries, I’ll be re-posting the entire article here on the blog in the next few days. But before that happens, I just wanted to share the news with you and to say surprise! the Vintage Kitchen is popping up in a new place.
I think this collaboration is especially fun since we have so many old house lovers and owners (and readers!) that participate in the world of the Vintage Kitchen. It’s with you in particular that I share this information, in case you are looking for some expert help with your own home projects this year. I hope this recommendation helps! If you wind up connecting with one of the Artisan List vendors or find a particular piece of home restoration information useful, please share your story in the comments section, so we can all learn together. In the meantime, stay tuned for a bevy of Artisan food articles coming out soon!
Cheers to new friends, expert helpers, and a wonderful weekend ahead!
Hello hello. Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and are hours deep into a lovely holiday weekend. These past two and a half months have been officially the longest stretch of non-writing on the blog since its beginning all the way back in 2012. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you. And I’ve missed all the fun topics that we like to discuss here. I wish I could say I was off on a magical adventure, like Ms. Jeannie, traveling the world and collecting fantastic food stories to bring back home to share with you. But the truth is not as glamorous and the circumstances definitely not as joyful.
At the end of April, my dad passed away. It has been hard and sad and writing has been difficult. I wanted to spare you all a bucketful of emotionally awkward and sentimentally teary-eyed posts that I started to write and then abandoned. All apparently a part of the grieving process which, ironically, is similar to the writing process too.
It has always been one of my goals for the Vintage Kitchen to keep things happy and interesting by featuring positive stories and positive people. We all know there’s enough heartache and negativity already shuttling around the world, who needs to add to it?! Especially when we are talking about such pleasurable topics as food and cooking and kitchens. The vintage kitchen is my joy and I’m always hoping that it is yours too.
That being said, it has taken me a couple of months to wrap my head around the loss of my dad and what that means, specifically, to my happy, healthy and still very much alive spirit. Especially when it comes to cooking and eating – two of my dad’s most favorite past-times.
All I could really muster in the writing department immediately following his death was his obituary and then two brief stories on Instagram about him here and here. Whenever it came to settling down to write a proper post about him and this whole experience here on the blog, each attempt fell apart, and the words turned into a jungle of wild declarations, rough meanderings and that dreaded word that tends to get over-sentimentalized these days … nostalgia. For two months I’ve mulled over what to say, how to say it and why it would be important. Then, just the other day, I looked at the apron and suddenly it all made sense.
When my sister and I closed up my dad’s house in early May to head back home to our lives, I took five things from his kitchen… his crock-pot, his orangey red dutch oven, two handfuls of 1960’s Air France ceramic nut dishes, an all-in-French cookbook featuring recipes from the Riviera, and his black striped apron. Like any good family heirloom passed down from one generation to another, I knew these five items would help make the memories I had of him last.
The apron was originally part of a set made by Now Designs in San Francisco in the 1980’s. It was from their Paris Bistro collection which also included a matching apron in white and grey stripe and a trio of coordinating potholders and oven mitts. Whether he bought it himself or it was gifted to him, I’m not sure, but the Paris theme matched his French airline executive career and the black cloth matched the color of his hair.
I have looked at this apron so many times throughout my life that I don’t really notice the label or even the stripes so much anymore. Whenever I look at the apron I see my dad in a bevy of situations. Standing at the grill on the back deck, when I was 5 and he was 40. Scurrying around the kitchen readying a weekend dinner party when I was in my teens and he was in his 50’s. Shaking martinis for Christmas cocktail hour when I was in my 20’s and he was in 60’s. At each turn of thought, the apron is always there, with him, with us, an active member of the family at mealtimes for more than three decades.
Looking at it now, you’d never guess it is over 35 years old. Probably this is a testament to the quality of the fabric, and the talent of the maker, and my dad’s neat and tidy ways. But as they say, appearances can be deceiving. This apron is definitely no amateur. It has lived in a suburban family house overlooking New York’s Hudson River, in a golf course bachelor apartment overlooking the Connecticut border and in two houses in Florida both overlooking lakes where alligators may or may not have roamed. As my dad’s go-to uniform in the kitchen and at the grill, it was instrumental in whipping up many of his favorite house specialties like apricot glazed Cornish game hens, cheddar chive biscuits, and barbecued chicken. It’s been a part of holiday parties, birthday parties, house parties and most every everyday dinner in between. It’s been dressed with shorts, suits, tuxedos, jeans, pants and even a bathing suit or two. It’s adventured through snowstorms, rainstorms, heatwaves, hurricanes, bad food, good food, burnt food and best foods. And best of all, at one point or another it has at been worn at least once or twice by every member in my family – my mom, my sisters, my brother and me for various cooking tasks. But most often it has been worn by my dad.
When my parents divorced in the mid-1990’s, my dad really took on home cooking with gusto. He was a world traveler by that point in his life, the consummate jetsetter, living a glamorous lifestyle while visiting glamorous places. But he hadn’t really traveled around his own kitchen with that much intrepid wonder yet. Always good at outdoor grilling, the indoor kitchen was new uncharted territory. One day he decided to change that. He read up on back issues of Gourmet magazine, bought a bunch of kitchen gadgets and got to work. What he produced, over time, were incredible meals fit for lavish occasions. His palate was vast and varied and nothing was off-limits, especially when it came to entertaining and indulging his friends and his family. When all this joie-de-vivre came about in his kitchen, I was teenager and a curious gourmet myself. We would spend weekends together, my sister, my dad and I trying out new recipes, new wines, new techniques while singing the night away to Frank Sinatra as we whisked and whipped and boiled and blanched our way through a plethora of recipes over a plethora of years.
My dad was fun to talk with about cooking because he almost always had a story to back up a food. Pigeon in Africa, pasta in Italy, lamb in New Zealand, croissants in Paris, rice in Kuala Lumpur… the adventures were endless. Plus we traveled a lot together so we each brought our own memories to the conversation of what we tasted and how we felt. My dad understood the power of food and the emotional vibrancy it brought to an atmosphere unlike anyone else I had known. Probably because he had attended enough work dinners and cocktail parties to last three lifetimes let alone one. Those experiences helped him craft the subtle nuances of cooking for others and added art to the act of entertaining. He knew that a pre-dinner cocktail could loosen the mood, that a dinner wine could bring out new flavors in the food and that a new style of cooking had the power to ignite curiosity and expand horizons. Once he got the hang of it all, he entertained with abandon. Almost every weekend his house was full with a party or two. And on the quiet nights, he ate just as interestingly.
When he became sick a few years ago my dad stopped cooking altogether. This transition came on slowly. A packaged Trader Joe’s food dinner here, another one there, “for convenience,” he said, when he didn’t have the energy to cook. The phone conversations between my sister, my dad and I became less about what we were all making in our kitchens and more about what he was eating in his. Week by week, it became more clear – convenience was in and cooking was out. By that point, his favorite apron became buried in a drawer beneath the oven.
In these new normal days, my sister and I would fly down every few months and prepare multiple meals for his freezer so that he could pull them out when he was hungry, defrost them and taste something homemade. We made all of his most favorites – French Onion soup, Split Pea, Chicken Cassoulet, navy beans, meatloaf, brownies, chocolate cake, cookies… whatever sounded good to him. Each time we cooked, I’d begin by opening the drawer beneath the oven and pulling out his apron. Within minutes the apron would be full of flour and food splashes, damp with water, as my sister and I dived into preparing our recipes. By the end of each of these cooking holidays, the kitchen, a war-zone of scattered pots and pans and ingredients, would get cleaned up and the apron washed and dried and returned back to the drawer. It seemed like every time my sister and I put it away, we would be surprised by how great the apron cleaned up. How it could still look so spotless and practically brand-new after days of flurried cooking and decades of use.
When his frozen foodstuffs inevitably ran out, my dad would resort to indulging his cravings with things he’d discovered at the grocery store… rice pudding, root beer, peanut butter, cheddar cheese popcorn, danishes. Over the phone, he’d fill my sister and I in on his new store favorites including a fast-food sandwich – Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s. All this from a guy who never ate prepared foods or fast food in his entire life, who almost never ate dessert unless it was homemade, and whom prided himself on eating a well-rounded diet. Out of fear that he was going to launch himself into some sort of sugar -induced coma, my sister and I would suggest greener alternatives like kale and granola, grass-fed beef and tuna fish to balance out his sweet tooth. But anything that involved even the lightest amount of prep work was usually taken off the grocery list. There was no way his apron was coming out of the drawer on a regular basis anymore.
This past January, at the end of another big cook-a-thon, I installed a hook on the back of my dad’s kitchen pantry door and hung the apron there, hoping the sight of it would help inspire him to start cooking again. Unfortunately, by that time, he was hardly spending any time at all in the kitchen let alone in the pantry. When I found four beautiful vintage French wine glasses from the oldest vineyard in France for my shop, and called to tell him about it and get some stories, he said he didn’t remember anything about the company or the vineyard and quickly went on to change the subject. I knew then that his foodie days were flickering. That the hook for the apron I recently hung, wasn’t going to be able to work any wonders.
My dad died on a Saturday morning four months later. He was in his bed, in his house the way he wanted to be. It was peaceful and calm. My sister and I were there with him right to the very end. The next few days and weeks passed. My wonderful husband took over kitchen detail and cooked all the meals while my sister and I made arrangements and plans. I felt anxious during that time in his house, like an impostor secretly living someone else’s life. Every activity felt strange, uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous as we witnessed life carrying on in his house, among his things, without him.
I never thought that release from those feelings would ever come in the form of 44″ inches of 35 year old cotton fabric. But when my sister and I sat down to make a list of the few things we wanted to take home with us, right away, my first pick was the black striped apron. Somehow, in some weird testament to its abilities, this apron has always felt the same to wear no matter how old I was – 8 or 18 or 38. It always fit my dad well too – no matter if he was thin and trim like he was in his executive years or stooped and slightly paunched in his senior years. Everything about it just fit right and felt right, always.
I wish I could remember the last meal my dad made for himself in this apron before he decided to stop cooking altogether. It must have been sometime in 2017 or maybe early 2018, when he experienced a brief burst of energy that had him not only talking about food but actually cooking a few dishes too. Stoic and loyal, the apron gives up no clues. There are no stains or spots that might have said he made bolognese sauce or grilled shrimp or chicken pot pie or lamb chops dolloped with a fresh mint jelly. There are no holes or burn marks or ripped threads from an adventure gone wrong. The apron tells no secrets. Instead it just quietly ties together and holds onto a lifetime of one man’s food stories.
I’ll never have the chance to cook alongside my dad or for my dad anymore, but as long as his apron hangs around my kitchen, I’ll always be able to cook with him. He may not physically be here but he’s also not really gone either. That’s the joy of inheriting his apron. Somehow, when I tie the strings of black stripe around my waist and get to cooking it feels like a hug. A hug from a dad to his daughter. From one cook to another.
Funny enough, I couldn’t locate one photograph of my dad in his apron, even though I know there are several somewhere in his photo collection. So in its place, I’m including this one, where he is neither cooking nor apron-ing but instead smiling big and happy, which is even better. As I said earlier, this post took a long time to write. There is still lots more to be said about this big man who led a big life in a big way. I look forward to sharing more about him in future posts. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote by Anthony Hopkins which I think wholeheartedly sums up my new philosophy, especially after going through this experience…
Cheers to eating the delicious food, to aprons that wrap us up in memories that last and to my dad who taught me so much stuff I can hardly know where to begin.