A Mother’s Day Story: The Maven of Minnesota & the Gifts She Passed Down

One of the biggest travesties in discovering a vintage embroidered linen at an antique shop or an estate sale or an auction house is not knowing anything about the sewer who made it. The sewer who so beautifully executed a specific stitch or a scene. The sewer who skillfully transformed a plain piece of fabric into a stunning work of art. Who spent hours or days working towards a piece of self-expression in the same way a painter paints a canvas or a sculptor builds a statue. With the exception of antique samplers and quilts, which often carry the names of the artist who made them, embroidered linens of the past are history’s most uncredited works of art. 

“These small bits of embroidered cloth are often all that remains to testify to the otherwise unrecorded lives of their makers,” wrote Amelia Peck in a 2003 article highlighting the embroidery collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It could be easy to dismiss some old pieces of fabric until you read a statement like that.

Needless to say, Amelia’s remark has stuck with me for a long time. Whenever a new batch of vintage or antique linens comes into the shop, I always think about the woman behind the fabric, the sewer behind the stitchwork, and the circumstances in history that might have surrounded them both. In collecting and curating these items for the shop, I’m not often afforded any real-life stories that can be attached and retold about a specific linen or the life that made it. But today I’m very pleased to introduce you to a woman in Minnesota who has some stories to share about sewing. 

At this point, you might be nonchalant and think how much can I learn from an 8” inch x 8” inch piece of fabric? A napkin is a napkin afterall. But here in the land of the Vintage Kitchen a napkin, as you’ll discover in this post is much more. It’s a gateway… to stories of the past.  

When I first met DeDe, who is in her 70’s, it was over email in the beginning of February. She was looking to rehome her vintage linen collection, and in her initial inquiry as to whether or not I might be interested in it for the shop, she mentioned the fact that her mom had sewn some of the pieces. The slice of vintage life that poured out over the next several months and many emails was so interesting I knew hers was a story destined for the blog. Touching on Italian immigration, women’s history, cooking, Minnesota, entrepreneurism, family heirlooms and her mother’s zesty love of life, this interview turned out to be the perfect heartwarming story for Mother’s Day weekend. So yes, a napkin is a napkin. But it’s also a life, and a family, and a passion. 

Let’s meet DeDe, her mom Teresa, and their family…

Teresa as a baby with her parents Carmina and Salvatore.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about your mom’s parents. What brought them to America? Where were they from in Italy and how did they wind up living in Minnesota? Did they assimilate well?

 Dede: My grandparents, Carmina and Salvatore, were both from Boiano, Campobasso, Molise, Italy.

Located in central Italy, the town of Boiano in the province of Campobasso in Molise, Italy was first founded in the 7th century. It is home to the oldest chestnut trees in Italy and most well known for its mozzerella cheese produced using milk from cows that have grazed the surrounding mountainsides.

My grandparents were married in 1906 and in 1909 they came to Minnesota. Grandpa worked in the mines in Chisholm, Calumet, Stevenson and St. Paul. He was employed by the Pickands Mater Co. for over 40 years. There were many different nationalities on the Iron Range and I imagine like all immigrants today they left Italy and were looking for a better life. I never heard of anyone in the family having difficulty assimilating into the community as they were fortunate to have siblings and many Italians in their community. A sister of my Grandmother’s and a cousin and brother of my Grandfather also immigrated to Keewatin.

My mother Mary Teresa Rico was born on February 25, 1911 and was the oldest of six children. She was born in Hibbing, Minnesota and the town they lived in was Keewatin. A population of less than 2,000.

Main Street in Keewatin circa 1921. To learn more history about this midwestern mining town visit here. Photo courtesy of lakesnwoods.com

EDITORIAL NOTE: During her childhood throughout the 1920s, starting at the age of 10, Teresa was involved in 4-H, a youth development program whose mission was (and still is!) “to encourage kids to reach their fullest potential while also creating positive change within their community.” This experience turned out to be a gateway for Teresa – one in which she could showcase her natural talents and abilities. While naturally gifted in a range of extra-curricular activities including basketball, tennis and dramatics, two of Teresa’s most prized talents were baking and sewing. A consistent winner at state and county fairs, between the years 1921 and 1931, Teresa baked more than 1,000 cakes and 2,000 loaves of bread which she sold to local residents in an effort to raise money for her college tuition. Triumphantly, through those entrepreneurial endeavors, Teresa managed to raise $3000.00, which provided enough for her to enroll in the University of Minnesota.

Teresa (age 17) in 1929 – the State Champion at her baking table.

In 1931, at the age of 20, the last year she was eligible to participate in 4-H due to age caps, Teresa won the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, competing against 490,000 other girls. This was an honor awarded by Thomas Lipton (of Lipton Tea fame) that signified overall achievement and was given to the top boy and top girl in 4-H. In addition to a trophy and significant media attention, the award also came with a scholarship, ensuring that Teresa would financially be able to put herself through college, assistance free, all on her own accord.

This local Minnesota newspaper article proudly called Teresa the “Queen of Accomplishment” and reiterated her goal of putting herself through college without any finanncial assistence.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Your mom must have felt really proud of that moment, especially winning out over so many other 4-H’ers (490,000 female candidates!). Also, this happened in 1931, during the Great Depression. The fact that she was able to pay her way through college with her baking is fantastic. That must have been a really big deal. Were her parents really proud of her too? 

Teresa and her fellow prize winner, Charles L. Brown posed for photos with their Lipton trophies in 1931. The Associated Press

DeDe: I am sure that my Grandparents were very proud of her winning the Sir Lipton Cup and also all the other accomplishments in her life, of which I refer to in the following questions. One of the newspaper clippings mentioned winning over 850,000 young women, quite a discrepancy. 

 

My mother did not really talk about her accomplishments and honestly, I really did not learn about how much she really did until my parents downsized into an apartment. My mother had kept newspaper clippings, pictures, ribbons from the State Fair, etc. But my father did not keep much so he was tossing much of this into the trash barrel. I was able to rescue some of it and put it into a scrapbook for her. After that, we really did start to talk about her accomplishments in detail. 

 

Teresa with her girls explaining all about her State Fair ribbons.

Sadly, as children we are absorbed in our own lives. This is not to say that I was not aware of the bolts of fabric and the sewing she was doing when I was a young child as well as the entertaining and fabulous cooking and baking that she was always doing. When I was in junior high school my mother was no longer sewing for others and instead went to work in retail. She had an incredible style knowledge for clothing and furnishings and an eye for fashion. The perk for me were the wonderful fashionable outfits I owned. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: The Lipton Trophy newspaper article mentions that she was “boss of her household” both in the kitchen and otherwise. Can you tell us a little bit more about her family life growing up?

DeDe: My mother and her siblings all enjoyed sports and her brothers all played football in high school and the girls played whatever sports were offered for them but it sounded like choir and drama were offered to women. At home, my grandparents listened to records which were mostly opera. They all enjoyed dancing and playing cards with friends and family. Neighbors would get together and socialize. Food was always involved. The siblings all enjoyed one another which continued on for them as adults. My uncles loved to play jokes and there was always a lot of laughter and singing. Perhaps they all thought they were Enrico Caruso. 

As far as my mother’s role at home, she shared that she would often make meals for her family and certainly she made all the bread. She was also sewing her own clothes as well as making dresses for her sisters and mother. Often her family pictures indicated that she had sewn the clothing her mother or siblings were wearing. Again, my mother was the oldest and she was a very strong determined woman who knew exactly what she wanted. Not a bad trait to have.

Teresa in the center with her sisters all sporting dresses that Teresa made for a special family celebration.

 

In The Vintage Kitchen: Did her parents speak English?

DeDe: Yes, my Grandparents spoke English very well but when my aunts and uncles would come over to our house on weekends to see Grandma and Grandpa, they all spoke Italian. We had many family Sunday dinners at home as everyone wanted to see Grandma and Grandpa.  It was frustrating to not know what they were saying because I nor my siblings and cousins did not speak any Italian other than a few words.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Were her brothers and sisters equally as industrious?

DeDe: My uncle Pat was a chef and the others all made a decent living but no one was as driven or creative as my mother.  

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about your dad. What was he studying at the University of Minnesota? 

DeDe: My father’s heritage was English and Irish not Italian. His grandfather Ward immigrated to America from Ireland as a young boy with his widowed mother and siblings. His mother’s family originated from Colonial New England.  He was a very patient and darling man with a very big heart and a great sense of humor. I always thought he was very handsome and debonair. He grew up in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. As far as my father’s culinary talents he loved to make chili and simple meals. However, he loved his desserts and there were always homemade cookies, pies, and cakes in our home.  He studied engineering at the University of Minnesota. 

Teresa and George

 

In The Vintage Kitchen: What did your mom study?

DeDe: She studied Home Economics. My motherwas not only an accomplished baker and chef, she was also an accomplished seamstress and had her own cottage industry, Teresina. Neighborhood women sewed for my Mother and at that time she was paying them $5.00 an hour. She sewed beautiful women’s clothing, draperies, anything else you could imagine.

As a child we always went to Amluxson’s where I was able to pick out fabric for my first day of school. She made many of my clothes as well for my brother and sister. She reupholstered furniture as well and made men’s clothing too. Her industrial Singer was in our basement and I have beautiful memories of her singing while she sewed. A favorite was the Maurice Chevalier song Louise.

She also  wrote articles for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called Sewing is Simple. Over the years my mother was someone who often was featured for her sewing or entertaining. 

Teresa was featured in a magazine ad for Folgers – – It was no surprise to the neighbors of Mrs. George D. Ward of Minneapolis, Minnesota when her Orange Delight Cupcakes won First Prize at the State Fair. She’s famous for’em! Have them for dinner along with another “Famous Flavor” — Mountain Grown Folgers Coffee. Copies of this ad now hang in DeDe’s home as well as the homes of her kids.

 

In The Vintage Kitchen: Did your dad encourage and support your mom as she started her Teresina sewing business? 

DeDe: Definitely. My father was very supportive of whatever my mother wanted to do. And honestly if my mother wanted to do something nothing would stop her. She was a force to be reckoned with but as generous as could be.

Teresa’s Teresina ribbon labels.

My mother was color blind. Thread as you know used to be on wooden spools. My dad would write the colors of the thread on the spools for her.

In The Vintage Kitchen: We hear so much about gender discrimination regarding women in the 20th century, but it seems like your mom really defied a lot of those stereotypes (working, going to college, having her own business, etc.). Can you tell us a little bit about her motivations and about how her ideas were received within her family and her community? 

DeDe: My mother had a strong desire and a dream to make things happen. She never spoke of any obstacles being in her way that I recall.  She did mention that as a child in school they were not allowed to speak Italian, only English. There were so many nationalities on the range, that it would have been difficult for a teacher to deal with so many languages in a classroom.

Her family appreciated her and at any given time we had a relative living with us. Multigenerational homes were very common. My mother was very generous and shared whatever she had with others. She was also very involved with the Italian Community in Minneapolis. When she had her Teresina company in our home, she employed neighborhood women who she paid quite generously for that time. 

Community-wise, looking at old newspaper clippings my mother was involved with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and one year put on an Italian Feast as a Fund Raiser. There were three children in my family and my mother was involved in all our school activities from PTA and being a Scout Leader or a Den Mother to sewing costumes and lending her living room furniture for high school drama productions. 

DeDe with her brother and sister and her parents, Teresa and George.

One of the greatest tributes to my mother and the impression she made on others became evident at her funeral. When she passed away and her obituary was in the newspaper, I received a call from a young woman who said she would like to come to my home and meet me.  When my mother lived in her Minneapolis apartment building, she befriended this young woman whose parents were divorced. With this young women’s birthday coming up she made her a German Chocolate Birthday Cake and gave her pearl earrings from her days at the U of M. She was truly touched by my mother’s friendship and she wanted to speak at her upcoming funeral. I took a leap of faith and said okay to this request. She did speak that day and it turns out that she was a speaker for Billy Graham and she was incredible. What a gift she gave us. I regret that I did not stay in contact with her and what a treasure that tribute would be too own today. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: What did she like about sewing?

I am sure it was the creativity of it all and the fact that she could make something beautiful and functional. 

Vintage 1940s/1950s era applique sailboat kitchen linens made by Teresa.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Where did she gather inspiration from in regards to her sewing projects?

DeDe: My mother had an ability to see how to improve things. It did not matter if it was a food item, a piece of furniture or a piece of fabric. She would have a vision and would make it happen. She loved to repurpose as evident in her Sewing is Simple articles for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I had mentioned to you in earlier emails that she made clothing, drapes, upholstered furniture and wrote for the newspaper but there is more. My mother also came up with an idea for an adjustable elastic waistband for women’s skirts that she made from fabrics such as drapery material and chintz. She created a patent for it but unfortunately, someone else managed to maneuver it away from her. I have one of the skirts left that I use for a Christmas Tree Skirt.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I was thrilled to welcome Teresa’s vintage linen collection into the shop. These next few questions and accompanying photographs highlight some specific pieces from her carefully curated linen collection amassed throughout her life.

 In The Vintage Kitchen: Did she sew all the linens that you sent? 

DeDe: I do not believe that she sewed all of them. I know the applique ones with boats on them and definitely the items that have lace. Honestly, they have been in a cupboard for years either with my mother or myself and my mother passed away many years ago.

In The Vintage Kitchen: In the package that you sent, there are 4 tablecloths which I think you referred to as bridge cloths. Did your mom sew those? 

DeDe: I always referred to them as bridge table cloths but others might call them a luncheon cloth. No, I believe those were purchased.

In The Vintage Kitchen: One of them, along with several other linens you sent, looks like they are made with antique fabric. Could they have belonged to your grandmother?

DeDe: Probably not. My mother also loved house sales and again had an eye for finding wonderful things to furnish a home. 

A set of colorful vintage tea towels joyfully collected by Teresa. This is just one example of her carefully curated linen collection amassed during the 20th century.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Was your grandmother, Carmina, a sewer too?

DeDe: Not that I am aware of.  I recall my grandmother having cataracts and her sight was compromised. My mother told me she had taught herself to sew as a young girl. She started off with making clothes for her dolls and as she grew older, she started to sew for herself and her sisters. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: How long did your mother maintain Teresina? 

DeDe: I believe she kept it going through the 1950s. She sewed her entire life. She would make outfits and Halloween costumes for the grandchildren. In the 1970s, she was still sewing some beautiful outfits for me

In The Vintage Kitchen: Where did you grow up? 

DeDe: I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota on one of the city lakes. It was an ideal time to live there. 

A view of Minneapolis taken during the 1950s. Photo via pinterest.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Did your mom expect you to be as industrious as she was during her childhood?

DeDe: My mother accepted us for who we were. Keewatin is a small community and Minneapolis is not, so opportunities for me were vastly different than what was available for her.  I honestly did not feel pressured to be anyone other than myself. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: Did she teach you how to cook and sew?

DeDe: Yes, my mother taught me to bake and cook. It was wonderful to be in her kitchen with all of the wonderful smells and tastes. I love to cook and entertain in our home much as my mother always did. Baking and cooking for others brings me great joy. Sewing is another story. I can sew out of desperation, but I only enjoy small projects and the older I get the less I attempt. I am not a seamstress and sewing stresses me out although I always kept trying. I expected it to be as easy for me as it was for her. Fortunately, I did inherit her love of cooking.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Thank you so much for including your mom’s sauce recipe. Was this a recipe that was handed down to her or did she make it up on her own? 

DeDe: It was probably a recipe that was given to her by Grandma Rico. It is a pretty traditional sauce. I have shared that recipe with so many friends along with my mother’s wisdom of you can always add more herbs so start off with less. Of course, when you add a meat to the sauce it definitely helps to flavor it. I adore my mother’s red sauce and often tried to make it just like hers. The last Christmas she was alive she stayed with us for a few days and we had a blast. We looked at her old slides of her travels to Italy with my dad, baked traditional foods, and just laughed a lot. I had started a red sauce and ran to the store for a few items that I needed. Later when I was stirring the sauce and tasting it, I was overjoyed at how wonderful it was. I exclaimed to my mother that I was thrilled that I could make it like hers. She just smiled and later admitted that while I was gone, she had doctored it

In The Vintage Kitchen: Was your mom’s love of sewing and cooking passed down to any of your kids? 

DeDe: Actually, all the kids are very good cooks and will try out new recipes. My oldest niece does fun sewing projects and is very creative and like my mother is great at repurposing. She also enjoys baking and shares recipes with me. My daughter will try new recipes and make lighter fare than I do. I tend to cook more old school than my kids do. My boys love to make pizza with a homemade crust. Sometimes my oldest and his wife will make pasta when time allows. Everything comes down to when time allows. The grandkids are all interested in cooking and baking which I just adore. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: Where do you draw inspiration from for your own cooking? 

DeDe: A favorite for me is to eat something out and then try to duplicate it at home. I have come up with some interesting dinners that way. I see something that looks tempting in a magazine or the newspaper and I will try it although I will often massage the recipe. My husband loves to tell me that I use them like a road map and then veer off course. I enjoy making Italian dishes for friends and family but I adored Splendid Table when Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosted it. She had a segment of what to make with a few ingredients in your refrigerator. I am a great one to try that method.

If you are unfamiliar with the engaging Lynne or The Splendid Table radio program that she co-created and hosted for 20 years here’s a quick recap. DeDe and I are both BIG fans of Lynne and the show!

Lynne came to our home for a fund-raising dinner and I along with a friend were the ones that were cooking. Cooking for a professional cook and author was very intimidating. It turned out to be a fabulous evening. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: Wow, DeDe! That’s amazing that you got to not only meet but also cook for Lynne! I’m a BIG fan of hers! What was that experience like?

DeDe: The dinner was very simple with a simple antipasto tray, roasted chicken, and delicious roasted root vegetables along with a tossed salad. I do not recall if I made homemade bread for this or purchased store-bought. My dessert was a fried Italian pastry that we called curly cues. They are fried in oil and dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with honey. My mother always made these at Christmas and often I will too. I probably served the lemon sherbet with crème de menthe. There were six guests and Lynne that night. One was a surgeon who was kind enough to slice the chicken and arrange it on the platter and another was a woman who owns a cooking school and I believe leads trips to Italy or did back then. I consider myself a decent cook but felt a little out of my league that evening. Unfortunately, we did not take pictures of that fabulous evening but my Lynne Rossetto Kasper cookbook is signed by Lynne. This was years ago.

In 2017, Lynne retired, but thankfully, that was not the end of the program. The Splendid Table continues each week with fresh and dynamic culinary content thanks a new, equally charming host, Francis Lam. If you haven’t listened to the show before I highly recommend it. Visit the link here to learn more.

In The Vintage Kitchen: Do you have any particular favorite chefs or cookbooks that you love?

DeDe: I have many of my mother’s old cookbooks and my comfort food choice of my childhood go-to is the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook from the 1950s. Chicken A La King, Meatloaf, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Jelly Roll Cake, and all the basics are there. 

The Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book – First Edition, 1950

With my mom’s recipes, many are from worn cookbooks, notes scribbled inside a cookbook, note cards or from what I recall her making. Many of my recipes are handed down from mom, relatives and friends and have been doctored to suit my tastes. Italian favorites are The Talisman Italian Cookbook by Ada Boni, The Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Lo Pinto and Milo Miloradovich and Leone’s Italian Cookbook by Gene Leone. I love Gourmet magazine and cooking shows on PBS but I really do not have a favorite chef.

DeDe’s favorite vintage Italian recipe resources!

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about your trip to Italy? Did you feel a natural connection to the country?

DeDe: Our oldest son was studying in Florence, Italy for a semester at the same time as his friend so we traveled to see him with his parents in March.  My parents had been to Italy twice to see the sights and my mother’s family. My mother was so excited that our son was traveling there and that we were going to as well. It was our first trip to Europe and it was magical. It was so fun to see people that looked like my mother’s family and to hear all that Italian. So much history and beautiful architecture, museums and people. I soon learned why I appreciate gold, glitz, and all the pizzazz. 

Two trips to Trevi Fountain: Teresa and George (above) in Italy many decades ago and Dede and her husband Tom (below) on a more recent excursion.

Travel is all about the experiences. One such experience for me was to see two over the road drivers enjoying their lunch at a rest stop. They had a beautifully set table complete with linens and glassware. Their food looked scrumptious and I asked if I might take a picture of them. They agreed only if I would be in the picture and share their vino. I treasure that moment and the picture. The one Italian reminded me of my grandfather. 

DeDe with her “over the road drivers” in Italy!

Another story that related to my mother is the time we had to wait for a very long time for a table for our dinner. The uncle who was seating us was very friendly and attentive to our dinner choices. When we finished, he said that he had a treat for us because we had been so patient. When he brought us our dessert it was lemon sherbet drizzled with creme de menthe. Oh, how I laughed as that was a favorite of my mother’s to serve after a heavy dinner along with the traditional Carnevale Italian bow tie cookies. 

My mother passed away that May. She was so excited that we were going on this trip and I believe she stayed alive until we could share our stories with her. 

Filled with light and love and so fitting for this post, this street art was spotted on a Florentine wall. Photo: Nick Fewings

In The Vintage Kitchen: And what was it like visiting some of the places where your grandparents lived?

DeDe: My Grandparents lived in a town outside of Naples and we did not get to Naples but we did see Milan, Rome, Venice, and Florence. I hope to one day get to Naples. 

 

The sights that inspire DeDe in and around Minneapolis. Clockwise from top left: The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes; The Basilica of St. Mary (switchroyale); The Gutherie Theater (Mark Vandeve); The Minneapolis Institute of Art (McGhiever); The Stone Bridge Arch (Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board).

In The Vintage Kitchen: Name five places that inspire you in your city…

DeDe: The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and our incredible parks system. The Guthrie Theater that offers classical and contemporary productions. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is an art museum that is home to more than 90,000 works of art representing 5,000 years of world history. The Basilica of St. Mary as It was the first basilica established in the United States. The Stone Arch Bridge is a former railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi River at Saint Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is the only arched bridge made of stone on the entire Mississippi River.

In The Vintage Kitchen: If there is one thing that you wish could never be forgotten about your heritage, what would it be?

DeDe: The belief in the importance of family and nurturing with food and compassion. 

In The Vintage Kitchen: If you could invite six people (living or dead) to dinner, who would you invite and why?

Clockwise from top left: DeDe’s Parents Teresa & George; Pope Francis; Geraldine Ferraro, Margaret Meade, Eleanor Roosevelt

DeDe: My parents. Since I have been working on Ancestry there are so many unanswered questions that I have. Geraldine A. Ferraro, so I could ask her this question…. Would you have changed how you ran your campaign for Vice President with Walter Mondale? Margaret Meade because I have been fascinated with her since I took my first anthropology class in college. Eleanor Roosevelt because she was the woman behind the man and she is the longest-serving First Lady. Pope Francis, so that I could ask him about what changes he wants to see within the Catholic Church.

In The Vintage Kitchen: And because it’s Mother’s Day, we’ll end with a question about Teresa. What is the greatest lesson your mother taught you?

DeDe: Definitely the love of entertaining, the comfort of food and the sharing of her talents. Happy Mother’s Day Mom. I love you!!

In addition to sharing these lovely stories about Teresa, DeDe also graciously shared her mom’s “red sauce,” the recipe, she referred to her in her interview that was most likely passed down by Teresa’s mother, Carmina. I made two batches of this sauce (one using pork chops, the other using chicken legs). Both were incredible.

Teresa’s Basic Spaghetti Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 small can tomato paste

3-28oz cans Italian peeled tomatoes ( or 5.25lbs of fresh tomatoes, skins on, roughly chopped)

16 oz can tomato sauce

2 cups water

Salt & Freshly ground pepper

 

1 tablespoon sugar

  • 1 ta6 Fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces (or dried herbs*)
  • 1 3 fresh oregano sprigs, torn into pieces (or dried herbs*)

1/2 green pepper, chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

2 veal chops or pork chops

*If using dried herbs, start off with 1 teaspoon each and amend from there to suit your taste.

To make the sauce, heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Pat the pork/veal dry and put in the pot. Cook turning occasionally for about 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Transfer the chops to a plate.

Drain off most of the fat from the pot.  Add the garlic and onion, cook until golden brown. Add the green pepper and cook for two minutes until tender. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.

Chop up the tomatoes and add to the pot, including the liquid. Add tomato sauce, water, sugar, parsley, basil, oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Add the chops and bring sauce to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours. If the sauce is too thick, add a little more water. 

Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside. The chops are great reheated with a bit of the sauce. If you used fresh tomatoes, puree the sauce at this stage with a hand blender for a smooth consistency. Makes about 8 cups. 

I keep salt pork and chicken fat in the freezer to use for flavoring if I do not have pork chops on hand. My Mother would also add chicken legs or wings to the sauce if she had that on hand.

Teresa’s Spaghetti Sauce

I couldnt think of a better way to wrap up a Mother’s Day post than with this delicious heritage recipe passed down through the family kitchen of three generations of Italian women. A foundation for all sorts of culinary inspiration from spaghetti to pizza, eggplant parmigiana to stuffed peppers, meatballs to casseroles, this is the recipe you’ll want to keep on hand year after year for merry memory-making in your own kitchen. Just like Teresa would have encouraged!

When we were exchanging emails back and forth, DeDe shared one of her favorite quotes by memoirist Molly Wizenberg… “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.” Well said, Molly!

Meeting DeDe and learning about her family and their lovely linen collection was such a pleasure. Had I encountered one of Teresa’s exquisite embroidered cloths in an antique shop, I would have admired its beauty but I would have never known about the full and magnanimous life that had been woven into it. I would have never known that behind those linens was a star baker with a go-getter attitude, a color-blind seamstress who clothed her community, a second-generation Italian woman from a family newly immigrated to the US. I would have never known about the husband who loyally and affectionately encouraged his wife, nor about the independent dreamer who raised money for her own education, nor about the delicious tomato sauce passed down by generations of her family. DeDe gave a voice and a spirit and a context to her mom’s linens, and in doing so, made them all the more special, all the more valuable for the love and for the life they represent. So yes, a vintage napkin is a napkin, but it is also so much more.

Cheers and a big thank you to DeDe for sharing this wonderful glimpse of your vivacious mom and all her talents with us. Cheers to vintage linens who light the halls of history one story at a time. And cheers to all the mom’s out there who inspire us each and every day. Happy Mother’s Day!

Find more of Teresa’s linens in the shop here with new additions being added each week..

Inheriting My Dad’s Apron: A Death But Also A Joy

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.

Storytime (and a Challenge!) with Ms. Jeannie: How Old Photographs Can Spark The Imagination!

When Ms. Jeannie first started doing her genealogy research, the holy grail of success for her was finding the faces of her ancestors. She worked close to a year before she uncovered any. Ironically, that first photo that opened up the pictorial floodgates, was right under her nose… in an album Ms. Jeannie’s mom had forgotten about in the back of a closet!

The day Ms. Jeannie looked at the face of her great great grandmother Martha, for the first time, she was so overcome with emotion, she cried!

The first picture of great great grandmother Martha
The first picture of great great grandmother Martha (on right)

Silly but true. Ms. Jeannie is not really the weepy kind, after all. Anyway, she just got caught up in the moment.  All those months of researching Martha’s  life  – her 11 kids, her journey in covered wagon from Indiana to Ohio to Iowa, her husband’s military service in the Civil War, her farm life in Iowa… all those details rolling around Ms. Jeannie’s head for all that time. And then suddenly – there was Martha!  There was the shape of her face, the evidence of glasses, the style of her hair.

Since then, through help from online forums like ancestry.com and genealogy.com and the kindness of sharers, Ms, Jeannie has found handfuls of family photos. Her family.  Spread out over many trees, many lines and many countries. These are some of the more recent finds…

Great Grand Aunt Anna's house in Iowa
Great Grand Aunt Anna’s house in Iowa

Great Great Grandfather Albert
Great Great Grandfather Albert

Fourth Great Grandparents Maria & Garret
Fourth Great Grandparents Maria & Garret

Great Grand Uncle J. William
Great Grand Uncle J. William

Grand Aunt Leona
Grand Aunt Leona

Great Grandmother Juna and her sister Hannah
Great Grandmother Juna and her sister Hannah

Had she never done the research, Ms. Jeannie would never have known what any of these people looked like. With the exception of great grandmother Juna, these were all brand-new faces of family.

Ms. Jeannie likes to look at these pictures and think about the context in which they were taken. What was great Aunt Leona thinking about? Why were Juna and Hannah wearing paper dresses? What was the pin on the lapel of J. William? Noticing small details like this paints a vivid picture for the imagination!

In the same vain, whenever Ms. Jeannie comes across old photographs for sale, she can’t help but do the  same exact thing – she thinks about the back story surrounding each image.  She has several examples of this in her Etsy shop… let’s take a look…(click on any of the pictures for more information about each photograph)

On first glance, you might just see a picture of a girl on a bench…

Ms. Jeannie named her Nina!
Ms. Jeannie named her Nina!

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But crawl inside Ms. Jeannie’s head and she’ll tell you this story…

“Nina waited patiently for Spring. Well, technically, she was waiting for summer – but you had to get through spring in order to get to summer, so she had to dream in order. This summer, she’d be done. Done with high school. Done with wearing plaid skirt uniforms and done, done, done with all that homework, thank goodness. Sure, she was going onto college in the Fall, but that would be different. There would be boys, and classes she wanted to take and parents that she only had to see on breaks. At college, her preferences for life would bloom and Nina couldn’t wait for that. She’d study literature and she’d become a writer and her very first piece would be about the suffocation of long skirts and loafers.”

Here, you see two bathing beauties…

1940s Swim Photographs

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And Ms. Jeannie sees Rose and Evelyn…

“Rose and Evelyn stayed in their swimsuits the whole entire vacation. And who could blame them? With that ocean stretching out behind them and the infinity pool disappearing in front – it was all they needed. This was the vacation where Evelyn perfected her dive, and where Rose realized that she was now technically old enough to flirt with boys without looking ridiculous. It was an ego-booster for both of them, this vacation.”

This one is a school scene from the 1920’s…

microscope

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Sometimes, Ms. Jeannie sees many stories in one scene. Such is the case, with this one! Here is all she imagined…

“There’s the obvious one, of course, about how smiling Dorothy is in love with Gilbert and absolutely thrilled that her crush of the past two years is now sharing elbow space with her. 

There’s the story about lively Pauline (in the forefront) and how she talked her way into getting the traveling photographer to stop by her Biology 101 class. “You’ll want to document the budding scientific genius occurring in room 9, sir. I guarantee you that.” 

There’s the story of Mr. Whipple, first year science teacher, who doggedly fought the school board for months over the right to buy 37 microscopes so that each student in his class (not just the boys) would have use of their own scientific study instruments. 

Then there is the story of three friends, who spent all summer in the science lab researching why the bullfrogs in Tillman Pond were genetically bigger then the bullfrogs in every other pond in town. 

And let’s not forget about humble Pauline who was the first girl, in the state of Texas, to win first place in the national science fair, which yielded not only a cash prize for her, but new textbooks and supplies for her school. 

Oh, Ms. Jeannie could practically write a novel with all the situations going on here! Now it’s your turn to look close and see what stories you see…”

This one is a miniature portrait…

marion

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Ms. Jeannie called her Marion and wrote about her neighbor, Arnie (short for Arnold)…

“Marion’s got a suitor in her neighbor, Arnie, across the street. Well, technically he’s not really her suitor yet – but one of these days she’s going to fall head over heels for him. He just knows it. In the meantime, he does his best, on a daily basis, to try to impress her – nothing’s really gone gangbusters so far. Most of the time she stands there, with her arms crossed and that same as ever are you kidding me expression. But Arnie’s of a hopeful mindset…one day, she’ll see it.”

Ms. Jeannie got a little help from the inscription on this photo postcard…

bobbie

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This is what she thought was going on inside Bobbie’s world…

“Oh that Bobbie – she’s quite a clever kidder, calling her beau a schnook like that. She hopes this subtle Merry Christmas postcard tactic is all that she will need to make handsome Dean realize that she is quite over the moon for him. It’s only taken her the whole semester to get her nerve up – but what the heck does she have to lose now? It’s Christmastime and she’s feeling hopeful. She’ll just slide it under Dean’s dorm room door before she heads home for the holiday. Let him stew on that during winter break!”

Of course, all these photographs are open to interpretation,. You may see something totally different in the bathing beauties or in Bobbie’s cheering stance,  but that is sort of the fun of these old photographs. Don’t you think?

Following this train of thought, Ms. Jeannie came up with a fun little challenge for all of you dear readers!

Here it is..

What is this scene all about?
What is this scene all about?

Now it is your turn to come up with the back story about this picture above!  Write your own quick little story snippet about this photograph and email it to msjeannieology[at]yahoo.com

It doesn’t have to be long… just a few sentences is great.  The most creative entry, as determined by Mr. Jeannie Ology (for fairness, of course) will win the picture! The challenge will be open for one week so be sure to get your entries in by midnight on Tuesday, February 26th. Winner will be announced via blog post, and also email, on Wednesday, February 27th.

Lucky for you – there’s a little extra help with this challenge! On the back of the photo, written in pencil, it says…

“Grace & Me. I have on Grace’s hat and she has mine on.” 

Here’s a few more close-up views of the photograph. In case you want to know the size – it measures 2.5″ inches x 3.5″ inches.

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Good luck and happy imagining!!!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

A lesson from Grandma
A lesson from Grandma

Happy Valentine’s Day dear readers!

On this special day of love Ms. Jeannie was thinking of her grandmother, Dorothy Ruth, who hand crocheted the tablecloth above that Ms. Jeannie used as a backdrop for her valentine message. Dorothy loved to sew, embroider and crochet. She wasn’t a professional seamstress, although she made a lot of clothes for herself and her family, including wedding dresses for all three of her girls and clothes for her grandchildren.

dorothy
Dorothy with Ms. Jeannie’s mom as a baby.

She would never dream of calling herself an artist or a designer, even though she had so many artistic tendencies and talents.  She just loved the act of sewing.

Dorothy’s husband, Philip, loved to build things, and in his spare time, he would make furniture. When Philip built a table for their living room, Dorothy loved it so much, she didn’t want to get a scratch on it. So she made this very tablecloth to protect the finish.

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Now when Ms. Jeannie looks at this tablecloth she sees great reminders. She sees how one stitch leads to a circle, which leads to a flower, which leads to a pattern, which leads to a piece, which eventually leads to an entire tablecloth.

She sees how doing things that you love, however small they may seem, can lead to big things.  She sees how true happiness can offer protection against the marks and scratches of life.

Protect what you make with love.

Protect what you love with what you make.

Make what you love.

That was Dorothy’s way. And in keeping, Ms. Jeannie’s special valentine message for you… May all that you love to do today, inspire and protect all whom will love it tomorrow.

Happy Holiday!!!