Vintage Dinner and a Movie: With Moms and Daughters and Aunts, Family Style!

The last time we discussed food and film we were in Casablanca in the 1940’s with Ilsa and Rick and a batch of seasoned bar nuts.  Today’s post takes us to New York City in the 1940’s with a gal named Ilka and a platter full of chicken. It’s dinner and a movie day, and we are celebrating it family style!

On the screen is the movie Three Daring Daughters, a romantic comedy starring Jeanette MacDonald, who plays a single mom navigating the tricky waters of career, family and love. On the menu, is a vintage family recipe, Citrus Chicken with Fresh Oranges and Tarragon, which comes from the kitchen of my Aunt Patty, a self-taught gourmet cook who lived most of her life in California.

I was introduced to Three Daring Daughters thanks to an invitation to join the Singing Sweethearts blogathon, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society this week. Not very familiar with Jeanette’s body of work, I learned a lot about this dynamic actress who was a favorite of 1930s and 1940’s movie-goers.

Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965)

Originally a theater actress, Jeanette was born in Philadelphia and received her acting start on the stages of New York City in the early 1920s before heading west to California for screen work. A trained singer from childhood, she hit her stride in Hollywood, appearing in over two dozen musicals showcasing her operatic voice and garnering several Academy Award nominations.

A collection of rarely seen photos of Jeanette MacDonald courtesy of Click Magazine, 1938. Images include a childhood portrait, a wedding day photo with husband Gene Raymond, a glamorous headshot revealing her new red hair color (previously she was a brunette) and a bridesmaid photo with Ginger Rogers.

Three Daring Daughters, was her second to last musical (released in 1948) and showcases the singing voice not only of Jeanette but also her three on-screen daughters, as well as the musical talents of famous real-life concert pianist Jose Iturbi.

In the movie, Jeanette plays Louise, single mom to Tess, Ilka and little Alix while also trying to balance a full-time editorial job at a popular magazine. Exhausted by work and home life, Louise’s doctor advises her to take a cruise vacation to Cuba, alone, in order to get some much-needed rest. On the boat, she meets Jose Iturbi, a handsome celebrity passenger who is immediately smitten with beautiful Louise. Meanwhile, her daughters, back in New York believe that their mother is worn out because she misses the companionship of her ex-husband (their father), so they arrange to have him arrive in New York just as Louise is returning from her vacation. As you can imagine, mayhem and misunderstanding ensue. We won’t give any more away to spoil the story, only to say that things don’t go quite as anyone expected.

Humorous, engaging and good-spirited, this romantic comedy is well-written, well-acted, beautifully presented and just a fun simple break from the action-packed movies dominating the modern theater scene today. The costumes and set design are gorgeous…

One of Jeanette’s lovely dresses in the film.

and the acting is marvelous, especially when it comes to the three daughters. Professionally trained child actors from an early age,  each of them had hopes of following in the career footsteps of Shirley Temple, so they were schooled in all areas of performance from singing and dancing to elocution, stage direction and character development.

Tess, Ilka and Alix played by Jane Powell, Ann E. Todd and Elinor Donahue.

Sweet without being sappy, Three Daring Daughters is a feel-good story full of the virtues of happy relationships and good intentions. In a combination that is reminiscent of  I Love LucyLittle Women, and An Affair to Remember it’s hard to imagine anyone finding fault with this movie, but, surprisingly it was flagged for immorality due to that fact that Jeanette MacDonald’s character was a divorced woman successfully living on her own. That being said there are no deep psychological dramas to explore here and the entire theme of the movie is cheerful and upbeat.

There’s also not much cooking going on in the film, so instead of recreating a dish from the movie, we pulled one from the family archives of Aunt Patty who was herself one of three young daughters in the 1940’s.

That’s Aunt Patty – the tallest one in the back, her middle sister Phyllis and then my mom, the youngest, in front.

Like Tess (the oldest daughter) in the movie, Aunt Patty was the great big sister to her sisters and was especially connected to my mom.

Aunt Patty holding my mom circa 1943.

Even though we lived on opposite coasts and didn’t see her as frequently as we would have liked she still looms large in my memory. She was a great hugger. Her husband, Buzz called her “Babe,” which my sisters and I thought was hysterical. And like so many ladies in my family, she was a talented seamstress and would often send us presents that she made. One year she sent a pair of three-foot-tall cloth horses for my dolls to ride around on. That seemed like magic! Even though she liked to keep busy and plan lots of activities when we were all together, she always found time to read the Winnie the Pooh series to my sister and I before bed or naptime. And she was a marvel at putting together big family theme dinners complete with decorations and costumes.

Tragically, she passed away in the mid-1990’s from her second round of breast cancer, just a few months after celebrating her 62nd birthday. But she’s never far from our thoughts. Small memories pop-up in my mind about her all the time and of course, I have her hand-written recipes to keep me company in the kitchen.

Living among the fog clouds of Half Moon Bay, California, Aunt Patty was the only woman in my family, when I was growing up, that had a vegetable garden in her backyard, which to me was absolutely fantastic. She gathered much of her creativity in the kitchen from what she grew, so if there was one thing we could always count on at Aunt Patty’s house, it would be super fresh vegetables, lots of herbs and a fun time in the kitchen. She also subscribed to the Julia Child philosophy on butter – the more the better!

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken

This recipe (written in her own hand) is for Citrus Chicken and features fresh oranges,  tarragon and the infamous butter. Sometimes, when I make this I cut the butter in half, but it’s really best prepared as Aunt Patty directed. If you serve it with a simple green salad on the side, the whole meal feels a bit more redemptive! It serves 3-6 people depending on portion size and keeps well in the fridge for chicken sandwiches the next day if you have left overs.

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken

3 boned chicken breasts, halved skinned and slightly flattened

1/4 cup melted butter

2 slices beaten egg

2/3 cup fine dry seasoned breadcrumbs (panko works great!)

1 stick butter, cut in small bits

1-2 cups fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon tarragon

1 tsp grated orange peel

Flatten chicken breasts. Brush with melted butter.

Roll in flour – dip in beaten egg and roll in breadcrumbs. Arrange in baking dish.

Dot with Butter. Bake 15 minutes at 400 degrees. In a bowl, mix orange juice, tarragon, and orange peel. Pour over chicken. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Cover and bake 35 more minutes, basting if necessary. (A little note: When it is done, the chicken will be wrapped in a soft breading blanket, if you’d like it to be a little bit crispy, simply remove the lid and place the dish under the broiler at 500 degrees for a few minutes until it begins to brown on top).

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken with Tarragon and Orange Juice

There are many ways to present this chicken… on a plate with other seasonal vegetables, alongside or in a salad of mixed green lettuces, or on a sandwich as mentioned above. In addition to being served hot out of the oven, it can also be served at room temperature, which makes it a great candidate for picnicking. We used to picnic with Aunt Patty on the beach, just a couple blocks from her house. I think she’d be thrilled at the idea that her recipe might be in your picnic basket one day too!

I think if Jeanette MacDonald and Aunt Patty had ever met in California, they would have been great friends. Jeanette was one of the few actresses in Hollywood who had to work hard at keeping weight on instead of worrying about taking it off. Aunt Patty could have cooked lots of great dishes for her (with lots of butter!). I’m not sure if Aunt Patty ever saw any of Jeanette’s movies, but she was a big fan of vintage and antique items just like me, so its safe to say that she probably would have would have loved Three Daring Daughters too. Afterall, she was one herself!

Cheers to families who are funny and daring and happy. And to beloved Aunts whose spirits can still be felt in the kitchen.

This is my favorite photograph of Aunt Patty, taken among the wildflowers of California sometime around the late 1980’s.

Learn more about Jeanette MacDonald and her movies by visiting the Singing Sweethearts blogathon on the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s blog here.

And if you find yourself in the kitchen with Aunt Patty sometime soon, send us a message and let us know how it all turned out.

Mabel In the Market: The Search for the 1920’s Doughnut Shop {Part 2}

I’ve never played hide and seek with a city or a ghost before. But that’s exactly what I did with Mabel in Seattle. I was on a mission to find my great-grandmother’s doughnut shop, which according to family lore, was located in Pike Place Market sometime between the years of 1922 and 1940.

Mabel in 1907; Pike Place Market sign in 2017

If this were a movie, I’d find her by doughnut crumb trail.  I’d hop off the plane with weeks of research in hand, pop over to the market and seek out the very spot where Mabel,  my school teacher-trained, Iowa native, Seattle transplant great-grandmother would have rolled out daily stacks of doughnuts during the early 20th century.

I’d scurry through market hallways and stallways…

Pike Place Market Stairs

passing sign after sign…

until I reached my moment of satisfaction. The final destination…

… actual proof, at long-last,  that my Mabel’s place of productivity was here and that her baking legacy survived in these doughnuts still being prepared and displayed in the same way she would have made them 100 years ago…

But this is not a movie and the trail of this baking mystery did not roll out so smoothly. I did go to Seattle and I did go to the market. And I did discover Mabel. Just not exactly the way I thought I would.

As it turns out Mabel just might be the biggest fan of hide and seek I’ve ever known.  She popped in and out of this whole adventure playing her game of come find me in the most superlative of ways.

Before I left for Seattle I had trouble locating any supporting documents that would pin Mabel down in the market. I searched for weeks, trying all sorts of different avenues leading from Seattle to Iowa and back to Seattle again, hoping for a picture, a newspaper article, a copy of a market receipt, a letter home to her family… any small detail that would mention a doughnut or a day stall.   I came up empty handed on all fronts except for a picture I found of her sister Katie with whom Mabel was close…

Hello to Katie!

Taken around 1900, this was a great new addition to the family photo collection. We don’t have any pictures of Mabel’s seven sisters taken while they were young. Katie has no connection to Seattle or to the market that I know of yet but it was encouraging, a good luck sign, perhaps to see the sisterly face of someone who was so important and so close to Mabel.

Back to the market mission,  I was hoping that research helpers at pikeplacemarket.org would be more successful combing their city directories and market archives. They too tried all possible avenues on their end. Had there been a shop name or a specific date things would have been, could have been easier.  Working on it up until the eleventh hour we were communicating back and forth about potential scenarios and information but valid, concrete documentation would elude us both in the end. Mentions of Mabel in the market were nowhere to be found.

It wasn’t all disappointment at this stage though. Mabel came through in another way. A better way actually then documents and even doughnuts. She came to me in the form of dishes…

Dating to early 1900, this is Mabel’s antique flow blue china made by W.H. Grindley in the Portman pattern which had been stacked away, unbeknownst to me, in my sister’s house for years.  How exciting! Dishes that Mabel actually touched in her daily life and that survived her 1,800 mile journey from Iowa to Washington. I could just imagine one of her lovely little doughnuts sitting on this plate. Like her sister’s portrait this was a more delicate and intimate side of Mabel then I ever hoped for. A tangible piece of history and a part of her that I could carry with me back home.

Even though there was no factual info to be had about Mabel’s market days my sisters and I  headed to Pike Place anyway to see if some visual clues might strike us.

We saw fish and flowers, pigs and produce, wall murals and a great busker band. We even saw a real-life Hobart, an invention we blogged about back in May. ( I think I was the only one standing in line at this vendor that was more excited about seeing the mixer then the menu offerings).

But there were no signs of Mabel.  We commiserated over grilled cheese sandwiches and doughnuts on the wharf and talked over the possibility that perhaps Mabel just worked at a doughnut shop instead of owned one. Maybe the family story got muddled and misdirected over time. Maybe Mabel was a cog in the wheel instead of the actual wheel.

We left the farmers market feeling satisfied with food but not with family history. The search continued. Questions were still unanswered.

Further investigations led us out to the suburbs where Mabel popped up again. This time in the form of a house with a big garden yard – the place where she lived for a time in the 1950’s.  And we saw her again in two churches that were built by her only child Philip, just outside of Seattle…

Those three places didn’t provide any new clues but they did suggest a new possibility. What if Mabel made so many doughnuts at the market and on such a large scale that she never wanted to look or think or talk about another doughnut again? What if, when she moved out to the suburbs in 1940, she was done with doughnuts completely? What if that is the reason the family stories never stretched farther than the market mention?

On the last day of my trip, after I made peace with the fact that I would not discover any new information about this family story for the immediate time being,  Mabel sent out a consolation prize.  While doing a little antique shopping, my sister found an old cookbook from 1902 with a woman who looked a little like Mabel on the cover…

Flipping through it look what recipe I found on page 256…

Iowa doughnuts! A recipe from Mabel’s home state nestled in with a whopping 13 other recipes for the willing doughnut maker.  What are the chances of finding such a time appropriate cookbook with such a specific and applicable recipe?  To make this find even more Mabel-fied the inside cover of the cookbook was stamped with the name and address of the previous owner. And guess, dear readers, where that previous owner lived?

The small town where Mabel had her big garden yard and where her son built two churches!

What, really, are the chances of that? Seattle is a big city and the suburbs are dense and bubbling places. The antique shop where we found the cookbook was far from the town where Mabel lived and where her son built the churches. Not every state in the cookbook got its own doughnut recipe (only Iowa and Nebraska). And after almost fifteen years of antique collecting I’ve never come across this specific cookbook before. All signs pointed to Mabel and the magically meant to be.

So even though I didn’t exactly find out all the information I was looking for heading into this trip, I feel like I got to know Mabel so much more than just being able to reiterate some facts and dates. I touched (and took home!) dishes that she herself touched.  I saw the first-time face of her sister.  I saw the house of her senior years and I stood before two big buildings that her son built. And the icing on the doughnut is the found cookbook; owned by a person who lived in the same town as her; and that contains an obscure recipe from her home state for a sweet treat that eventually bore her business. That’s a tidy little package.

The hunt for her market days info is far from over and this story doesn’t yet come full circle but it does come full-spirit. When we eventually solve this mystery of Mabel in the market there might just be a movie style ending. Stay tuned for new updates as the research continues. In the meantime if you missed Part One of this post catch up here.

Cheers to all the “spirited” storytellers out there.