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Women of the family form a special bond in the kitchen

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

It's Mother's Day, and I'd give anything to be in Gram's crowded kitchen, washing dishes with my mother and four aunts, who were as different from each other as silos and skyscrapers. Each reached for the clouds in her own way.

We didn't know the term then, but how lucky I was to have had my "extended family" so close that they turned up every week for Sunday dinner at Gram and Gramp's farm. Each aunt taught me something special, but most of all, I learned to approach life with a sense of humor.

Tips ...
When an aunt walked in with Chocolate Icebox Cake, it always drew oohs and aahs, and Gram hurried to make room for it in the freezer.

They were experienced bakers, but in my kitchen, a little precision was required behind the scenes.

To cut the angel food cake into three equal layers, first measure the height of the cake with a ruler and figure out how deep each equal layer should be. (In our test, each was 1 1/2 inch deep.) Laying the ruler along the side of the cake, measure up from the cake plate and insert toothpicks at the 1 1/2-inch mark at intervals around the circumference of the cake. The toothpicks should be parallel to the plate.

Now measure down from the top of the cake and place toothpicks around the circumference between the top and middle layer.

The toothpicks are your cutting guide.

Before you begin sawing with a serrated knife, place a vertical row of two toothpicks, side by side, in each layer. This will help reposition the layers after the cake is cut.

To frost, place the bottom layer on the cake plate, inserting four pieces of wax paper under the layer around the edges, to catch spilled frosting. Remove all toothpicks, except for the double ones. With a knife or spatula, spread frosting around the side of the bottom layer, then frost the top of the layer. Add middle layer, matching the double toothpicks. Frost the outside first, then the top.

Repeat steps with top layer. If the frosting is stiff enough, you can sometimes make swirls. If the frosting is especially soft, some may collect in the center of the angle food cake. This is for the cousins to fight over.

Freeze cake. Cut with a serrated knife, dipping in hot water and drying between slices.

Eggs separate best when cold. But egg whites have more volume when whipped while at room temperature. Before mixing, you can put the whites in the mixing bowl, letting the bottom of the bowl rest in hot water, until the whites are warmed.

-- Suzanne Martinson


It seems a tribute to Gram that her four daughters were so different. My aunts did have one trait in common. They never missed a meal, and neither do I. Gram died when I was a senior in college, and all but one of my father's sisters are gone, too.

"Aunt Libby and I are the only ones left standing," Mother said, when she called to tell me that Aunt Gladys, the oldest, had died Feb. 23. She was 94.

It must have been wild, with four out of the five children coming two years apart. They thrived in times that weren't easy. Aunt Lila was born premature, so Gram put the baby to bed in a shoebox and laid her on the oven door of the wood stove to keep her warm. My dad was a toddler when they discovered he had polio. Gramp was standing on the hay wagon and said, "Waldo, give me your hands and I'll pull you up on the wagon." Dad could raise only one arm. My dad recovered, and after Aunt Norma eloped to Bowling Green, Ind., to marry Uncle Arn, he farmed with my father and grandfather.

A homebody and probably the most like Gram, Aunt Norma was a second mother to my cousins and me. She always said, "When you go to college ..." Never if.

In an era when my aunts talked of women "in a family way," Aunt Norma shocked everyone when she was pregnant for her daughter Ann's graduation from University of Michigan. Ann had asked for a baby brother, and she got one.

Aunts are important because they often dish out compliments that parents fear might "spoil" their children. Aunt Gladys made this awkward country girl feel lucky to be one of the "Garner girls." She stressed the importance of keeping a "good name," and I found out why when I was 16. I was the proud owner of a driver's license and a checking account, but the owner of the jewelry store wouldn't accept my check. "But I'm Gladys Wiltse's niece," I said. All of a sudden, no problem.

Like Aunt Gladys, I was the firstborn, so I share many of her traits, although not her regal bearing. My idea of dressing up was polishing my cowboy boots.

Aunt Gladys was what we'd call "assertive" today, though her siblings might have used the word "bossy." She spoke her mind, and I have a similar affliction. I'll never forget one confrontation in Aunt Lila's living room when Aunt Gladys spotted a throw pillow with its label dangling.

"Lila, why don't you tear this off?" she demanded.

"It says DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW," said Aunt Lila, a primary teacher and a follower of rules.

Aunt Gladys ripped it off. "Let 'em come and get me," she said.

Aunt Lila laughed uncomfortably. Although she was an eternal optimist who thought the best of everybody, Aunt Lila certainly clutched onto her purse, often carrying it from room to room -- even at Gram's house. When she died, her son, Larry, walked into the wake and placed her purse in the casket with her. It brought smiles to a sad setting.

Aunt Lila taught me that every child, no matter how poor or how slow, was lovable to a dedicated teacher. The girl who began life in a shoebox became the family bookworm and was valedictorian of her class. She earned her bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan College, Ypsilanti, where Gladys and Norma attended two years, mailing home their dirty laundry to Gram. Aunt Alice, the youngest, attended County Normal teachers school with my mother.

Aunt Gladys had a whimsical side. A dedicated genealogist, she traced our family tree back to Charlemagne and told us nieces we were eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. I asked her if Uncle Dorr, her husband, also had relatives who fought in the Revolution.

"Oh, yes," she said, "but they were on the other side."

I must have looked shocked, because she added, "The ones who fought with the English were a better class of people."

As I've come to realize, you can take the girl off the farm but you can't take the farm out of the girl. Though Aunt Gladys lived in town, where she was famous for her high school classes in Michigan history, she grew Christmas trees on their lot. "When someone comes to buy a tree, I help them find the very best one. When I am down to two trees, I help them pick the one that's better. And when I have only one tree left, it's still the best I've got."

She later turned the back lot into a pasture for her daughter Shari's horse, Rowdy. The neighbors never complained about what must have been a breach of zoning ordinances, because Uncle Dorr went out morning and night and collected the horse biscuits. City fertilizer!

As a hostess, she believed in using her best stuff, and so do I. Aunt Gladys would never cover her couches in plastic, ready for some occasion that never comes. When Shari married, she took down her antique crystal goblets -- the light from the window made them sparkle like jewels -- and the family drank from them. Carefully.

She once showed me her vulnerable side as one working mother to another. She said she'd never forget driving out of Gram's driveway heading for work and seeing son Norm with his arms outstretched on the bay window. He was crying.

I was in awe of Aunt Gladys' standing appointment at the beauty parlor, but unaware that she washed and colored her hair before she went. She probably used the savings for trips to Europe to paw through records and muck through graveyards to trace our roots.

My cousin Judy altered and hemmed the glamorous clothes that played up Aunt Gladys' voluptuous figure --when she bent over a desk to help a student, it was said that high school boys held their breath. Aunt Gladys always paid Judy for the work, and bought Judy shoes, purse and jewelry for the 4-H Style Review.

Judy is the best seamstress I've ever known, outside of my mother, who taught her to sew. In turn, Judy's mother taught me to bake with yeast, including a blue-ribbon 4-H coffee cake. Only a doting aunt like Aunt Libby would clean up all that flour.

So my aunts, like us cousins, are a study in contrasts. Ann recalled Aunt Gladys sitting at Gram's dining room table, holding a diet book in one hand and dipping into the Fannie Farmer chocolates with the other. At one time, she worked for the welfare department, and her son remembered how she went to a ritzy store to buy a new suit and asked, "Can I use my welfare check?"

At one Sunday dinner, Aunt Gladys brought her own plates and silverware from home so she wouldn't have to help with the Everest of dirty dishes at Gram's. Maybe she was mad because the men got to smoke cigars and play cards while the women worked. "She sat in the living room while the rest did dishes," Ann recalled.

That lasted only one Sunday, though. Maybe Aunt Gladys missed the give-and- take among mother, sisters, and nieces as much as I do.

Chocolate Icebox Cake

  • 2 bars or blocks of sweet chocolate
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup whipping cream, whipped and sweetened to taste
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1 large angel food cake

Melt chocolate in top of double boiler. (We did this in the microwave on medium; watch closely as chocolate can burn.) Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. (Because we wanted to be sure the eggs were cooked, we beat in each yolk and put the mixture into the microwave on medium for 20 seconds after each.) Cool chocolate mixture; it should be smooth.

Beat whipping cream and add powdered sugar to taste. (We also added 1 teaspoon Godiva chocolate liqueur for flavoring, or you can add vanilla.)

Beat egg whites in metal or glass bowl until stiff peaks form.

Here the recipe becomes individualized. My cousin Ann adds the egg whites last, but my mother adds the whipping cream last.

In either case, egg whites should be gently folded into the mixture to make a light frosting. Refrigerate the frosting at least an hour before spreading on cake. It can sometimes be soft, but spread it on the cake as well as you can.

Freeze frosted cake. Cut with serrated knife while frozen. Angel food cake should be sawed, not sliced.

Note: My cousin uses two bars of Baker's Sweet Chocolate, my mother uses two squares of German Sweet Chocolate, and I used 6 rectangles of Hershey's Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate. (PG tested recipe)

The Garner Family

Food editor Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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