Monday, December 05, 2011

I Started This Notebook in 1926 

I twisted the knob, attempting to open the door that led to the little room Uncle Lou had added to Mimmie’s mobile home.  It was locked, so I knocked.  “Mimmie,” I called. Inside, I heard her fumbling around with the door. It took a while, as she had several latches to release, as well as a hook and eye.  That little trailer in the woods of upstate New York was more secure than many apartments in New York City, 100 miles to the south.

The door swung open. Mimmie stood a little to the side, so that I could pass. That day, as always, her floral house dress was perfectly pressed, her stockings complemented by a pair of white sneakers. Not once in my life did I see her in pants, although my mother says that in Mimmie’s younger days sometimes she did wear jeans.

We were going to sit at the kitchen table, drinking tea and eating coffee cake while we talked. That was what we always did during our visits at her trailer, and before that, when she still lived at the old place. But this day I was going to tape record her answers to a list of prepared questions. It was an assignment for a class at college, and I had already asked Mimmie if she would be my subject. She had agreed, reluctantly.

Mimmie circa 1985

I sat down at the table and arranged my notepad and tape recorder. Mimmie hovered nearby. “Should we have some tea first” she said. It was not really a question. I said yes, and before long, it was brewing. She took a danish out of the refrigerator and heated up a few slices in her toaster oven.

“You know, I think these coffee cakes aren’t so good anymore. I think they bake them right in the boxes now,” she remarked. I smiled. Years later, I decided she was probably right! And a little time in the toaster oven always improves store-bought baked goods.

“Maybe we should get started?” I suggested. The clock with the big numbers above the kitchen sink was loud when it ticked. The hours slipped away during visits with Mimmie. I had to make the bus back to Oneonta later that evening, and this assignment needed to be finished. “Where were you born?”

“In my parents’ house.” Mimmie’s parents lived on Dug Hill Road in Hurley, New York. Her father was a widower with five children, but it was the first marriage for her mother. Mimmie was the oldest of three surviving daughters from this union.

“And you lived there your whole childhood?”

“Yes.” When she was a girl, Mimmie often visited a neighbor on Dug Hill Road. She taught Mimmie about running a household and cooking.

By our second cup of tea, there were still a lot of questions to go. The first ones had answers I already knew. “When were you born?” I asked. “September 13, 1904” came the reply. “Do you have children?” “Yes, three.”

“What are their ages?” “I was told not to answer that,” she said, and we both started laughing. “What did your father do?” “He was a farmer.” “And your mother?”

“How did you come to West Shokan, and when?” “How’d I come? I moved here in 1932, no reason why.” I made some notes in my spiral-bound book. West Shokan was my grandfather’s hometown.

Eckert Homestead in West Shokan c. 1915

“What other places have you lived as an adult?” “Well, I lived in Woodstock, working there, for two years. And I lived in Alleben. That’s all.” I made some more notes. In 1918, after finishing eighth grade in the one-room school at age fourteen, Mimmie left home. She went to work in Kingston, New York. In 1922 she moved to Woodstock, New York, to work as a nanny for the Reasoner family. Mr. Reasoner was an artist who owned the Woodstock Playhouse.

Mimmie when she was about 17

“What is your occupation?” “Crazy questions, aren’t they? I don’t want to say jack of all trades and master of none.” She was laughing. “What would you be, mostly I’ve been a housewife, cook. As a young girl, I worked in a factory.”

“What did your husband do?” “Farmer, carpenter.” I continued my notes. Grandpa owned the store Mimmie worked in when she lived in Alleben.

As a newlywed in 1926, Mimmie started writing recipes in a spiral-bound notebook. On the cover is taped an illustration of a kitchen by Maxwell Mays that looks much like Mimmie’s at the old house. At some point she labeled this notebook “Old Book.” The stained pages inside are written in fountain pen and long ago started to crumble. At one place, they were sewn by Mimmie to the binding, and the thread remains intact. This old book begins with a recipe for Irish Wedding Cake, and several pages later, there is One Egg Cake.

The 1926 Notebook

In the 1940s, Mimmie’s sister Alice and brother-in-law Frank would drive to West Shokan from their home in Stony Hollow for a visit. Most of the time, these visits were an unplanned surprise. Having no sweets readily available to offer them and few ingredients on hand to rectify the situation did not prevent Mimmie from slipping into the kitchen to see what she could manage. A short time later, without fail, she would emerge with a just-baked cake.

For one visit Alice decided to save her sister the trouble by bringing something she had picked up at a store. Mimmie served the dessert and coffee, and Alice remarked, “isn’t it good, Frank?”  “I guess so,” he replied. “But I prefer those one-egg cakes that Annie stirs up in a hurry.”
Why not try a recipe that will not taste like it has been baked right in the box?

excerpted from A Visit with Mimmie: Catskill Mountain Recipes

I am going to make a batch of these, from the Old Book:

Ginger Snap Cookies

Sugar, 1 cup
Shortening, 2/3 cup
Egg, beaten, 1
Molasses (light), 1/4 cup
Flour, 2 cups
Salt, 1 teaspoon
Baking Soda, 1 teaspoon
Cinnamon, 1 teaspoon
Ginger, 1 teaspoon
Cloves, 1 teaspoon

Thoroughly cream sugar and shortening, add egg and molasses and beat well. Add sifted dry ingredients. Mix well. Roll 1/8 inch thick on lightly floured surface. Cut with floured cookie cutter. Bake on greased cookie sheet in moderate oven (350 degrees) about 10 minutes. Makes 6 dozen cookies.

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