Crazy Questions, Aren't They?
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.
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-boughten” 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.”
My birthday is just five days after Mimmie’s. When I turned 18, the card that came in the mail from her read:
“Received the birthday card you sent me. Thanks. I like it, they must have had me in mind when they made it. Never saw one like that, with the Mc on it.”
All four of Mimmie’s grandparents immigrated from Ireland. She was proud of her Irish heritage, and had no patience for tired jokes about being Irish and drinking. Her mother, she said, would not touch birch beer or root beer either, just because of the word “beer.” On the card for my 18th birthday she wrote:
“Want to wish you Happy Birthday for Tuesday. Hope my card gets there on time. Eighteen is a lovely age to be isn’t it. Just think you are now your own boss. Have a Happy Birthday Tuesday and don’t drink too much (champagne). Suppose that is spelled wrong, but guess you will know what I mean. That horrible tasting drink that they always have at weddings.”
Years later, I noticed Irish Soda Break being sold at the Kiwanis Club barbecue at the firehouse, and many restaurants serve it on St. Patrick’s Day. I was not really familiar with it, so was wondering if Mimmie had a recipe for it. I looked and couldn’t find anything. However, the Old Book begins with a recipe for Irish Wedding Cake. Mimmie wrote on the page “I started this cookbook in 1926. My first recipe was given to me by Gladys Fox.”
Irish Wedding Cake
Flour 2 cups
Baking Soda 1 teaspoon
Butter 1 tablespoon
Cinnamon 1 teaspoon
Cloves 1 teaspoon
Molasses 1 cup
Boiling Water 1 cup
Sift dry ingredients, add remaining ingredients and beat all together. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes in loaf pan, or recipe can be used to make layer cake. Use white icing.
Here is Mimmie’s Irish Apple Cake recipe, this one not from the 1926 notebook, but from the little mod recipe file box:
Irish Apple Cake
Flour, sifted 3 cups
Sugar 3/4 cup
Salt ½ teaspoon
Egg Yolks 3
Butter 1 cup
Lemon Rind, grated from one lemon
Applesauce 1-3/4 cup
Cinnamon ½ teaspoon
Cloves 1/4 teaspoon
Mix flour, sugar, salt, egg yolks, butter and lemon rind. Divide mixture in two parts. Press one part in bottom of pan. Mix applesauce, cinnamon, cloves, and spread over mixture in pan. Sprinkle rest of mixture over applesauce. Bake at 350 degrees in a greased 9x9x1-3/4-inch pan for 40 to 45 minutes. Top with whipped cream, if desired.
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. “Heavens, the date’s right there on the form,” she said, laughing. Then, “September 13, 1904” came the reply. “Do you have children?” “Yes, three.”
“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.”I’m not a native,” she confided, and I smiled a little. Not a native? West Hurley and West Shokan are now part of the same school district. “No,” she continued, “I didn’t come here until I was married.”
“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 at the one-room school, 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.
“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 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.
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.”
One Egg Cake
Flour, sifted 2 cups
Sugar 1 1/2 cups
Baking Powder 2 ½ teaspoons
Salt 1 teaspoon
Vegetable Shortening 1/3 cup
Vanilla 1 teaspoon
Milk 1 cup
Sift the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Add the shortening, vanilla, and 2/3 cup milk; beat vigorously for 2 minutes, add the remaining 1/3 cup milk and egg and beat 2 more minutes. Bake 25 to 30 minutes in 350 degree oven.
And here is a favorite of mine, a simple cake recipe from Mimmie’s mod file box:
Frying Pan Cake
Flour 1 3/4 cup
Baking Powder 1 tablespoon
Baking Soda 1 teaspoon
Cocoa 6 tablespoons
Sugar 1 cup
Oil 1/4 cup
Vinegar 1 tablespoon
Water 1 cup
Sift together dry ingredients into ungreased pan. Make three wells in the mixture -- put oil in first, vinegar in second, finally water in third. Mix. Bake 25 minutes at 375 degrees.
Confectioner’s Sugar, sifted 1 1/2 cups
Butter 2 tablespoons
Coffee, brewed 2 tablespoons
Cream together sugar and butter; add coffee; stir until smooth.
Excerpted from A Visit with Mimmie: Catskill Mountain Recipes by Gina Giuliano (2011).