My Mother’s Cookbook
My maternal grandmother survived her husband by 30 years. She had been left with a meager income that was certainly not up to what she’d expected. Grandfather Romberg lost his Iowa farmland in the rural Midwestern depression of the mid-1920s that preceded the stock market crash of 1929. The son of a German family that homesteaded farms in Nebraska in the 1870s, buying land must have seemed to him the safest of investments. He had worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale grocery business for years, but having his own farm and growing things was what he really wanted to do. After losing the land, he began to suffer from asthma and became so ill that he could barely work enough to support his wife and himself. I can only imagine the depth of his despair at this outcome to his life.
Grandfather Romberg died in 1939 when I was two years old. Meemock, as we called our Grandmother Romberg, had grown up in genteel comfort. Adjustment to financial constraints can’t have been easy for a woman in her mid-60s who had never worked, except as a housewife and mother, nor had to worry about money. She left Red Oak, Iowa, where she’d lived since childhood, and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to stay with her youngest daughter whose husband was serving in World War II. After he returned, the young family decided to move to the east coast.
Meemock elected to stay in Omaha where she could be near her Christian Science Church and church friends. She lived in a series of small apartments. Her only income was a monthly check from an oil well in Oklahoma, the last remnant of her husband’s investments, and whatever her three children provided. She had an air of calm contentment about her that I now understand was the result her committed spiritual belief.
My mother was Meemock’s only child still living in Iowa, and Meemock often traveled the forty miles by bus to be with us. The bus dropped her off a block from our house, and we usually met her at the corner. Or she would walk the short distance alone, coming up the driveway and through the kitchen door, just as we sat down for lunch. “Who goes there? Friend or foe,” I called out when I heard the door slam, even though I knew perfectly well that she was expected. She replied “Friend”, greeting us with a quiet smile that acknowledged my attempt at humor as she came into the dining room.
Not a great cook herself, she appreciated my mother’s expertise in the kitchen, a fact my father noted was clearly evident by her wide waistline. Meemock’s enjoyment of the good food at our table must have been a welcome relief from the frugal meals for one that she produced in her own small apartment kitchen. I visited her frequently enough to know that her diet was quite bland.
But Meemock had certain delicious treats she made for us when she came to visit. Popcorn balls never failed to stir up our willingness to help on a cold winter’s evening. My brothers and I popped the corn while she concentrated on the hard part, making the syrup. While still hot and bubbly, she’d pour the syrup over a big bowl of popcorn, stirring it with a wooden spoon. We had to control our desire to plunge our hands into the bowl until the syrup cooled down. I loved the feel of my fingers, slick with butter, digging in to gather enough of the warm sticky corn to form into a ball. We got to eat the first popcorn ball we made, and the rest went on a platter to be stored in a cool closet next to our father’s library until devoured, which never took long.
Meemock’s Popcorn Balls
½ cup popcorn
½ cup sugar
½ cup sorghum or light molasses
1½ teaspoons butter
Pop the popcorn in oil and salt lightly. For the syrup, stir the sugar, sorghum and butter until sugar is dissolved. Cook if possible, without stirring, until tested with a candy thermometer at 290 degrees. Mix with the corn and shape lightly into balls, using butter or cold water to prevent sticky hands.
Sometimes Meemock came to look after my brothers and me while our parents were away. She was not as indulgent as our paternal grandmother, Buddy, who lived with us, and so the charge of caring for us for longer periods of time went to Meemock. But she was just as loving as Buddy and could always be depended upon to look after us with quiet wisdom.
My oldest brother, Ben, had a contentious nature that served him well in his career as a lawyer later in life. From an early age he questioned other people’s ideas and beliefs. Once he asked the woman who was looking after us, a devout Catholic, how she knew there was an afterlife if she’d never been there. He responded to his first grade teacher’s request that he put his shoes back on while sitting at his desk in class with the retort, “I don’t have to because my father pays taxes.”
Of course, he took every opportunity to rebel when Meemock was taking care of us. But she had a special disciplinary tactic to deal with his misbehavior, and Ben didn’t like her method. When our parents came home, he complained to Mother that Meemock pinched him in the arm too much. Neither Meemock nor Ben changed their ways in the ensuing years of his childhood.
One thing my brother did like was Meemock’s recipe for old-fashioned noodles that our mother often made. The dough had to be mixed and rolled out early in the afternoon so it could dry in time to be cut into noodles for the evening meal. We would come home from school to find the kitchen table and counters covered with thin yellow sheets of drying noodle dough.
This comforting Midwestern meal of stewed chicken and homemade noodles can’t be beat when the sun sets early and temperatures drop below freezing.
3 eggs, beaten lightly
¼ cup cream
¼ teaspoon salt
Enough white flour to make soft dough
Mix the ingredients and divide the dough into thirds. Roll out each portion as thin as possible and let the sheets dry on a floured surface. When dough is dry enough not to stick together, roll it up, cut and break apart into half-inch strands. Continue to dry, if necessary.
Meanwhile cover a cut-up stewing chicken with water, add a stalk of celery, an onion, salt and pepper and cook in a covered pot until done. Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and add the noodles to broth. Discard the vegetables. Cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes until just tender, adding the chicken at the end to reheat. Serve chicken, noodles and broth in a big bowl or casserole.
One of Meemock’s recipes that I made often as a young and inexperienced cook was spice cake. I still have the recipe card for it that she wrote using her idiosyncratic spelling of “minuits” for minutes. It’s a quick cake that children like because of the spices, raisins and powdered sugar frosting. Ease of preparation makes it especially good for family gatherings or to take to potluck dinners.
Meemock’s Spice Cake
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter or other shortening
1 cup sour milk
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped nuts
Cream butter and sugar and add eggs, beating after each addition. Mix spices with flour and add to butter mixture alternately with sour milk. Mix in raisins and nuts. Spread in a 9 by 11 inch greased baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until cake springs back when you touch the center. When cooled spread with orange powdered sugar frosting.
When we were about 14, my girlfriend, Betty and I decided that a trip to Omaha was just what we needed to relieve the boredom of summer. Meemock’s elderly Aunt Fanny, her mother’s sister, had needed a home and was living with her, so Betty and I shared the living room sofa that pulled out into a bed. After an early and unexciting dinner, we went out in search of fun.
We headed down Dodge, one of the main streets through Omaha, to see what was happening at the neighborhood drugstore. We expected it to be like the drugstores in our small town where the kids, more specifically boys, hung out. Absolutely nothing exciting happened, aside from a few whistles directed our way from cars whizzing by. We soon gave up on our attempt to experience big city life and walked back to Meemock’s apartment. There we encountered real and surprising excitement. Aunt Fanny and Meemock were at the door waiting for us, and their worried faces told us we were in big trouble. They didn’t like that we’d been out on the streets alone. Aunt Fanny, who was in her 90’s, explained that girls who go roaming in a big city at night were asking for trouble. “It’s a wicked city out there,” she intoned. Betty and I apologized, and even though we joked about Aunt Fanny’s reprimand afterwards, it gave us an early warning about an adult world that was far more complex than we understood then.
Recipes are from the collection of Anna May Cullison.