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by Margaret Cullison


Mother once told me that when my brother, Alan was a toddler he’d start crying loudly when he got hungry and would not stop until she fed him. It seems that Alan has always loved to eat. “Let face it. I just like food,” he replied when I wrote to ask him about his favorites from our mother’s cookbook.

Alan may like to eat, but he also enjoys cooking, and he has a flair for putting ingredients together in his own unique way. Luckily for us, he married into an Italian-American family of accomplished cooks. He’s lived most of his adult life in West Hartford, Connecticut, so his interest in good food has expanded beyond the Midwestern dishes and culinary skills that he learned from our mother.

Alan is my only sibling still alive with whom I can talk about our early food experiences. He’s been a reliable source of information as I write these essays, because he experienced the same family circle and the meals we shared from his own perspective. His memories are different from mine and add depth to my understanding of the role food played in our family experience.

I was born only fourteen months after him, and we have always enjoyed an amiable relationship. Bonded by mutual awe of our older brother, we also joined forces in resisting Ben’s big-brotherly efforts to dominate us.

Alan didn’t mind if I tagged along when he played with his friends as we were growing up, and he even tolerated the adolescent flirting techniques I practiced on them. The practice paid off, because my first date and kiss were with one of Alan’s good friends.

One memory of food he has that I’ve managed to erase from my mind is eating chicken feet. “They weren’t a favorite of mine,” he admits. “Although I toughed it out and managed to enjoy them.” He didn’t elaborate about how Mom fixed them, and certainly he didn’t request that the recipe be included in our mother’s cookbook.

Mom learned about Chinese Hamburgers from a woman she met in Chicago, probably while visiting Dad’s sister. Food is a comfortable subject among newly acquainted women who like to cook, and Mom discovered that mutual interest with many of the women she met on her travels away from Iowa. She often brought home ingredients she’d bought in specialty food stores or ideas for new dishes, along with small gifts for her children.

When she’d try out the new recipes, her family provided tasting opinions. Chinese Hamburgers passed the critical experimental period and became a staple on the family menu, gaining a place in her cookbook.

Although never a favorite of mine, Alan liked them a lot and still fixes these hamburgers for his family. They are easy to make, and I remember watching him prepare them for himself as a teenager. When the hamburgers were cooked, he’d douse them liberally with bug juice, as he called soy sauce.

Alan and I have lived on opposite coasts for over thirty years now, and maybe I’ll persuade him to fix them the next time we get together. I think I’d like them better as an adult, especially with almonds as Mom suggests.

Chinese Hamburgers
      1 pound ground beef
      ½ can (or more) bean sprouts
      1 egg
      2 tablespoons heavy cream
      ½ teaspoon salt
      ¼ teaspoon pepper

Mix ingredients thoroughly and form into four burgers. Heat some butter in a skillet. Brown the burgers on both sides until desired doneness. Serve with rice and soy sauce.

Mom’s Note: Try fancy mixed Chinese vegetables instead of bean sprouts and add toasted, slivered almonds.

Alan’s wife's maternal grandmother came over from the old country. According to her brother who stayed in Italy, his sister announced as a young woman that she’d marry any man who’d take her to America. She found a willing and sweet man with whom she made the journey, and they settled in Connecticut.

As Alan puts it, “Nonna was the fist in the family glove.” Giuditta Bacconi was an intimidating matriarch, and none of her four daughters had learned to make the delicious bread she baked for the entire extended family each week. By the time Alan got interested in making the bread, Nonna was in her 80s. He was afraid the recipe would be lost, because it had never been written down.

"Her English was broken enough, and she was prickly enough that I didn’t talk to her directly at any length about her recipe.” Instead, Alan sought help from his mother-in-law, Armida, who asked her mother for information and
remembered other details from watching the bread being made so often.

Together Armida and Alan came up with a workable recipe. He’s not certain if Nonna ever sampled his bread, but she knew about his efforts. She once commented, in good humor, that he was trying to take away her job.

Nonna’s Italian Bread
       12 cups all-purpose flour
       5 cups (or less) hot water
       1 to 3 teaspoons salt
       1/8 pound baker’s yeast (or 2 packages dry yeast)

Dissolve yeast in 1 cup of warm water. Put flour and salt in a big bowl, add the yeast water and mix in most of the remaining water a little at a time until you get a rough, shaggy mess. Knead for ten minutes. After rising until doubled in bulk and punching down, make free-form loaves on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven.

For a finer texture and whiter color, use bread flour. Knead for at least twenty minutes and let the dough rise a second time.

For a crunchier crust, score the tops of the loaves and use a moist 425 degree oven (place a pan of water on lowest rack of oven under the cookie sheet) for the first fifteen minutes.

Whenever I think about Black Bottom Pie, I smile at an unintentional play on words I made during my freshman year in college. Friends and I usually gathered in one of our rooms after dinner to waste time before starting the ever-present task of studying. One night we’d just eaten an inferior version of the pie in our dorm dining room.

"Not as good as my mother’s black bottom,” I proclaimed. My friends all laughed, but it took me a minute to figure out my own joke.

My praise of Mom’s Black Bottom Pie was well deserved. She was a master pie maker, and this pie fit perfectly with her talent and taste for dark chocolate and whipped cream. She started making it while Alan and I were in high school. As she used to say, using a term from her youth in the 1920s, she “had a case on it.”

Alan thinks her recipe came from the Carnation Milk Company whose evaporated milk product is used in the recipe. The traditional southern version consists of a layer of chocolate custard followed by a layer of custard flavored with bourbon or rum. Or vanilla can be substituted for the alcohol. Another interpretation features a layer of banana cream. Sometimes a chocolate cookie crust is indicated, giving true meaning to the pie’s name.

Mom would not have liked alcohol flavoring, preferring a pure dark chocolate flavor. She used to keep a bar of Baker’s semi-sweet cooking chocolate among her baking supplies, not for baking but for an occasional snack. Whatever its origins, this recipe had a long and popular run in our family.

Black Bottom Pie
      1 envelope unflavored gelatin
      ¾ cup sugar
      1/8 teaspoon salt
      1 egg, beaten
      ¾ cup milk
      4 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
      1 cup evaporated milk, whipped
      1 teaspoon vanilla
      1 cup whipping cream

Prepare and bake a 9-inch pie shell.

Put the evaporated milk in a tray in the freezer. Mix the gelatin, sugar, salt, egg and milk in a double boiler. Add the chocolate. Stir until melted. Chill and then beat the mixture until smooth.

After the evaporated milk has crystallized in the freezer, whip it with a whisk or electric beater. Then fold the whipped milk and vanilla into the chocolate mixture. Pour into pie crust and refrigerate for several hours.

After the pie has set, cover with whipped cream.

The little boy who cried when he wanted to be fed, grew up to learn the downside of eating well. Our mother wanted us to grow strong and be healthy. She encouraged my brothers especially to eat heartily. But by the time they reached their teen years, they were getting plump. They looked like well-fed farm boys who weren’t working hard enough in the fields.

All his life, Alan has endured an ongoing battle with his weight. Just before our mother died, she told him she was sorry she’d urged him to eat so much. She said she could have done more to help him achieve balance between good eating and healthy living. A goal we all need to strive for in
these times of rampant obesity.

Recipes are from the collection of Anna May Cullison.


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