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My Mother’s Cookbook

Recipes from My Aunts: Louise’s Chewy Brownies; Virginia’s Chili, Orange Bread and Cheese Cake

by Margaret Cullison

As young adults, all of my parents’ siblings moved away from their Midwest upbringing, drawn by job opportunities in urban areas. That didn’t mean they forgot their Iowa heritage or those of us still living there. My aunts, uncles and cousins continued to be important members of our extended family, and we either traveled to see them or they visited us in the summer months.

The big house my grandfather purchased for his family in 1887 and where my father spent his entire life was made to be filled with friends and family. Never was that space appreciated more than when relatives came to stay with us. How I looked forward to the arrival of my cousins who lead such different big-city lives. As a child growing up in a small town, I wondered what I might be missing, and my cousins offered me a chance to learn how their lives differed from mine.

My mother and her younger brother and sister grew up in Red Oak, Iowa. Her siblings both married people from there while Mom chose a husband who lived sixty miles north. That made trips to Red Oak convenient when the siblings came to Harlan to visit us. Those excursions always included drives by the low-slung bungalow where they’d grown up, the brick building that housed the family wholesale grocery business, their grandparents’ Victorian house and the old Chautauqua Park where they’d gone for picnics and performances as children.

Uncle Ken had been fortunate enough to receive an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, quite an accomplishment for a small-town boy at the height of the Great Depression. Always interested in how things worked, he became a naval architect who helped with the design of the historic Nautilus, our country’s first atomic submarine. Mom treasured the chambered nautilus shell her brother gave her that had been cut in half to reveal the chambers that allowed it to rise or sink in water by taking in or expelling air, nature’s prototype of a submarine’s ability to travel below water level.

Uncle Ken’s assignments required moves from one coast to the other every few years, and our house was an ideal mid-way stop. But a houseful of people meant plenty of work for the adults who decided we children could just as well help too. Being a military man and a logical-thinking engineer, Uncle Ken created a list of KP chores for us. He sat down with his two daughters, my brothers and me to discuss a fair distribution of duties and then made a chart that he posted in the kitchen. We were expected to keep track of our work duties and do them without complaint.

When my cousin Anne, pretty, outgoing and a year and half older than me, reached her teen years she began to attract the attention of local boys. This was exactly the reaction we wanted, boys being the main topic of our conversations. Anne and I would have liked to stroll endlessly around the downtown square, a practice my mother frowned upon as too obviously attention-getting. But visiting the town swimming pool had a purpose, and we went every day, where we hoped to be noticed in our swim suits.

One evening when we’d been asked out on dates, we also had dinner dish duty. Anne suggested we could avoid that onerous obligation by sneaking upstairs right after dinner to change clothes. Surely our mothers would not make us do dishes after we’d cleaned up and put on fresh summer dresses. We tried for a nonchalant air as we breezed back into the dining room, ready for our dates, where the adults lingered over coffee.

Aunt Louise gave us a disdainful look and pointed to the kitchen saying, "You’re not going out until you get those dishes done.” Doing dishes in a non-air conditioned kitchen is a sweaty job, and we didn’t try that stunt again.

A fun-loving person, the humor of our effort wasn’t lost on Aunt Louise. She was a good cook but didn’t like to spend an undue amount of time in the kitchen, as the following recipe reflects. I still have the recipe card for brownies, written in her hand that she sent me when I was a young bride. Here is her recipe as she wrote it.

Chewy Brownies (Louise Romberg)
Mix 1 cup sugar, 2 heaping tablespoons cocoa and ¼ cup butter or margarine, melted.

Then add 2 beaten eggs and ½ cup flour with a pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla and some black walnuts. Bake ½ hour at 350 degrees and cut when hot.

Aunt Louise’s note: They seem to be better if you don’t beat too much. These are a breeze to make and always make a hit. Good for last minute dessert.

My note: This isn’t a large recipe, so use a ½ cup nuts and a 9 by 9-inch pan.

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