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Ben's Favorites: Raw Tomato Relish, Chicken
Sandwich Filling, Aasta's Potato Salad and Stuffed Shrimp

by Margaret Cullison


My oldest brother died in 1994. At the age of 61, his was an unexpected death that knocked the entire family off balance. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise because he had possessed the power to catch us off guard throughout his life.

Named Bennett for our father, my parents called him Bunny. For the first four years of his life, he was an adored only child and the first grandchild of both his maternal and paternal grandparents. As soon as he became aware of the concept of image, he discarded the Bunny nickname in favor of Bennett and finally Ben.

As an adult he said that after his younger siblings were born, he thought the only way to maintain his primary position in the family was to dominate us. He needn’t have worried. Alan and I learned early on the importance of staying on neutral ground with our big brother.

Stories of Ben’s rebelliousness abound, and he never outgrew that prerogative of saying and doing what he pleased. Mrs. Butler, his first grade teacher, liked to tell about the time he took off his shoes in her class room. When she saw them under his desk, she asked him to put the shoes back on. “I don’t have to, because my dad pays taxes,” he replied.

Ben could get away with such behavior because of his charm. From childhood on, people found his good looks, wit, and geniality captivating. His dark brown eyes flashed when he was challenged, and he never shied from a good argument. His was an ideal personality to carry on the family profession of law.

Just a few years before our father died, Ben moved back to our hometown to take over the family law practice, established in 1881 by Grandfather Cullison. After living in New York City, Washington, DC, Des Moines and San Francisco, Ben returned home at the age of 42 because he said he didn’t want to have to leave again. He’d also tired of being a little fish in a big pond and wanted to try the other way.
Having been nurtured on our mother’s good meals, Ben enjoyed food and the challenge of preparing it well. He was undaunted by recipes of large quantity and didn’t hesitate to make the raw tomato relish that had been a favorite of our childhood.

I have never attempted it. Made with fresh tart tomatoes in August, it keeps through the winter when refrigerated. I remember this chilled relish tasting especially good with grilled beef.

      Raw Tomato Relish
      1 peck ripe tomatoes
      4 green peppers
      2 cups chopped onion
      2 cups chopped celery
      3 pints cider vinegar
      2 cups sugar
      ½ cup salt
      4 ounces white mustard seed
      1 teaspoon nutmeg
      1 teaspoon pepper
      1 teaspoon cinnamon

Peel and chop the tomatoes and drain them overnight. Discard the liquid. Grind the peppers in a food grinder. Finely chop the onions and celery. Combine the vegetables with remaining ingredients. Stir well and put into canning jars; store in the refrigerator. Makes about 5 quarts.

The relish recipe comes from Betty Turner. The Turner family lived in a smaller town twelve miles south of us. Betty’s father-in-law had practiced law in the era of our Grandfather Cullison. In that time before automobiles, the men took the train back and forth between their two towns to take care of legal business at the courthouses, sometimes inviting one another home for lunch.

Betty’s husband, Joe was a lawyer of my father’s generation. Joe and Dad had been friends from childhood and carried on the professional association of their fathers. Years later this tradition continued to a third generation when Joe and Betty’s son, Richard served as Attorney General of Iowa and Ben worked under him
as an Assistant AG.

Ben’s presence in Harlan was important to our mother after she became a widow, because he was the only remaining family member in town. Having been charmed by Ben from the time he was an infant, Mom had a special fondness for him. Sometimes their opinions clashed but never for long. They depended on each other in those later years after Ben’s fourth marriage ended.

A subject they always agreed on was food. In Dad’s absence, they continued this mutual interest. They shared holiday meals together, at her house or his, and often lunched or dined out, especially when family members came to visit. With Ben’s encouragement, Mom continued her efforts to reproduce dishes that she’d tasted and liked away from home.

One example was the chicken sandwich filling from one of the first restaurants to open when Omaha’s Old Town was being developed in the early 1970s. Situated in a renovated warehouse, M’s Pub became the hot new place to go.

The original M’s Greek Sandwich is still on the menu. It’s made of turkey and served on whole wheat bread with the crusts removed. Mom adjusted the ingredients, using either turkey or chicken with white bread. She didn’t give exact proportions in her cookbook, understanding that this recipe should be made to personal taste. I’ve added approximate measurements to guide you.
    Chicken Sandwich Filling
      Cooked chicken or turkey (2 cups)
      Walnut meats (1/4 cup)
      Onion, optional (1/4 of a medium onion)
      Mayonnaise (1/2 cup or more)
      Lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
      Salt and pepper to taste

White meat is best, but some dark meat will be fine. Coarsely grind meat with walnuts and onion. Mix with mayonnaise and season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Mom’s Note: I use onion and often omit the nuts. You can freeze the ground mixture in a plastic bag; remove it as needed (it thaws quickly), then add mayonnaise, etc. Almost everyone likes this filling.

Page Two of Ben's Favorites>>
©2006 Margaret Cullison for SeniorWomenWeb
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