What’s for Dessert?

“If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn’t have given us grandmothers.”  — Linda Henley

My mother was never much of a baker. Her specialties were Toll House chocolate chip cookies, boxed cake mix creations for our birthdays, and the occasional angel food cake. At our house on Kolmar Avenue, there were usually pints of Walgreen’s ice cream in the freezer, a can of Hershey’s syrup in the fridge, Salerno butter cookies in the tin, and sometimes those marshmallow cookies covered in sprinkles – although we usually devoured those gooey concoctions as we unloaded the grocery bags. I guess because my mother had witnessed the baking processes of her mother, she had no desire to replicate those all-day affairs with dough.

One of my grandmother’s specialties, according to my mother, was something called tsieg (German for pull) strudel. First, Grandma would spread a white tablecloth out on the kitchen table. Then, she mixed the dough, rolling it out on the table. She rolled, pulled the dough, rolled, pulled the dough, walking around and around the table to stretch the dough to the edge. If a hole appeared, she patched it, then continue the process—roll, pull, pull. When the dough was spread to the tables’ edge, she sprinkled it with a bit of vegetable oil and then spread cottage cheese over the entire table. Next, she pulled up the side of the tablecloth and rolled the dough into a cheese-filled log large enough to fill a nine by thirteen pan three times. Then, Grandma sprinkled on a bit more oil and baked it. She served it crispy and warm, right out of the oven, in four inch cheese-oozing chunks, to go along with the no-meat-Friday bowls of tomato soup.

While I don’t think I’ve ever tasted the tsieg strudel, I have fond memories of Grandma’s raisin strudel, and I’m attaching the recipe here. Some of her spelling is unconventional, since English was her second language, so I’ll translate: aest is yeast; Plase in esbax is Place in icebox.

strudel p. 2      strudel

Krapfa, her version of jelly donuts, was a treat she made when my Worcester cousins were visiting and we were all at the lake house. Grandma mixed the dough in the evening and let it sit on the counter overnight, covered in a dish cloth. Then, she rolled the dough and cut it into circles, plunging them into a pot of hot oil. When they were fried, she rolled them in sugar. We stuck spoons of jelly into them and wolfed them down in minutes. Good thing we rarely let them sit around for later. While delicious when warm, they turned into hard clumps, like greasy softballs, within an hour.

And then there were her kipfls, her signature sweet. Kipfl are similar to the Polish kolachky, but the dough isn’t flakey; it’s thick. These were jelly-filled, too, and when they baked, the jelly oozed out and often burned the pastry bottom. I was never much of a kipfl fan, but everyone else was, so I kept my mouth shut and rarely ate one. My husband loved them, and when he raved about them to Grandma, he instantly became the apple of her eye. When my Uncle Al died, Grandma took boxes of them on the train to Massachusetts for his funeral. She was miffed when my grieving cousins and aunt didn’t set them out for the other mourners and thus no one showered her with kipfl compliments. Even though the family explained that they held back the kipfls so that they could enjoy them, Grandma’s irritation became a dramatic sidebar to the sadness.

When Grandma died in 1979, the kipfl-making went with her. My mother made them once, but she had no time or patience for the project. Still, it was a Christmas tradition of hers to pass out tins of her baked goodies – those chocolate cookies with raisins and her chocolate chips. This too has gone by the wayside. Yet, we still have sweet treats to enjoy. My sister-in-law Jill arrives every Christmas Day with her big Longaberger basket loaded with deliciousness, and my granddaughter Maggie makes scrumptious cupcakes from scratch.

I, on the other hand, have taken a cue from my mother. I make good salads, a fantastic beef tenderloin, and some nice pasta dishes, but dessert? Not so much. When the grandkids come over, they know that probably there are ice cream bars in the freezer. And who doesn’t like ice cream?









During the War


”No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt


“Let’s go into the drug store,” Mary suggested as she and Peggy walked out of the Davis Theater. “We can get something at the soda fountain.”

The sixteen-year-olds hurried across the street and into the store to escape the early December cold. They were surprised to find the store empty except for the owner, who stood grimly at the radio which blasted reports of an attack.

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! Some of our ships have been sunk! It’s a sneak attack!”

The girls were confused. Where was Pearl Harbor? What exactly was Pearl Harbor? And why would Japan bomb it? Clearly, this was a terrible situation. Was this really war? The girls left the shop, wondering what this would mean for them and their country. Throughout the rest of the day, Mary and her family were glued to the radio news reports of the horrific events on the island of Oahu.

The next day was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, and Alvernia High School girls had the day off. Mary and her family gathered around the radio to hear the President, Franklin Roosevelt, speak to a joint session of Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” he began. The words were chilling, and war was declared against Japan. Three days later, Japanese Allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States as well.

War changed things, even for a teenage girl in Chicago, miles away from the battlefields. Mary volunteered as a junior air raid warden, and when Chicago periodically sounded sirens for air raid drills, Mary and a cute neighborhood guy who‘d convinced her to join the patrol walked the blocks checking to see that windows were covered so that no lights were visible from the street. Besides doing her civic duty, Mary took advantage of the opportunity to hang out at night with a good-looking boy, something her mother would not have allowed under everyday circumstances.

It wasn’t long before young men were enlisting in the Army, the Navy, or the Marines. By the time Mary was a senior in high school in 1942, most of the young men who’d graduated from high school were gone. In the Spring of ‘43, when her prom rolled around, she had no boyfriend to invite, so she went with Frank Sherer, the son of a family friend who was like a cousin. Sure, they had a nice time, but he wasn’t the romantic date of her dreams.

Even though Germany was the enemy, the Wolf family was never on the receiving end of any animosity. Chicago was a city of immigrants– German, Polish, Irish, Italians – who were patriot Americans. Mary’s parents, who’d emigrated from a German region of Romania, were staunchly proud of their American citizenship and loved their adopted country. Years before the war, they had been invited to attend a meeting of the Bund, a pro-Hitler organization in Chicago, and went out of curiosity. They never returned. “This is not for us,” they declared.

Rationing affected everyone during wartime. Nylon was used to make parachutes, so stockings were scarce. Like many women of the time, Mary resorted to using leg make-up to hide her legs’ pasty whiteness. Some girls even drew “seams” down the backs of their legs with eyebrow pencil, but Mary didn’t. It was too hard to make a straight line.

Other commodities like meat and sugar were difficult to get, and lines formed when word got out that a store had a scarce item available. The joke was that if you saw a line, you just got in it, not even finding out what the product was at the front of the line. Nylons? Cigarettes? Laundry soap? Just buy what you could, before the hoarders got it.

Everyone pitched in for the war effort. Victory gardens sprung up all over, but this was business as usual at my mother’s house, where my grandmother always grew beans, carrots, cucumbers, and other vegetables. They also collected paper, scrap metal, and bacon grease. While it’s easy to see why paper and metal could be useful, my mother didn’t recall why bacon grease was collected. A little research told me that it was used in manufacturing ammunition because of its “unparalleled incendiary properties.” My mother continued the habit of keeping a jar of bacon grease in the refrigerator, but not for ammunition. Why? Maybe something about not clogging up drains.

During the war, servicemen from all branches were stationed in Chicago. Girls flocked to the Service Men’s Club downtown to meet guys at the USO-sponsored dances. Mary went a few times, and briefly dated a soldier she’d met there. When the city celebrated the the new subway lines in October 1943, Mary and her soldier friend rode downtown for free as part of the grand opening festivities.

For a while, Mary dated a sailor named Bob, a cousin of a high school friend whom she met on a blind date. Bob was a nice enough guy, but nothing special, as far as Mary was concerned. But Bob was completely smitten with Mary. Stationed in New York, he took a train into Chicago on weekends to see her. One weekend he arrived with a gift he’d made for her — a hand-crafted wooden chapel the size of a typewriter. This was just too much, and Mary felt smothered, overwhelmed, and a little creeped out. One weekend, Bob came out to the lake house, but Mary made sure her friend Pat as there, too, acting as a buffer. Mary’s mother loved Bob, a nice-looking guy with a German last name. Grandma thought he was quite a catch for Mary, and she was irritated when Mary brushed him off. No matter; Mary kindly distanced herself from Bob.

Mary’s sister Liz also met a serviceman on a blind date during the war, but she was much luckier in love. Liz’s friend Marge’s sister Helen fixed her up with a good-looking Navy man. My Uncle Al Rogers swept Liz off her feet, married her in November 1945 and whisked her off to live in his hometown Worcester, Mass. As much as my grandmother loved Al, she never forgave him for taking her girl so far away.











Cleavers and Knives

Cleavers and Knives

“You have brains in your head

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

You’re on your own

And you know what you know,

You’re the guy who’ll decide where to go.” — Dr. Seuss


I love a juicy cheeseburger, a tender filet mignon, ribs slathered in a tangy sauce, pork tenderloin, grilled chicken, and hot dogs served Chicago-style. But, I avoid giving any thought to how these tasty meats arrive on my plate. When I’m shopping at our local place, Casey’s Fine Foods, peering through the glass at the tantalizing selection of chops, bratwursts, and kabobs ready to toss on the grill, I don’t consider what’s going on behind those swinging doors to the back, where the meats are in their less-than-appealing state.

Butchering is not for the squeamish. My grandfather Jacob Wolf was the guy behind the door, wearing a blood-splattered apron and wielding knives and cleavers to turn an animal into a steak or a roast or a string of sausages. When he and his wife Lena and their daughter Elizabeth came to Chicago, he applied his skills as a farmer’s son to become a butcher, and eventually owned his own shop.

In Wolf’s Meat Market, nothing went to waste. When no one would buy chicken livers, Grandpa brought them home and Grandma fried them with onions for Sunday dinner. Even the chicken feet came home, tossed in a pot to make the broth for Grandma’s chicken soup.

Grandpa cut up lambs and calves into the roasts and chops that his customers would buy. He was skilled at skinning the calves that hung in the back of the store so he could sell the hides to tanners. Without a freezer in the store, meat had a short shelf life. Often, he’d bring home a piece and announce, “This meat needs a home,” and that would become that night’s dinner.

The shop had a long display case, a big pickle barrel, and a few shelves of canned goods. When Birdseye introduced frozen vegetables, Grandpa was one of the first merchants to carry them in a newly-installed freezer case. Meats were cut on the thick wooden butcher block, and every evening Grandpa used a steel brush to scrape the block clean. So, the floors were coated with sawdust, which also absorbed any drips.

Sometimes Grandma worked as the cashier, stationed in the “cage” near the front door. One day, while Grandma was in the cashier cage, a man came in the store and aimed a gun at Grandpa, ordering him into the back room. In the back was Cousin Joe, a recent immigrant who spoke only German. When the robber marched my grandfather through the stockroom door at gunpoint, Cousin Joe laughed. Surely this was some prank that Jacob had concocted. Joe played along and shook his boning knife at the guy with the gun. “It’s no joke, Joe!” Grandpa said. “He’s robbing us!” Joe dropped his knife, trembling in fear. The man escaped with the store’s cash, but fortunately no bullets were fired. Heaven only knows how he got past my grandmother, but the gun must have scared her into acquiescence. The robber might have been apprehended, because an alert customer was in the store when he entered and ran to the grocer next door to announce that was a robbery in progress in the butcher shop. Instead of calling the police, however, the grocer came out of his store to watch the drama unfold, and the thief was long gone before the police arrived.

Since this was a family business, my mother Mary and her siblings worked in the store when they could. One frigid winter’s day, my mother was in the cashier’s cage, trying to stay warm while she worked the register. Grandpa had given her an almost-floor-length butcher’s frock to wear, and a space heater puffed out some warmth. All at once, Mary felt her legs getting toasty. When she looked down, she realized that the frock she wore was in flames. “Daddy! Help!” she cried. Grandpa rushed from the back of the store and slapped out the flames on the white frock. Catastrophe avoided.

My mother was also responsible for delivering the day’s receipts to the Lakeview Bank, a trip that required a streetcar ride of a mile or two. Mary tried to act nonchalant, but clutched her purse holding the pouch filled with cash. Through the entire ride, she worried. What if she lost her purse? What if somebody snatched it? How could she explain the loss of two or three hundred dollars to her father? Mary hated this errand, but never lost a dime on the way.

Butchering wasn’t an easy business. During the Depression. Mary’s classmates sometimes told her, “You’re lucky! You don’t have to buy your food.” “Yes, we do,” she’d reply. “My father has to buy it.” And sometimes, he ended up buying more than he could sell. Meat was rationed during World War II, and Jacob had to adjust his stock and keep track of the ration stamps that people used in order to buy meat. Jacob was a smart businessman, in spite of his sixth grade education. Over the years, his family ate well and there was even enough money for a pretty city bungalow and a lake house in the country.

I only know what my grandfather looked like from seeing photographs, but it’s easy for me to imagine him, wearing his white butcher’s frock and a hearty grin, standing in the door of his own shop. I wonder if he was surprised at all he accomplished in his adopted homeland, or if this was what he intended to achieve all along.

FDR once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” FDR never met my grandfather, but I think Jacob Wolf is just the kind of man that had in mind when he spoke these words.