The morning my father died, I drove from Jamestown, NY, to Elmira, NY, as quickly as I could to be with my mother. By the evening, other siblings had arrived and we were eating dinner when I realized that someone had to tell Lottie that Dad had died before it hit the papers. She had cared for him since he was ten. I remember it being around 7 pm when I called Lottie to see if I could drop by. I think she was getting ready for bed but she said to come on over. I drove to her senior housing apartment that was simply adorned with many of the same photos that had been there for decades. Sisters, nieces and nephews and their children, Monroe grandchildren…all tucked under the glass of her coffee table or framed and on the end tables.
By then Lottie was in her mid-90’s and I wasn’t sure how much she was understanding but we sat down after hugging and I told her Dad had died that morning. I remember her saying, as distinctly as I can remember anyone’s voice: “Judge Monroe was a good man.”
We didn’t visit for long and when I got ready to leave she fussed a bit and said that she had something to give me. She rummaged through the drawers of her tiny kitchen and came up with this tea bag holder. She could not, even with age and failing brain, let me leave without taking something with me. Turns out that it was one of a set. I don’t know if she ever had the whole set or if she had given other bits away. But this was a gift beyond measure to me.
“I will hold your tea bag.” Maybe it also meant: “I will hold your grief. I will hold your love. I will hold you.” It’s little handle had broken who knows how many years ago. It was attached by glue. I love that about it. Words are not needed. For 25 years and through 5 moves, I have kept that little porcelain reminder of Lottie’s love for our family and her love for my father. When I ponder what I might take from our house should it ever catch fire, I do not think of things of monetary value. I think of this little tea bag holder and the love it represents.
Every day it sits on our Corning Countersaver where it holds either a tea bag or a tea spoon, as photographed here, as I prepare to drink my morning tea. Lottie is there. The Countersaver is also something Lottie gave me 40 years ago as a wedding shower gift. She was ever the practical woman. There is one more practical gift she one gave me. As I headed off to college in 1974, she gave me a foldable travel iron! And, yes, I still have that as well. I seldom actually used it as an iron because what college kid does? But it was a reminder to keep my clothes clean and neat, in principle if not reality. Now I use that iron to adhere laminate to the edges of plywood for desktops and shelving. I think she would approve of that as well!
A special recipe doesn’t have to be something unique to the baker. It may be a recipe as basic and well-known as the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that most of us grew up on. But sometimes that recipe can be transformed by an ingredient as simple as love: Lottie’s unconditional love, in this case.
Lottie Johnson became a member of the Monroe family in 1924. It was then that she started working as a housekeeper for my father’s family in Elmira, NY. My father was ten. Though she was known to say that she didn’t want to work for a family with children, she worked for them until my father married my mother and then she added our family to her work list. Then she added my maternal grandparents to her work sometime after their live-in housekeeper, Daisy, was no longer able to work for them.
No one has been able to successfully recreate Lottie’s cookies even though I believe that her recipe was the one on the back of the Nestle’s package. My niece Rachel has come the closest and she says it has to do with the amount of whipping she did. Maybe…or maybe it is just the secret ingredient!
Lottie’s cookies where thin and crispy, yet had a bit of a chew, with the chocolate chips rising above the crispiness. I have tried multiple ways to recreate them but I cannot. Even the ones I made for this blog post are too thick. You can see that in the photo. I just can’t do it. This is why I believe that she had a secret ingredient, and I believe that ingredient was her special brand of love.
Lottie was magic for our families. I know that my father, and subsequently my mother and my siblings, would not be who we are today if Lottie had not be part of the family. My dad loved her until the day he died, about 8 years before Lottie died at age 103. Dad used to joke that we must be related by blood because her maiden name was Williams and my paternal grandmother was also a Williams. It was not really a joke. Lottie is the only non-blood family member to have known me from the day I was born…or at least the day I came home with my mother at 5 days old. And she was, therefore, the first to help me understand that family is far more about love than blood.
Lottie was an essence and she infused that essence in everything and everyone around her. I realize as I write this short story that I did not ever know a great deal about Lottie’s personal life. I think that she kept a professional boundary in some ways. And I think perhaps, looking back on those years, that I wanted to believe that we were Lottie’s family and that that was all I needed to know. A bit selfish, yes, but I was a child.
There was a story that wasn’t ours, though. At least one of her parents was born into slavery in Georgia where she was born on the 4th of July. Such a close link to slavery and being born on Independence Day are strong images in my memory. Lottie was a young widow and never had children. I wonder if that is why she was known to have said that she never wanted to work for a family with children. How would her life have been different if she was not widowed, having to depend on what work she could get? Besides my father, his sister, my three siblings and myself, Lottie did have one other “child” that we heard of. She raised or shared the raising of her nephew Butch. She lived, sometimes with Butch, in a simple apartment on the East Side of Elmira reserved for immigrants and African Americans or, basically, anyone without much money. I stayed, at least once, in her apartment but I don’t remember why. Did I ask to go to her house? Did my parents need me somewhere else for a night? Later Lottie moved to her own little house on the west side that was part of public housing that was formerly post-WWII housing, and she stayed there until she moved into the senior “high rise” apartments.
I was able to interact with Lottie in ways that I could not with others. Once, with the ignorance of a child, I asked her why her face was dirty. I don’t remember the answer but I do remember that she did not in any way make me feel bad for asking. And she was the one to teach me how to wear my first garter belt, an embarrassing thing in the best of situations!
In our home, Lottie ate in the kitchen when she was there to help my mother with a party. Yet at any family rituals like weddings and funerals she sat with our family though I think sometimes it made her uncomfortable. She was often the solitary black face amount white ones. At her funeral, my sister and I were the only white faces among the black ones. Yet in both cases those who were present did not wonder as even our friends knew that Lottie was family.
Lottie had beautiful dark skin and hair that became so thin over the years that she wore a wig for many of her later years. She parked her car on the road in front of our house and came around to the back door instead of the front. That never seemed right to me but she was very proper in her role. She wore the same shoes each time she came to work as well as a basic dress and an apron that she donned in the house.
When Lottie came to our house, I would, on occasion, find her and my mother sitting at the kitchen table together, confiding in each other over a cup of coffee and sometimes a cigarette. She loved my father and had watched him grow from a ten year old to a county judge who served for 30 years on the bench. She always, until the day I went to tell her that he had died, called him The Judge. Their bond was strong. I don’t think he could have achieved what he did without Lottie because she loved and cared for him in ways far deeper than his parents could. She was not an ordinary housekeeper by any stretch of the imagination even though two days a week she showed up at our home for the day, doing the mundane tasks of housekeeping, and cleaning up after four children.
And four times a year when she showed up at the door she had an old tin Louis Sherry candy box in which was a small batch of chocolate chip cookies wrapped in wax paper. She would deliver these for each of our birthdays. Mine came without the walnuts because she knew I liked them that way.
It was perhaps the most simple of all the gifts we received but one that we anticipated much more than other wrapped gifts. It was like magic when she would get out of her car holding that box. Without fail, we knew she had not forgotten and that meant the world to each of us. As well as the gift of sweets, this small box was a lesson in patience and generosity. Three times a year, we had to deal with the fact that it was someone else’s birthday and we had to wait our turn. And when it was our turn, we had to practice the gift of generosity. While we really didn’t want to share our stash, we were obliged to let the other three children have at least one! I guess she must have stopped when we went to college but I don’t remember.
My first birthday after she died I went to the mailbox and there was a package from my sister. To my utter surprise, it was a tin box, not the same but like the box Lottie had, and in it was a small batch of chocolate chip cookies, as close to the original as any I had had.
Through these cookies Lottie lives on, as does her patience, unending love, generosity, and humility.
Lottie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
Rough Date of Recipe: 1956 for me- Place of Origin: Elmira, NY, for me – Related Person: Lottie Johnson, family housekeeper for decades
For a story about the Original Toll House Cookie click here.
1 cup chopped walnuts or nuts of your choice (optional and I always leave them out as I didn’t like the walnuts as a child but if you omit the nuts add 1-2 tbsp more of flour.)
Preheat over to 375 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract until creamy. This may be the key- My niece Rachel seems to have gotten closest to the right texture of Lottie’s cookies and she beats the butter and sugar til fluffy! To the butter and sugar, add one egg at a time and beat well. Then beat in flour mixture a bit at a time. Finally stir in morsels and nuts.
Drop onto ungreased baking pan by rounded tablespoon. Bake for 9-11 minutes or until golden but not burned. I found that if I baked only one pan at a time in the middle of the over they came out closest in texture to Lottie’s. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple of minutes before transferring to wire racks.
I was so excited for my sister to call this morning to say that Kay’s fudge was featured on The Today’s Show this morning. You see, yesterday I distributed small package of this super delicious fudge to members of my family following my brother-in-law’s funeral. I had discovered the recipe a couple of weeks ago on line.
It was a sweet ending to a sad day. It was an appropriate symbol to share on such a day…a reminder that our stories live beyond us. I shared the story of Kay and how I had published her recipe on my blog because her story is so close to what I am trying to achieve in Kneading to Remember. How wonderful that so many people now know Kay because of her fudge.
Here is the clip from The Today’s Show. Enjoy…and go ahead and make this sweet treat with others.
Our modern day Memorial Day stems from the actions of freed slaves who wanted to remember the Union Soldiers who fought for their freedom. A few years later it became a national holiday and has since become the day we remember fallen soldiers of any era. It is also the day we take flowers to the graves of any of our loved ones and remember the families who bore and/or raised us.
This Memorial Day weekend I have a different kind of memorial to share. It is one etched in granite. I learned of this monument from a Facebook post. I love the idea of having a time-honored and favorite family recipe on a gravestone. What a sweet way to remember a loved one!
Kay Andrews, the wife of a WWII pilot and grandmother of 30, is remembered for her loving kindness AND her fudge recipe. I made the recipe this weekend in memory of this woman who I never knew in person but came to know, along with her husband, through the recipe etched on her gravestone. Kay died at age 97 in 2019.
In order not to infringe on any copyright laws, you can read more about her by clicking here.
What a great way to remember someone in perpetuity! How many people will make this recipe over the years and decades to come out of curiosity about this woman who was famous for it? This is the heart and soul of Kneading to Remember. While the fudge is not actually a baked good, it has enough chocolate and sugar in it to qualify for a post on this Memorial Day weekend!
I find that fudge made with a confectioner’s or granulated sugar base (as opposed to marshmallow Fluff which I think is cheating) can be finicky and end up too hard or too soft or too grainy. I have a favorite fudge recipe I used to prepare for my grandfather, and while is was very tasty, I seldom hit the mark in terms of texture. This recipe hit the mark with setting up yet not being too hard to cut, but it still had a bit of the grainy texture. The taste is excellent, however, and I had no trouble eating my share before packing it up to take to relatives! The trick to graininess, I have learned, is in the way you stir or beat it (as Kay directs) as it is cooling. What I left to cool in the pan without beating was a perfect consistency, while what I cooled by beating was a tad grainy. I sometimes have to experiment when trying someone else’s recipes when that person is not around to help me.
Melt chocolate and butter over medium heat. Add milk and bring to a boil. Add sugar, vanilla (I was always trained to add the vanilla after you take it off the heat so that is what I did when I made it), and salt. Heat to soft-ball stage (about 135F). This took about 15 minutes on medium heat. Stir to keep from sticking or burning to the bottom.
Pour onto marble surface (I used a 40 year old Corning ware counter saver) and beat. I interpreted this by using a metal spatula and moving the fudge around on it to cool it. This is where I was not sure exactly how to proceed so I “beat” is on the counter saver which cooled it quickly but then before it set up I poured it into a cake pan. I think I should have let is cool completely on the counter saver and then just cut it in pieces from there. The gravestone was certainly not large enough to add all those details so I improvised!
The red apron was a posthumous gift from Dina Jacobson. When I arrived at her house for her funeral, Connie and Sarah, her daughters and “sisters” to my sister and me, asked if there was anything in the house that I would like to have as a keepsake. There were two things I asked for. It was not easy to ask for them as I felt I might be taking away something one of the children or grandchildren would want. But I also knew that no Jacobson will do anything or say anything that they don’t want to say or do. So I asked and they said yes, I could have one of Dina’s aprons and her baking board.
The apron in this photo is the one they gave me. I feel so close to Dina when I put it on. It is somewhat old-fashioned but VERY practical as it covers most of whatever I am wearing. I could imagine her mother wearing an apron like this when she baked in Poland.
The smaller apron with animals on it is one that I remember wearing as a child. My maternal Grandma Kinsman may have made it for my sister Christy, the eldest child. I think that all four of us children must have worn that apron at one time or another. I have managed to keep it since we cleared out my parents house in 2006. Moving from one house to another, keeping it as we went, I did not fully believe that I would ever have a grandchild to wear it. I think my daughter probably wore it as well when she visited her Grandma in Elmira, and now my granddaughter can wear it as she learns to bake by my side.
What kitchen tools, aprons, or cookbooks were passed down to you? Feel free to share in the comment section.
PS: By the way, I found that this site has aprons very much like Dina’s, so if I need to replace this one, I will go to them!
The day Dina taught me to make rugelach, she started with The Board. It was just a piece of plywood which her brother, the only other sibling to survive the Holocaust, had cut down to about 2 x 3 feet. But in my eyes because of the way that she treated it, it was the magical foundation of her baking. No rugelach was made without that board. It was heavy and she had asked someone else to bring it out to the kitchen before I got there. It was leaning up against the wall (pictured below) and she asked me to lift it to the table. She stopped me midway to show me the fading markings that told which side was for dairy and which for meat, in Yiddish: Milchig and Fleishig. The Board was religious not just because of that but because it was brought out as in a ritual.
The Board is so much more than a practical piece of 3/4 inch plywood. When Dina died, Sarah and Connie asked if there was anything from the house I would like and I hesitantly asked for The Board. They consulted and The Board came home with me.
I am not Jewish so my kitchen is not kosher. But I treat that corner of my house as though it is kosher. It wouldn’t pass any litmus test but it is the idea that counts. Meat, kosher or not, does not touch the milchig side and vice versa. One day I almost set a package of wrapped meat on the board and realized just in time and pulled my hand away. It got my heart thumping!
Everything about the precision with which she took each step through the recipe reminded me of The Karate Kid. “Wipe on, wipe off.” The Kid had to learn certain things before he could make the next steps. I needed to know the ritual of The Board before I could start to learn the recipe.
I wonder if others have certain rituals with which they approach their baking. If you have stories to share, please add them to the comments!
This is an oral recipe from one of my several “mothers.” A survivor of Hitler’s death camp, Auschwitz, Dina Jacobson was a part of my life for 54 years. Recipe boxes and 3×5 cards were not something that would have survived a concentration camp even if they existed in some form at that time, so Dina depended on her memory of how her mother taught her to bake. I suspect that she made some adjustments. You might think that if life in the camps could wipe from your memory the exact day of your birth, it would certainly take away memories of cooking. And yet the recipes survived in her memory. That is the power of baking and passing along family traditions.
These are tedious little bites to make because they are small and the recipe makes close to 200, depending on the size of each. Dina made these 100% out of love. She never ate one herself. Turns out she didn’t like cinnamon! Of the thousands she made in her life, all represented her love for others.
This, then, is how you make these precious morsels.
Dina Rosenberg Jacobson was born in the tiny town of Libuchora, Poland on May 5, 1922. Her parents, five siblings and a brother-in-law were killed during the Holocaust. She met and married Kalman Jacobson in the Displaced Persons camp called Feldafing in Germany. There, her oldest daughter, Connie, was born. They had two other children, Joseph and Sarah, once settled in America. Her obituary in the local paper outlined the course of her life in the city that took her in and through the Holocaust. What it did NOT do, however, was paint the picture of the mother, friend, supporter, baker, and truth-teller that were all so much a part of this woman.
As inconceivable and painful as her internment in Auschwitz, life handed her an abundant share of sorrow and pain beyond the concentration camp. And from that life, she molded something that had deep and intense meaning and was infused with a love that seemed to have no end. This is not a feat that most people could accomplish. Dina rose far above most of us in her 92 years of living. It took its toll on her in too many ways to mention and so, while her death stabbed our hearts painfully, we understand that it was her time to enjoy rest and peace. She died in her home in Elmira, NY, with the family she and Kalman had created there to love her and help her through the process.
I was too young at age 11 to understand anything about Dina’s life other than one simple fact: She welcomed me into her home and fed me. I did not know what it might have meant to her that I was Christian. I did not know why she has numbers tattooed to her forearm. Later, when I was an adult, she told me that she could not fully trust me. Nor did she fully trust my mother who was her friend. But the love that Dina shared did not have to be based in trust. It just needed to be shared and that she did. I don’t remember when I first learned of the tattoo on her arm and what it meant. I don’t know when I was old enough to understand that her middle child, Joseph, was only home on occasion because he lived in a group home in Newark. He had Down’s Syndrome and predeceased Dina by a few years. She said that his death was the hardest thing she had ever experienced. I do remember standing at the top of Scott Ave in Elmira in 1972 with Dina next to me, looking at the waters of the Chemung River overflowing their banks and spilling muddy water into the basement and full first floor of her home. Perhaps it was then that I began to understand her suffering as she quietly said the simple words: “Why me?” I was old enough to know not to try to answer that question.
It took decades more for me to hear more and more stories, and sit with her tears, as many of us did over the years. Thankfully, for all of us blessed to be in her orbit, no amount of tears could keep her for sharing her love with anyone who wanted to be a good person and was open to that love. She became a rock star, of sorts, to the thousands of students of the Vestal School District who her invited her to share her stories with them year after year.
As a child, I sat in her kitchen, year after year, not knowing what I would learn in future years. Kalman would tease me just as he would tease Sarah. I was not a visitor. I was part of the family. I slept in their home, made up stories about clouds with Sarah. I was hugged by Joseph, sharing in his love as unconditionally as his mother did. I sat in the den watching TV with the family, Kalman stretched out on the sofa after a day’s work in his glass shop, yet one more still point in the turning world of so many from Elmira who knew him simply as Jake the Glassman. People gravitated to him for conversation and friendship.
I understand so much more now but sometimes I wish that the innocent memories of my childhood growing up in the Jacobson family and eating rugelach and chicken wings could have somehow been as innocent as they felt and that maybe behind the scenes were not the nightmares and pain that Dina and Kalman bore throughout the years.
I made a promise to Dina that I would never forget and that my daughter and her daughter and any other generations to come would not forget. I will keep that promise and this blog is part of that promise. We will remember. This blog is in honor of Dina.
Recipe for Dina’s Rugelach
Rough Date of Recipe: 1920s and generations before – Place of Origin: Poland – Related Person: Dina Jacobson
Dina allowed me to capture this recipe in a video. I did not trust my memory nor did I want to focus on writing things down. I wanted to just listen and absorb, and so I did. Here is a link to the video that will show you the process in more detail.
2 8-ounce sticks of butter, softened
2 8-ounce blocks of cream cheese, softened
3 cups flour, as needed
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup sugar, divided
Cinnamon to your taste (I use about 1/4 cup)
In a large bowl place the butter and cream cheese. It must be a warm room temperature to blend well. Dina would leave it out the night before. Mix well. Put the flour and baking powder and about 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl and mix. Add the flour mixture to the butter and cream cheese a little at a time and stir it in well. As the dough get stiffer you might want to continue to mix with your hands. The butter will keep it from sticking to your hands too much as you add the remaining flour until you have a soft but not sticky nor dry dough.
“This is how my mother did it,” Dina whispered as she started the mixing, a faint muscle memory emerging in the hands. I felt the presence of her mother.
When the dough is prepared, cut in four pieces and set three to the side, and cover with a cloth, while you roll out the first one to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Don’t worry about the size or shape as you will be cutting this piece into a puzzle of triangles. Spread a quarter of the sugar over the top of the dough, then as much cinnamon as you like, spreading it to the edges.
Then start cutting with a sharp knife. Any which way you go, make long, slim triangles. You will get the hang of it as you go along. It is kind of fun, like cutting out a jigsaw puzzle. Generally the triangles are no longer than about 3 inches.
As you cut each triangle, roll it out from the wide end to the narrow and form a small crescent. You can place them close together on the ungreased pan as they only expand slightly in the baking process. Bake them approximately 12 minutes but check to see if they are slightly brown and crisp. Leave them in the oven a few minutes longer if necessary.
Remove from pan and then place the next pay in the oven. Then prepare your willpower as you will want to eat them all in one sitting!