A Biography Tour with My Mom in Rochester, NY: A Remembrance

A few weeks ago, I went home to Rhode Island for a quick overnight visit with my brothers and stepfather after attending a wedding in the area. In a text to my family, I wrote I’d be there less than twenty-four hours, and all I wanted was to have dinner together around the table at home. We had grilled swordfish, every kind of vegetable, and strawberry rhubarb pie. Everyone brought something. We sat around the table and enjoyed our time together. While I sat, I thought, This is great, Mom may not be here, but the family still has it; we know how to do dinner together. Life goes on. Someone sets the table, someone clears it, my brothers crack jokes the way they always have, and the dog still sniffs around under the table looking for handouts. Both Mom’s presence and absence were felt. Her legacy of bringing the family together at the dinner table was intact.

That brings me to this photo from our days when we lived in Bay View.

It has lingered on my desktop for months for reasons unknown to me. Yesterday, it hit me. With the third anniversary of my mother’s death looming, this photo reminded me of my mother when she was Towanda-Mom. Thirty-two, divorced, beautiful, and working full-time while raising five children. She was full of spunk and life and had boundless love and compassion for others. She always tried to live her best life. She died three years ago yesterday. This photo reminded me of that inner strength and beauty and dogged insistence on sitting around the table for meals.

Mom and I and Our Excellent Adventure: a Remembrance 

In the summer of 2007, Mom and I received an invitation to a party for my Great-Aunt Mary’s 90th birthday in Rochester, New York. Rochester is where my Sicilian grandparents settled, met, married, and started their family amongst many other immigrant families from Valquarnera Caropepe, a mountaintop village in Sicily. This is a postcard my grandmother had of Valguarnera from the Fifties.

I had heard stories about Rochester throughout my childhood and into adulthood, but I had never visited the city. I have many recipes with Rochester relatives’ names on them like Margaret’s Italian Cookies, Aunt Mary’s Zucchini Casserole, and Aunt Rose’s Cookies. I can recall references to my mother’s former home addresses with comments that began with when we lived on Clifton Road, or on Lake Avenue, or on Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario. I remembered stories my immigrant grandfather told about the factories where he worked, notably Fashion Park and Bond Clothes where he rose to be general manager, and also the baseball teams he managed. He loved baseball and was a scout for the Yankees. I wanted to see it all, these oft-described places and people whose names I knew by heart.

I called my mother and told her we should go to Rochester; I’d help her get there. I made the airline arrangements and reserved a car. Mom’s cousin, Mary Lou, invited us to stay with her. Everything fell into place. When we arrived, I told Mary Lou and her husband, Jimmy, I wanted to spend the next day bringing Mom to all of the special places of her childhood. My good friend, Corabel, refers to such tours as Biography Tours. Jimmy thankfully insisted on driving us. I tucked this photo of my mother and her family at Lake Ontario in my purse in case we made it that far. Bringing Mom to her childhood beach home was something I had wanted to do for her. This photo was my inspiration for the journey.

We were off on our tour the next morning. Our first stop was Mom’s grade school, Holy Cross. The school was closed, but the janitor let us in and opened up her fourth-grade classroom for her. She was thrilled.

We visited her church.

We went to her favorite frozen custard stand. I had never heard of frozen custard.

We went to her Clifford Avenue home.
 

We went to the area of her Lake Avenue home, but that neighborhood had been redeveloped, and her house was gone. Jimmy brought us to see where Fashion Park and Bond Clothing once stood. Afterward, we drove to Lake Ontario. It took almost an hour to get there. Mom said we took the same route she always took as a child, past the homes where she and her sister would count WW2 military stars hanging in windows. She explained it was a game they played to pass the time. She quickly followed up by saying she didn’t understand the significance of the stars at the time.

When we got to Sodus Bay, Mom had no idea where to direct Jimmy to drive. Although I knew she didn’t have an address for the old house, I was hoping she would be able to guide us there once she recognized familiar landmarks, but such wasn’t the case. Personally, I hadn’t anticipated the town would be so big and the bay so vast. I became skeptical about being able to find the house. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack. We were toast.

We pulled into a marina and asked an attendant for help. Without any useful clues to offer, the conversation didn’t get very far. Suddenly shy, my mother told the attendant all she remembered was a long beach with a road between her house and the water. The attendant patiently brought up possible landmarks to help her remember the area. When he asked her if there were bluffs nearby, Mom’s face lit up. She remembered the bluffs. The attendant asked if they were called Chimney Bluffs. “Yes,” Mom said, beaming.

The attendant gave us a map and circled the area where the bluffs were located. We drove to Chimney Bluffs, but it was a State Park, so there were no homes on the grounds. We took a long road to the beach where we found a small parking lot by the water. We got out of the car and looked around. There were no houses in sight. Nonetheless, Mom was happy to be back on Sodus Bay, and I took a photo of her.

The story doesn’t end there, though. We sat on the beach for a while taking in the sea air and the moment. After a while, content with how far this wild goose chase had taken us, Mom was ready to head back to town not wishing to inconvenience her cousin any longer. She didn’t think we would be able to find the house in this area because there wasn’t a road to be seen between the shoreline and the embankment.

As I sat on the beach with my mother, I started to have a case of the heebie-geebies. I felt we were close. I told my mother I was going for a walk down the beach. My mother took this photo of the beach as I walked away.

As I walked, I poked in and out of the trees looking for a field with a white house on a slight hill. Nothing. Just a lot of empty fields. Suddenly, I felt an aura, whether it emanated from my grandmother or the house, I cannot say, but I sensed I was very close. Between the next opening in the trees, I saw this: a white house on a slight slope, just like the picture I had brought from home.

My heart started racing. I took a photo of the house and ran back to my mother. I got everyone back in the car, and we drove down the street to find the house. We saw it from the road. My mother, still convinced we were in the wrong area, warned us not to trespass. Jimmy kept driving. Here is a Google image of the area.

I got out of the car and knocked on the front door. A man came out to greet us. He seemed friendly enough, so I told him our saga from beginning to end. He grinned and said his house had to be the right one because it was over 100 years old and for many years had been the only house on the beach. He gave us a tour and then Mom, Jimmy, and the owner visited on the sunporch while I walked around the property taking pictures. It was all very exciting.

Old photos I found after the trip

Here, my grandmother is pumping water by the front door while my mother and her sister sit on a bench. I noticed there was still a water pipe there when I walked around the property.

Here is my mother in her two-piece bathing suit.

Grandma and my mother’s younger sister on the beach. Mom and I on the beach.
 

I love this shot of all the women at the beach. Not surprising, my grandmother is wearing an apron.

Mom was right-on about the road along the beach. I found this photo after our visit.

Adorable Mom at her beach house, sixty years later.

The next day we went to the birthday party. I loved watching my mother greet one long-lost relative after another. Here she is with the birthday girl, Aunt Mary.

Here I am standing between my two beautiful and spunky great-aunts.

Like for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before me, much of life still happens around the dinner table. The strong, faithful women in our family made sure the meals served to us were nutritious and delicious and remained a family event, one that always started with the Catholic prayer of gratitude: Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord, Amen. We at the children’s table could recite that prayer in under three seconds.

Related Posts:
A Birthday Tribute for My Mother: Knitting Neck Warmers with Mom’s Stash
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Tiny Meatballs
We Will Remember Them

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Italian Sesame Seed Cookies

When a cookie can transport me back to a summer afternoon in the jalousie-windowed sunporch of my grandmother’s house, complete with a tableful of visiting Italian relatives sipping coffee, that’s a pretty powerful cookie.

Such was the case when, after many attempts, I came up with a recipe for these Italian Sesame Seed Cookies. When I finally got it right, I fixed a cup of coffee and dunked the cookie in; the ultimate taste test. The taste was just as I remembered: light, buttery, nutty, and slightly crunchy, all of it made even more flavorful by the milky coffee. I didn’t normally drink coffee as a young girl, but when the sesame seed cookies were out, my grandmother always gave me a cup so I could dunk with everyone else. Heaven on Earth. Addictive, too!.

Sesame Seeds

Sesame seeds come from the fruit pod of the sesame plant. The plant is an annual, and the pod grows very similarly to okra (photo on the right).

 

Once the pods dry, they are turned upside down allowing the seeds to fall out. Here is a photo of the unhulled seeds and dried pods.

When baking with sesame seeds, use hulled, untoasted seeds. I purchase them at the Indian grocery store, Patel Brothers, or from the bulk dispenser at Whole Foods. You need about two cups, so it’s best to purchase in bulk rather than in small cans.

   

Life for many seeds and nuts laden with oils, sesame seeds become rancid when sitting in a cupboard for a long period of time. Thus, if you are not going to finish the package soon after opening it, store it in the refrigerator or freezer. A rancid nut or seed can quickly ruin any savory or sweet dish. Often, you can tell if the seeds or nuts are rancid simply by the smell. Even without a rancid smell, I do a taste test to be sure.

Ingredients:

1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1½-2 cups untoasted sesame seeds
⅔ cup milk

Mise en Place:

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cream butter in a mixing bowl on medium speed for about one minute. Add the sugar and cream for another minute until batter is light and fluffy.

Add eggs and vanilla and mix one more minute, still on medium speed.

Combine baking powder, salt, and flour in a bowl and stir with a wire whisk.

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Add dry ingredients to batter. Mix on slow for 30 seconds. Do not overwork the dough.

Spread flour on countertop and fold dough over on itself about ten times.

Divide dough into four equal sections.

Roll each section into ¾-inch thick ropes and slice those into two-inch pieces. My relatives would pull off a clump of dough and roll each cookie into a small oval log, but I like to do it this way because there is less handling of the dough.

Set-up two wide-mouthed bowls, one with milk and one with sesame seeds. Put about a cup of milk in one and 1½ cups of sesame seeds in the other. Pick up about 5 pieces of dough and put them in the milk. Then lift each piece of dough and roll it in the bowl of sesame seeds.

 

Arrange dough on parchment-lined baking sheets.

Bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until cookies become lightly browned. Let cool five minutes and then move cookies to a cooling rack.

Other Italian Faves:
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers
Chicken Cacciatora, or Hunter’s Chicken
Fresh Marinara Sauce with Pasta
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
@judyschickens Everyday Salad Dressing
50 Ways to Make a Frittata
Fettuccini with Rapini (aka Broccoli Rabe) and Garlic
Amazingly Delicious Sautéed Carrots
Roasted Ratatouille
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Mrs. Lombard’s Portuguese Kale Soup

If I were to play a word-association game with my brothers about the elderly babysitters we had growing up in the Sixties in Bay View, our beloved, bucolic coastal neighborhood in Massachusetts, it would go like this:

Sting (sic) Bean Casserole”: Mrs. DeMers
She was elderly, gentle, and lived across the road from us. Her voice was thin and wispy just like she.

“Mulligan Stew”: Mrs. Townsend
She and Mr. Towsend were retired, very Irish, and lived next door. It seemed like she always had a pot of mulligan stew simmering on the stove. Mulligan stew is a beef and vegetable stew similar to burgoo. If we got locked out of the house, the Townsends had the spare key.

“Kale Soup”: Mrs. Lombard
Mrs. Lombard was Portuguese, retired, and had buried three husbands by the time she came to live with us as a housekeeper and babysitter. She stayed with us on weekdays and went to her own home on weekends.

She arrived at our house on the heels of many promising live-in sitters who lasted only a few days. Apparently, five children were a lot to manage. Not so for Mrs. Lombard. She drove up our driveway in her silver-green 1953 Chrysler New Yorker land yacht with her strong, solid build and pinned-up long dark hair, fully confident in her ability to wrangle up and care for our large family.

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Mrs. Lombard was tough and her unfiltered comments to us kids and our friends were legendary. For example, my brothers’ socks were so dirty they “stood up by themselves,” and I had “male nails,” short and wide fingernails that would “always be that way.” Sadly, she was right about that. She was our Mrs. Doubtfire. She kept us in line and took care of our hard-working mother, too. The last time I saw her was at my wedding. She was in her nineties. It was lovely to be in her presence, to hear her voice again, and to know she was still full of vim and vigor.

The only meal I remember Mrs. Lombard ever making for us was kale soup, also known as caldo verde (green broth). I can still see the tall Revere soup pot on the stove filled to the brim with knobs of white potatoes bobbing in and out of a sea of dark-green kale. The broth was tinged with orange from the juice of the linguica sausage. I have worked for years to recreate this beautiful, tasty soup and finally figured it out by reading through many versions of it in my mother’s vintage collection of plastic spiral-bound community cookbooks from that geographical area and time period.

Kale Soup

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A few words about ingredients:

The key ingredient in kale soup is a smoke-cured Portuguese sausage called Linguica (lin-gwee-sah). Linguica is made with pork and paprika, garlic, pepper, and sometimes cinnamon, coriander or cumin. There is another Portuguese sausage that is very similar called chouriço (not the same as chorizo, a Mexican sausage). In the absence of linguica, I would use either chouriço or andouille. Or, and I have done this before, use a spicy Italian sausage and make it an Italian Kale Soup.

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I suggest using unsalted chicken broth instead of a salted broth. The linguica brings plenty of saltiness of its own. Too much salt can quickly make this soup go from tasting delicious to tasting like a briny bath of sea water. Carefully add salt to taste.

If you are using a fresh bunch of kale, prepare it the same way I prepped the collards for this recipe only cut the logs of kale into two-inch wide slices. I would not use young leaves of kale as they will disintegrate too quickly when cooked. Some people prefer their caldo verde with collards. That works just as well. Occasionally, I add a half cup of chopped cilantro or parsley to the soup during the last minute of cooking, for more flavor and to make the broth greener.

Lastly, many cooks from our area of the southeastern coast of Massachusetts add a pound of lima beans to the soup. I enjoy that, as well, but I’ve come to prefer the simple and pure flavor of just the kale, potatoes and sausage.

Yield: 4 quarts

Ingredients:
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⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound linguica smoked sausage, sliced (sold locally at Publix)
1 medium onion (2 cups or ½ pound), peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced
4 large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 5 cups or 2 pounds), unpeeled
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
4 cups unsalted chicken broth
4 cups hot water
1 pound kale, chopped into 2-inch pieces (could substitute collards)
Add more sea salt and black pepper to taste
½ cup cilantro or parsley, chopped (optional)

Mise en Place:

Rinse and dry linguica sausages. Slice into bite-sized pieces.
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Prep onions and garlic as described and set aside. Prep potatoes into bite-sized chunks and set aside. Gold potatoes hold their shape better than white potatoes and have a nice buttery taste, so I suggest using them.

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Instructions:

Coat bottom of a six-quart sauté pan with olive oil. Add linguica to warmed oil and sauté for about three minutes on medium-high heat. Avoid overcooking the linguica which makes it leathery and tasteless.

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Use a serrated spoon to remove sausage into a small bowl. Set aside meat.

Add onions and garlic into the linguica flavored oil that remains. Sauté for five minutes over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent.

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Add the potatoes, broth, salt, and crushed red pepper. Bring broth to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer for ten minutes.

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Remove 1 cup of potatoes and 1 cup of broth from the pan and put them in a food processor. Purée for about 15 seconds until mixture is smooth. Set aside.

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Add four cups of hot water to the potatoes in the sauté pan and bring to a boil. Once the water boils, add about half the kale to the pan. Stir it down. As the kale collapses, continuing adding more kale until it all fits in the pan. Add the puréed potatoes and the linguica and stir everything together.

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Simmer for about 15 minutes on low heat. The soup will taste equally delicious the next day. I’ve never tried freezing it.

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Serve with a nice crusty bread.

Other great soups:
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs
Sick Soup, Sometimes Known as Snow Day Soup
Kelly’s Duck Stew
Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie

Sometimes it happens this way: you’re reading Facebook and you see a picture of a pie that looks just like what you and your mom used to make for dessert on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

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You look more closely, and you realize the person who posted the photo, Erin McHugh, grew up in the same small town as you. She calls her pie, Cranberry Surprise Pie. You call yours, Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie.

I hadn’t spoken to Erin in forty years before seeing her post on Facebook that day. That is the beauty of Facebook — reconnecting with people. Seeing her post, made me nostalgic for the coastal community of Bay View where we all grew up, and for the cranberry pie. I dug out my recipe and a bag of cranberries from the freezer and baked it. I have been making it every year since.

I messaged Erin, “Hey, Erin, it’s Judy from Bay View. Mom and I used to make a cranberry pie that looked just like yours. Is that Mrs. Walker’s recipe?” Since we all grew up in the same neighborhood, I knew we had to be talking about the same pie.

Erin quickly sent me a link to her version of the pie. At first glance, her recipe looked very different from mine. The amounts of the ingredients were way off. However, it soon became apparent that Erin’s recipe, written for a 9-inch pie plate, was simply a doubled version of Mrs. Walker’s recipe written for a shallow 8-inch pie.

The other difference was Mrs. Walker’s recipe showed its age by calling for a combination of oleo and shortening where Erin’s recipe called for butter. Whenever you go through old recipes and see “oleo” in the ingredients, know that it is a shortened name for “oleomargarine” a solid form of vegetable oil (ole-ic acid). Originally, oleo was sold as a white spread and home cooks would mix in a capsule of yellow food coloring to make it look like butter. Please write a comment if you remember doing that. Consumers had to mix in the yellow color because dairy lobbyists insisted on keeping margarine white and butter yellow. Yellow margarine eventually won out in 1969. I’m guessing the switch from the common name of oleo to margarine occurred around the same time.

Since I’m traveling down Memory Lane, here are some old photos of our home in Bay View taken in 1964 before my grandfather renovated it and turned it into our year-round house. At the time, our cottage was known as “The Eye of Bay View” because the eye-shaped window on the second floor faced the entrance to this small, magical Monteagle-like summer community.

The house was built in 1894 by Ida Tripp, mother of Hazel Atkinson, who lived there with her husband and daughters, Ruth and Hope. Coincidently, and related to this story, Erin’s family was friends with the Atkinson family and Erin wrote a tender story about them and “Surprise Pie” in her book, One Good Deed. Here is the excerpt.

Here are photos of the house from the early 1900s.

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A few words about ingredients:

Cranberries: Before 1980, a recipe that called for “a bag of cranberries” implied a 16-ounce bag, not the 12-ounce bags you see now. In 1980, there was a shortage of cranberries and the Ocean Spray cranberry growers consortium decided to change to the smaller-sized package to help keep up with demand. When cooking with cranberries, figure that a little over a cup of berries equals 4 ounces, thus, a 12-ounce bag has about 3½ cups of berries.

Measuring flour: Don’t forget to spoon flour into the measuring cup and then use a knife to level the top off.

Thanksgiving 2014

Ingredients:
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Cranberry Filling:
12-ounce bag fresh cranberries (about 3½ cups),
½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts
½ cup granulated sugar

Cake Batter:
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup butter, melted (1½ sticks)
1 cup all-purpose flour

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350º. Grease a 9-inch pie plate with butter.

Spread cranberries over the bottom of the pie plate and sprinkle with nuts.

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Add the ½ cup portion of sugar.
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Add eggs to mixing bowl and beat well. Add the 1 cup portion of sugar, the vanilla, butter, and flour and beat for another 30 seconds. Use a spatula to scrape the sides and base of the bowl and mix a few more seconds.
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Spoon batter over cranberry mixture. Use an icing knife to help spread the batter over the top.
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Bake for 45 minutes on the center rack of oven. Test center of pie with a knife. If there is still batter on the knife, set the timer for five more minutes and check for doneness again. Continue in this way until done.

I ended up having to use an “edge protector” after the pie had cooked for 35 minutes.
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Serve warm with freshly made whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
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Triple this recipe for a Crowd-Pleasing Dessert (24 people)

Filling: 9 cups fresh cranberries, 1½ cups chopped nuts, 1½ cups sugar. Spread cranberries and nuts over a greased bakers half baking sheet (13″ by 18″ by 1″). Sprinkle with sugar.
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Topping: 4½ sticks of melted butter, 3 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 6 eggs, and add 3 cups of flour last. Mix for 30 seconds until smooth. Use a stainless icing spatula to spread the batter over the cranberries starting in the center of the pan and moving outward. Don’t bring the batter all the way to the edges. Don’t want the batter to spill over the side of the pan as it cooks.
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Bake in a 350º oven for 45 minutes. Just made it — no batter dripped over the edge of the pan.
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While cake is still warm, use a 3-inch biscuit cutter to make disks for serving.
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Place each warm disk in the center of a plate and top with freshly made whipped cream or ice cream.
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I wrote a story about how cranberries are harvested that you can find here
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Favorite Thanksgiving Desserts
Pumpkin Bread Pudding (with caramel sauce and whipped cream on top!)
Mom’s Pumpkin Pie
Mom’s Apple Pie with a Cheddar Streusel Topping
Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
Marion’s Crazy Good Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chips

Thanksgiving Day Side Dishes We Love
Melissa’s Sweet Potato Casserole
Grandma’s Cranberry Chutney
Auntie Martha’s Spicy Spinach (aka Spinach Madeleine)
Roasted Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries
Amazingly Delicious Sautéed Carrots

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

Never miss a post: sign up to become a follower of the Blog.

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.