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The Family Table: Sweet Treats—and a Larger-Than-Life Grandmother—From Small Town USA

BY The Family Table TIMEFebruary 20, 2022 PRINT

Submitted by Donna Rinehart, Dover, Pennsylvania

Off the bus from school
House smells of banana bread
We eat the whole loaf!

My grandmother, Mildred Whitaker (Gram), was born in 1905 and lived most of her life in Cooperstown, New York, where she worked for many years at the Baseball Hall of Fame as secretary to Howard Talbot, the director of the museum. While working there, Gram met the players who were inducted into the Hall of Fame. She attended World Series games, courtesy of the Hall of Fame, wearing her lovely Pendleton wool suits.

She was a good and thrifty cook, and she loved to cook for family, especially the menfolk of the family—perhaps because she had been widowed in her early 50s. Whenever one of her granddaughters visited, she cooked something special for the grandsons-in-law, usually a pie. Of course, she always had a list for them to accomplish first—hang a shelf, take down storm windows, fix a stuck door, and so forth.

Gram’s No. 1 rule for cooking was to clean up as you go. We never left pots to accumulate but washed them after use. Use a pot, wash a pot. Use a spoon, wash it. To this day, I can’t leave things on the counter, but I’m impelled to wash up after cooking.

“If you want your cooking to turn out well, clean up after yourself,” Gram said.

Epoch Times Photo
Gram in her kitchen preparing a small family reception meal for the author’s wedding in 1969. (Courtesy of Donna Rinehart)

Gram’s banana bread is the best-tasting banana bread I’ve ever eaten. I’ve experimented with many other recipes, but this simple one remains the best. It’s a good keeper, freezes well, and has a great moist texture.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with “healthifying” the banana bread. I make it with whole wheat flour and brown sugar (try reducing sugar to 1/2 to 3/4 cup) or add blueberries, walnuts, or cocoa powder for chocolate banana bread. But the included recipe is Gram’s original. My mother, Alice, would make a loaf, and we three girls would eat the whole loaf after school. Gram’s great-granddaughters are now the fourth generation to bake banana bread for their families.

Another specialty of Gram’s was molasses cookies. Soft molasses cookies, perhaps with a piece of walnut on top or colored sugar at Christmas, are delicious! Raising a family and working through the Great Depression, Gram knew to save all fat drippings from her cooking. She used the bacon grease in her molasses cookies. We all used to joke about that—out of Gram’s hearing, naturally. But now Dr. Mercola and others are telling us that natural animal fats are better for us than processed oils and hydrogenated fats, so it’s back to saving chicken fat and bacon grease!

Epoch Times Photo
Gram’s banana bread and molasses cookies, topped with pecans, with her teapot and teacups. (Courtesy of Donna Rinehart)

When visiting Gram in the evenings, we would sit around a folding card table with a plate of molasses cookies and cups of tea to play cards. We played Rummy and Four Kings in the Corners, but Gram was also a good Bridge player. However, she cheated at Rummy and Kings, which always made us all laugh.

We laughed a lot with Gram. She could be silly and giggly. She called us “Toady” and played hilarious games of “Touched You Last.” We would sit in the kitchen while she cooked, talking and laughing until we cried.

Epoch Times Photo
(From L to R) The author’s mother, Alice; the author at age 2; Mildred Whitaker; her son, Ernie; and her husband, Ernest Whitaker in 1950. (Courtesy of Donna Rinehart)

Gram did love a cup of tea. In her 80s, she had reoccurring health issues, and she agreed to move to the Clara Welch Thanksgiving Retirement Home, an elegant, refurbished home in picturesque Cooperstown, New York. Her furniture and belongings were sold at auction. The house, located on a quiet tree-lined street across from Basset Medical Center, was put up for sale.

After several months, Gram was feeling restricted and unhappy.

“I can’t go make myself a cup of tea,” she said.

So independent of anyone, she called Slim, her handyman friend, to bring his pickup truck to move her home. He loaded up her bed, dresser, and clothing and moved her back to a completely empty house. The next week, Gram’s Cooperstown friends gave her a “Breaking Out of the Old Folks’ Home Shower” and helped outfit her home again. She lived there quite happily and independently for several more years until her death in 2001 at the age of 96.

Epoch Times Photo
The author’s grandmother, age 90, and mother, age 72. (Courtesy of Donna Rinehart)

Gram’s Banana Bread

Makes 1 loaf

  • 2 ripe bananas, well mashed
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of nutmeg

Beat the bananas, oil, egg, and sugar.

Mix the flour, baking soda, and nutmeg. Add to wet ingredients and mix.

Bake in a loaf pan at 350 degrees F for 1 hour.

Gram’s Molasses Cookies

Makes 3 dozen cookies

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup bacon grease or butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Beat the sugar and fat. Add the egg and beat together. Add the molasses and milk. Beat.

Mix the flour, soda, and spices. Add to wet ingredients and mix.

Drop rounded teaspoons of dough onto greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for 6 to 8 minutes.

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Do you have a treasured family recipe that holds a special place in your family history, heritage, or traditions? We would be honored if you would share it with us.

Along with the recipe, tell us its story—who gave it to you, its journey through the generations, and the personal meanings and memories it carries. Is it a special-occasion dish, or an everyday family favorite? Does it connect you to your cultural heritage or to a certain loved one?

How have you kept the recipe alive, and why is it important to you to do so?

Send your recipe and comments, along with your full name, state, and contact information, to home@epochtimes.com, or mail it to: Home, The Epoch Times, 229 W. 28th St., Floor 7, New York, NY 10001.

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