Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Suitor

Minnie's parents were not too happy when a German immigrant named William began to come around to court her. After all, he was fifteen years her senior. Will had arrived in the United States as a teenager during the last decade of the 19th century. He and his elder sister Louisa had left their native village of Denz after an influenza epidemic that had left them orphans. The teenagers had other relatives who had already emigrated to the Mohawk Valley and hoped to meet up with them.

The story goes that Louisa's only pair of shoes was stolen on the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, and so she first set foot on American soil in her bedroom slippers. Knowing only a few words of English  --  "apple pie" was one phrase that enabled them to enjoy this treat on their trip upstate  --  the pair somehow found their siblings near Fort Plain and settled into their new lives.

William learned a skilled trade; carving wooden furniture for a local company, he soon became a gifted cabinetmaker.

Despite the initial reticence of Minnie's parents, the courtship progressed to its natural conclusion: The couple were married in a simple ceremony in Minnie's parents' home on February 28, 1912  --  100 years ago this week. Evidence of Will's artistry soon began to fill the family home: carved chair-, lamp-, and table legs, bookends, intricately inlaid checkerboards and trays with Masonic emblems.

Photo of Grandpa Will with carved vase

Later, when Will had to seek employment farther afield (at General Electric in Schenectady, 50 miles from home), he would send weekly postcards home to his loving wife and lively children. Minnie sometimes complained that every week she would set strict behavioral expectations for the children, but that Dad would spoil them when he came home on the weekend.

Minnie and Will were married for 37 years, until Will's death in the fall of 1949.

Will with carving tools and carved bookends

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents' Day

Today is Presidents' Day, which commemorates the birthdays of two of the most famous and beloved American Presidents: George Washington, born February 22, 1732, and Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809.

Last week's post told a bit about one of Minnie's forebears who was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln. Reaching back another century (and five generations) into the family archives, we come across a father and son who were contemporaries of our first President, George Washington.

Gerrit Van Slyke, born in 1729, and his son Nicholas, born in 1764, both fought in the Battle of Oriskany, one of the decisive battles of the American revolution. Nicholas, a young teenager at the time, is listed as a fifer (i.e., he played a high-pitched flute which was used to signal changes in formation during battles) in the Tryon County militia.

The regiment was to head west through the Mohawk Valley to Fort Stanwix, at what is now Rome, New York, which was under siege by the British. But the militia, composed mostly of farmers turned soldier, was ambushed by a force of British soldiers and their Mohawk and Seneca allies in a deep ravine about six miles from the fort. The militia was assisted by a group of Oneida warriors from the nearby village of Oriska.

In the fierce fighting that followed, there were great casualties on the American side. But the British and their Mohawk and Seneca allies eventually retreated, leaving the American survivors to gather up their dead and wounded.

A listing of the roster of militiamen present at the battle incorrectly lists Nicholas as killed during the battle. Although casualties were indeed heavy on the American side, Nicholas and his father both survived the battle. Nicholas lived to see the United States established as an independent country; he went on to marry at the young age of 19, but died before the age of 30 in 1792, the year that George Washington was elected to his second term as President.

We don't have any photographs of Nicholas and Gerrit of course, but in the family archives is a daguerreotype of Nicholas's son David and his wife Elizabeth.

David Van Slyke (1787-1868) and Elizabeth Hellegas (1790-1872)

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American schoolchildren may know of the legend about George Washington and the cherry tree: According to this anecdote, as a young child, George was given a hatchet, and proceeded to try it out in the garden. He chopped down a small cherry tree that was a favorite of his mother's, and when questioned about what happened to the tree, he confessed that he was indeed the culprit. Because of this legend, we often associate cherries and cherry trees with our first President.

Here then, is a recipe for cherry cake from Minnie's cookbook, in honor of Washington's birthday:

Minnie's Cherry Cake Recipe

In trying this one out, I didn't have to do much adapting, other than figuring out the steps in preparing the cake:

- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 cup cherries (I used frozen pitted cherries, thawed)

Pitted cherries
Pre-heat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Grease and flour cake pan; pre-sift flour.
Sift together dry ingredients, except sugar.
Cream together butter and sugar; beat in eggs.
Add flour mixture and water alternately; beat until smooth.
Fold in cherries.
Bake for 20 -25 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean.

Grandma's Cherry Cake

With all the natural ingredients, it's a tasty snack for Presidents' Day, or any day for that matter!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Civil Wartime Bride

Imagine a lifetime spanning four wars. This was the case of Minnie's maternal grandmother, Margaret Colson Van Slyke. Margaret was born in December 1840, during the Presidency of Martin Van Buren, who began life as the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer in Kinderhook, New York. During Margaret's childhood, the United States went to war with its southern neighbor (Mexican-American War 1846 - 1848), during the Presidency of James K. Polk. She was a young adult during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865); a grandmother during the Spanish-American War (1898); and a great-grandmother during World War I (1914 - 1918).

The photo below was probably taken around 1915, when Margaret was 75 years old. As you can see, her first great-grandchild was named after her:

Four generations in 1915
I don't know how greatly the foreign wars affected life in the small towns of the Mohawk Valley, but I can't help but think that life there was deeply impacted by the omnipresence of the Civil War. The New York State Archives contains a database of more than 360,000 soldiers from New York State who served in the Civil War, including contemporaries of Margaret who served in the Fort Plain Battery, a regiment of light artillery.

Margaret took her marriage vows at the height of the Civil War; she and Jonas Van Slyke were married on June 26, 1864. I doubt that Margaret wore any of the finery and frippery sketched out in the May issue of Godey's Lady's Book, such as the "pompadour porte-jupe," but we do know that she had a fine silk shawl that I picture her wearing on her wedding day.

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One of the recipes in Minnie's handwritten cookbook is called "Johnny Cake." It's an old-fashioned recipe for cornbread. For some reason, I tend to associate this recipe with the Civil War, perhaps because it makes me think of the old song from that era, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." But this may be a false connection, as this type of pancake or flat cornbread is also variously known as "journey cake" or "hoe cake" in other parts of the country. It may originate from Native American methods of preparing corn meal, either baked in the ashes of a cooking fire, or steamed. Here is Minnie's original recipe:

Johnny Cake Recipe

I didn't have to do much modernizing here  --  only substitute 1/3 cup cooking oil for the notation "Butter size of egg." I followed these steps:

- Pre-heat oven to 375 F.
- Grease and flour cake pan. (I used a 10 inch spring-form cake pan.)
- Sift together corn meal, flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar:

- Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
- Pour in milk, egg, and oil; beat until well mixed.
- Pour in cake pan and bake for about 20 minutes.

This made a rather flat cornbread, that I can imagine travelers could easily wrap in a paper or cloth, and carry off in their saddlebags on a trip  --  hence the possible name "journey cake."

Johnny Cake - fresh out of the oven
I enjoyed a piece while it was still hot, smeared with a dab of butter and drizzled with honey:

It made a good breakfast or snack on a chilly morning.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kippensoep -- wat gezellig!

You are chilly and your nose is running. Or you have a fever, aches, and a stuffy nose. How about some nice chicken soup? It seems to be a universal remedy for the mid-winter blues  --  or for whatever else ails you.

Last week I had a sinus infection, and besides prescribing a round of antibiotics, my doctor (who is from East Asia) actually told me to go home and make some chicken soup. Her recipe was not all that different from the one in Grandma Vandenbergh's old Dutch cookbook, thus proving to my aching head that chicken soup indeed has a universal appeal.

Chicken soup ingredients

Chicken Soup:

- 1 soup chicken
- 8 cups (2 liters) cold water
- 2 teaspoons (10 grams) each salt, mace, parsley
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) butter or margarine
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) flour
- 1/3 cup (60 grams) rice
- 1 egg

The list above is from Grandma's cookbook. As you can see in the picture, I did not have a whole chicken, so I reduced the amount of water to 6 cups, and added onion, garlic, a couple of bay leaves, a bouillon cube, and some sliced carrots to give the soup a little more "oomph." I also omitted the egg.

Grandma's recipe tells you to simmer the chicken in the water, along with the salt, mace, parsley, and rice until the rice is cooked. Stir the flour into the melted butter, and add it slowly to the soup to thicken it. Remove the chicken from the pot, cut the meat into small pieces and add them back into the soup. I also added a few croutons for crunch (until they got a bit soggy).

The steam from the simmering pot of soup was also therapeutic for my clogged sinuses. So if you're feeling stuffy or have a cold, have some chicken soup, and get plenty of rest.

Or as my Mom used to say, "Vroeg naar bed, kind!"  Get to bed early, kid!