When I was growing up, I used to spend most of my summers visiting my Grandmother in Olean, NY. If you have never heard of Olean, it is a great little community just over the New York State line from Bradford, PA. It was also a major bootlegging stop during Prohibition. In the 1920s, the press nicknamed the town "Little Chicago" because of its connection with organized crime, bootleggers and Al Capone; who often visited there.
My Grandparents were born and raised near Olean, before 1900. They married in Olean and raised seven children there. Unfortunately, Grandma was widowed young and had to obtain a position as a baker at The Olean House, an upscale hotel, to support her children; where she managed to get promoted to head baker. She was well-known in the community for her expertise at baking the best cakes and pies. Whether she ever baked an Italian Rum Cake for Capone, she never said. However, she always brought baked goods to family gatherings, her NSDAR ladies (Olean Chapter 1117), and often donated recipes to church cookbooks that were being produced for charity.
One could describe her as the Walter Staib of Olean - traditional recipes using original methods of baking.
I was her youngest granddaughter and she took me under her wing in the kitchen. It was a lost cause, however, because even a simple thing like cupcakes turned out like hockey pucks when I tried to make them. I remember once, she actually stood over my shoulder while she dictated a cake recipe. It was one of her famous orange Bundt cakes with orange glaze. Sure enough, it came out of the oven like a paper weight. It had risen less than an inch. I wrote an essay about it in my book, Sitting on Cold Porcelain, called “Thanksgiving Plans – Remember the Titanic.”
I got married in Philadelphia, Grandma retired from the Olean House, and we visited regularly. She was still sharp as a tack at 90 years old. She managed to take several solo trips to Florida to visit her younger sister before she passed in 1978.
Somehow, during that time, a light bulb went on in my head and I learned how to cook. I never did get the hang of baking a good cake, however, but there was Duncan Hines and the box cake only turned out lop-sided once. That’s when she put me wise to turning the tins upside down and icing the flat sides together.
I remember Grandma being very active at her Church. She was a member of the United Brethren Church and the Eastern Star. I think about her often during the holidays. So, it must have been ESP when I logged on to eBay just after Thanksgiving last year, and did a search for my grandmother’s name and “Olean,” because I found a church cookbook up for auction that she had contributed to almost 40 years ago. In it was a brown bread recipe with brown sugar, raisins, and nuts. I was thrilled. I’ll make my girls one of Grandma’s recipes for Christmas, I thought. Then, I groaned, remembering how it could turn out.
Surprisingly, not bad!
My daughters are grown now and have children of their own. Two of them only have a vague recollection of visiting their Great Grandmother in Olean, but they know all about her from my stories. This past Christmas, they had a special gift from Great-Grandma that I would like to share with you. You can make it anytime for sandwiches as a delicious substitute for whole wheat. It is not sweet:
Millie Chappell’s Brown Bread
1 cup brown sugar
3 cups buttermilk
2 cups flour
3 cups graham flour (order online, I can’t find it anywhere else)
4 tbsp. shortening (melted)
4 tbsp. molasses
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
Add raisins, nuts, or dates as desired. I used raisins and pecans.
Mix all of the dry ingredients together, except the brown sugar. In a separate bowl, mix all of the liquid ingredients and the sugar. Combine them both making a batter. Grease two bread tins and fill them slightly more than half full with the batter. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for one hour. It makes two loaves… and all that jazz.
Yay! I’m Roxie Hart in the kitchen!
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