Aunt Nathalie

With so much time to fill, I finally went through Ma’s recipe boxes—ten years after I brought them from Alexandria to Boston. Some handwritten, some typed, some on long-discolored newsprint or still-white pages from Gourmet magazine, many brought back memories of childhood meals: tamale pie, Brunswick stew, bubble and squeak, walnut biscuits. I discarded many, including frankfurter casseroles, Jello and Cool Whip parfaits, and pretty much anything calling for a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup.

There was a section for household tips, including “How to Stiffen Petticoats.” It began, “If petticoats for week-end dance dresses and cocktail skirts need stiffening, here is a method to revive them after laundering.” I don’t remember week-end dances or dresses requiring petticoats as a child, but I do remember my mother’s hostess apron—a pretty little thing of stiff black netting, gold trim, and a wide black satin sash.

But this post is about Auntie (we pronounced aunt like the insect), Aunt Nathalie, whose newspaper-published recipe for banbury tarts was among those I kept. Auntie, who seemed very, very old to me (and, as a result, scared me just a little) visited us a couple of times in Virginia. Born in 1878 and in her eighties when I knew her, Aunt Nathalie was in fact Ma’s aunt—our great aunt. She wanted nothing to do with airplanes and so took a train from California, staying with us for a month or more. I remember her smelling of powder and violets. She had waist-length yellow-white hair that she braided and coiled up in a large bun at the nape of her neck. One Easter, while the family was at church, she made a cake that surely would have sent any small child into raptures. It was very, very tall and yellow marshmallow chicks encircled the top.

I will make her banbury tarts. I have the time.

One comment

  1. Hello! Didn’t her delicious beef stroganoff have mushroom soup? If not it was definitely canned mushrooms — I don’t think you could get fresh mushrooms then.

    I didn’t have your memories of Auntie, but now I remember the long train trip. Not how long her hair was, or the Easter cake, but I remember that we were excited to have her visit.

    My main memories of Auntie were 1) that she was gassy, and in the morning, when she used the second floor bathroom, you could hear the explosions all over the house. And, a better memory 2) that I wanted to make a strawberry layer cake for Ma, probably for Mother’s Day. It had four layers, I think, and used cake mix and probably Nestle’s Strawberry drink mix or some such thing. But I didn’t know how to cook, and I got dough all over the kitchen, bright pink, and it was a complete mess, and Auntie came in and found me crying, and she took over and made an actual cake. Probably not exactly the one I was after, but still. And she cleaned everything up and was so nice about it. I always think of it as the Oobleck cake, because before Auntie arrived it looked like a pink version of the Dr. Seuss book, Bartholemew and the Oobleck.

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