Pancakes in Summer

August 27, 2010

August is a busy time in our household. Our kitchen goes into full production mode as we harvest, freeze and can the tons of garden produce that seem to ripen all at once.

Until last week, August was also presenting me with an empty week in my blog schedule. For some reason, I was simply at a loss for a story idea—that is, until my Aunt Judy called.

Judy is my grandmother Ruth’s daughter and she’s the preserver of an important family tradition. Judy is key to the potato pancake recipe.

Perfect timing! She gave me a yummy story topic and coincided it with our great harvest of potatoes.

“I learned this recipe from my mother,” says Judy. “And she probably learned it from her mother. We always had them on Good Friday and we never had meat with them. I loved them. I carried it on with my family.”

Perhaps my mother didn’t love these pancakes as much because, as a kid, I don’t remember her cooking them. So, naturally I’m coveting my aunt’s recipe. Except, guess what, like many family recipes, there’s no real recipe.

“We never had any specific measurements, nothing that was written down,” says Judy. “I just go by the potatoes and how they mix together.”

So, together over the phone—Judy calculating and estimating, and me writing things down—we came up with the following recipe. You can start practicing it now and by next Good Friday, you’ll be good to go.

Ruth Larson’s Potato Pancakes
6 medium potatoes
4 eggs
2-3 Tbsp. flour
1-2 teas. baking powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable or olive oil

Grate potatoes. If grating with water in a blender, drain water. If grating in a food processor, allow natural potato juices to remain. Beat eggs and mix with potatoes. Sprinkle flour and baking powder over potato mixture, mix well to create a thick paste.

Heat griddle and oil until hot. Drop the batter into pan in 3-inch diameter pancakes, making sure dough is thin. When browned on one side, flip and flatten pancake with spatula. Brown the second side. Cook until brown and crispy.

grated potatoes

I called Judy to verify my potato volume and texture. I ended up with about six cups of potatoes grated to the size of rice kernels. She said that was good. (And just so you know, food photography is very stressful. The potatoes discolored as fast as I set them up for shooting!)

Be sure the griddle and oil are hot enough. Drop the batter in 3-inch diameter, thin cakes. I think I should have made these thinner, as some of them didn’t cook completely before browning.

Potato pancakes are commonly topped with syrup or applesauce, however Judy puts granulated sugar on hers. “That’s how we ate them as kids,” she says. “That’s how we liked them.”

And while Judy never ate meat with her pancakes as a child, she now serves ring bologna or kielbasa when cooking for her family. She also sometimes adds chopped onions or uses zucchini instead of potatoes.

Judy didn’t say anything about beer. But I’m remembering our German heritage. I’m remembering those beer-drinking, ball-swinging, picnicking Hornburg cousins and as my husband and I sit down to dinner, we raise a glass to Ruth.



old autograph books

Remember autograph books?

Back in the day (when people actually wrote by hand), autograph books were popular, especially for girls not yet old enough to fill a high school yearbook with signatures of family and friends. I recently found two from my own childhood and an antique book I picked up at a garage sale.

The greetings are fun and interesting, like the ones pictured above.

I love this one from my dad: “My weird daughter. I love her. Daddy.”

My grandmother Ruth counters with an ego-boosting entry that only a grandmother can write: “God’s blessings and the best of everything to a beautiful and talented granddaughter. Love, Grandma Larson.”

My books are also signed in cute, little rhymes, such as this one from my childhood friend Sandy: “When you get married and have a set of twins, I’ll be your friend and buy safety pins” (foretelling of the children I would someday have).

But even more interesting are the verses and signatures in my antique book. Belonging to a Miss Helena R. Schuler, who’s unknown to me but obviously beloved by many back then, the book is filled with poetic prose written in a flowing script unlike anything we see today.

“Life is like an April day, Clouds and sunshine all the way;
Let the lower clouds depart, and the sunshine fill thy heart.”

—Your cousin, Ella Pale, Oct. 27, 1884

“Lena is your name, single is your station;
Happy be the little man, who makes the alteration.”

—Your funny cousin, Lizzie, Nov. 18, 1884

“I drop my pen into the ink, And grasp your album tight,
But for my life I cannot think, One single word to write.”

—Your niece, Annie Rex, Nov.27, 1884

“Cheer, fond wife, the husband’s struggle,
Lighten his gloomy hours with your tender smiles,
And gladden his home with your love.”

—David, Aug, 1885

“Dear Mother,
Do your best always,
And leave the future to God.”

—Your Son, Charlie Tisch, June 18, 1903

Did you have an autograph book back in the day? Anything interesting?

It’s August. It’s hot. It’s the dog days of summer.

Here in the Midwest, it’s been exceptionally hot and humid. At our house, we don’t normally need air conditioning because we live high on a hill, surrounded by breezy trees. But lately, I must admit, it’s been a bit sticky. I haven’t expected many visits from my daughter-in-law, who’s now in her final six weeks of pregnancy.

I wonder what it was like 77 years ago for my grandmother Ruth? She would have been eight months pregnant with her first child—my mother Carol, who was born August 23, 1933. Back then, there certainly wasn’t air conditioning for the common family living in Chicago. I wonder if it was hot, humid and extremely uncomfortable that year like it is now?

Or three years later, in June 1936, when she was pregnant with her daughter Judith? What was life for Ruth like then?

In the video I have of Ruth’s remembrances, she talks about her days of early motherhood. It’s mostly factual things, like where they were living. It’s interesting stuff but I wished I’d thought to also ask more personal, thoughtful questions.

What was it like being pregnant in the 1930s? What was my grandfather like as an expectant father? How hot was the August of 1933, or the June of 1936?

Anyways, here’s what we do have…

“When we decided to have a child, we moved to Blue Island, Ill,” says Ruth to me, in the video. “This is where your mother was born.

“We live there just a year. Then we moved back to Chicago and lived upstairs in an aunt and uncle of mine—their apartment. Then, when Judith was born, when I left for the hospital, I left from that apartment. While I was in the hospital, Grandma and Grandpa Arendt (Emma Hornburg Hooge Arendt and Rudolph Arendt), and an aunt of mine, and George (Ruth’s husband) moved us to a bigger apartment, nearer to church. We lived there until 1940, when we bought the bungalow on (8245 S.) Ada St.”

Stay cool everyone. It’s been hot before. It’ll be hot again.

Four Generations

A four generation gathering: In back, l-r, Emma Arendt and Ruth Larson, holding baby Carol. Seated in front, Wilhemina Hornburg.

Larson, George, Ruth, and baby Judith

George and Ruth Larson, with baby Judith.

George Larson Family

George and Ruth Larson Family, daughters Carol and Judith, circa 1939

My Aunt Judith gave me this picture. She said she remembers feeling conscious of her father holding the corner of her dress. She looks somewhat concerned about it, don’t you think?

One of the cool things about doing this blog has been a renewed sense of family connection. I’ve exchanged emails, telephone calls and personal visits with beloved relatives, some whom I hadn’t talked to in years simply because we’ve been too busy living life.

(Hey, you know we can all share in this connection if everyone makes comments to the blog…just saying, is all.)

Another cool thing is people are giving me stuff—it’s like I’ve become the vault keeper of our family’s history. A while ago my brother Dave made a deposit into this vault when he mailed me a special gift.

Dave was cleaning out and ran across a letter written by our Great-Aunt Charlotte. Dated January 1983, she wrote it in tribute to George Larson at the time of his death (George, you’ll recall, was my grandmother Ruth’s husband and Charlotte was her sister).

The letter is special for several reasons. First, it offers insight to the man my grandfather was. George was a very quiet soul and I, like most young people, was not perceptive enough to know there was more to him than a gentle, smiling face.

Secondly, which is why I’m including it in our conversation of sisterhood, the letter totally shows the unique bond between Ruth and Charlotte. Even though 12 years and hundreds of miles were between them, the two were very intertwined in each other lives.

Here’s the letter. Note the correction in green—knowing my Aunt Charlotte, that typo must have been major cause for concern but poor health at the time likely prevented her from retyping the whole letter. I also like the formal “page two” heading. Most of all, I like the signature—one many of us knew so well and loved.

So very Aunt Charlotte.

Charlotte's letter, pg. 1
Charlotte's letter, pg.2

Sisters, 1992

A sister is a gift to the heart, a friend to the spirit,
a golden thread to the meaning of life.
—Isadora James

Happy Sister’s Day!

Yes, today is Sister’s Day. And today, I say thanks for three gifts from God—my sisters.

The quote above says it all. Yet, sisterhood is easily one of the most complex of human relationships. Playmates, rivals, best friends, critics, compatriots in crime—it’s a bond forced upon siblings yet one we cherish throughout our lives. Small wonder the Mars gender rolls its eyes and fears the hormonal Venus side of the family.

Ruth, my grandmother, and her sister Charlotte, shared this love-hate relationship. Friends as long as they lived, they exchanged weekly long-distance phone calls, love and support. And, like all sisters, they sometimes were each other’s greatest antagonists.

“When I was 12-years old, I had a half-sister Charlotte,” says Ruth in her 1990 video, of the daughter born to her mother Emma and her step-father Rudolph Arendt. Emma married Rudolph in 1918, a year after her first husband died.

“She was quite a crybaby,” Ruth laughs of Charlotte. “My mother used to go to choir practice on Wednesday nights and my brother Carl and I had to take care of Charlotte.

“We had a (high?) Victrola that played one record and you had to wind it each time. Carl would play the Victrola and I would walk with Charlotte. And then I would take care of the Victrola and Carl would walk with her.”

And because, later in life, Charlotte passed along stories of Ruth’s side of the family, it’s only fitting that Ruth did the same of Charlotte’s. In the video, Ruth shares a few interesting tidbits of the Arendt family in the midst of Chicago’s prohibition days.

“My step-dad’s younger brother, Ed Arendt—he got into the bootlegging business. Once Uncle Carl (Ruth’s brother), well, he was young and I don’t know if he was married or not. Eddy Arndt had him deliver some home brew and he (Carl) got caught.

“Well, I guess he was going to offer the policeman some money, maybe he had a $20, and they said ‘oh, you’re just small stuff, we don’t want you,’ and they let him go.”

According to Ruth, her mother was very upset that Eddy Arndt involved Carl in his dirty work. (Eddy Arendt—doesn’t the name alone sound gangster-ish?) Anyway, it seems his visits caused conflicts.

“Eddy used to come to the house and he’d bring his pals,” tells Ruth in the video. “Grandpa Arendt (Ruth’s step-father) worked in the stockyards and he used to bring our butter and meat home. This was on a Saturday that Eddy came over and brought a friend. When they were gone, some butter was missing. They had taken it.”

Butter-schmutter. Apparently, Eddy was dealing with more than dairy delights.

“Eddy Arendt—he was pretty much in the gang, I guess,” tells Ruth. “Because he was shot and killed on his sister’s front porch. They drove by in a car and shot him.

“At his wake, this fella came and they (the Arendts) felt he had something to do with it. Eddy’s four brothers stood around the casket and just kept watching him because they were afraid he might do something.”

I ask Ruth how old she was when these things happened.

“Oh, I don’t think I was married then,” she answers. “I might have been 18, or something like that.”

And Charlotte would have been six.

Sisters Judith and Carol, September 1943

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any pictures of Ruth and Charlotte in their younger days. However, here we have Ruth’s daughters, Carol and Judith, as flower girls in Charlotte’s wedding. These hats certainly vie for attention in the Easter Bonnet posting, don’t you think?

Carol and Judith

Matching dresses are a rite of passage for sisters. I wonder if someone made them—isn’t the smocking beautiful?

Two Generations of Sisters, 1990

Many decades later, on a hot summer day in Wisconsin: sisters Carol and Judith standing behind their mother Ruth (left) and her sister Charlotte.

Judith's daughters: Ruth and Rachel