Herb and Verna were my mom’s aunt and uncle on her father’s side of the family. They lived on a farm in Brownton, MN and were all but retired from farming by the time I was born. Their farm stood in a grove of trees amid endless acres of crop land. The buildings were ramshackle and a passel of rangy chickens that were more feathers and dirt than meat roamed freely in the yard. Each trip to the farm was like Easter to me because I spent hours searching the yard for brown, white, and blue/green eggs amid rusty farm machinery, old cars, and weathered buildings.
The house was a typical square farmhouse with a large front porch overlooking an overgrown yard. Through the parlor window you could see an old Buick crushed beneath the weight of an elm tree that had already started to crumble with rot. In the entryway between porch and kitchen stood a crate that once housed every generation of chicken to live on that farm. I remember peering into that box in the glow of a heat lamp with my 6 year old fingers just itching to pick up those peeping balls of yellow down, but I was always shooed away into the kitchen by Uncle Herb.
While the rest of the house was a hodgepodge of mismatched furniture and dusty clutter, the kitchen was Verna’s domain. A plump woman with glasses so thick they magnified her rhumy eyes and the gentleness with which they glowed. Verna was a woman of great faith in God and that faith was not displayed through loud professions but through kind deeds and the way she had about her of comforting all those around her. She had a calming aura born of strong faith and a gentle heart and I remember many a time clinging tightly to her while hot tears rolled down my cheeks. Then she would set me on a tall chair that folded out into a step stool and feed me one of her latest desserts with a thick coffee mug full of milk from Polka Dot Dairy.
Every morning at 7am, Verna would sit with pen in hand listening for the recipe of the day on the Hutchinson radio station. All of those recipes were kept in a tattered spiral notebook with pages so browned they looked like ancient parchment. Then, in her gleaming kitchen with white cabinets, a proud Monarch range in the corner, and her line of pink and white canisters, Verna would set to work on “trying out” the newest recipe. The final result was usually 30% recipe and 70% of Verna’s ideas on how to make it better.
Many of Verna’s recipes became favorites of my own mother to serve at family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, funerals, and to give as gifts to friends.
Creamy pistachio bars with a buttery crust and a slight tang of cream cheese, golden pineapple bars that tasted of the tropics with brown sugar that lent a warm Carmel flavor to the crust, ambrosia salad made with vanilla pudding, tapioca, mandarin oranges, pineapple and mini marshmallows, and pumpkin bars spiced to perfection so as to rival any pumpkin pie ever baked.
Rows of oblong aluminum cake pans would line the dining room table. Herb’s clutter of newspapers, magazines, seed catalogs, and the latest Billy Graham book was set aside to make room while I plinked away on an out of tune upright piano. I waited impatiently while desserts were cut into precise squares and placed without a single wayward crumb onto delicate plates decorated with roses. Fragrant Swedish coffee was poured from a chipped enamelware pot into translucent cups to match the dessert plates. A pink Depression Ware bowl held snowy white sugar cubes and the light of late afternoon played off of gleaming silverware. Chicken feathers clung to the upholstery of the padded dining room chairs yet the shabby scene took on the glow of the Queen’s high tea all thanks to one woman and the magic she created from simple ingredients laced with love.
Herb and Verna passed away when I was barely a teenager but every time I see a yard full of chickens I think of Uncle Herb with his striped overalls and squinty stare. And every time I prepare one of Verna’s recipes I am transported to her big bright kitchen where she stands waiting for me by the sink, a smile on her face and a plate heaped with her latest treats that have yet to meet my approval.
So that all of you can enjoy the flavors of my childhood, here is Aunt Verna’s pineapple bars.
Verna Jaekel’s Perfect Pineapple Bars
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
Combine and press into a 9×13″ pan and bake at 350° for 15 min
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs beaten
3 Tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped nuts
Combine and pour over the already baked crust. Bake 20 minutes at 350°
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoon butter
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cook in a saucepan over medium heat until thick. Add 1 (14 oz) can of crushed pineapple that has been drained. Pour over the baked crust and refrigerate 4 hours.