Mother, daughter cook up book of family treasures


With daughter Sherry Willems looking over her shoulder, Marianne Gavel holds a copy of the cookbook she compiled for her grandchildren. The book contains many treasured family recipes that reflect her Polish heritage. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Marianne Gavel lifted her finger, delicately tracing her photo on the cover of ‘Nana’s Pennsylvania Cooking,’ the yearlong project she and her daughter Sherry Willems finished as a gift to her three grandchildren.

“I can’t believe this is really me,” the 93-year-old member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, Kenosha, said smiling, “I was so young back then.”

Picking up Gavel’s cookbook, is not simply a shoebox full of cookery prescriptions, but a piece of history and a story of love between a mother and daughter.

Last January, Gavel moved to an assisted living facility for four months. After she broke a bone in her neck in a fall, she was unable to walk and relocated to St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged in Kenosha. For a woman who was proud of her independence, the move left her depressed and angry.

Willems, an only child, wrestled with the guilt of placing her mother in a residence where she could get the care she desperately needed, despite her mother’s obvious unhappiness.

“I didn’t know what to do to help her and I went home crying to my husband Clete every night,” said Willems. “I knew that she always loved to cook and was so proud of all the compliments she received from her friends and family. So I thought that by working on a cookbook with her, it might lift her spirits and be a wonderful gift for my children, Rebecca, 34, Clete, 30 and Allison, 25.”

Gavel grew up in Mahanoy City, Pa., and spent her youth helping her parents, Richard and Vilai Skrypkun, run their small confection stand in Lakewood Park, meeting such stars as Betty Grable, Sylvia Sidney, Jackie Cooper and Lauren Bacall. A combination of Hollywood and Coney Island, Lakewood Park attracted movie stars to its Kenley Playhouse, big bands such as Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, and even a few Gypsies.

“The Gypsies are the ones who taught me how to swim,” said Gavel. “They had a tent next door to my parents’ stand and I played with the Gypsy girls all the time. I swam in high school and throughout my whole life.”

Spaghetti Sauce
(Jeanie Campo from Al Capone)

1 package neck bones
3 or 4 large cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
Add to taste:
Optional:  1-2 tablespoons Hot Gardinera for spicy flavor

Brown neck bones in olive oil and garlic; take the bones out and add tomato paste to oil; cook 5 minutes. Puree canned tomatoes in blender, then add to sauce.
Add the neck bones back in the sauce. Add one can of water and spices (don’t add too much basil, it is too strong).Feeds a household.

(I received this recipe from my nephew Charlie Skrypkun, who received it from Jeanie Campo, a friend of the family. Jeanie’s husband, Jimmy Campo, grew up with Al Capone.)

While the confection stand carried mostly picnic fare, such as hot dogs and hamburgers, Gavel learned to appreciate the art of cooking from working at Scrips, her parents’ restaurant and café.

“People came from all over to get my mom’s deviled crabs, borscht, pierogi and pancakes,” she said. “I always loved cooking, even as a little girl, but best of all, I loved being near my mom making the food.”

Throughout her 57-year marriage to Joseph, nicknamed Sam, Gavin worked as a licensed practical nurse, cared for her daughter, and enjoyed preparing and collecting recipes that reflected her Polish heritage. Her collection holds a few surprises too, such as Al Capone’s famous spaghetti sauce, another recipe that made it into her 83-page cookbook.

“My brother, Joe, was a doctor, and one of his closest friends was an Italian, Jimmy Campo, who lived a couple of doors away from Al Capone,” said Gavin. “Jimmy knew Capone really well, and they used to go over there for spaghetti. Later Jimmy gave the recipe to my brother who passed it on to his son, Charlie. It is one of our favorites; it’s wonderful.”

With a huge box of recipes and four trunks of photos, Gavin and Willems painstakingly weeded through recipes and photos that would make it into the book. Each wrinkled recipe and faded photograph provided a memory and a healing balm for the mother- daughter duo.

Bringing an old laptop to the nursing home, Willems wrote her mother’s anecdotes about the recipes, their origins, and for what occasion they were used.

“Where there was space in the book, I would put her comments about when she would make it,” said Willems. “The deviled crabs recipe was the Friday special at Scrip’s café, located in the middle of coal country in Pennsylvania. People would line up to eat her crab cakes.”

Initially, Willems planned to scan a few pictures, comments and recipes onto copy paper and staple the booklets together for her children, but Clete said putting the project into an actual book would be more memorable.

Using an online photo company, Willems created the cookbook and presented it to Gavin and the grandchildren at Christmas.

“Everyone was so surprised, and my children all cried,” said Willems. “They loved it. It’s important for my children, too, now they know her history better than ever, especially in these days when everyone lives all over the place. It’s so good to have this family connection to show them their roots.”

More than a diversion, they realized that the cookbook changed Gavin’s outlook on life at St. Joseph and the relationships of those who care for her. Now that she is more at ease in her surroundings, she has become more outgoing and will attend Mass, rosary or pray in the perpetual adoration chapel when she is feeling well. On days that she is not able to attend Mass, one of the Carmelite sisters will bring her holy Communion.

“She is no longer just a person in a wheelchair,” said Willems. “She has a history and this project made it a lot easier for them to get to know her. She is more comfortable here now, too. She feels much more a part of St. Joseph’s – this is really her home now.”

A beaming Gavin agreed. “I felt so lost for a long time, but didn’t want to be a burden. I have the best daughter in the world, and when she did this cookbook, it made me feel like a celebrity.”

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