Summer Coolness is a decadent dessert that gently melts away on your tongue. It’s composed of a baked crust of butter, flour and crushed walnuts, topped with cream cheese, chocolate pudding and fluffy whipped cream. Though heavy on the calories, it’s easy to ignore the impending weight gain and focus solely on the sweet pleasure of taste and the smooth texture. When I eat Summer Coolness I am transported halfway to heaven, which is my grandmother’s kitchen.
If you came with me to Mariann Ford’s kitchen you’d feel like you stepped into the 1960s. Complete with muted linoleum floors, cheerfully busy wallpaper in a pattern of brown, orange and yellow, stacks of tin cracker boxes, white tile countertops with grout lines creamed by age, and a squat yellow refrigerator – grandma’s kitchen is a tribute to the days when families ate in every night. The eating area is small, barely enough room to seat a family of six. I can picture my mother and her three siblings growing up and sharing stories in this kitchen. Like all siblings, I’m sure they laughed and squabbled over their dinners of roast beef and mashed potatoes. I wonder, as their forks slid through pumpkin pie or Jell-O salad served on original pattern Pfaltzgraff, if the sweetness of their mother’s creations had them dreaming equally sweet dreams of their future.
Most of my childhood memories of my grandmother feature her kitchen and her cooking. Grandma is of the generation of women that lavish their loved ones with square meals and sweets in equal measure. When I was a child, we would spend summer weeks and holidays at my grandparents’ house in Youngstown, Ohio – an old steel and mill town as vintage as grandma’s kitchen. The moment we arrived for a visit, I’d jump out of our conversion van and go straight to the kitchen. There grandma always was, finishing a batch of cookies or prepping a roast for dinner. At my greeting she’d turn and exclaim, “Well, hi Corrie; how are ya babe?” and give me a kiss. The counters were littered with yellowed Tupperware full of cookies and fudge and brittle. The oven was usually on, the little TV in the corner showing reruns of M.A.S.H or Murder She Wrote. I could hear Grandpa snoring from his recliner in the living room. I’d kiss Mariann’s soft cheek and inhale her perfume of flour, butter and sugar. It was instant love. I was at home here, in this kitchen with these sounds and smells and with this woman, just as much as I was at home in my Columbus kitchen.
I got to know my grandmother by helping her in the kitchen. She made me her assistant and taught me all the staples of the Ford family recipe book. Grandma patiently demonstrated how to make marshmallow sweet rolls, a must-have at large family gatherings. It’s a process of wrapping a marshmallow in crescent dough, dipping it in melted butter and rolling it in gritty cinnamon-sugar. My fingers became sugar sticks that I licked clean while grandma washed the dishes and told me stories from her past. I was shocked to discover that when she was a young woman at college, grandma sent her dirty laundry home through the mail! Her mother would wash, iron, and neatly fold the clothes and bedding and send them back. Stories like these were as unbelievable as the gooeyness of her baked marshmallow rolls or the buttery flakiness of her from-scratch pie crust.
Mariann Ford kept her flock of children and grandchildren nourished with wholesome foods and an abundance of treats. I know she loved our visits because she would bake ten or twelve different batches of cookies for our arrival. For the kids it was Hershey kiss, chocolate chip and sugar cookies. For my mother it was peanut butter cookies, oatmeal raisin for my aunt, and molasses for my father. It seemed like grandma wasn’t happy unless everyone was satisfied according to their individual cravings. My cousins and I stuffed ourselves sick with cookies over the years, often sneaking into the kitchen after bedtime and snatching handfuls of snickerdoodles.
Grandma Ford’s generosity in the kitchen mirrored her abundant love for her family. Now, most of the grandchildren are grown and we don’t make it to Youngstown much. But I imagine that grandma’s kitchen and confections are as iconic for my cousins as they are for me. I think of our childhood visits and recall memories like the time my cousin Jared laughed so hard he spit his milk all over our beautiful Thanksgiving dinner, or the remake of A Christmas Carole that we produced in the basement with a plate of cookies supplied to fuel the starving actors. Every year we watched The Sound of Music and grandma made us bowls of freshly popped corn tossed with real butter and salt. Summer meals by the pool were followed by delicious Summer Coolness. But the memory that stands out the most is grandma singing Sweet Little Jesus Boy at every Christmas Eve church service. We’d all drive back through the snowy streets to my grandparent’s house and have our annual birthday party for Jesus – complete with a frosted cake decked with candles, made by our sweet, generous, loving grandma Ford.
Recipe for Summer Coolness: Cream 1½ cups sifted flour and 1½ sticks of butter. Combine with 1 cup chopped walnuts. Press into 9×13 pan and baked for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. (Do not let crust brown.) Set crust aside until fully cool. In a bowl mix together one 8oz package of cream cheese, 1 cup confectioners sugar and ½ of a large carton of Cool Whip. In another bowl, mix together two 3oz packages of instant chocolate pudding and 3 cups of cold milk. When crust is cooled, spread the cream cheese mixture on top. Then layer on the pudding. Top with the remainder of Cool Whip. Keep refrigerated unless serving.