From Chocolate Chip Cookies to Enchiladas
When my Mimi married Pop at age 22, she had no idea how to cook. She only knew how to make three things: marshmallow frosting, chocolate chip cookies, and cream cheese dip.
Mimi’s mother never taught her how to cook. She barely ever let her in the kitchen. She never wanted help with dinner, which consisted of plain pot roasts and casseroles. Although my great grandmother was 100% German, she rarely ever cooked any German dishes.
“She never wanted to show us how to make things,” Mimi said.
The one thing that Mimi’s mother made her that Mimi made for my mom and uncles and now my mom makes for me is macaroni and eggs, which is a cheap Depression era dish. The macaroni is cooked and then lightly fried in oil. Then the egg mixture is added with Lowry’s seasoned salt and the eggs are scrambled with the macaroni until they’re fluffy. The last touch is a dollop of sour cream. I’ve often made it for myself when I have nothing left in the fridge. It sounds weird, but it is the most comforting dish. Every time I take a bite, I’m reminded of home.
My great-grandma didn’t pass down any other recipes to her, so Mimi had to basically start from scratch. This is where she first began to craft recipes of her own and borrow ones from others.
It didn’t start out smoothly though. I think of Mimi as one of the best cooks I know, but it wasn’t always this way. When she first began cooking she made countless mistakes. She made soft boiled eggs that were almost raw. She baked a loaf of bread so hard that my grandpa joked that they should use it as the cornerstone for their house. She cooked a turkey all day until it was dry and inedible.
“Pop was no help. He just criticized everything, but this forced me to be a better cook,” she said.
So, she kept practicing and learning from others. Pop’s Slovak dad gave her the recipe for noodles and dried cottage cheese, which is a dish made with al dente egg noodles and gooey cottage cheese then seasoned with dill. This is a staple at family dinners when my uncle is home from Colorado. Pop’s aunt gave her the recipe for vegetable soup, which consists of a chuck roast cooked with barley and a myriad of vegetables in a tomato based broth. Every slurp is warm and full of flavor. The meat, tender from cooking in the soup all day, comes out of the pot and is used to make sandwiches with a generous spread of mayo and a squeeze of lemon. Nothing in Mimi’s house can be done without mayo. A wife of one of Pop’s colleagues gave her the recipe for her famous, melt in your mouth coffee cake. Easter just isn’t the same without it. From there Mimi’s recipe box just kept growing, because whenever she liked a dish, she just asked for the recipe.
“This is why my recipes come from all different places,” she said.
Mimi’s ability to learn from others proved to be her greatest asset when my grandpa bought a restaurant, called the Franklin Inn, in 1978 and then transitioned it to Mexican two years later. She knew nothing about Mexican cuisine, but just like before, she was willing to gather information from others.
She found recipes from all over and is responsible for a lot of the more unique items on the menu, such as the Frisco and Colorado green chile enchiladas. She got both recipes from a restaurant in Colorado, where my uncle used to work. They’re still two of the most popular items on the menu.
She would find recipes in different cookbooks and make changes to them to put her own spin on it. She would take different ingredients and combine them to create her own unique dishes. Every time they traveled, Mimi would bring a new cookbook home and use that for inspiration. One of those recipes was potato pepper soup, which is made by chopping up potatoes, peppers, and onions and cooking them in chicken broth with parsley and other spices.
“To find recipes for the restaurant I would start with a basic idea and then look at similar recipes in different cookbooks. I would think, what sounds good to me?” Mimi said.
She discovered many dishes through her travels with Pop. In San Carlos, Mexico, they went on a small boat with two fisherman. The fisherman caught fresh Red Snapper and grilled it right on the boat, then made tacos for Mimi and Pop while they floated along on the ocean.
“They made them right there and then they made us this incredible fresh salsa to eat with the tacos. It was so hot, it almost killed me,” said Mimi, laughing.
On the Costa del Sol of Spain, Mimi tried Andalusian gazpacho, for the first time and fell in love.
“The gazpacho was so incredibly good, that I could still remember how delicious it was when I got home,” she said.
So, she wrote to the restaurant after she got home, asking for the recipe. It took months before a letter came. When it finally did come, it was in Spanish. Mimi took it to my mom’s school and had the Spanish teacher translate it. All of this for a recipe. It was worth it though, because this is one of the Franklin Inn’s most popular dishes. When it goes away for the winter, customers complain until it returns again in May.
Mimi has even made some recipes up for the restaurant herself. The black bean appetizer, which is one of my mom’s favorite dishes, is made by mashing up cooked black beans and blending them with onion and water, then mixing in a homemade charred jalapeño, tomato, and onion sauce, and topping it with sour cream, lemon juice, and feta. Sour cream is essential in many of Mimi’s dishes, both at home and at the restaurant.
“We experimented and if something turned out good, I would think that’s a winner. Then I’d write down everything I used,” Mimi said.
Another dish Mimi created were the pierogi or Pittsburgh enchiladas. Not the most authentic Mexican dish, but Pittsburghers loved them. They were made by mixing dried cottage cheese and mashed potatoes, two traditional pierogi fillings, with seasoning, then stuffing it inside a tortilla, and drizzling butter and onions on top. Mimi celebrated when customers loved a new dish she’d spent hours crafting.
“Having customers tell you they love what you’d made was a big ego boost,” she said, “When that went over well, I would think now I can try something else.”
Mimi didn’t just help make the specials. She came in early to help with all of the prep work. She helped the cooks make the salsa, the rice, the shredded chicken, and the guacamole, among countless other staple dishes that the Franklin Inn needed to survive on a day to day basis. Mimi believed in the quality of all of her dishes, even the more basic ones.
“The trick with the restaurant is that you have to sell what you make. You have to believe in what you’re making,” said Mimi.
Mimi also traveled all over Pittsburgh to gather ingredients that couldn’t be delivered to her. There weren’t many shops in the city that carried Mexican products, as it is a mainly Eastern European and Italian city, but Mimi found what she was looking for. Nestled in the Strip District, Renya Foods, had everything Mimi needed like canned tomatillos, homemade tortillas, dried peppers, Mexican chocolate, and corn husks for tamales. The Franklin Inn still uses Renya’s today to gather a variety of their ingredients.
Cooking wasn’t the only thing Mimi did at the Franklin Inn. She spent 80 hours a week at the restaurant. She ordered inventory and did the books, among a million other things. She remembered customers’ favorite dishes and would call them if she was making it as a special. She did this all without taking any money for herself for the first eight years. She had never done anything like this before, but knew she had to learn to help the restaurant succeed.
“It was a 24 hour job. I never stopped thinking about it,” she said.
The Franklin Inn’s menu today is a testament to Mimi’s hard work. While some of the specials like the Pittsburgh enchiladas didn’t make the cut, many other dishes like the black bean appetizer have stood the test of time.
In 2000, Pop had a stroke that greatly impaired his mobility and speech skills, so Mimi ended up selling the Franklin Inn to my Uncle John and Aunt Wendy, who now run it today.
“After Pop’s stroke, I couldn’t remember any recipes, even the basic ones that I made everyday,” Mimi said.
Now at 78, Mimi still experiments, just not as much as she did in her Franklin Inn days. These days she makes a variety of soups, like leek-potato soup or cold cucumber yogurt soup. Her favorite dish to make, which she learned about in France, is beef bourguignon.
“It’s a very satisfying dish to make, plus I can drink wine while I’m making it,” Mimi said, laughing.
A few of my favorite dishes that she makes are chicken parmesan, steak Diane, potato salad, and of course, chocolate chip cookies.
Mimi counted chocolate chip cookie making with all of her grandchildren as one of her favorite memories. We’ve all gotten to share in the mixing of the flour and sugar, the cracking of the eggs, and the spooning of the dough onto the pan.
“It got messy sometimes,” she said.
While the cookies would bake, Mimi would ask me about school and what I was writing lately. Those moments in the kitchen with her are some of my favorite memories. When I was 12, I even wrote a poem about it, called “Her Yellow Kitchen”:
She stands there at her granite countertop chopping onions, tomatoes, and carrots. She shreds the meat, stirs the pot, and starts the dough for her cookies all in her yellow sunny kitchen with plants on the window sill, sunshine coming through the window. I sit there at her kitchen table that’s marked with years of love, wondering if my grandchildren will have this same experience that I share with my grandmother.
Like me, Mimi has a love-hate relationship, with cooking.
“Truthfully, most of the time, I hate cooking,” said Mimi, laughing, “I like making things for special occasions, but I hate coming up with different meals to make every day of the week.”
Mimi’s favorite holiday to cook for is Christmas Eve, where she creates a buffet of all different foods, including steak tartare, smoked salmon, pierogies, sugar cookies, nut-filled horn cookies, and so many more dishes. She loves the content sigh each family member makes when they eat their favorite dish.
One of the most special items that she makes for us are her chocolate birthday cakes. The cake itself is always so fluffy and light with the richest chocolate flavor. Each of my family members has an icing that they prefer. My mom, Uncle Barry, and cousin Ryley prefer the marshmallow frosting. My Uncle John and cousins, Grace, Joey, and Julia prefer the chocolate icing. My favorite is the classic cream cheese frosting. That's another thing that Mimi and I share. I look forward to this cake every year. I can’t wait to blow out the candles, so I can finally cut into the cake.
Other family members and I have tried to make the cake, but no one can make it as well as Mimi. We think she’s keeping a secret element of the recipe from us, but she claims we're just not making it right. Somehow with all of her dishes, they never taste as good when you make them yourself. The cookies are never as crisp and the roast chicken is never as juicy. I think she loves that we keep coming back to her for our favorite dishes.
“Cooking makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. If there’s anyone who likes a dish I’ve made, it makes me feel good,” said Mimi.