When I last had lunch with my 94-year-old Aunt Violet a few months ago, she was as spry as ever, and a little scattered, too – I had to go back into her house twice to find her keys, which turned out to be in the purse she had with her.

We ordered cheeseburgers at Miner-Dunn in Highland, Ind., a classic diner that’s been in business for 90 years. For some reason, it has always served orange sherbet with their hamburgers and fries. In high school, and even now, we would dunk our fries in the sherbet – trust me, it’s very good.

When I was young, I spent a couple of weeks most summers at her house in Highland, and my cousin, Robert, and I spent lots of time splashing and catching toads in the creek at the end of the road.

You don’t play in creeks in Indiana Harbor, where I’m from, because they’re polluted by metal and chemical runoffs from the steel mills and factories. So it is an experience I still treasure now.

Whenever I had a book signing at Miles Books, an independent bookstore in Highland, Aunt Vi would make cookies and lemonade to serve to anyone who stopped by. It may be the only reason anyone showed up.

But then, in March, as these things go, her other son, John, called. He was crying, and said Aunt Vi was very ill and was in the hospital. She died not long thereafter.

I’ve lost two elderly aunts in the last year or so, both of whom were also good friends – always active and fun to be with. Both had great lives, and were luckier than most to live as long as they did (my Aunt Daniese died at 88). Each death left me feeling like something irreplaceable was gone.

Aunt Vi was also the last of my father’s five siblings, and any door open to their past is now shut. Leon Simon, my first cousin once removed, and I had talked about filming and interviewing Vi about her early life, but we waited too long, as people often do.

When I was young, Aunt Vi and her family lived on the first floor of the four-flat apartment building my Grandma Simon bought after my grandfather died. Grandma Simon had the apartment next door, we lived upstairs and so did my Uncle John and his family.

All this meant we were very close, and we cousins could play outside and hangout in my grandmother’s apartment, where she was always cooking big pots of food to feed us.

Then, one by one, each family moved away. We still got together, though not as frequently.

Like Grandma Simon, my Aunt Vi was a great cook, and still made some of those Romanian favorites I remember eating as a child at my grandmother’s.

In honor of her, and all the great times we had as families growing up together, I thought I’d share a few here.

Pui cu Smantana

(Chicken with Sour Cream)

2 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup onions, chopped

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

8 pieces chicken

6 cups chicken stock

6 cups warm water

3/4 cup flour

16 ounces sour cream

Melt the oil and butter in a very large pan. Add the onions and paprika to the butter. Cook until the onions are soft.

Add the chicken and brown on each side. Add the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 60-90 minutes – or cook all day in a slow cooker on low heat.

Remove the chicken and onions, and set aside. Pour the remaining broth into a separate bowl.

Whisk together the warm water and flour. Pour into the pan, turn the heat to low, then add the sour cream to the flour mixture and fold it in; keeping it warm but not simmering.

Using a large soup ladle, add the hot pan juices to the sour cream mixture, one ladle at a time, whisking to prevent mixture from curdling. Adding the chicken and onions.

Heat for about 30 minutes on simmer; don’t allow the mixture to come to a boil.

Serve with wide Amish noodles or German spaetzle.


(Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

1 head cabbage

1 1/2 pounds ground lean pork

1/2 cup rice, partially cooked

1 small onion, sautéed

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 smoked pork hocks

2 pounds sauerkraut

Take core out of cabbage. Parboil in boiling water until leaves loosen up. Remove from water and take off leaves. Trim heavy vein on leaves.

Mix all other ingredients except sauerkraut. Place heaping tablespoons of mixture in cabbage leaf and roll up, sealing ends.

Line bottom of a large pot with remaining leaves. Spread sauerkraut on top of leaves.

Set a row of cabbage rolls in the pot, and continue alternating layers. Add pork hocks. Put remaining sauerkraut on top.

Pour water in pot to barely cover. Cook at least 2 hours after it starts to boil, reducing heat to a simmer.

Prajitura de Nuci

(Nut Pastry)

10 tablespoons flour

1/2 pound butter

4 tablespoons sugar

3 egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3 egg whites, stiffly beaten

6 tablespoons sugar

1/2 pound nuts, ground

Marmalade, to taste

Combine first five ingredients, in order given, making a dough. Spread the dough in a baking tray of medium size.

Beat egg whites until stiff, add sugar gradually, then the nuts. To this, add marmalade to taste.

Spread the mixture over the dough, and bake in a 350-degree oven until done.

When cooled slightly, cut into crescents with the edge of a water glass, or cut in different shapes with a cookie cutter.

Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at janeammeson@gmail.com or by writing to Focus, The Herald-Palladium, P.O. Box 128, St. Joseph, MI 49085.