Lard the Size of An Egg

The first in a seven-part series

11.16.2022 [New York Mills Dispatch, New York Mills, Minnesota]

Lard the size of an egg is how a second cousin of mine described the amount of lard to use for her piecrust. This recipe was passed on to her from her great-grandmother, and though all recipes today are altered to standard measurements, her no nonsense term always makes me smile.

It’s the perfect title for a writing project I started while I was at the Artist Retreat House in New York Mills in September and October. I was awarded the residency so that I could work on my first novel.  I spent long days writing a murder mystery based on the actual axe murder of my third great grandfather, William Thomas Boxell, and his second wife Lydia which took place near Buffalo, Minnesota in 1897.

Writing is an isolated undertaking, so I decided to build into my residency a chance to meet interesting people in the community. And where did I find them? At the Senior Center, of course!

My hope was to encourage a few of them to share with me a family recipe, a story that went with it, and a photograph. It didn’t take much to persuade this lively group of women and men to be part of the project. With a few fun props, I explained a little about my connection to the community. My grandmother’s family, the McQuillens, lived in New York Mills and grew pickles from 1921-1927. I also shared my book project.

Several individuals informed me that Betty Boxell and her son Dean had lived many years on Tousley Avenue in New York Mills. When I checked my genealogy records, I realized these Boxells were indeed related to my family! There is one thing you should know about writers—most don’t believe in coincidences.  Everything happens for a reason. I knew this was going to be a good writing retreat and that I would enjoy interviewing folks about their stories for the Lard the Size of an Egg project.

It was an excellent retreat.  In all, I wrote more than 65,000 words which in the publishing world is about two-thirds of a book. And I collected stories from eight individuals. My goal is to have the first draft of my murder mystery completed and share Lard the Size of an Egg stories by the end of the year.  Here is the first one.

“Add Enough Flour Until the Dough Feels Right”

Janet Tumberg is the oldest of six children born to Rev. George and Luva Wilson. The family moved from Meeker County to New York Mills in 1950 when her father took the position as pastor of the Apostolic Lutheran Church.  Janet’s maternal grandmother, Mary Violetta Brown, was an excellent baker, had a large garden, and loved to quilt.

Janet shared this story about her Grandma Brown’s White Bread.

“My sister, Barbara Joan, was probably about twenty years old when she wanted to learn how to make bread. She asked Grandma Brown for her recipe.  Instead of writing it down for her, Grandma said, ‘Just come the next time I make bread and you watch, and you’ll learn how.’

So, they figured out when it would work for both and on the planned day, Grandma had everything ready. Barbara watched and wrote down the ingredients and each step in the process.

Then Grandma said, ‘And now we add the flour.’

‘How much flour do you use?’ Barbara asked.

‘You use flour until the dough feels right.’

‘When does it feel right?’

‘You’ll just need to make bread enough times and you’ll know,’ Grandma said.

So, there was no real recipe. Just add flour until the dough feels right. That was it! My sister did learn to know when the ‘dough felt right’.  Barb was a lot like my grandma. She was a gardener, a quilter, and a very good baker.”

Though Grandma Mary Brown’s recipe was never written down with exact measurements, Mary Lou Erickson, Mary Brown’s daughter (and Janet’s aunt), shared this recipe in the family cookbook, Brown Family Recipes and Remembrances. Her disclaimer at the top of the recipe says it all. “I would not pretend to make white bread as Mary Brown did, however over the years, I’ve made several attempts – this recipe comes close.”