One of the great joys of being my mother’s daughter was her eight sisters. It was like winning the lottery. I enjoyed spending time with them as much as she did. Vacations with my aunts were as enriching as summer camp and more entertaining than Disney World.
These equally wonderful, but incredibly different women introduced me to fashion, all types of music and fan magazines. They taught me the correct way to approach a horse and later how to climb into a saddle. They introduced me to Nancy Drew and taught me to make dollhouses from boxes and catalogs. From them I learned how to wear makeup, paint my nails, change a diaper, hula hoop and do the twist. (One of them could probably do all those things at once!) One taught me how to wear my hair on top of my head and another taught me how to pour a half sleeve of peanuts into the neck of a freshly-opened Pepsi.
Using a wet mop and Conway Twitty’s “Hello, Darlin”, one of these clever women taught me how to waltz in her kitchen. (Looking back, that might have been a trick.)
I idolized them as girl and counted on them as a woman. Between them, there was an answer for everything and I know my cousins would agree that having one of those sisters as a mother was like being raised by all of them. Though five states may have separated us, they were only a phone call away when I needed them.
And in the kitchen I needed them plenty. From creamed corn to strawberry ice box cake, my most worn, stained and tattered recipes are theirs.
As summer nears, I am drawn to these familiar dishes that evoke memories of Florida, my aunts and of my grandmother’s vast garden. My favorite is my Aunt Go-Go’s recipe for stuffed peppers, because her penchant for them began with this story:
My mother was born and raised on a farm in central Florida. When she and her two older sisters (Amy and Go-Go) were in grade school, the United States had just entered World War II. Americans everywhere were doing what they could to support the war effort. Families stretched their budgets and grew their own and made their own everywhere they could.
They consumed less and conserved more and ration stamps were issued for commodities that benefitted the military, like sugar, canned foods, rubber and textiles. Many traded unused rations for things they needed more. My grandfather traded shoe stamps for sugar.
It was one of during one of those conservative summers that my Aunt Go-Go (born Gloria, but nick-named for her inability to sit still) overheard her pregnant mother tell someone she was craving bell peppers. Go-Go knew where there was an entire field of bell peppers, so she convinced her sisters to help her retrieve some for their mother.
That afternoon they headed to a neighboring farm. In their bare feet and summer frocks (because girls didn’t wear pants then, even for play), they walked through a field and waded through a swamp to get to the open patch of peppers.
When their skirts were full of the coveted fruit they headed home, but not before they were spotted by the neighbor who called out to them as they started running. Under their dresses the girls wore bloomers that their grandmother made for them from white flour sacks. Because elastic was unavailable, the bloomers were cinched at the waist with a drawstring , with ties on either side. The faster Go-Go ran, the looser those bloomers became and finally she lost them completely. But she did not stop running.
Despite the shame of being chased home by their neighbor and their mother’s disappointment in what they had done, the girls were allowed to keep the peppers. And, though Go-Go’s pepper poaching days were over, her love of them lived on.
This recipe is my go-to for peppers and that’s saying a lot because I love peppers. Aunt Go-Go’s method combines the stars of the summer garden with the staple ingredients of her time as a wife and mother. In other words, it is practically effortless to prepare. These peppers pair well with potatoes, rice or pasta, but I love them with something else from the garden (like tomatoes or squash) and the thought of my mom and her sisters shopping for them for the first time.
AUNT GO-GO’S STUFFED PEPPERS
3 green peppers, cut in half, seeds removed
1 lb. ground beef
1 cup cottage cheese
1 (8 oz) can tomato sauce
1 egg, beaten
½ cup cracker crumbs
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
4 slices American cheese
Conventional oven: Combine all ingredients except peppers and cheese. Spoon meat mixture into pepper halves. Place in casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 (to 45) minutes, until the peppers are cooked to your preference (I like mine well done.) Top each pepper with half slice of cheese and return to oven just long enough for cheese to melt.
Microwave: Combine all ingredients, except the peppers and cheese. Mix well. Spoon the meat mixture into pepper halves. Place in casserole dish and cover. Cook at 70% power for 24 minutes. Top each pepper with half slice of cheese. Return to microwave and cook just long enough to melt cheese.