The summer I turned 10, my family moved to Cape Cod. I left behind my best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world, Alan, convinced days of fun and frivolity were in my rearview mirror. Happily, they weren’t. Alan is still my best pal and I made an unlikely new friend with my neighbor, Mildred Martha Theresa Studley Kelly. A 50-year-old home economics teacher in the Newton school system who vacationed in Yarmouth, we were inseparable that summer and just about any weekend she visited.
Milly was a wonderful friend and teacher. It was under her careful tutelage that I learned to bake, cook and decorate cakes. I still have the first pastry bag, select stainless steel tips and a flower nail (for making iced roses, petal-by-petal) that she gave me for my 11th birthday. She also taught me how to make a boneless, stuffed chicken dinner, using onions, olive oil and a little flour as a base in the pan so that a ready-made onion gravy would only need a bit more butter and stock to be completed.
Colleen with her best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world, Alan, at her 8th birthday (1969) and Mildred Martha Theresa Studley Kelly with the author's brother, ChrisTurner (1955-2021), at a family party (circa 1976).
A tall woman (I remember hearing the words ‘big-boned’ when people spoke of her), Milly wore a lot of makeup. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw her without it.
From her signature flame red lipstick, always perfectly shaped so as to leave a mark on my cheek after a smooch, bright blue eye shadow and heavily applied blush to her cat eye glasses and beehive platinum blonde hair-do that was washed and set each week at the salon, she was bold, a little brash, occasionally bawdy (though I didn't always get it) and absolutely fabulous. And she treated me as an equal in the kitchen, dispatching life long skills and bits of history that I recall each and every day.
My favorite thing to cook was her self-proclaimed Perfect Pumpkin Bread. I still bake this moist, yummy treat every fall…for myself and to give away as hostess or holiday gifts. The fresh cranberries are the perfect balance to what could be an overly sweet treat.
We would stand together at the sink to wash the cranberries, removing any twigs or leaves, then scooping off the floaters, while avoiding any rotten berries that sank to the bottom. After a quick shake in the colander to drain excess water, Milly would carefully "dump" the berries on a cutting board, many rolling off onto the floor and under the refrigerator. Giggling, we’d retrieve those that we could, re-wash them, and get to the task of cutting.
Perhaps the most time consuming part of this recipe, let me tell you, as a 10-year-old, halving fresh cranberries was precise work. They are slippery little devils and being so tiny, it is easy to cut your fingers as well as the fruit. But Milly took the time to help me hone my knife skills, explaining the importance of using a well-sharpened blade, always paying attention to the task at hand along with the art of perfecting a gentle rocking motion. She would tell me, “Let the blade do the work, Colleen."
Cranberries were her favorite. She used them in everything…changing the traditional Matrimonial Squares (aka Date Squares) to feature her homemade whole cranberry sauce to her cast iron baked Crustless Cranberry Pie, a one-bowl confection that begs to be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. She also made cranberry jam, cranberry juice and dried her own cranberries for stuffing and snacks. She even decorated with them, using the berry as a pop of color on a table scape or stringing together with popcorn for use on outdoor trees during the holiday season (and to feed the birds, of course).
As we worked, she would tell me facts about the magic berry. “Did you know Native Americans used ‘crane berry' for medicinal purposes and as a natural dye?” “Yes, it was originally called a crane berry because its cone-shaped blossom reminded early Massachusetts settlers of the beak of a crane." Or “It was Captain Henry Hall, just over in Dennis, Mass., who first cultivated cranberries on a large scale.” Her knowledge was endless, her kindness without bounds.
She was my first friend in my new home. She was also the first friend I lost as a young adult. She died at the age of 60, my age now. Mildred Martha Theresa Studley Kelly, my Pantry Pal, will always live on in my heart.
Perfect Pumpkin Bread
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
1 can One-Pie pumpkin
1/2 bag fresh cranberries, halved
Combine all but cranberries and mix until smooth. Fold in berries. Fill greased and floured pan halfway. Bake at 350ºF...9”x5” loaf 45 minutes to 1-hour (make 2-3 loaves) or 5.75”x3” mini loaves 40-45 minutes (makes 8 small loaves). Toothpick should come out clean, top may be a little wet, but that’s okay. Cool on rack, in pan. Remove and individually wrap in plastic, then tin foil for freezing/gift giving. Store in refrigerator.