Cape Ann has its own upstairs-downstairs culture of “beloved servants” loyally attending the family on the other side of the kitchen door.
Recently, Lorralee Cotter, granddaughter of Annie Sanderson, who ran John Hay Hammond’s kitchen in his castle home in Magnolia for years, poured “County Cork” tea for me into her grandmother’s porcelain tea cups, so fine they were almost transparent.
(I recently wrote about The Hammond Castle Cookbook, which I subsequently learned from Cotter is dotted with Sanderson recipes.) Cotter sliced into a loaf of her grandmother’s Irish Soda Bread, a just-sweet-enough textured bread studded with raisins and candied fruit, perfect with a soft swipe of butter.
Cotter and I sat and talked about her grandmother, who came to America from her family farm in Cork in 1905 when she was sixteen. She began professionally cooking when, after raising her seven children, her youngest turned eleven. From then on Sanderson worked as a cook six days a week for sixteen hours a day, first for Mrs. Twombley of Eastern Point, and eventually for Mr. Hammond. She was able to purchase her own home on Rocky Neck, and to frequently escape to the Lenox Hotel in Boston for much needed breaks, and visits with Boston relatives. Cotter, who adored her grandmother, describes Sanderson as the ideal self-sufficient, independent woman.
Piccalilli, haddock poached in butter, lemon and parsley, and swan meringues filled with ice cream were a few of the dishes Cotter remembers her grandmother cooking for Mr. Hammond and his frequent guests. Sanderson purchased five pounds of fresh haddock each week just for the castle cats.
Cotter remembers Mr. Hammond fondly. As her own mother, Sanderson’s daughter, became the 2nd cook, Cotter spent much time in the castle playing with Boris, the German Shepherd, and helping make the Hammond Castle salt, about which I wrote recently. (Cotter didn’t remember the salt ever being warmed, and believes the herbal smell that wafted into the Great Hall was from the herbs her grandmother dried in the furnace room.)
Mutual respect seems be have been the main ingredient in Sanderson’s employment to Mr. Hammond. Cotter has only one memory of her grandmother ever being irritated with her employer – the day Sanderson walked into the kitchen holding a recipe clipped from a newspaper, and, in her Irish brogue declared, “he wants this. It’s German. It has beer in it, and it won’t work!”
Sanderson reluctantly retired at seventy-eight. “Mr. Hammond didn’t want her to leave,” Cotter said. The granddaughter visited her grandmother just weeks later, and found her pacing the floor and wringing her hands, saying, “I never should have retired; I never should have retired. I wish I were seventy again!”
A frequent dieter, Mr. Hammond often slipped into the kitchen to retrieve a jar of individual eggs poached in consomme which Sanderson kept for him. Soon after Sanderson retired, Mr. Hammond went on the “Metrecal Diet,” a popular diet product that eventually became “Slim-Fast.” He died that year at seventy-seven; Sanderson always claimed it was the Metrecal that killed him.
Gloria Parsons, 63, once cook to nationally renowned Lanesville sculptor Walker Hancock, laid a slice of her airy, cinnamon-crusted sour cream coffee cake on my plate last week. She poured coffee beside a pumpkin-shaped, sterling silver sugar bowl, a gift to her from “Mr. Hancock.”
“Mr. Hancock was the sweetest man that ever walked, besides my father. And when my father died, he (Mr. Hancock) took over.”
Parsons learned baking and sauces from her aunt, Mary Thibedeau, (“who hated to cook, but loved to eat!”) the kinds of recipes her mother wasn’t preparing at home. Parsons began working outside of the home at fourteen, starting as 2nd maid to Roy Garrett Watson, president of the Christian Science Church, who had a home on Eastern Point, and eventually becoming their cook. Formal dinners at the Watson household meant Parsons put on a black dress with the lace collar. The chauffeur wore a white jacket and white gloves.
“But, it was like that then,” she says, “it was a different time. I think it’s terrible that things have changed. Things were nicer then.
“I wanted to be an architect, and design kitchens,” Parsons told me, but, through the entwined community of well-to-do on Cape Ann, she also spent time cooking for Walworth Barbour, American Ambasador to Israel. In the Barbour home Parsons met Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, with whom Parsons sat and talked about children. When Hancock’s wife passed away, someone suggested that Parsons cook for him. Mr. Watson had been ill, and Parsons was given a month away, so she agreed to work for Hancock for that month. Laughingly, she admits, “but I fell in love with him!”
Hancock had a rigid work schedule, but alway stopped for a large lunch, and later a very light supper, as was the custom in those years.
“I would make up little dinners and freeze them, something he could eat later; I didn’t want him eating processed foods.”
In either household, no one ever directed Parsons’ meals. “”Surprise me,’” Hancock would tell her. Mr. Watson’s preference was chicken and souffles. Hancock ate anything except sweet potatoes, although his favorite was her Mulligatawny stew. He was also very happy with a dish of leftover mashed potatoes, made into patties and fried.
“Mr. Watson’s food was much fancier than Mr. Hancock’s. (At the Watson household) The table was always set and there were finger bowls at every meal,” Parsons explained. At Walker Hancock’s interview Parsons asked about his finger bowls, to which he replied, “No one uses finger bowls anymore!”
Justice Warren Burger, an amateur sculptor, came to “play” with Hancock in the studio. Parsons was at first intimidated, until he stepped out of the studio in baggy pants, and an untucked shirt, covered in clay. Parsons was intimidated once more when it was announced that Julia Child was coming for lunch, but, ever gracious, Child later added that she would be bringing a picnic.
Parsons considered each of her employers family. “Mrs. Watson taught me how to arrange flowers, and set a table properly…Mr. Hancock called me everyday when my father was sick.” Later, as Walker Hancock grew older, he would spend Easter with Parsons in her own home.
“It was a wonderful life. I was very lucky. Everyone was very generous with me, with pay, holidays; they even thought of me in their wills. I met amazing people from around the world, and learned about things going on around the world I would never have been exposed to. It really was ‘upstairs downstairs.’”
Gloria Parsons’ Mulligatawny Soup – Walker Hancock’s favorite
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for browning chicken
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 boneless chicken breasts, cut in bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons flour
3-4 tablespoons curry powder (Madras is best)
1 tablespoon garlic powder
salt and pepper
2 quarts chicken stock
3 cans stewed tomatoes, 14.5 ounces each
2 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 cup cooked rice (optional – Mr. Hancock liked this without rice.)
- In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil to medium. Add onions, peppers, celery and carrots, and allow to cook slowly until transparent. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.
- Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pot, and heat to medium. In a medium glass bowl, mix together flour, curry powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Dredge chicken pieces in this mixture, and brown them in the hot oil, turning to brown all sides.
- Return vegetables to pan, and add chicken stock, stewed tomatoes, and apples. Cook on low for one hour. When finished, add rice if desired, and heat through.
Annie Sanderson’s Special Irish Soda Bread
makes 1 loaf
2 cups King Arthur flour
3 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup citron or candied orange and lemon peel
1 egg mixed with enough milk to make 1 cup
2 tablespoons melted butter + more melted butter to brush top
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Mix first 5 ingredients together in a large bowl. Add raisins and peel, and coat with flour mixture.
- Beat egg in milk, and add to dry ingredients with 2 tablespoons melted butter. Mix just enough to handle it.
- Place dough in an ungreased 10” cast iron skillet or a greased round cake pan. With a sharp knife, cut a cross in the crest of the dough.
- Bake for 45 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.
- Butter the top of the loaf with remaining melted butter. Remove from pan and allow to cool on a wire rack.
- Serve warm with lost of butter and tea.