Cheaper By the Half-Dozen

March 15, 2018

"I know you already talked to Aunt Jeanne" were the first words my mom said to me on 9/11. I'd called to let her know I was okay. 

 

That morning I left the gym and saw the moment of impact when the second twin tower exploded with a huge fire ball.

 

The first call I got was from Aunt Jeanne, asking, "Are you okay?" Aunt Jeanne is Mom's oldest sibling. And since I'm the oldest of six kids, I always felt close to her. She was the mother of two boys, no girls, so I was happy to fill in as an occasional substitute daughter. I looked forward to our time together in the kitchen of her house in upstate New York, baking cookies and making pizza or ice cream, with NPR on in the background. It was a respite from the chaos and mounting responsibilities that awaited me with five younger siblings at home. Six kids meant our lives were hectic. And when Mom lost it, on occasion, she'd yell at me, "Jeanne!"

 

But now I'd just finished associate producing a documentary about homeless people living underground in the subway tunnels. Every day I commuted through the World Trade Center, until Monday, September 10th. And Tuesday was September 11th. I tried to make calls out, but the phone lines were constantly busy. 

 

I finally got a dial tone and reached my dad at work. "Call Mom," he said. But by now I was upset. Why couldn't she call me? I called her anyway. Aunt Jeanne had called too, so Mom already knew that I was safe. 

 

The next week was agonizing. Waiting for news from family and friends. Cars towed off the streets from drivers that were missing. Dry cleaners with so many unclaimed clothes. The family fliers with pictures of lost loved ones. 

 

I found out that my friend Jane Ellen's cousin and sister-in-law had died, so I planned to travel to Garden City, Long Island, where their family lived, but that was still days away. 

 

I decided to visit my parents in Pennsylvania. 

 

My mom went to church every day and had told me that she and her friends were praying for Jane Ellen and her family. I hadn't been to church in years, but I mentioned it to Jane Ellen, and she asked me to thank Mom. 

 

The morning that I was ready to leave for Garden City, Mom was already at mass. Dad pointed out a round white Tupperware container sitting on the kitchen table, "Mom said to take the Irish soda bread." 

 

Grandma McCauley's Irish soda bread recipe, unlike many drier versions, was buttery, moist and chewy, with lots of juicy raisins, best eaten with extra pats of butter on each slice. I'd come to resent this bread, since I'd been told to eat it all day long on holidays until dinner, so as not to spoil my meal. I associated it with being hungry. But it was something that all of us would eat, unlike Mom's jiggly Jell-O molds, blue veiny chicken legs, fluorescent yellow deviled eggs, and the memorable crock pot tomato sauce, complete with gelatinous seeds that mercifully made an appearance for one night only. 

 

Cooking just wasn't Mom's favorite thing. 

 

Some asked her, "Six kids? How do you do it?" 

 

Mom chirped, "Cheaper By the Half-Dozen."

 

Quick and easy, in bulk, was her general theme. Breakfast batches of Farina Cream of Wheat, rather than the slow cooked oatmeal I liked. Lunches with toasted bread and cheese. As Mom pulled the baking sheet out of the oven, with six pieces of white bread, each under a single, dry slice of American cheese, I'd dream of the sandwich I really wanted: Aunt Jeanne's grilled cheese, fried golden brown with butter, hearty wheat bread and plenty of savory, sharp cheddar. Carefully cut into triangles, just for me (!), I'd savor every crispy and gooey bite.

 

But Mom's baking was a deliciously different story. And Grandma McCauley's Irish soda bread was her crown jewel in the kitchen. Baked in a round iron skillet, we cut narrow slices across the bread. I'm not sure why we never sliced it like a pie, so that each piece had some of the crust and some of the middle, but we just never did. I always liked the pieces in the middle better than the firmer crust, and I was often accused of monopolizing the center. Mom would scold me, "Jeanne!"

 

I gave the soda bread to Jane Ellen's family in Garden City and attended the funeral for her sister-in-law Beth. It seemed that nearly everyone had more funerals to attend, some on the same day. 

 

At the reception, Beth's father spoke to me. "Thank you for that cake. It was delicious."

 

I was so touched by his thanks, despite his grief, but I hadn't given him cake.

 

He looked confused. "That cake with the raisins, that wasn't from you?"

 

It really wasn't from me, but I realized how Mom's Irish soda bread had helped his family during this ordeal. 

 

A few months later, I received the most memorable Christmas card I've ever gotten. The aftermath of 9/11 was still very much a part of our daily lives, and yet Jane Ellen's sweet daughter Caroline was smiling out from this card. Even though her aunt and cousin had been taken so senselessly, Caroline was still happily waving our flag, an inspiring image of hope and love for all of us. 

I've never actually made the Irish soda bread. Baking in our house was often rushed, rather than shared. It was all about the outcome, feeding those half-dozen hungry mouths. So, in possibly related news, I’m a terrible cook and an even worse baker. But maybe I'll try it now with my three kids because "Cheaper By the Quarter Dozen, Jeanne."

 

And yes, I have my very own daughter named Jeanne now too.

---

Melissa Jeanne Givey is a writer, director, and producer; she is on Instagram and Twitter.

Grandma McCauley's Irish Soda Bread

 

4 c. flour

1 c. sugar

3 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

2 c. raisins

2 eggs (slightly beaten)

3 c. buttermilk*

2 T. melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine dry ingredients.

Combine liquid ingredients.

Add liquid to dry, and mix with a spoon.

Pour into a heavily greased 10-inch black iron (or heavy duty) skillet.

Bake for 1 hour.

Remove from oven and take it out of the pan immediately.

Let cool 1 hour before cutting. 

 

*Aunt Jeanne recommends substituting 1 pt. plain yogurt for the 3 c. buttermilk.

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