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Revisiting Grandma Genny’s Workplace…and Her Crumble Topping Recipe!

City Clerk Ann Cullinan
with my Grandma Genny’s recipe

Life back in Iowa can often be strange and wonderful. It seems every week brings a new surprise, often in the form of a renewed connection to my roots. Roots I didn’t even know I still had. I came back to my birthplace of Ottumwa, Iowa for a drive-by visit this summer, only to have a peek at my childhood home, then move on and return to Southern California to settle down. I lived in Ottumwa until I was 12, then my family moved to Davenport. I graduated early from high school (to get the hell out of this boring state!) and left Iowa for what I thought was “for good” when I was 17. Fast forward 30 years later. Ha!

Never say never.

Four months after my “quick visit” to see my childhood home, I’m still here in Iowa. Grant Wood summed it up best: “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” I live here now, in the American Gothic House, just 15 miles from the house where I grew up with my four siblings.

I didn’t expect Ottumwa to factor in much to my new life in Eldon. I figured I would gravitate toward more left-leaning Fairfield for my shopping and socializing — and espresso addiction. What I hadn’t considered is my history. I hadn’t even acknowledged that I had one. I’ve moved many, many, many times in my adult life — from Iowa to Washington State to Mexico, Colorado, Jamaica, Switzerland, France, Thailand, Chicago, Kenya, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Germany, Portland, Mexico again, Texas, and back to Portland, in roughly that order. Just reading my own list makes me tired! I’ve moved so far and so often I didn’t feel I had any roots anywhere. “Home is where you hang your hat,” my Grandpa Lyle used to tell me. An old boyfriend said something meant to be less complimentary: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” I just shrugged it off. Who wants to be a moss-covered stone? Not me! As far as I was concerned, roots were for people who lived in boring Iowa.

But ever since I moved into the American Gothic House strange things have been happening. My memory is getting a workout, synapses dormant since childhood have been firing, new connections to old people keep appearing, and these funny little root-like stubs seem to be sprouting under my feet.

For starters, my best customer for my Pitchfork Pie Stand pies, David Vass, owns the South Side Drug in Ottumwa. My dad’s dental office was just down the street from this drug store, which had a soda fountain, and as kids we went there for milk shakes after getting our teeth cleaned. (I know, I know.) The soda fountain (and its $1.75 milk shakes!) is still there and so are many of the employees from 30 years ago, who remember my dad – and they even remember me!

A man on the board of directors for the American Gothic House Center, Steve Siegel, informed me he lives in Ottumwa—in my grandparents’ old house. Not only that, he bought the house directly from them 31 years ago. He knew my grandparents!

My dad’ parents,
Genevieve and Lyle Howard

And then this week, I was told through the American Gothic grapevine that the outgoing City Clerk of Ottumwa, Ann Cullinan, was in possession of a pie recipe that came from my Grandma Genny! Ann has worked for City Hall for 43 and 1/2 years. She worked directly with my grandmother, who served as Ottumwa’s City Clerk herself for many years, and essentially took over my grandma’s job when she retired. Ann’s last day at City Hall is today so I rushed over to Ottumwa on Monday to meet her – and to pick up the recipe.

I don’t remember my Grandma Genny as being much of a cook, and certainly not a pie baker. She was a career woman! She was an elected government official! She wasn’t going to get stuck in any kitchen making all the meals. She was also a product of her generation and, like many others of her time, was enticed by the new packaged, processed, “quick and easy” products that promised to make cooking and baking, well, quicker and easier. The only recipe I inherited from my grandma was for her cranberry bread, which, years later, I found out was the exact recipe printed on the Ocean Spray cranberry package. So when I drove to Ottumwa to meet with Ann I didn’t set my expectations very high for what this recipe might be. Perhaps the pie crust was made with margarine and not butter. Perhaps the filling called for some ungodly quantity of sugar.

Ottumwa City Hall. Still the same after all these years.

I entered the elegant old building, the place my grandma had worked all those years ago, the same place I had been inside many times when she worked there. While I didn’t remember what the inside had looked like before, I knew nothing had changed. These were the same marble floors my grandma had walked, the same wooden chairs on which she sat, the same fluorescent lights under which she read her legal documents. History, nostalgia, awe – I was flooded with a range of emotions. I could practically feel the moss growing on my skin. Or were those roots—awakened and fertilized by long forgotten yet familiar ground?

My grandma spent more time in this courtroom than in her kitchen.

Ann greeted me warmly. She said she remembered me coming in to see my grandma when I was in grade school. When I was young. Long before I left Iowa to see the world. My life had barely begun back then. And now here I was. All grown up. And living 15 miles away.

“It’s not exactly a pie recipe,” Ann warned me. “It’s just for a crumble topping.”

I didn’t care. It was from my grandma. Well, it was from Ann, the closest I would ever get to my grandma now. (Genny died 20 years ago, one year after the death of my Grandpa Lyle.) I inspected the recipe, nodding approvingly that the ingredients included real butter, brown sugar and flour. “That’s the same way I make it!” I told Ann. “Oh, but I see Genny adds cinnamon, nutmeg and baking powder to hers. I’ll have to try adding those extra things.”

From the Kitchen of Genny Howard. And now it’s in my kitchen.

“It’s good, I’ve been making it that way ever since she gave me the recipe,” she assured me. “Now I need my recipe card back. Let me make you a photocopy.”

Ottumwa will have a new City Clerk after today, one who will not have worked with or have even known my grandmother. But based on my experiences so far, I’m sure there will be other people in this town of 25,000, who knew her. And surely there are other people who knew me from way back when. It will be surprising, strange and wonderful to meet them again. Thirty years after I left, I am discovering so many things since my return to Iowa: the joy in rediscovering family connections, the grounding sensation of finding I actually do have roots, and that even though it isn’t France, I am happily learning that Iowa is definitely not boring.