As Baltimore writer Sheri Venema reacquainted herself with her mother’s quaint church cookbook, she pondered “a time when a woman became a suffix to her husband” — once her baking was done, she realized much more.

The recipe for Steamed Cranberry Pudding did not speak to me at first. The directions seemed too cryptic: Waxed paper? Tin cans? Also, the tattered cookbook in which I found the recipe originated in the long-ago kitchens of women in my childhood church, and it seemed laden with dishes predictable and dull.

Tuna Noodle Casserole.

Miracle Cheese Cake (lemon Jell-O with cream cheese and sugar).

Oven Barbecue (Spam, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce).

Typed on a manual typewriter and then Xeroxed and bound with cheap plastic coil, the cookbooks were sold to raise money for a church society. My copy long ago lost its red cover. I sometimes took it out of its protective Ziploc bag to find a cookie recipe, but mostly I felt superior to this little book with its stains and misspellings. Clearly it came from a time when cream of mushroom soup and oleo ruled every kitchen in my neighborhood, and I had walked away from the Midwestern housewifery prescribed in its pages. I owned a wok and a Silver Palate cookbook. I made my own hummus. 

The cookbook also comes from a time when a woman became a suffix to her husband. The recipe for Fresh Peach Pie was from Mrs. H. Van Ess (Goldie), the One-Pan Caramel Brownies from Mrs. J. VanderHeide (Ann) and the Pigs in the Blanket from Mrs. N. Mersman (Elaine). Reduced to parentheticals, the women seem to float off the page, anchored only by an afterthought. Without those curved brackets to reveal their names, they might be remembered as nothing more than their husband’s initial, their bran muffins and their banana bread.

I’ve recently started watching the first season of “Mad Men” and I recognize the food from 1960 (“Creamed spinach or creamed corn?” asks a waiter at a posh restaurant). I also recognize the women, like Mrs. Donald Draper (Betty), encased by the brackets and expectations of a man’s world.

The women in my cookbook were our neighbors. They wore aprons and sensible shoes. To church they wore hats and gloves. One of them drove a Thunderbird, which I thought was exotic. They made the comfort food of my childhood:  Blueberry Buckle (p. 16 in the cookbook), a moist coffee cake with fresh Michigan berries; and Banket (p. 59), a Dutch Christmas treat with an almond-paste filling inside a flaky crust.

My mother — Mrs. J. Venema (Irene) — contributed recipes for her fabulous pecan rolls and her chocolate fudge sauce. She also made helpful notes on other recipes: 1 pkg. of dates = 8 oz., she wrote on Mrs. J. Kett (Marciel)’s recipe for date nut bread. The notes are still there, phantoms in my mother’s handwriting, almost 20 years after she died and the book came to be mine.

The cookbook starts with breads and cakes, then veers off briefly into main courses (Good Easy Casserole, Pork & Beef Casserole, Spam Country Dinner). Soon after, the pages joyously careen back to what these women really adored: cookies and pies and fudge and lemon squares and brownies. All things sweet make up the heart of this cookbook.


The recipe for Steamed Cranberry Pudding came from Mrs. A. Van Eerden (Bess). I remember Bess Van Eerden. She was the sweet second wife of her husband, who died at home one summer Sunday while Bess was in her church pew.

Here are her spare directions:

1 1/3 C. flour

2 C. halved cranberries

1/3 C.  boiling water

2 tsp soda

½ C molasses

½ tsp salt

Dissolve soda in hot water and combine with other ingredients. Pour into cans and cover with waxed paper and steam 2 hours. Serve hot with the following sauce:

½ C butter

½ C cream

1C sugar

1 tsp vanilla

Combine and bring to a boil, then beat until creamy. This receipe [sic] is over 100 years old.

That last sentence intrigued me. No other recipe in the book included any information – even as slight as this – about its provenance. This was no Velveeta-and-canned-mushroom dish put together by Betty Draper circa 1960. People savored this pudding, perhaps, during the Civil War. Simple though the recipe looked, it offered a challenge.


I first assayed this pudding one year when my in-laws were coming for Christmas. But I had many questions: What size cans? How do you steam pudding?  I turned to “Joy of Cooking” for help. Irma Rombauer’s best-seller calls for cans with tight lids. I didn’t have any, so I tried it Bess Van Eerden’s way and used waxed paper on two cans that had held 16 ounces of, say, tomatoes. Next, I converted a lobster pot, with its basket insert, into a steamer. During the required two hours of cooking, I hovered, watching as the batter rose and strained against the waxed paper, secured to the cans with twine. I had no idea how, when served, a small round of brown bread pudding, dotted with red cranberries and swaddled in its butter cream sauce, would make us all swoon.

all photos by Sheri Venema
all photos by Sheri Venema

This Christmas I made it again. Seeing my batter in cans with their waxed paper caps made me rue my smugness, I who once thought this thin book had nothing to teach me. Now I pondered those neighborhood kitchens, the ghost women on the yellowed pages in front of me. This time I added rum to the sauce.

I went back to the cookbook and read other recipes more closely. All this time I had regarded the women as willingly sidelined by their culture, so easily satisfied with Jell-O and meatloaf, with pineapple fluff and a sprinkle of crushed potato chips. But I had missed something about these wives. They did not batter the barricades nor break themselves against their parentheses. They poked. They nudged. They pressed chocolate kisses into their peanut butter cookies, glorified the common gelatin, magnified the delights of cream cheese, sweetened everything, exhorted their egg whites into proud, shiny meringue and, not often but once in a while, were brave enough to add garlic to a dish. In this way they made themselves Ann and Goldie, Marciel and Irene. They dared more than I had known.

Sheri Venema has no parentheses in her name. She is a journalist and teacher who has worked at newspapers in Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota and Arkansas and now lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood with her husband and two dogs.

13 replies on “Steamed Cranberry Pudding: A Sweet Ghost Story”

  1. Fabulous article, not a cook, and usually don’t care much for cooking stories, but I may have to try to make the cranberry pudding!

  2. Thanks for this recipe. I teach women’s history and as your article shows, recipes provide such valuable insights into women’s lives.
    Any chance you would share the recipe for your mother’s fabulous pecan rolls?

  3. Excellent writing! I too will try the cranberry pudding. Did you use fresh or dried cranberries? Were they whole or did you cut them?

    Thank you

    1. Thanks to all of you for your comments! If you make the cranberry pudding, be sure to grease the tin cans well so the pudding will slide out easily. You’ll probably have to coax it with a knife.

      The cranberries were fresh. I put them through a food processor VERY briefly to chop them without turning them to mush.

      I’ve never been able to get my mom’s pecan rolls to rise, but perhaps you’ll succeed at it! This is a long recipe; I hope it works for you!


      1/2 cake compressed yeast
      1 T water
      1/2 C hot milk
      1/4 C shortening (I’m not sure what my mother used for shortening, probably butter or oleo.)
      2 T white sugar
      1/2 tsp salt
      1 egg
      2 1/4 C all-purpose flour

      1/4 C white sugar
      1/4 C pecans, chopped

      Dissolve yeast in water. Combine hot milk, shortening, sugar and salt. Cool. Add well-beaten egg and yeast. Mix well. Add half of the flour. Beat.

      Add remaining flour and beat until smooth. Place in refrigerator in greased bowl. Cover and chill.

      Roll dough into a rectangle about 1 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle with 2T soft shortening and mixture of white sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle about 1/4 C nutmeats over top and roll like a jelly roll. Cut roll into 12 slices for larger rolls or 18 slices for smaller rolls.

      Remaining 2 T shortening
      1/2 C. brown sugar
      3 T water
      1/2 C pecans

      Melt remaining 2T of shortening, add brown sugar and water and cook slightly.
      Using a muffin tin, put a little bit of the brown sugar mixture in the bottom of each spot. Put remaining pecans on top of the brown sugar mixture. Place rolls on top and let rise about 1-2 hours.

      Bake in preheated oven at 375 for 15 to 20 minutes.

  4. Sheri, thanks for a perfect description of what it was like to be us growing up. It was truly a time when women were defined by their ‘better half’ – definitely ‘Mrs. XYZ’ instead of ‘Goldie XYZ’ – the detail that is described in your piece totally nails the way things were for women back in the day.

    My mother was of that era, when women were raised to be polite, quiet, seen and not heard. Their ‘job’ was to keep an immaculate house, cook all the meals, raise the children and take care of their husbands.

    Mom was always cooking, she collected recipes and cookbooks. She made everything from scratch and it was always delicious, no matter how ‘simple’ the recipe seemed to be. She and my father planted a large garden every year so we had plenty of fresh vegetables. The backyard was also adorned with fruit trees and bushes along with a grape arbor hanging over the driveway in front of the garage.

    I shared many precioius hours in the kitchen with her, learning how to bake all the fabulous sweets that she, my sisters and my aunts were known for preparing for holidays and for ‘everydays.’ At an early age, I gained a deep appreciation for and a love of preparing food from scratch.

    My mother passed away in 2003, but she remains with me still through my collection of her handwritten recipe cards and her cookbooks. In this new world of multi-tasking, long work hours, frozen foods and take out, cookng from scratch is nearly a lost art. Women today cook more like Sandra Lee on the Food Network and less like Julia, Nigella and Martha.
    What a shame, that we have given in to the demands of ever increasing work loads and chemical laden prepackaged foods.

    Thank goodness that today’s younger generation seems to have a renewed interest in growing and preparing their own food. Many of my younger friends have food blogs, participate in community gardens and CSAs. They are constantly posting gorgeous images of the fabulous food that they create from scratch, taking care to design the presentation as carefully as any chef would. Kudos to them, I am so proud that they are digging back to their roots in an effort to be and stay healthy as well as and effort to revisit and preserve family traditions.

    Things were so much simpler then……

    Thanks so much for a great article!


  5. What a great article! I have several of those types of cookbooks, left over from my mother and grandmother, and when I was learning to cook, I used them all the time. Now I think it’s time to pull them down from the top shelf, and look at them (and use them!) with a whole new perspective and appreciation. And I agree with Betsy: any chance of getting that pecan roll recipe??

    1. Thanks, Millicent! See above for the pecan roll recipe. It’s a little labor intensive; I hope it works for you!

  6. My mother was an early adapter (adopter?) of all things frozen. I cook lots more fresh things than she did even though she got dinner on the table every night. Cooking for others is a true labor of love.

  7. I also have this cook book (the reprinted version). I am married to one of Mrs. J. VanderHeide (Ann) grandsons. My mother-in-law gave this cookbook to me for Christmas one year. I love it when I make one of the dishes from it and everyone starts to reminisce about the past and family…. food can bring people together. But I did keep my maiden name when I got married:)

    1. Holly,
      Wow! it IS a small world. I grew up next to the Vander Heides, and Ann Vander Heide was the one with the Thunderbird. If you’re married to one of the Jansmas, I know that side of the family too.

    2. Yes, it is a small world! I’m actually married to a Vander Heide but do know the Jansmas. We’re heading to MI this summer and just found out Grandma Vander Heide’s house is for sale. We hope to stop by and check out the old neighborhood:)


  8. This is our family tradition for at least 100 years. Very similar prep and cook. We love it and we’re searching to see if anyone else makes something similar.

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