This time of year, members of the Gazo family get very competitive.
That's because when the temperatures start to drop and the holidays approach, Beatrice Gazo heads into the kitchen to make her famous mushroom soup.
And because the Egg Harbor City woman has always been self-sufficient, her soup isn't made with mushrooms from store aisles.
She and her children head out into the woods to gather the mushrooms, just as they have done for decades.
"We only pick one kind of mushroom, and we all know that one, and we all have our secret spots where we know they are," said daughter Jane Gazo Bavlsik, 68, of Port Republic. "We won't tell one another where we go, then we'll laugh and see who get the most."
And Beatrice Gazo is still leading the hunt.
"My mother loves it," Bavlsik said. "She's like a little kid. She gets her walking stick, basket and knife and she's off like a kid."
That a 91-year-old woman is still bushwacking in search of mushrooms comes as a surprise only to those who don't know Gazo. Talk to her biggest fans - her children - and they tell a story of a woman full of grit, determination and love.
"We had a wonderful childhood," Bavlsik said. "We weren't rich, we were watching every penny, but we had great times."
Childhood memories are filled with recollections of good times - and good meals - on the family farm.
"Anyone can be a good cook when you are spending $100 a meal," said son Michael Gazo, 61, Beatrice Gazo's middle child. "But to be a good cook when you have only $5 to spend on a meal - that's different."
Beatrice Gazo was born in Slovakia and lived there for the first 16 years of her life. But the teen girl left her village and mother and siblings behind to come to America to keep house and cook for her father, who was working in New York City.
It took several decades for the rest of the family to follow, and it would be 30 years before she returned to her native country.
Gazo landed here July 4. But the national day of celebration was unsettling for the young girl with the long blonde braids - she was terrified by the firecrackers going off in the tenement on the eastside of New York.
In addition to caring for her father, Beatrice Gazo also got a job as a nanny. She might have been thousands of miles from home, but she found love when she met Louis Gazo, a young man who came from the same village and had also made his way to America.
The pair married when she was 21. He served in World War II, and after the war, the couple bought a small farm on the outskirts of Egg Harbor City and settled down to raise five children.
The farm provided most everything the young family needed. The family grew their own vegetables,and raised chickens, ducks, pigs and goats. Louis Gazo was employed as an ironworker in Atlantic City, so Beatrice Gazo was responsible for tending the farm garden, Bavlsik said.
Her father had a smokehouse and every fall he would kill a pig and smoke hams. The Gazo boys loved to hunt and fish, and another family favorite was smoked fish. The family would also can their beets and other produce and pick blueberries and other fruit for jams.
"Every Sunday she would make noodles and we would have chicken soup," Bavlsik said.
Feathers from the chickens, geese and ducks would be used to make pillows and comforters. The family even made their own rugs, Michael Gazo said.
Even with a large family, there was always enough to share, Bavlsik said.
Beatrice Gazo is known around town and St. Nicholas Parish as the soup lady, for her practice of making soup for the elderly, her daughter said.
"Mention that she is baking and someone is bound to stop by," Gazo said.
Gazo taught her children to cook, and they have passed these skills down to their own children.
The family remains close, with Gazo now boasting 11 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. Most come to the farm at this time of year to help in the search for mushrooms.
Once picked, the mushrooms are sliced, dried and stored in jars or frozen.
Some wind up in goulash and other meals during the year. But a large part are destined for the mushroom soup, which is traditionally served on Christmas Eve.
"It is our tradition to make this soup on Christmas Eve, a day of fast and abstinence to prepare for the birth of Christ," Bavlsik said. "In our best clothes, scrubbed clean we all gathered around a candle-lit table, as my father would say a prayer, then break the blessed wafers, dip them in honey, to bring sweetness to our lives and pass a piece to my mother and each child and visitor. Then a simple meal of fish, followed by Mom's wonderful poppy seed and nut cakes. It is still celebrated every Dec. 24 in all our households, whether we return to the farm or are with our own families."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Mushroom Soup by Bea
•4 teaspoons of butter
•1 pound sliced fresh white
•1 cup minced celery
•1 cup minced onion
•2 quarts chicken broth
•3 pitted prunes
•1/2 cup frozen peas
•4 ounces sour cream
In a large pot saute butter, mushrooms, celery and onions. When golden brown and soft, add chicken broth. Bring to a slow simmer. Add mushrooms and prunes and cook for a half hour. Add peas and simmer 10 minutes more. Turn off heat. In a small bowl, ladle 1 cup of the soup, sour cream and stir until smooth. Return soup and cream to the pot. Serve hot.
Note: Only a qualified expert should pick mushrooms in the wild, as there are many dangerous varieties. If not sure, buy them in a store or online.
•A piece of pork butt, about two pounds, cubed
•8 ounces of sauerkraut
•Teaspoon of Hungarian paprika
•One onion, sliced
•1 cup sliced, store-bought mushrooms
•1/2 cup dried mushrooms (optional)
•4 ounces sour cream
•salt and pepper to taste
•1 cup of water
In a heavy pan, saute onion and store-bought mushrooms. Brown the pork in a little bit of oil. Add sauerkraut and juice. Add dried mushrooms, paprika and pepper. Hold off on salt until the end. Add a cup of water. Simmer for 45-minute to an hour. Take pot off heat. Take one cup of broth, put in bowl, add sour cream, mix well with whisk. Return to pot. Salt to taste. Keep warm until serving.