Sometimes family recipes conjure up memories that have nothing to do with great meals.
Such is the case with Marguerite Heaton-Colella's bread pudding recipe.
The recipe originated with Colella's maternal grandmother, but she knows her mother made it when Colella was a young girl growing up in Pleasantville and Egg Harbor Township.
Colella's mother had a habit of putting things on a back step to cool.
The neighbors had a dog named Stumpy.
The combination made for an unforgetable incident.
"She placed it on the step with no cover for some reason. Later, when she went to retrieve it, the neighbor's dog, Stumpy, had enjoyed all of it. That was the last time she cooled food outside on the step," Colella recalls.
Colella now lives in Egg Harbor Township and works as both a private counselor and leading groups at Gilda's Club South Jersey in Linwood. In her free time, Colella is a dedicated foodie, with a large kitchen, an herb garden and "every cooking implement known to man."
But there was a time in her life when even getting food was a big deal - and losing a rich dessert to the neighbor's dog was something that - tragic then, funny now - would be remembered forever.
Colella's family has deep roots in southern New Jersey. Her mother's family settled in the area in the 1800s. Family legend has it Colella's paternal grandmother, Rosie Bolf, was the first female bus driver in New Jersey. Colella got confirmation during an open house at the Egg Harbor Historical Society.
"I was talking with June Sheridan at the open house and I said I didn't know if the story was true. She said 'Wait a minute' and came back with a picture of her with her bus. The bus looks like it was made of wood, and on the bus is written R. Bolf, so now I know the story was true," Colella said.
Heaton's mother, Cora Swangler, grew up during the Depression and was very poor. She only went to school until seventh grade and never got her driver's license. As an adult, she married Heaton's father, Steve Bolf. The father was a butcher. Along with one of Heaton's uncles, he owned a number of markets in Pleasantville.
The couple had two children, Colella and her brother, Stephen. But the marriage was not a happy one, and the pair divorced.
With little education and no transportation, things were tough for the young mother and her children. Swangler worked cleaning houses whenever she could and made meals with whatever meat her former husband would supply to his offspring.
"She learned to make stuff out of whatever she could. My father being a butcher, he would supply chicken parts and chicken gizzards. She would make this into a little gravy that she then poured over rice. She would make chicken soup from the chicken necks and backs," Colella recalls. Another family meal was a ground beef and noodle stew called slumgullion - a dish Colella has looked up on the Internet to get an idea of what was in it.
"Was it good? When you are poor everything is good. You take what you get. I liked it," she said.
Colella remembers those days as being tough times.
"I was very underweight and sickly," she said. "I remember going through someone's trash, getting a peanut butter jar and scooping out the peanut butter."
Not everything was grim.
She can laugh about the Stumpy incident (the dog was named after his abbreviated tail) and another incident where her mother accidentally dropped a lemon meringue pie, intended to sit on a windowsill to cool, onto the pavement two stories below.
"People can have nothing and be very happy," she said. "My mother taught me to be appreciative and not waste things."
These are values Colella, who preferred not to give her age, with two children and two stepchildren, continues to embrace.
She hangs her clothes out to dry, recycles everything she can and either gives away unwanted items or donates them to thrift shops.
"Most of it still sticks. I think they are good values," she said.
Those hungry years, as well as time spent working in the now-closed Eating Disorder Center at Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation in Pomona, helped develop an appreciation for good, nutritious food.
She tries to always use fresh ingredients and tries to avoid processed foods or foods loaded with chemicals. A recent to-do list included making pumpkin soup, pumpkin pies and pumpkin peanut butter dog biscuits using fresh pumpkin and making bean soup for a church function - using dried, not canned, beans.
Colella's husband, Sam, a good cook in his own right, often works as prep person when she's in the kitchen. Because of the hours she works, Colella can't make dinner every night. Many weeks, the couple will make big batches of a meal to get them through nights where there is no time to cook.
Colella's quest for nutrition also includes remaking recipes she remembers from when she was young. For the bread pudding recipe, for example, Colella convinced her mother to substitute multi-grain bread instead of white bread. She's also tweaked the recipe to add coconut topping.
And when she's making the recipe, Colella often finds time to think of Stumpy, his thieving ways, and her mother's misguided quest to cool dessert.
"I laugh whenever I can. Whether it is at the group at Gilda's Club or with my other clients, many times we laugh," she said. "I've always said it is important to find stuff to laugh about."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Bread Pudding DeLuxe
•1 1/2 cups sugar
•1/4 teaspoon salt
•2 cans evaporated milk (Mom didn't specify size of cans. Since the cans have gotten smaller, I add another can of milk and water.)
•2 cans water
•2 teaspoon vanilla
•4 slices bread torn into small pieces
•Packaged sweetened coconut, optional
Beat eggs until frothy, then add sugar and salt. Beat well until blended, then add the evaporated milk, water and vanilla.
Beat in bread pieces until well blended. Pour into buttered pan. Top with coconut if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour by placing the pan inside a larger pan with at least 1 inch of water. It's done when a knife placed in center comes out clean.