Grace Gleeson didn't like to cook, but when she ventured into the kitchen the results were memorable.
That's how it seems to her granddaughter, Mary Pat Padula, a 43-year-old teacher from Dennis Township, who serves up her Nana's only dish to visitors every Halloween.
"My grandad became the cook because my Nana really never liked to cook - she did cook when she was a mother, but she hated it so much, she decided she would never cook again," Padula said.
The one dish Gleeson did make was a macaroni and cheese casserole that Padula calls Nana's Macaroni Bake. The recipe brings back lots of happy memories for Padula of visits to her grandparents in Sea Isle City.
"I am one of five children. On Halloween night for a quick dinner, my Mom cut up hot dogs in macaroni and cheese with peas and out the door we went. Well now for Halloween, I continue that tradition using my Nana's mac and cheese recipe," she said.
But Grace Gleeson didn't just leave her granddaughter with a great recipe. She also supplied Padula with a childhood's worth of happy memories and stories of summers spent at the New Jersey shore.
Padula's parents, Sallie Gleeson and Ron Padula came from different sections of Philadelphia and met one summer when their families had adjacent summer homes in Sea Isle City.
"They were the boy and girl next door. They were made for each other," Padula said.
The couple married and settled in Lansdowne, Pa., where they had four boys and one girl - meaning that young Mary Pat was often singled out for special attention.
"I was Daddy's little girl and Mommy's princess," Padula recalled.
Her dad was a college professor and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. While winters were spent in Pennsylvania, summers were spent in Sea Isle, where both sets of grandparents had homes.
"We left Lansdowne on the last day of school," Padula recalls. "It was awesome. I saw my four grandparents every day of the summer."
Gleeson made an impression on her young granddaughter.
Austin Gleeson was an optometrist, and Grace Gleeson had a maid for her house in northeast Philadelphia.
The maid may have stayed home during the summers, but Grace Gleeson brought a Philadelphia sense of style to the sleepy southern New Jersey beach town.
Padula remembers her grandmother wearing high heels and big hats to the beach and white gloves on trips to the ice cream parlor.
"We were like 'Nana, were you in the Miss America Pageant at one time?'" Padula recalled. "Everyone in their generation was like that. They'd sit on the beach in their lounge chairs and be like 'Oh yes, those are my grandchildren.'"
Everyone, except Austin Gleeson, who had no interest in accompanying his small tribe of grandchildren to the beach.
"My grandfather wasn't going to the beach with five screaming kids. He stayed at home, drank, smoked and did his crossword puzzles. He would be ready to make us dinner when we got home," Padula said. "Nana would say, 'Oh Austin, make something for the children."
Austin Gleeson was also in charge of the pre-dinner ritual - hosing the sandy kids down in the backyard before they could enter the house. While he was a good cook - Padula still raves about her grandfather's stewed chicken - the children really liked it when he served them raw hot dogs after the beach. He also liked to distribute orange peanut chew candies from the 50th Street Market.
Summers in Sea Isle also gave Padula a love of cooking. During her 21st summer she worked at The Epicurean restaurant in the town. Joe Corso was the chef while his sister, Nina Corso Rosu, ran the restaurant, Padula said.
"He was trained at the (Culinary Institute of America). He'd also traveled to Barbados and Caribbean. He just made my brother Ron and I love cooking," Padula said.
She began helping out with a catering business that operated out of the restaurant. Eventually Padula started her own catering business.
Padula puts her catering background to good use on Halloween, when she opens her house to friends and and their families.
Padula enjoys the holiday, giving out an average a small store's worth of candy each year.
"Over 300 kids come to house at Halloween, we go through more than 60 pounds of candy. It's crazy," she said.
For her guests, and any children who are tired of trick-or-treating, there's pizza and - of course - macaroni and cheese.
"I make my mom's traditional Halloween dinner, but I use my Nana's mac and cheese, not the godforsaken stuff from a box," she said. "It's simple, but yet so tasty and perfect with homemade chicken fingers."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Nana's Macaroni Bake
•1 pound elbow noodles
•3 tablespoons butter
•2 tablespoons flour
•2 1/2 cups milk, plus another cup for later
•1/2 pound extra sharp white cheddar cheese, plus slices for the top
•1 can of tomatoes, your choice
Cook noodles according to directions. Drain, rinse and set aside in a baking dish. Melt butter. Whisk in flour over low heat. Add 2 1/2 cups of milk. Whisk mixture together and allow to heat up. Add the cheese. Stir until it is melted and you have a smooth cheese sauce. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles, add another cup of milk, stir. Add tomatoes if you choose so. Sprinkle top with breadcrumbs and place a few slices of cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or to your desire of crispiness on top.