(Weather, work, and travel – in short, life – have kept us off the river for a month now. We hope to get out on the Grand at least once more before the snow flies and will renew our quest to canoe the entire length of the Grand River next spring. Meanwhile, please enjoy this piece by our mother, Catherine Verschoor McNabb, who grew up just a couple of blocks from the river in Grand Rapids’ North End. She is pictured below 4 or 5 years before the events described in this story.)
Ten or 11 years old, I skipped eagerly into my grandmother’s house. Large pots of tomatoes, green peppers and onions simmered on her stove. The air was perfumed with warm clouds of brown sugar, vinegar, and cloves. The year was 1935 or 1936. My family, our neighbors in Grand Rapids and the nation yearned for relief from the GreatDepression. World War II was not yet visible on the horizon for most Americans.
Harvest season had arrived and the Verschoor women were making chili sauce. Our chili sauce was not the ketchup-with-a-kick variety available in the condiment aisle of any grocery store today, but rather a simmered blend of the season’s bounty which sprang from our Dutch heritage. My mother, Luella Small Verschoor, had Irish-Protestant roots but married into a West Michigan Dutch family after her husband was discharged from the Army and returned from France following World War I.
In the kitchen Grandmother Nel Verschoor, my Aunt Clara and my mother were gathered around the stove. Grandma Verschoor was the connoisseur taster, the ultimate authority as to when a batch of chili sauce was ready. Aunt Clara was the designated stirrer while my mother, as I recall, did a bit of everything.
Chili sauce takes a long time to produce with much cutting, chopping, peeling and measuring. Certain ingredients must be processed first, with the remaining ingredients incorporated in the proper sequence. The spices, brown sugar and vinegar have to be just right; not just any old Dutch lady could manage it all. I would one day become an apprentice taster and considered that advancement a significant rite-of-passage.
Once completed, jars of chili sauce were passed out to special friends, relatives and neighbors. Believe me, these were treasured gifts. No pot roast was worth its salt without a scoop of chili sauce, 1000 Island Dressing was incomplete without it, and no hamburger ever tasted quite so good as when dressed with chili sauce, mayonnaise and a slice of fresh tomato.
Sunday afternoon dinners nearly always included chili sauce when our extended family gathered after church. I remember those family gatherings fondly. It was at one such gathering, probably during the summer of 1943, that I proudly informed my family about my new job in a factory. Like many women at that time, I would be filling in for the boys and men who were overseas. My Uncle Stan shocked the Sabbath gathering by suggesting I would need “tin pants” when I started my new job. At another Sunday gathering my mother silenced the room by referring to the Apostle Paul as “an old fool” because of his teachings on women in the church.
The Dutch of West Michigan were perceived to be pious, frugal and stern although in my family such attributes were balanced by love and kindness. My dad, Leonard Verschoor, bought ice cream cones for me and my cousin Jimmie DeBoer at the beach on Sunday afternoons. That indulgence on the Sabbath may have been viewed by some as almost sinful but Dad, a respected elder in the Dutch Reformed Church, said God wanted people – especially kids – to have good times and nice memories.
Years later my second husband and I decided to attempt a batch of chili sauce. He had fond memories of something similar but did not have his family recipe. He was a civil engineer and made sure we were meticulous and precise in our measurements and planning. We bought the fresh ingredients at the local farmers’ market and chopped the proper amounts of peppers, onion and celery, then sealed everything in separate plastic bags and put the bags into our freezer. Peeling a half-bushel of tomatoes was the next chore and they, too, were frozen ahead. When all was in order and the moon was in the right phase we were able to pull it all together in jig time; none of this slap-dash last-minute stuff for him! I will admit it did go a lot faster when it came to the final cooking.
We lived in a high-rise retirement community in Holland, MI and the aroma drifted into the hallway, seeming to summon neighbors to our door, curious about what we were cooking. We had fun and the chili sauce was tasty enough, but something was missing. I decided I missed the convivial aspects of doing it all at once and making a big mess. My own copy of the recipe is written on a card in my mom’s own hand. I treasure it.
Verschoor Chili Sauce Recipe
½ bushel peeled tomatoes, 6 stalks celery, 6 sweet green peppers, 2 quarts onions, ½ cup salt, 2 quarts vinegar, 4 pounds brown sugar, (in a spice bag) 4 sticks cinnamon, 2 T dry mustard, 2 T ground cloves
Chop first four ingredients, cook 15 minutes. Remove about half the juice – save for soup. Add other ingredients. Cook 1½ hours, stir often. Put up in glass canning jars, process in water bath. Makes about 8 quarts.
Last year Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb returned to her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan following the death of her husband. Sweethearts at Grand Rapids Central High School before being separated by World War II and by life in general, she and Bill McNabb married late in life. They prayed for five good years together and were blessed with 17. Her memoir, “Around the Next Corner: The Writings of Catherine McNabb,” is available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon.com. This piece is excerpted from her writings, and was previously published in the magazine of the Dutch International Society . Catherine McNabb celebrated her 91st birthday in August of 2016.