Elsie Harris of Colona and her brother, Donald DeDecker of East Moline, agree they both enjoy the time they spend in the kitchen cooking and baking.


Elsie Harris of Colona and her brother, Donald DeDecker of East Moline, agree they both enjoy the time they spend in the kitchen cooking and baking.

“At one time, I was basically in charge of the grill as far as cooking was concerned,” Don said. “But I retired in 1982, and my wife worked for another 10 years after that so I started doing a lot of cooking and getting the evening meals ready while she was at work.”

Don noted he also began doing the grocery shopping. “At that time, my father lived just down the block from us so I also got his groceries,” he said. “I really enjoy grocery shopping.”

He admits he enjoys cooking for a pretty simple reason. “I can fix things the way I like when I do the cooking,” he laughs, adding he likes to do certain dishes much the way he remembers his mother preparing them. “Like with baked beans, I just drain the pork and beans and add syrup, brown sugar and ketchup — that’s the way she did it. Nothing very fancy, but it’s what I like.”

Elsie and Don grew up in the Atkinson/Annawan area. Don was born on the family farm just north of Atkinson, on what was once known as the Atkinson Farm. The family moved closer to Annawan later and Elsie graduated from Annawan High School, while Don attended the rural Pritchard school.

They both remember the dry goods or general store in Atkinson. “In those days, it wasn’t a self-serve grocery store. You gave your grocery list to the clerk and he would gather up the items,” Elsie said. “The store sold everything from yardage and thread to penny candy to any kind of supplies you needed.”

Don recalls the meat market in Atkinson where he would receive a hot dog with every visit. “I was just a kid, but I remember that so well,” he laughs.

During the Great Depression, the siblings say, they always had a “good table.” “We didn’t have any luxuries, but we had vegetables from the garden and meat and chickens that we raised and butchered,” Elsie said. “We always had enough to eat, but nothing fancy. The only time I ever saw a stalk of celery was on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

As a young girl, Elsie said she helped her mother with the cooking and baking. “Mother helped outside on the farm, so I did a lot of the cooking from a pretty young age,” she said. “She helped in the fields and I would do most of the cooking. She would get the meat ready before going outside and then I would cook the meal. I was about 10 years old when I started doing a lot of the cooking and housekeeping. I really liked it.”

Elsie adds they had lots of good meat. “We cold packed the beef and chicken. We didn’t have any freezers at that time, but winters were cold so sometimes we would have a side of beef in the summer kitchen,” she said.

Growing up in a traditional Belgian family, Elsie and Don remember their parents making such Belgian specialties as blood sausage, hutsput (a boiled ham dinner), korntjes sauces (Belgian potato salad), or head cheese. “We used mostly pigs feet and ears for the head cheese though, not the actual head like others did,” Elsie said, adding she often helped her father make the head cheese. “My job was mainly to add the spices, salt and pepper.”

Noting one of her favorite Belgian dishes is korntjes sauces, Elsie said she still prepares that dish at least once every week or so. “It’s one of my favorite things,” she said.

She also remembers her father’s pickles and her mother’s date dessert as favorites when she was growing up. “We had duck for Thanksgiving every year. I never had turkey until I was married,” she said.

Don and Elsie say they received a dinner invitation, as youngsters, to the home of their uncle and aunt, Eli and Lucy DeDecker. “Aunt Lucy had made coon and we were invited to share the meal,”

Don laughs. “It was really pretty good, she had stuffed it with dressing. It is a very rich meat.”
The siblings agree, “Food definitely brings people together.”

Elsie also recalls a recipe that made a big impression on her. “One day in the late 1920s, the Watkins salesman stopped at my aunt’s farm and gave her a free sample of Watkins brand cocoa in a little tin can. Printed on that little can was a kitchen-tested recipe for ‘Economy Devil’s Food Cake.’ My aunt wasn’t one for baking cakes, so she gave the little cocoa can to my mother, Mary DeDecker. That little empty cocoa can sat in our cupboard and was used every week when mom or I made a chocolate cake,” she said.

“The little can, which rusted with age, was finely lost, but I remember the recipe by heart because we made it so much.”

For special occasions, Elsie said they would top the cooled cake with marshmallows, place it under the broiler to melt slightly, press the marshmallows down a little and, when cooled, spread the fudge icing over the marshmallows.

Don likes to try new recipes occasionally, but admits he already has an extensive collection of recipes.

Those favorite recipes are located right at hand in several large three-ring binders and are separated categorically. “A lot of recipes are old family recipes that I remember from my childhood, ones that were handed down through the family,” he said. “But I also like to try new recipes. The cookbooks are called ‘What’s for Dinner?’ and include entrees, side dishes, desserts, salads and appetizers. I don’t have any idea how many recipes I have, but I’ve got several volumes of the cookbooks.”

Not only does Don have a complete collection of favorite recipes, but he also rates each recipe as he includes it in the cookbook. “Whenever I try a new recipe, if I really like it, it gets a five star rating. I might have to modify it and change some ingredients, but eventually I will get it to where I like it,” he said. The five star rating is the highest recommendation the recipe can get — it’s the best it can be. “I have lots of five star recipes in my cookbook.”

Don also made a cookbook for Elsie with her favorite recipes included. “I use those recipes all the time,” Elsie said. “They are in sleeves and in the three-ring binder so they can be taken out to use and easily put back.”

Don and his wife, Mary Ann, have five children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Elsie’s husband, Dick, is deceased. She has two children, four grandchildren, and is awaiting the birth of her first great-grandchild.

One of Elsie’s favorite meals is round steak smothered in mushrooms with mushroom gravy. First she dredges the serving sized pieces of round steak in flour, salt and pepper. The she browns the meat on both sides in a skillet on top of the stove. “I drain it and then add a can of cream of mushroom soup and a can of mushrooms and let it simmer until it is fork tender,” she said, adding she does it in a heavy metal pan.

“That with mashed potatoes is one of my favorite meals,” she said.

Admitting potatoes are one of her favorite foods, Elsie laughs that she would choose potatoes — any way, shape or form — over desserts.

Don likes to do oxtail soup on cold winter days. “Oxtails are pretty expensive, but I just like to do it once in a while. It’s kind of a lengthy process, but it is so good,” he said. “Oxtails provide large amounts of gelatin and that helps to make the soup thick and delicious. When refrigerated, the soup will turn to gelatin. Reheating will quickly return it to a liquid state,”

He advises cooks to always use large eggs when baking. “Every recipe that says one egg should say one ‘large’ egg,” he said. “That’s the way the recipe was designed and it makes a world of difference when you’re baking.”

Elsie and Don like to share their love of cooking with family and friends and say they simply enjoy the process of preparing a meal.

“There’s really no mystery to cooking. Just dive in and do it. Don’t be afraid,” Don said.

Elsie Harris and Donald DeDecker share some of their favorite family recipes.

Christmas fruit cake
Elsie Harris
4 large eggs, separated
1 C. granulated sugar
1/2 C. whiskey
1 t. vanilla
1 C. all purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/4 C. Brazil nuts (shelled and chopped
1/4 C. filbert nuts, chopped
1-8 oz. pkg. English walnuts, chopped
1-8 oz. pkg. pecans, chopped
1-8 oz. pkg. dates, chopped
1-7 oz. pkg. dried apricots, chopped
1-6 oz. tub candied cherries
Combine and cream egg yolks and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add vanilla and whiskey incorporating well. In mixing bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt, mixing well. Sir into sugar mixture until well mixed.
Add nuts and fruit (see note), mixing well. Beat egg whites to soft peaks and fold gently into batter. Bake on center rack of oven for 45 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven to wire rack and allow to cool completely. When cool, remove from pans and wrap in cheesecloth. With a pastry brush, brush and saturate cheesecloth with whiskey. Cover and allow to age a few days.
Note: Powder fruit pieces with flour before adding to recipe to keep them from sticking together.

Economy devil’s food cake
Elsie Harris
1/2 C. unsalted butter, softened
2 c. granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 C. hot water
1/2 C. cocoa
2 C. all purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 C. milk
2 t. vanilla
Beat butter and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add eggs and beat well. Make a smooth paste of water and cocoa and add to batter, incorporating very well. Add milk and vanilla and continue beating to mix. Sift flour, baking soda and salt. Add to batter, mixing very well. Pour into prepared cake pan and bake on center rack of oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Fudge icing:
7 T. milk
6 T. cocoa
6 T. unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 C. granulated sugar
1 T. corn syrup
1/8 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
Combine milk, 2 T. butter and cocoa, stirring until well blended and smooth. Add syrup, 4 T. butter and salt, blending well. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Allow to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Cool mixture until it loses it’s shine, then beat to firm up. Spread over cake. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Chicken and spaghetti
Don DeDecker
4 lb. chicken parts (dark and white meat)
4 qt. water
2 large onions or 4 small onions
3 cloves garlic, minced (more if desired)
4 C. celery, sliced (8 ribs plus chopped leaves)
1 T. salt
1-1/2 t. pepper
1-6 oz. can tomato paste
4 C. tomato juice - use remaining 1 C. for corn starch mix
2 T. corn starch
1/2 lb. thin spaghetti
Place cleaned chicken parts in stock pot and cover with water. Cool on high for 30 to 45 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove from pot and allow to cool. Reserve 2 qt. chicken stock. Remove skin and bones from chicken and return meat to stock pot, along with reserved chicken stock. Cook on medium heat.
Add onion, garlic, celery, salt, and pepper. Continue cooking another 30-45 minutes or until celery is tender. Add tomato paste and 4 C. tomato juice. Cover and cook on low heat for another 30 minutes. At this point taste and adjust seasoning.
Mix corn starch with remaining tomato juice. Add to pot along with spaghetti. Cover and simmer until spaghetti is el dente.
Yield: 8 servings
Note: 1-8 oz. can tomato sauce may be used instead of tomato paste and vermicelli may be used instead of spaghetti.