Gerry Stefanski passed away on this day 39 years ago after a five year battle with cancer. She was 40 at the time.
Gerry was the ultimate mom. She dreaded anyone addressing her by her full name, Geraldine, after Flip Wilson created his own vivid female persona with that name, and made her a household character. In the days before it was fashionable, Gerry was the consummate DIYer. She made all of her own clothes and most of my sisters. She knitted, she sewed up a storm, she crocheted. She cooked and baked, she canned. She made strawberry jam every June and in the late summer she canned tomatoes and pickles and chow chow. We trekked off with her in our station wagon to the Eastern Market on Saturdays in the summer to haul back home bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. She made and froze oodles of pierogi, mostly prune and potato, and she baked. The deep freeze in our basement housed a six month supply of pierogi, stews, stuffed cabbage, and casseroles after she passed.
But man, could Gerry bake! These current baking show competitions have nothing on her!
She made kruschkiki, light as angel wings are supposed to be, dusted delicately after frying with confectioners sugar. At Christmas time her preparations began in earnest around thanksgiving. She made loaves and loaves of babka, enough for all our teachers, and then thumb print cookies and kolachy, kiflica and fudge. She stored all of these on the stairway leading to the upstairs apartment at our house on Tappan Street. They were all carefully wrapped to ensure that she could detect even the slight hint of tampering.
Then there was her Vietnam Caramel Corn. Her caramel corn was in a category all its own. She got the recipe from our neighbor across the street when her son Tommie shipped out one spring. It was called Vietnam Caramel Corn because you could bake it and extend its shelf life long enough to ship it to the boys overseas.
Gerry’s cooking and baking displayed such command that when she first became ill it wasn’t apparent to us kids she was preparing us, not only teaching us how to cook and bake, but training us for life without her in the kitchen. Soon enough, we were prepared to make everything ourselves. That’s not to suggest it was ever the same.
Such trust and confidence she had in me! thinking back to how she allowed me to stir hot caramel by myself, no more than 10 years old at the time! and pour it over the popcorn after it was done. Keeping it stirred but not over stirred so it never burned, and there was never a burn on my hands in all those first attempts.
That’s the thing we have with Gerry’s recipes. They offer a blueprint, a way forward, a way to remember, a way back. How can you be sad when you’re eating Gerry’s fresh homemade caramel corn? All these years later, I still remember the time she sent off a batch to the Detroit News. She made it in the shape of a wreath for the holidays and adorned it with cherries. She received a call from a reporter a few days later, and was so excited to learn she had won the newspaper’s annual recipe contest. They were going to publish her recipe and her story AND send her a check in the mail for $5. She was thrilled as we ran around the house proclaiming she was now famous, our very own celebrity.
Years later, Gerry’s recipe for caramel corn has taken on mythic proportions in our family. It’s the stuff we make when we get the cousins together in Kentucky, or need a treat at work, or something for teachers at the holiday season. Last year when we hosted our first party after moving back to Detroit, I made a double batch.
On this day, Gerry’s recipe for Vietnam Caramel Corn is but one sure sign of her enduring celebrity.