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A 'Little Chicago' Story

By Rose Valenta


When I was growing up, I used to spend most of my summers visiting my grandmother in Olean, New York. If you have never heard of Olean, it is a great little community just over the New York state line from Bradford, Pennsylvania. It was also a major bootlegging stop during Prohibition. In the 1920s, the press nicknamed the town "Little Chicago" because of its connection with organized crime, bootleggers, and Al Capone, who often visited there.

My grandparents were raised near Olean, before 1900. They married in Olean and had seven children there. Grandma was born in McKean County, Pennsylvania, and joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when she found her mother’s papers tracing her lineage back to Revolutionary War Patriot, Captain Jacob Stull. Unfortunately, Grandma was widowed young and had to obtain a position as a baker at The Olean House to support her family. She was well-known in the community for her expertise at baking the best cakes and pies. Whether she ever baked an Italian Rum Cake for Capone, she never said — but I used to scrutinize documentaries about Capone to see if he was munching on one.

She always brought delicious baked goods to family gatherings and often donated recipes to church cookbooks that were being produced for charity. I was her youngest granddaughter and she took me under her wing in the kitchen. It was a lost cause, however, because even a simple thing like cupcakes turned out like hockey pucks when I tried to make them. I remember once, she actually stood over my shoulder while she dictated a cake recipe. It was one of her yummy and famous orange Bundt cakes with orange glaze. Sure enough, it came out of the oven like a paper weight. It had risen less than an inch. I wrote an essay about it recently called “Thanksgiving Plans – Remember the Titanic.”

After Grandma retired from the Olean House, I got married in Philadelphia and we visited regularly. She was still sharp as a tack at 90 years old.

Somehow, during that time, a light bulb went on in my head and I learned how to cook. I never did get the hang of baking a good cake, however, but there was Duncan Hines and the box cake only turned out lopsided once. That’s when she put me wise to turning the tins upside down and icing the flat sides together.

She tricked me once, though. Just before she died around Thanksgiving in 1978, she left out an ingredient for her famous pumpkin pie recipe that she gave me. My pie turned out runny. I think she was getting even for all those years I was a dimwit at baking and embarrassed her in front of her friends.

I remember Grandma being very active at her church. She was a member of the United Methodist Church and past Royal Matron of the Eastern Star, Order of the Amaranth. I think about her often during the holidays. So, it must have been ESP when I logged on to eBay just after Thanksgiving last year, and did a search for my grandmother’s name and “Olean,” because I found a church cookbook up for auction that she had contributed to almost 40 years ago. In it was a brown bread recipe with brown sugar, raisins, and nuts. I was thrilled. I’ll make my girls one of Grandma’s recipes for Christmas, I thought. Then, I groaned, remembering how it could turn out.

Surprisingly, not bad!

My daughters are grown now and have children of their own. Two of them only have a vague recollection of visiting their great-grandmother in Olean, but they know all about her from my stories. This past Christmas, they had a special gift from Great-grandma that I would like to share with you. You can make it anytime for sandwiches as a delicious substitute for whole wheat. It is not sweet:

Millie Chappell’s Brown Bread 

1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
3 cups buttermilk
2 cups flour
3 cups graham flour (order online, I can’t find it anywhere else)
4 tbsp. shortening (melted)
4 tbsp. molasses
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
Add raisins, nuts, or dates as desired. I used raisins and pecans.

Mix all of the dry ingredients together, except the brown sugar. In a separate bowl, mix all of the liquid ingredients and the sugar. Combine them both making a batter. Grease two bread tins and fill them slightly more than half full with the batter. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for one hour. It makes two loaves… and all that jazz!

Yay! I’m acquitted in the kitchen, just like the famous Chicago flapper, Roxie Hart!

*  *  *  *  *

Rose A. Valenta is a nationally syndicated humor columnist. Her irreverent columns have been published in Senior Wire, Associated Content, Courier Post Online, NPR, Newsday, USA TODAY, the WSJ Online, and many other local news and radio websites. She is the author of Rosie’s Renegade Humor Blog,; and the humor book, Sitting on Cold Porcelain.

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