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Kitchen matriarch

By Staff | Jun 4, 2010

Edna Nelson, of Emmetsburg, looks over sign-in sheets documenting 49 years of Hickey/Conway reunions held in Palo Alto County. Nelson has personally prepared chicken noodle soup for over 30 of those reunions, which usually attract 100 or more members of the extended family.

EMMETSBURG – For Edna Nelson cooking, like almost everything else worth doing, is all about family.

She said that in Palo Alto County, her relations are so numerous that she wrote a short rhyme just to help others try to keep track of the county’s interconnected families. So, in her clan, the large and well established Conway/Hickey family, knowing ones way around the kitchen just makes sense.

Being one of the third generation of a, now fourth generation, Irish family, growing up with seven sisters, a brother and 48 first cousins, there are always numerous mouths to feed and always a plenty of ready kitchen advice available inside the family.

“Everybody is known for something,” Nelson said. “A lot of things get passed down, but we each kind of develop our specialty.

“A lot of people ask me how I cooked for nine kids. I tell them, ‘Well, I didn’t have them all at once. You just gradually add one more potato to the pot.'”

A family portrait from one of the original Hickey/Conway family gatherings held in Vernon Township of Palo Alto County around 1935. Each generation has included several large families. Edna Nelson Conway, now a family matriarch, is seated at the far left end of the first row.

Nelson’s specialty is chicken noodles. It’s a recipe passed down from her grandmother, Teresa Hickey, and delivered by the gallon each year to the annual Hickey/Conway reunion.

The traditional event, held every June since 1960, rarely fails to draw more than a hundred members of the expansive clan to Emmetsburg’s lakeside Soper Park.

One or two new faces are a common site at the festive event, as occasionally are the saddening absence of familiar ones, but the meat and potato-centered fare that helped grow the family is always present in great supply.

Edna’s noodles, 10 to 12 eggs worth, are always in abundance as is fried chicken, potato salad and desserts galore. Almost everything is prepared with the “dump and stir” intuition family cooks earn from a lifetime of scaling for a large and hungry clan.

“I can write things down if I have to, but that’s usually not the way we would work,” Nelson said. “It’s always cooking to how many you think are going to be there.”

Now going into its 50th year the reunion is actually the continuation of an even older family tradition. The gathering actually goes back to the 1940s when it was held as a birthday celebration for Edna’s grandmother.

Teresa Hickey created not only the noodle recipe, but the family itself. Born Teresa Conway her marriage to Lawrence Conway created the first of what would become many large farming units.

On the farm her family, and the generations that followed her, learned to use their own crops, livestock and garden produce to feed themselves.

“We always had a lot of gardens to feed the big families and so we did a lot of canning,” Nelson said. “We also did a lot of baking, because we had chickens and we needed to use all of those eggs.”

The tradition of late June gatherings actually lapsed for more than a decade in the mid-40s and 50s, but was resurrected in the 1960s as a formal family reunion.

Its annual sign-in sheets record the ever-changing family and its buffet tables help keep traditional family tastes familiar to each new generation.

“In my family they all like chicken noodle soup and it has bred down through the kids,” Nelson said. “When it comes time for the reunion everybody has something like that.”

Chicken noodle soup

(Cook and de-bone chicken separately)

2 eggs beaten

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoon of milk or Half and Half

2 cups of flower

Stir beaten eggs, salt and milk together. Add enough flour to thicken and work with hands on floured surface. Roll out like pie crust in two circles and let dry for a few hours. Roll and cut in strips of desired thickness.

Cook in chicken broth for about 20 minutes.

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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