The loss of a loved one is never easy—especially when that someone is a spouse of 58 years. When Gene Crumbley lost his wife Norma, he grieved as any widower would. But instead of turning inward, Crumbley chose to honor his late wife through something she was passionate about—cooking for other people.
Norma Crumbley had assembled a vast collection of recipes over nearly 50 years, and her husband compiled those she was most proud of into a cookbook in her honor. “Norma’s Recipes” is also filled with stories—often humorous—that chronicle personal backstories. They are a window into the Crumbleys’ nearly six-decade-long marriage.
I first met Crumbley at In Touch, where he volunteers each week. After reading through the cookbook, I realized his was a story worth telling. Crumbley isn’t the first 80-something to become a widower. But his attitude and outlook is infectious—he acknowledges that the Lord has kept him here for a reason.
I drove out to Crumbley’s home south of Atlanta . When I arrived, he was pulling a pecan pie out of the oven and had all the ingredients prepped to teach me how to make a banana pudding. It was part interview, part cooking lesson.
Norma collected trusted recipes from anyone she came in contact with and worked hard at learning how to cook a variety of foods. Most of the recipes in the book focus on “good home-style Southern cooking,” Crumbley says, with a large bent toward her many desserts. “I have quite the sweet tooth,” he adds.
The following recipes from the cookbook were ones Norma used at The Cedar Room, a tearoom she once operated. The first, a chicken salad loaf, was the one she kept a secret until after the tearoom closed. The other two are the desserts I had at Crumbley’s home, Norma’s banana pudding and pecan pie. The following is written in his own words:
Cedar Room Chicken Salad Loaf
• 1 16-inch loaf unsliced white bread
• 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
• 1 stick of butter, melted
• 1 small can crushed pineapple in heavy syrup, drained
• 1 8 oz. package cream cheese
• 1-1/2 cup cooked, ground up chicken
• 3 heaping Tbsp. Duke’s mayonnaise
• Salt and pepper
Combine chicken, pineapple, nuts, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and mix well.
Norma’s hint: Separate the salad mix into three equal amounts so it will be the same thickness between each slice of bread. Uneven layers wouldn’t affect the taste, but would affect how it looks. But for Norma . . . it had to look good for the ladies! Remove the crust from the top, sides and ends, and slice three times horizontally and lengthwise. This will make four long flat pieces. Brush melted butter on bottom slice and spread salad mix on it. Place next slice of bread on top of this one and butter it and spread mix, and do the same with third slice. Place top slice on the loaf and prepare the icing below:
Icing: Mix well 8 oz cream cheese with 1 or 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise. Spread over entire loaf, top, sides and ends. Norma then cut the loaf into nice thick sandwich slices and served it in her tearoom on a china place, on iceberg lettuce, with slices of fresh cantaloupe and honeydew melon. The ladies loved it!
Norma’s “None Better” Banana Pudding
• 1 cup sugar (divided into 3/4 and 1/4 cups)
• 1/3 cup White Lily flour, sifted
• 3 eggs separated
• 2 cups milk
• 1/4 tsp. vanilla• Vanilla wafers (Nabisco)
• 3 large bananas, or more as needed
• Dash of salt
Mix 3/4 cup sugar, flour and salt in the top part of a double boiler with water in the bottom part. Blend the egg yolks and milk. Cook in the uncovered boiler until thick like custard. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Cover bottom of 1-1/2 qt. baking dish with thin layer of custard, then add a layer of wafers and a layer of bananas. Cover this evenly with custard and repeat above process until you have three layers and end up with custard on top.
Beat egg whites with electric mixer on high until soft peaks form. Add the 1/4 cup of sugar and beat again until stiff peaks form. Spread over custard covering it completely in such a way that you have lots of peaks. These peaks get a little darker brown and really look very appetizing!
Bake 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees until browned as desired. I liked my meringue darker, so Norma would turn the broiler on and watch until it was just the right shade of brown. But watch it close, and take it out quick! Always serve it hot! People go “bananas” over her banana pudding!
Speaking of bananas; you know how fast they ripen, so when people ask me how old I am, (I was born in 1928), I say, “I’m so old I don’t buy green bananas anymore!” Figure that one out.*
Southern Pecan Pie
(makes 2 pies)
• 6 eggs beaten
• 2 cups sugar
• 1 cup Karo syrup, white
• 1 tsp. salt
• 6 Tbsp. softened butter
• 2 tsp. vanilla
• 2 cups pecans, halves or chopped (I liked them chopped fine and she always did that just for me).
All ingredients are mixed together in a bowl with a whisk, in the order above, including the nuts. Pour into 9-inch uncooked pie shells. The nuts will rise to the top when the pie is done.
Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
Gene’s note: Norma’s recipe didn’t say to add the pecans into the mix, and I didn’t know they rose to the top, so I put half in the mix and spread half on top of the first pies I made. Some of the nuts on top had a different flavor. One daughter-in-law really liked it that way. I could say she was “nuts” about it, but that might be stretching it a little. But I can say this . . . it definitely was different!
* At my age, they may not ripen fast enough for me to eat them!