Jill's Recipe Calendar

February Cheesecake: A Story, a Poem and a Recipe

My mother, Anna Christensen Whitney (1926-1981), was a multi-talented multi-tasker. A mother of ten (10!) children, an expert candy-maker and cake decorator, gardener, teacher, genealogist, scriptorian, writer, drama coach and performer, to name a few of her specialties. And--she accomplished it all in the space of 54 short years.

One of her most delightful talents was her ability to recite humorous poetry she had memorized. We would ask for certain favorites again and again. I especially liked "Leetla Giorgio Washeenton" by T.A. Daly. It tells the legend of George Washington as a boy, speaking the truth about chopping down the cherry tree. It is written from the point of view of an Italian-American (in dialect form) telling the story to his son, who had the day off from school. I had heard it so many times by the time that I was 7 years old that I also had it memorized, although I didn't know it until one memorable February 22nd.

The year was 1958. We celebrated Lincoln's birthday on February 12, then George Washington's birthday on February 22. We didn't have these days off from school, but we spent the days learning about these presidents through stories, songs and cutting out their silhouettes. I begged my mother to give me a copy of the poem, "Leetla Giorgio Washeenton" so I could take it to school for my teacher to read to the class on Washington's birthday. She typed it out for me on her little Royal typewriter from the copy in her files.

Now, you need to know that I was very shy, and even though I loved my second grade teacher, Mrs. Swallow, I was embarrassed to tell her about my wish. I went to her desk, heart pounding, and handed her the poem. "What's this?" she asked. "A poem for our class." I managed to whisper. She looked it over a little, not wanting to disappoint me but wondering about the strange spelling, I'm sure. Unlike my mother, she was not familiar with every humorous poem ever written. I went back to my desk, waiting to see what would happen next.

Mrs. Swallow stood up in front of the class. "Boys and girls, Jill has brought in a poem about George Washington that she would like me to read to you." She announced. Then she began to read the poem, but it was not at all like the way my mother read it! She stumbled over the dialect terribly. I became embarrassed for her and for myself, because the children were not enjoying it. I looked down steadily at my desk, tears welling up in my eyes. After a few lines, she stopped and looked at me. "I'm not saying it right, am I," she remarked. I slowly shook my head. Then, with my heart pounding, I quietly volunteered to read it to the class. I'm sure my teacher had some major hesitations about my ability to read something that was so difficult for her. She was most likely also very surprised at my willingness to do it, since I was surely the most shy child she had ever tried to teach! She motioned for me to come and stand next to her, then handed me the paper. As I began, I quickly realized that if I tried to read the written words, I would stumble even worse than Mrs. Swallow had. But I knew the poem! If I just repeated it the way my mother told it, I could do it! So, the hidden actress inside took over and I totally imitated my mother's Italian accent, facial expressions and gestures, amazing my teacher, my classmates and myself! When I finished, they all clapped! They liked it! My teacher gave me a quick hug, then asked me if I would like to read the poem to the other classrooms. Still glowing, I said yes. She took me to every classroom in the primary grades, where I recited my poem to appreciative audiences of teachers and children. My big day!

I have continued to like this poem, but I hardly ever think of it until February. President's Day as the joint holiday is now called. As a teacher, I recited to my students. As a mother, I recited to my children, in spite of their rolled eyes and audible groans. Maybe this year I will recite it to my grandchildren for the first time, promising them a piece of cherry cheesecake if they like the poem. Each time I recite it, I remember my childhood delight in hearing my mother recite it, and I continue to imitate her style. I also remember a wonderful day when a very shy seven-year-old girl was in the spotlight for a few moments of glory!

Leetla Giorgio Washeenton

You know w'at for ees school keep out 
Dees holiday, my son? 
Wal, den, I gona tal you 'bout 
Dees Giorgio Washeenton. 

Wal, Giorgio was leetla keed 
Ees leeve long time ago, 
An' he gon' school for learn to read 
An' write hees nam', you know. 
He moocha like for gona school 
An' learna hard all day, 
Baycause he no gat time for fool 
Weeth bada keeds an' play. 
Wal, wan cold day w'en Giorgio 
Ees steell so vera small, 
He start from home, but he ees no 
Show up een school at all! 
Oh, my! hees Pop ees gatta mad 
An' so he tal hees wife: 
"Som' leetla boy ees gon' feel bad 
Today, you bat my life!" 
An' den he grab a bigga steeck 
An' gon' out een da snow 
An' lookin' all aroun' for seek 
Da leetla Giorgio. 
Ha! w'at you theenk? Firs' theeng he see 
Where leetla boy he stan', 
All tangla up een cherry tree, 
Weeth hatchet een hees han'. 
"Ha! w'at you do?" hees Pop he say, 
"W'at for you busta rule 
An' stay away like dees for play 
Eenstead for gon' to school?" 
Da boy ees say: "I no can lie, 
An' so I speaka true. 
I stay away from school for try 
An' gat som' wood for you. 
I theenka deesa cherry tree 
Ees goodda size for chop, 
An' so I cut heem down, you see, 
For justa help my Pop." 
Hees Pop he no can gatta mad, 
But looka please' an' say: 
"My leetla boy, I am so glad 
You taka holiday."

Ees good for leetla boy, you see, 
For be so bright an' try 
For help hees Pop; so den he be. 
A granda man bimeby. 
So now you getta holiday 
An' eet ees good, you know, 
For you gon' do da sama way 
Like leetla Giorgio. 
Don't play so mooch, but justa stop, 
Eef you want be som' good, 
An' try for help your poor old Pop 
By carry home som' wood; 
An' mebbe so like Giorgio 
You grow for be so great 
You gona be da Presidant 
Of dese Unita State'.

[in "Selected Poems of T. A. Daly," New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936, pp. 18-19]

President's Day Cherry Cheesecake

I no can lie, an' so I speaka true: I cannot make a good baked cheesecake. They have too many calories anyway. So here is my favorite cream cheese/gelatin dessert from the Knox gelatine package.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
2 large (8 oz.) packages cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond flavoring
1 prepared graham cracker crust

Mix gelatine and sugar in a small bowl. Add boiling water until completely dissolved. Beat cream cheese and flavoring until smooth. Slowly beat in gelatine mixture, then pour into prepared crust. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or until firm. Top with cherry pie filling and whipped cream.

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