September 16, 2019

Cherished Christmas Coffee Bangor neighborhood’s holiday tradition a time of togetherness, civility

We moved into our West Broadway home in the summer of 1978 and right before Christmas, I was invited to attend the annual neighborhood coffee, hosted by Frances Godfrey and Cornelia “Connie” Russell. I can still remember my apprehension as I rang the bell at the Prentiss Godfrey family home on 10 West Broadway. As a young bride and new resident of the Queen City, I was very nervous to meet the matrons of some of Bangor’s most historic homes. What if I were to spill coffee on someone, or use a wrong utensil, or even worse, what if the country bumpkin in me said something stupid?

Mrs. Godfrey met me at the door, took my coat in hand, and ushered me into the dining room, where Mrs. Russell was presiding over an ornate silver coffee service and dainty plates of Christmas breads and tea sandwiches. To my relief, the neighborhood ladies were very friendly and interested to meet the youngest member of the block, and I don’t remember committing any social faux pas. Both Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Godfrey were superb hostesses, effortlessly making introductions, filling trays and coffee cups, and keeping all the conversations flowing.

“We started the coffee tradition back in the early 1960s,” Mrs. Godfrey once told me, “when there must have been almost 100 children growing up in the West Broadway, Cedar Street and Hayward Street neighborhood.”

“The children were always in and out of everyone’s house,” recalled Connie, who was raising her brood in the residence now belonging to the Kings.

“We thought it would be a fun way for the mothers to get together,” added Mrs. Godfrey.

For the next several years, two days before Christmas, the ladies continued to invite all the neighbors in for coffee. It was a very civilized moment in a seemingly hectic time, and a wonderful opportunity to gain a glimpse of Bangor’s opulent past.

As a guest at these gatherings, I experienced firsthand the details of very proper 19th century entertaining: the ironed linens and polished silver, the signed guest book and the beautifully arranged fresh flowers. I refined my social skills, and came to understand the importance of tact and diplomacy. I looked forward to this once-a-year occasion as a chance to catch up with my friends and neighbors.

As the decades progressed, the children in the neighborhood grew up, and some families moved away. Frannie and Connie always included invitations to former neighbors, and even extended families. “All of a sudden, we were meeting the grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of our neighbors,” said Frannie.

In 1982, Connie sold her home to Stephen and Tabitha King. “As new members of the neighborhood, we invited them to the coffee that was held at Frannie’s house that year,” said Connie. “Stephen was the first man who ever attended our coffee,” Mrs. Godfrey remembered. “We never didn’t invite men, they were just busy at work.”

When many of the homes in the neighborhood started filling up with younger and smaller families, the coffee tradition languished. Five years ago, with the help of the Mrs. Godfrey and Mrs. Russell, our neighborhood Christmas coffee was revived. Addresses were secured for those that had moved away, and invitations were hand-delivered to many of the families we didn’t know.

Now, two days before Christmas, someone in the West Broadway, Cedar Street and Hayward Street neighborhood graciously opens up their home for our annual ritual. Unlike the very formal coffees of the prior century, this event has become more relaxed and a true neighborhood effort. Our hostess provides the beverages, while others address invitations, send flowers, and prepare trays of refreshments. Because of the wide range of the ages of the guests, I like to make food that is appealing to many tastes, festive and bite-sized, and most importantly, easy to prepare.

Mrs. Russell still polishes her silver tea service, and Frannie and Connie act as our honorary hostesses. Neighbors, children, grandchildren, men and even houseguests have the opportunity to meet the former owners of some of Bangor’s most historic homes and hear the intimate stories of the families that amassed the great wealth that built them and our city. I enjoy our Christmas coffee as a wonderful moment to in today’s fast-paced lifestyle to take a deep breath and savor the niceties of a social tradition.

After more than 25 years of living on West Broadway, I am no longer a tongue-tied, nervous young bride, but a “seasoned” hostess and lover of all types of parties. From Connie and Frannie, I learned my most important social lesson: how to always make your guests feel comfortable, regardless of the setting. Being socially proper is not the extending your pinkie finger when using a teacup. It is the genuine warmth and friendliness that happens when you welcome someone to your home. Connie Russell and Frances Godfrey are truly great ladies who have shared with us, through their annual Christmas coffee, the treasured art of gracious entertaining.

Marzipan Cupcakes with Chocolate and Almonds

1 1/3 cup marzipan (2 7-ounce packages almond paste)

7 tablespoons butter

3 eggs

1 teaspoon almond extract

2/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

4 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, melted with one tablespoon each of butter and cream

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

Beat marzipan with butter until light. Add eggs one at a time, beating. Sift flour with baking powder and add to mixture.

Spread mixture in greased and floured 8-by-8-inch pan or 32 mini muffins. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes for the cake or 10 minutes for the cupcakes.

Spread the top with melted chocolate and garnish with almonds.

Notes: Marzipan, the star ingredient of these cupcakes, is a confection of ground almonds and sugar. Its long and celebrated history dates back to the Middle East, and the Crusaders brought it home when they returned to Europe. Traditionally, marzipan is dyed and fashioned into flowers. In this recipe, it adds a rich moistness and delicate flavor. Almond paste has less sugar than marzipan. Purchase it in a larger supermarket or a specialty food store.

Connie Russell’s Roquefort Grapes

10 ounces pecans or walnuts

8 ounces regular or reduced fat cream cheese (not fat-free)

4 ounces Roquefort or blue cheese

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 pound seedless grapes, washed and dried

Toast the nuts on a cookie sheet in a 300-degree oven. The nuts are toasted when you start to smell the fragrance. Be careful not to burn them! Chop them coarsely in a food processor and set aside.

Allow the cheeses to come to room temperature. In the bowl of your electric mixer, combine the cream cheese, Roquefort cheese and heavy cream. Beat until smooth. Drop the grapes in the cheese mixture, and using your hands, coat each grape with the cheese. Then roll the cheese-covered grapes in the nuts, and set on waxed paper. Keep covered and chilled until ready to serve. Roquefort grapes keep for several days in a tightly sealed plastic container in the refrigerator.

Serve Roquefort Grapes on a platter with bunches of plain grapes for contrast.

Elizabeth Patches’ Gingerbread Muffins

Makes 3 dozen mini-muffins.

1 cup molasses

1/4 pound shortening at room temperature

1 egg

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon ginger powder

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1/4 cup chopped candied ginger

3 cups flour

1 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3 mini muffin pans.

In a large bowl, cream together the molasses, egg and shortening. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the creamed mixture. Beat in the fresh and candied ginger. Lastly, stir in 1 cup of boiling water. Spoon the mixture into the greased pans and bake in a 350-degree oven until a toothpick comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Notes: Elizabeth Patches, a former Hayward Street neighbor, loves ginger. She suggested using all three types of ginger in these delicious mini-muffins.

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