Five years ago, Millie McNeil cooked up a recipe for some serious family fun. Now every summer, for one wild and wonderful week, she hosts her quartet of granddaughters for what they call “Cousin Camp.” “I decided that since all of my grandchildren lived out of town, I would do something to get them down here so they could really get to know me and I could really get to know them, ” she says. (Millie lives in the historic Oakleigh Garden District. The girls all live in Birmingham.) It has become a treasured tradition. The organized grandmother and counselor extraordinaire crafts up a plan for the week, complete with kid-friendly family recipe menus, daily activities and even matching camper T-shirts.
Each morning, camp starts with a big homemade breakfast that they all cook together. Then, the day’s adventures begin. Over the years, the group has seen and done just about everything, from the Battleship and Bellingrath Gardens to picking blueberries and taking walks on the beach. “They look forward to being together and learning about Mobile, ” Millie says. The youngsters, twins Adelia and Claire Collier, 13, and sisters Ella and Millie Martin Dorman, 12 and 10, have a good time the old-fashioned way: swimming, playing in the water hose, whispering to each other, telling stories, and creating plays and shows. “They enjoy the simple things, like taking the dog for a walk around the neighborhood, because it’s different from where they live, ” she says.
After each exciting day, tired and hungry campers return to Millie’s house. “We have dinner every night around the dining room table, and they help cook and set the table, ” Millie says. “There’s always a night with spaghetti. I’ve taught them how to make their great-grandmother’s recipe.” Then, for the fabulous finale, the last night of camp is always marked with a themed celebration, complete with a fitting menu, decorations and lots of clever awards – created and voted on by the girls. “It’s silly stuff, like the one who sleeps the latest, the best green thumb, the best cook.” It’s a blast, according to Millie. “I hope they look back on this with fond memories and, who knows, maybe they’ll do it with their grandkids.” (Millie does have one grandson, Ben Collier, 15, who appreciates coming down to visit all by himself and getting to spend time away from the girls.)
Grammie’s Spaghetti and Meatballs
This spaghetti recipe comes from the girls’ great-grandmother, Mary Dorman. It is a staple at Cousin Camp.
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon oregano
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, undrained
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 bay leaf
2 pounds ground chuck
salt and pepper, to taste
1 (1-pound) package spaghetti noodles, boiled and drained
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a medium sized pot, sauté the onion in the oil.
3. When the onion is soft and translucent, stir in the oregano and tomato paste. Then, use the tomato paste can to add in a full can of water. Stir to combine.
4. Add the can of tomatoes and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese, breaking up tomatoes with the back of a spoon.
5. Stir in bay leaf. Bring to a boil, stir and reduce heat. Cover and let simmer for an hour.
6. Meanwhile, mix together the ground chuck and remaining 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper to your liking.
7. Form mixture into 1-inch meatballs. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and cook in an oven for 30 minutes.
8. Drain. Add to simmering sauce and cook for 30 more minutes.
9. Ladle sauce and meatballs over top of prepared spaghetti noodles. Serves 8.
Chicken and Broccoli Casserole
Millie likes to cook this classic casserole with the cousins because it is a recipe that her children, Allison Dorman Collier and Evans Dorman, grew up enjoying on a regular basis.
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen broccoli
4 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
2 (10 1/2-ounce) cans cream of chicken soup, undiluted
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook broccoli according to directions on package. Drain and arrange in a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Scatter cooked chicken on top.
3. Mix together cream of chicken soup, mayonnaise, lemon juice and curry powder. Pour over chicken.
4. Sprinkle with cheese. Combine breadcrumbs with melted butter and sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 minutes or until heated through. Serves 6 – 8.
Midge’s Date Bars
This old-fashioned family favorite is from Millie’s grandmother, Mildred Albright Bell, affectionately known as Midge.
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups finely chopped dates
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Sift flour and baking powder together, and combine with pecans and dates.
3. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, add brown sugar and vanilla, and stir to combine.
4. Stir nut and date mixture into egg and sugar mixture until well combined.
5. Turn into an 8-by-8-inch baking pan that has been greased and lightly floured.
6. Bake in oven for 30 minutes. When cool, dust with powdered sugar and cut into bars. Makes approximately 1 dozen.
This flamboyantly hued treat is as fun to make as it is to eat. It’s one of this year’s activities.
1 (16-ounce) box white cake mix gel food dye in assorted colors
1 (16-ounce) container vanilla frosting
rainbow sprinkles, if desired
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Mix cake batter according to directions on the box, then divide into six bowls. Start with 3 ounces in the first bowl, 4 ounces in the second, working up to 8 ounces in the sixth bowl.
3. Whisk a different color food gel into each bowl. (Red in the smallest, then orange, yellow, green, blue and purple in the largest.) Rinse the whisk between bowls to prevent the colors from mixing.
4. Starting with the largest bowl, pour batter into the center of a greased 9-inch round cake pan, spinning after each addition to distribute evenly. Tent the pan with foil to prevent overbrowning.
5. Bake for approximately 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in comes out clean.
6. Let cool on wire rack. Spread frosting over cooled cake. Top with sprinkles. Serves 6.
text and styling by Sallye Irvine • photos by Todd Douglas