One of Hardin County's Finest Cooks: Jo Johnson passed down fine food traditions

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Dash of Class food column by Nora Sweat

By Nora Sweat

December’s “One of Hardin County’s Finest Cooks” is the late Josephine “Jo” Johnson of Elizabethtown.


Nominated by her daughters, Bonnie Young and Carolyn Clark, Jo was a homemaker, devoted mother and retired seamstress from Elizabethtown Sportswear. Jo, although small in stature, was a bundle of energy and prided herself on being a hard worker.

“I may wear out, but I won’t rust out,” she often said.

She worked full time and would then go home and cook dinner for her family. All meals were prepared from scratch; there was no processed food on her dinner table, and many meals included vegetables she canned or froze during the summer.

Both daughters agreed that family and friends always were welcome at “Mama’s dinner table.” When relatives stopped by unexpectedly, which happened often, Jo always put on a fresh pot of coffee and prepared a hot meal for them. Bonnie and Carolyn have fond memories of aunts, uncles and cousins gathered in the small kitchen and adjoining dining room, they said.

“One of Mama and Daddy’s favorite traditions was the family Christmas Eve gift exchange gathering around the fresh cedar tree Mom chopped down herself until artificial trees came along,” Bonnie said.

She recalled the Ernest Tubb Christmas record her father would play — they teased him about that record later — and the new pajamas and house shoes the children received Christmas Eve.

“Mom would serve her homemade blackberry jam cake — her mom’s recipe — and punch with pretty Christmas plates, cups and napkins, always worrying that ‘the cake just wasn’t going to be good this year,’ and every year Dad would tell her it was better than the last,” she said.

Jo also prepared the traditional turkey and sage dressing on Christmas Day, and the family would gather again.

“She was always happiest when all of her children and grandchildren were together,” Bonnie said. “She never let us forget that Jesus was the reason for our celebration, and to always be thankful, mindful and prayerful of those less fortunate,” she added.

Jo also enjoyed giving candy and cakes as Christmas gifts.

“Mom and I would spend days making candy and cakes for gift giving and for many years we made candy for resale at Back Home Restaurant. Mom made the Bourbon Balls and I made the Peanut Brittle,” Bonnie said.

Holidays are bittersweet now, Bonnie said. Her mother passed away two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2005 and her father died a month later, two weeks before Christmas.

But she believes her mother’s spirit is alive and well in her children and grandchildren and her presence is especially felt at Christmastime, as her traditions are carried on.

Nora Sweat, author of “Mama and Me,” is a native of HardinCounty and a retired home economics/family and consumer science teacher. She can be reached at norasweat@thenewsenterprise.com or by mail at 408 W. Dixie Ave., Elizabethtown, KY 42701.

Mom’s Graham Cracker Cookies

3 sticks margarine or butter 
¾ cup white sugar
1 cup broken pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, grease a 13-by-18-inch pan and a 9-by-13-inch pan with butter, and place oblong graham cracker pieces close together in pans. Boil butter and sugar two minutes. Pour over crackers. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake 10 to 11 minutes, let cool, break apart and store in tins.

Jo’s Punch

1 pint vanilla ice cream
½ gallon orange sherbet
4 liters ginger ale
1 can frozen orange juice

Cut up ice cream, sherbet and orange juice in a punch bowl. Add ginger ale and stir.

Jam Cake

¾ cup Crisco
3 eggs
1 ½ cup white sugar
1 cup seedless blackberry jam
1 cup blackberry juice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup raisins
1 cup pecans
1 cup buttermilk
1 rounded teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together sugar and Crisco. Add other ingredients as you would for any other cake. Add pecans and raisins last. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes; adjust baking time as needed. Makes three 8-inch cakes to be layered.

Caramel Icing
1 stick margarine
3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir first three ingredients in sauce pan until it comes to boil; boil for 1 minute and remove from heat. Mix in powdered sugar and vanilla until desired consistency; pour over cake. Decorate top of cake with pecan halves.