A week or so after Marie Rizzio passed away, I was scanning the recipe pages of the latest issue of Cherryland Electric Cooperative's Country Lines magazine as I always do, when I saw them.
There in a spread titled, "Fun Food for Kids," were two recipes from Marie — Tex-Mex Chicken Crunchies and Fried Ice Cream Sundae.
Her husband of 62 years, Richard, heard about it, too, and was surprised. He hadn't known that she'd submitted the recipes.
But that was Marie — her fingers in many pots. Literally.
I first met Marie in the 1990s, in my early days as features editor at the Record-Eagle, which includes doing the Food pages. She came to my attention because she was entering cooking contests and winning — some big ones. In 1999, she actually took home $40,000 in contest winnings, Richard said, including $25,000 for being voted first place in the National Chicken Cooking Contest with her original recipe for Japanese Amazu Chicken and $10,000 for first place in a national Quaker Oats recipe competition. She was also Italian, and loved to feed people — things we had in common.
And so as she continued to submit recipes here and win a contest there, and then Richard started also competing occasionally, we got to know each other. I did a few stories on them over the years — when she won the big contest, and a cooking story just a few years ago.
By then, she and Richard had moved to Interlochen from their longtime home in Traverse City, and I got to spend some time looking through her scrapbooks from "every contest she's been in," as Richard describes them now. I also had a chance to watch her in action in the kitchen.
But we'd lost touch in the past two years or so and it was a shock when I got the email from Richard saying that she was gone. She'd been ill on and off, he said, and in the end, at 83, "her immune system just ran out."
And so Richard is carrying on in the home they shared, where a wall in one of the rooms is covered in contest memorabilia, and where her cookbooks and recipes remain as testament to a lifetime built around a love of cooking and family.
The irony, he said, is that "she couldn't boil water" when they first got married.
"Her mother was the ruler in the kitchen being an Italian woman," he recalled. "Her first meal for me when we got married was a disaster.
"I learned to keep quiet because she was very embarrassed about that."
But Marie was determined to teach herself to cook. For two years early in their marriage when she had regular commutes by train between their then home in Cary, Ill., and Chicago, she read cookbooks.
"She was going to learn to prepare food for her new husband," Richard said. "And she became a master of it."
They moved to Marquette from Illinois and it was there that she began entering contests.
"The local paper, The Mining Journal, ran a contest every year and she won one after another," Richard said.
She continued with the contests after they relocated to Traverse City. Along the way, Richard became her biggest fan. Ask him for his favorites among her dishes and he rattles off a litany that seems to have no end: stuffed artichokes, stuffed eggplant, veal scallopine, rolled pork with scalloped potatoes and "just about all the different types of Italian dishes you can think of," he said.
"From the looks of my stomach, I enjoyed it," he laughed.
Even more, he enjoyed the years they had together, loving each other, raising four children, doting on five grandchildren.
"It couldn't have been a better 62 years," he said. "It ended too fast."
Here is Marie Rizzio's first winning recipe — from The Mining Journal in Marquette, 1977. She won the grand prize for desserts.
Broken Glass Torte
1 package lemon gelatin
1 package lime gelatin
1 package raspberry gelatin
1 ½ c. hot water for each package of gelatin
1 envelope plain gelatin
¼ c. cold water
1 c. hot pineapple juice
1 pint whipping cream
½ c. sugar
1 t. vanilla
1 dozen lady fingers
Dissolve each of the three packages of gelatin separately in 1 ½ c. hot water for each package. Chill in separate pans until real firm. Then cut in cubes.
Soften the plain gelatin in ¼ c. cold water, dissolve in hot pineapple juice and cool. Fold into whipped cream into which you have beaten sugar and vanilla. Blend in colored gelatin cubes carefully into the pineapple whipped cream mixture. Turn into an angel cake pan lined with lady fingers. Top with crumbs of lady fingers. Chill 6 or more hours until firm. The cut slices give the broken glass effect. Serves 12 or more.
Japanese Amazu Chicken
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into ½-inch strips
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ c. cornstarch
1/3 c. vegetable oil
4 c. fresh bean sprouts
1 small salad cucumber
1/3 c. thinly sliced radishes
5 T. sliced green onions, tops reserved for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds
Finely chopped red pepper
¼ c. soy sauce
¼ c. sugar
¼ c. rice vinegar
1 T. sesame oil
In large bowl, mix together eggs and cornstarch. Dip chicken strips into mixture, coating well. In large nonstick frying pan, place oil over medium high heat. Added chicken (half at a time) and cook about 3 minutes or until browned. Drain on paper towels and keep warm. In large saucepan of boiling water, cook bean sprouts 3 minutes; drain. Using vegetable peeler, cut cucumber into thin strips. Toss together bean sprouts, cucumber, radishes and green onions. Place on serving dish and arrange chicken on top. Drizzle with Amazu Sauce. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds, red pepper and green onion tops. Makes 4 servings.
To make sauce, blend soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and sesame oil well.