By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Ronnie Mitchell's Memorial Day picnic is such an old tradition, she's not really sure when or how it started.
Sisters Ann Brandner of North Avondale (left), Nell Brandner of Covington and Ronnie Mitchell enjoy food they prepared Sunday as a trial run for the lunch they'll prepare on Memorial Day.
Photo by BRANDI STAFFORD/The Cincinnati Enquirer
"You can't have a parade go by and not have a picnic," she says.
True enough, but a little detective work proves the picnic came before the Park Hills Memorial Day Parade. They've been holding the parade about 25 years - but Ronnie's oldest son, Marty, can't remember not having the picnic in their back yard, and he turns 37 this year. Ronnie and her family moved into her pre-Civil War house 39 years ago.
So knowing Ronnie and her propensity for feeding people, the Mitchell Memorial Day picnic has probably been an occasion for 39 years.
Arrive early for pastries
Still, the parade is an important attraction and logistical consideration. Picnic guests must arrive at Ronnie's house before 11 a.m. Monday in order to snag a parking spot in her driveway. If they get there later, the streets will be clogged with parade spectators.
Once they arrive, guests are greeted by an assortment of pastries on the porch - cinnamon-sour cream coffeecake, blueberry muffins and sticky buns - baked by Ronnie's sister, Ann Brandner, and Marty's wife, Missa.
"My family cooked, but they cooked mostly from a box," says Missa, who married into this clan of culinarians 16 years ago. "But I got good recipes from Ronnie and learned to cook from scratch."
Ronnie has cooked most of her life, but says the talent wasn't inherited.
"I learned to cook by reading recipes," she says.
So did her sisters.
"We're good cooks, but different kinds of cooks," says another sister, Nell Brandner. "Ronnie is more like a really good home cook. I cook for company. Annie (Brandner) cooks for sophisticated company."
The sisters are all close. Nell, an operating room nurse at University Hospital, and Ann, a social worker at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, are only a year apart in age, and they seem relaxed and easy-going.
Last year, Ronnie, the eldest sister, "retired" after teaching English at Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger for 22 years to become head of the English department at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills.
She cleans her house the day before and morning of the picnic (Marty once caught her still working in her nightgown at 10 a.m.) and rarely stops cooking to watch the parade, which starts at 11:30 a.m. Ronnie moves at a slightly higher speed than the rest of us.
But this sisterly blend of energy and skill is a recipe for just about the perfect holiday eating experience.
Parade pleases all ages
From the shade of the front porch, guests nibble pastries while watching the parade, and a few venture out to the street for a closer look. Everyone loves its small-town charm.
"You sit on the curb with the same people every year," Nell says.
The procession is open to residents showing off new cars and kids proudly pedaling bikes. And of course, there are grinning politicians, who toss out treats.
"Adults act like children," Ann says. "Everyone is grabbing for candy."
The parade, which ends in front of Ronnie's house, lasts less than 90 minutes - a reasonable amount of time, especially if the weather is warm.
Having worked up an appetite, the guests wander back to Ronnie's fenced-in patio, sipping iced tea and minted lemonade, where the host is setting tables decorated with fresh flowers. Ronnie insists on serving the food on china - not paper or plastic.
Homemade buns taste better
On the menu, she'll have chunky potato salad made with diced green olives, creamy corn pudding, barbecued chuck roast and soft and sweet homemade sandwich buns.
"The first time I saw that they had made their own buns, I couldn't believe it," Missa says. "But once you taste homemade, you don't want to go back to store-bought."
Ronnie's criteria for the best picnic dish: It's good, everyone likes it, and it's easy.
The menu doesn't change much year to year, but no one complains.
"People have to have the same things or they freak out," says Nell, who usually brings sweet marinated vegetables and a stunning lemon bundt cake.
First-timers are never disappointed when they see the legendary picnic spread.
"I really did not know what to expect," says Saed Namyar, who first came to the picnic three years ago, after marrying Ronnie's daughter, Monica. "I expected nothing like this."
Remembering good times
The company is as good as the food.
"Our nieces and nephews are there," Nell says. "It's like time never changes. We say the same things every year."
And every year on this special day, Nell and her sisters remember their father, Joe Brandner, a decorated World War II veteran.
Ronnie, who by now has changed from her nightgown into a colorful picnic outfit, is so busy getting food into bowls and drinks into guests' hands, she admits lunch is usually late - sometime after 1 p.m.
Her hectic cooking schedule was complicated one year when she had to walk down the street to make a speech during post-parade festivities about her neighbor, who was being honored for beautifying Park Hills.
Ronnie probably wouldn't like it, but maybe they'll honor her and her sisters some day for making Park Hills a better place to eat on Memorial Day.
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