CHESHIRE- Helen G. Baltrukonis, whose early years on the family farm instilled a dedication to hard work and provided a lifetime of material for stories, died Dec. 23, 2020. She was 102. The cause was COVID-19.
Mrs. Baltrukonis was born in Waterbury in 1918 on the last day of September, a phrase she enjoyed using to test listeners’ memories of the number of days in the month. She lived nearly all of her life—well into her 90s—in the house on Marion Road in Cheshire that had been part of the family dairy and produce farm. Her parents, Joseph and Anna (Motiekonis) Griskauskas, bought the property after emigrating from Lithuania and first settling in Waterbury. The farm continued at the West Cheshire location, roughly the area around what is now Barn Hill Road, until the 1960s. Under her brother, the dairy operation then moved to Sharon, Conn. The home had also once housed a small grocery, which she called “the storeroom”—a double meaning, since it was later used to store her vast supply of cooking equipment and tins of cookies.
Helen Teresa Griskauskas was the second of five children, between her sisters Mary Pultinas and Victoria Steponaitis. They, and her younger brother, John Griskauskas, predeceased her. Another younger brother, Joseph, died in infancy. She was also predeceased by her husband, Alphonse. She is survived by her three children, Martha Acas of Waterbury, Joseph Baltrukonis of St. Paul, Minn., and James Baltrukonis of Torrington; six grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and several nieces, nephews, and cousins.
The house, particularly the kitchen, figured prominently in her memories. It was there, sitting by the wood stove as a young girl, that she read to her mother from a storybook of The Little Red Hen, a fable about the value of hard work, and from her first book from the Cheshire Public Library, the choice of which foretold her future calling: a cookbook. Many of her stories, which she delighted in telling, centered around Cheshire when it was largely a farming community. She told of cows swimming in the Ten Mile River, of her father bringing children to Humiston School (then the only one in town) by sleigh in the winter, and of a harried passenger dropping eggs on the trolley.
“You can’t make these things up,” she would often conclude. “They had to happen.”
Mrs. Baltrukonis, who ran a successful catering business for some 30 years, learned to make food in quantity early on by cooking for her family, the farm’s hired men, and countless Sunday visitors. After graduating from Crosby High School, she cooked in private homes and served in banquet halls like the Waverly Tavern in Cheshire and the Hotel Elton in Waterbury. She also had a number of other jobs. As a young woman, she worked in Cheshire’s plant nurseries and on war production lines. Following the death of her father, she had the additional duty of driving the farm’s commodities to market. But it was her time in kitchens and dining rooms that primed her to start her own business many years later.
Her catering career began when an astute dinner party guest spotted her in the kitchen of the hostess, for whom Mrs. Baltrukonis regularly cooked and who claimed to have made the evening’s food. The guest, who knew better, asked Mrs. Baltrukonis to cater her dinner party. The job led to referrals and soon she was handling weddings, bar mitzvahs, luncheons, and other affairs, as she called them. Mrs. Baltrukonis—Helen to her grateful clients and everyone else—built a loyal following with no advertising or even a Yellow Pages listing. She had clients in the Waterbury and New Haven areas and was on call for executive functions at the International Silver Corporation in Meriden.
The food itself was both unfussy and meticulously presented. Mrs. Baltrukonis transformed ordinary supermarket ingredients like white bread and Hellman’s mayonnaise into the stylish hors d'oeuvres favored by the cocktail party set of the 1960s. This fare was always smartly arranged on “platters like still-life paintings,” according to a 1990 feature in the Freeport (Ill.) Journal Standard by a writer who attended one of her parties. The feature—one of the few times she allowed public recognition of her work—had the headline “She combines simplicity with elegance” and explained why her recipes were never a secret. When she was about 15, the story goes, she was refused a cake recipe by, in her words, “a certain gentleman (I don’t consider him as such any longer)” who said “the most unpolished remark that I’ve ever gotten from anyone.” She never forgot the incident. “I promised myself that I would always share my joy of cooking,” she said.
She did. Well after retirement age, she volunteered her services for functions for St. Joseph’s Church, where she was a parishioner, and its related school. And she happily gave her recipes to anyone who asked.
Mrs. Baltrukonis was buried in Calvary Cemetery after a private service at St. Bridget’s Church, which she had attended as a child. Arrangements were assisted by Alderson-Ford Funeral Home of Cheshire, 615 South Main St, 06410.