When you went to Ida Robinson’s house in Hunting Park, you left with a homemade pie. Sweet potato. Apple. Coconut. Pecan. You name it, and all from scratch.
If you were lucky, maybe she would give you her special black walnut hummingbird cake. And you didn’t have to be family. Friends and neighbors got in on the action, too.
“She would make 20 pies every holiday,” Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Joann said.
And she would travel all the way back to her hometown in Virginia to get fresh and familiar ingredients: vanilla, and black walnuts and pecans right off the trees.
Mrs. Robinson, 84, died on Friday, April 24, from COVID-19 at Chestnut Hill Hospital. She had been living at AristaCare at Ivy Hill. Two days later, on April 26, her younger brother, Samuel Hairston, died from the coronavirus, the family said.
Born in Bassett, Va., on Feb. 29, 1936, Mrs. Robinson – a leap-year baby – moved with her family to North Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes when she was 3. One of six children, she told stories to her daughter of the rolling Virginia farmland and of running barefoot through the grass. Over the years, she often went back to the Old Dominion for family reunions.
Mrs. Robinson married a veteran, Johnny Robinson, in 1956. They set up house in a big red-and-white Victorian in Hunting Park and were married for 41 years. Neighborhood trendsetters, their home was among the first on the block to have cable TV, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a microwave oven.
. On Halloween, she helped the children bob for apples and carve out pumpkins, and she sometimes served her trademark hot dogs and tacos. Her spreads at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas were even more elaborate.
“She showed her love by cooking,” granddaughter Kenaisha Lyons said. “Her house was always filled with family.”
Mrs. Robinson moved to an apartment in Roxborough after her husband died in 1997, and granddaughter Diamond Princess Franklin spent her early years visiting her grandmother there. A recent graduate of Cairn University, Franklin is a singer, and she and her grandmother often sang gospel songs to each other.
Two of Mrs. Robinson’s favorite songs were “I Will Make You Fishers of Men” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
“She was always laughing,” Franklin said. “And whenever we brought her chocolate or other treats, she would smile and say, ‘Oh, boy!‘ ”
Mrs. Robinson worked for the City of Philadelphia for 40 years, at Philadelphia General Hospital, the Museum of Art, and the Water Department. Her favorite assignment was as a security guard at the museum.
Mrs. Robinson had a soft spot for chocolate and nuts. She always had her nails and makeup in perfect order, and she liked to wear furs. Her favorite perfume was White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor. She named her son, Gregory, after her favorite actor, Gregory Peck. She laughed at host Steve Harvey on the TV show Family Feud, and spoiled her family with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and fried apples for breakfast.
Mrs. Robinson liked to travel with family, and collected hundreds of souvenir salt and pepper shakers. She took her family to view special exhibits at the Art Museum, and went out of her way to develop unique relationships with all of her nine grandchildren.
“She made you feel special with one-on-one activities,” Lyons said.
In 2000, Mrs. Robinson was partially paralyzed after a stroke.
After their grandmother’s death, Franklin and Lyons nominated their mother to be honored on Mother’s Day in the Music for Mom contest sponsored by the Kimmel Center. Joann was one of three mothers selected, and, in a coincidence, Franklin’s music professor at Cairn, Ruth Naomi Floyd, also a resident jazz artist at the Kimmel, was tasked with writing and performing a song about Joann.
In addition to her daughter, son, and granddaughters, Mrs. Robinson is survived by daughters Sharon, Lisa, and Sheila; two sisters; nine grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-granddaughter. Her daughter Kim died in 2015.
She was buried with her husband at White Chapel Memorial Park in Feasterville.
Here is the recipe, no longer a secret, for Mrs. Robinson’s Black Walnut Hummingbird Cake:
Ingredients: 4 cups Gold Medal flour; 1 tablespoon baking powder; 1 teaspoon baking soda; 4 eggs (room temperature); 2 cups white sugar; 1 cup brown sugar; ½ tablespoon salt/allspice/nutmeg; 1½ teaspoons cinnamon; 1 cup vegetable oil or 4 sticks soft butter; 1 tablespoon vanilla; and 1 tablespoon almond extract; 2 8-oz cans crushed pineapple (liquid/juice included); 3-4 cups black walnuts coarsely chopped; 4 smashed medium-size bananas.
Instructions: Separate batter into 3 oiled or buttered pans with a sprinkle of flour over the pan; Cook in preheated 300-degree oven for about 45 minutes. Mrs. Robinson inserted a toothpick into the cake. If it came out clean, she knew it was ready. Top with cream cheese frosting.