Imagine a cornucopia the size of a card table, made with flower, sugar, eggs and butter.
Shaped over chicken wire, the baked horn of plenty spills forth intricate, handmade pastries that call out to the senses. The vision, its aroma overtaking the air, beckons the beholder to be oblivious to all else, until that final sense can be satisfied.
Ah, the sweet taste of euphoria.
The actual experience itself was one enjoyed by thousands of Ohio residents for more than 40 years, compliments of a petite lady known simply as "Ilonka."
The name still connotes the epitome of fine cuisine, and, most famously, pastries that were Ilonka's signatures: danishes, baked into muffin shapes, and stuffed with poppy-seed, apricot, pineapple, cherry, apple, raisin and nut fillings; quince jam served with butter flake rolls; and nut and poppy-seed kalak -- a pastry cooked over a spit.
Among her other specialties were pork chops with orange; Hungarian barley; meats and vegetables braised in lettuce leaves; and chicken made irresistible with the addition of herbs and sherry.
Ilonka would not compromise on quality and insisted on using real butter and cream in her sauces.
Helen Santho Lakin Conti McClain did not come of age with the dream of achieving fame as an accomplished restaurateur. Born to Hungarian immigrants, she had intended to enter the field of psychiatry and worked after school to earn money for college as a waitress, hostess and eventually, dining-room manager of the Francis Willard Tea Room in Columbus.
Life during the era of the Great Depression led her to change course, as a lack of money put her college aspirations aside. She exchanged vows with Columbus attorney Sanford Lakin, who was killed in action during World War II soon after the marriage.
After spending a year of traveling and reassessing her life, she ended up in California to study food chemistry. There, she met a fellow food-chemistry student, an Italian immigrant named Franco Conti, and soon afterwards, the couple married and relocated to Columbus in 1946.
She further cultivated her skill and knowledge of restaurant management by opening a small bakery on the Near East Side of Columbus, according to her late niece, Myra Zoog, in a 2014 interview. She specialized in fine candies, intricately designed wedding and birthday cakes, and what became her famous sapphire rolls. Her customers urged her to expand into catering, which became so successful that she could no longer rely on rented banquet facilities to accommodate her needs when serving large events.
When she decided to open her own banquet facility, she looked east to Whitehall, which had only recently incorporated, and which contained a new, sprawling retail development: the Town and Country Shopping Center.
At its eastern end was a farmhouse on land that had been the Dehner dairy farm. Armed with dreams and determination, she physically participated in construction that greatly expanded it, adding wings to its front and east facades.
Despite delays that included skeptical bankers not ready to lend to a woman in business and a parking lot that flooded during opening week, Ilonka's Provincial House, 4040 E. Broad St., opened for business May 5, 1950.
It could accommodate as many as 600 guests for a single event.
Ilonka oversaw every facet of the business, including designing a posh interior that was furnished more like a stately home than a restaurant with rows of tables.
She created and displayed decorations that reflected the themes of the events held there, often incorporating objects of art, fabric and accessories that she and her husband acquired during trips abroad. Working hand in hand, they created an atmosphere with items new and old, sometimes using their own ingenuity and resourcefulness to achieve the effect.
Zoog recalled that Franco used small, 1-pint milk bottles to fabricate a huge chandelier, which to the untrained eye appeared to be an expensive, custom-made fixture.
Among her other endeavors was sponsoring charitable causes, especially those that provided relief to Hungarian refugees who immigrated to America to escape the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and eventual rule by the former Soviet Union. She raised tens of thousands of dollars and, according to Zoog, sponsored Hungarian families' resettlement in the U.S.
The Provincial House operated into the 1980s, and throughout that time, its legendary reputation remained as steadfast as the trademark weeping willow tree that stood in front of it.
Upon Ilonka's death and the facility's closing in the early 1980s, it was extensively remodeled to house a collection agency, and later became home to medical practices.
But an observant person still can see the peaks of the original farmhouse's gables poking up at the roofline, the 18th-century house still contained and living on within the sprawling modern structure.
Steve McLoughlin is past president of the Whitehall Historical Society.