Third Installment: A Thin Slice of Sky

EATING TO LIVE

 

Dad, our resident philosopher, quoted Ben Franklin: Eat to live, don’t live to eat. He also referred to the Bible: Man shall not live by bread alone. “Wheat for man” came from another holy book. These were parts of our dietary law. Napoleon said that no army marches on an empty stomach, but Dad and Mom mis-quoted this, thinking that an army marches better on an empty stomach. If this is so, our small army was often ready to march, for our fare was modest and sometimes sparse.

Wheat was the staff of our life. The simplest way to eat it is to take a handful and put it in your mouth. Soak and slosh it around until it begins to soften. Then, chewing and being careful not to swallow, form it into a blob of poor-boy’s gum. When we wanted gum, Mother pointed us to the open wheat sack and reminded us of this method. We were never enthusiastic.

Almost as simple as gum was boiled wheat, or Wheat Kernels, as our resident Director of Marketing called it. Mother knew how to merchandise a mundane product. She also knew how to disguise our poverty, keeping it invisible to all nine children until we became adults. Mother prepared Wheat Kernels by soaking wheat overnight and boiling it vigorously for forty-five minutes the next morning. Topped with brown sugar and cream, it was a tasty respite from cracked wheat, our breakfast staple.

We cracked the wheat using a Corona hand grinder. We clamped it to a long wooden bench. A 9” x 12” cake pan caught the product. Kids weighed down the ends of the bench while Dad cranked and sweated. He employed a strenuous circular motion he had learned as a teenager, cranking cars and tractors.

As we grew, the older boys helped with the cranking and sweating, less to be helpful, and more to assert muscular near-manhood. Putting grain twice through the grinder produced a mixture of fine flour and cracked grains, only about twenty percent of which was fine enough to be sifted out for baking. Normally eager to pioneer through any hardship, this tedious process frustrated even Mother.

Mother headlines her culinary repertoire with whole wheat breads of all types. Pancakes and waffles were breakfast favorites. Muffins, in paper cups, or in pans, were supper fare. Before Mother discovered the evils of deep-fat frying, we even had apple fritters a few times.

Of course, the premier wheat product is bread. Baked in batches of twelve, the sole purpose of its creation was to pose innocently on the sacrificial cooling racks, then be offered up to the residents as they returned from school and work. Countless are the bad days repaired by warm bread, dairy butter, and wildflower honey. Dad introduced bread and milk. A variation he also taught was toast broken into warm milk, flavored with cinnamon and sweetening.

When Mother made pies, she rolled, stripped and sugared the extra dough. Then she sprinkled the strips with cinnamon. These cinnamon sticks were only slightly less favored than the pies themselves. She perfected cinnamon rolls in later years.

Our ravenous horde consumed cookies of all kinds; raisin bars, oatmeal, peanut butter. Swedish Stollen Bread, with orange peeling grated into it, was a Christmas tradition.

Making birthday cakes with whole wheat was more difficult than with white flour. But this did not temper Mother’s preference for the health-promoting features of the plain grain. One year, we baked the 4-H fair entries handicapped both by using whole wheat, and by baking in the antique wood-fired oven. Fickleness combined with impossibility, but the baked goods still earned ribbons.

Merely readying wheat for grinding involves labor. We couldn’t tell if clean wheat was not available on the market, or if Mother preferred to buy a cheaper grade, using it as a ploy for teaching the value of work to her children. She conscripted us to sit around the kitchen table to pick rocks, weed seeds and grasshopper parts out of the golden grains. The boys ate the grasshopper legs to elicit disgust from the girls. Cleaning wheat was a task we relished approximately the same as plucking chickens. But I am sure Mother could not see the sense in paying extra for clean wheat when she had so many hands available. If you commanded the Chinese Army, would you buy tanks?

We boiled wheat and added it to chili as a substitute for half the hamburger. Flour and salt made a crude modeling clay. Wheat was the all-purpose commodity.

 

Lunch from the Garden

 

On summer days, we often ate produce directly from Mother’s garden. The plot was her Arch of Triumph, a monument to her conquest of nature in our little sliver of canyon. A productive garden was her Great White Whale. Daylight was short at both ends of the day and the soil was geologically young, thus of limited tilth and fertility. Goats, horses, cows, rabbits, moles, caterpillars and slugs were other dangers. Lou Jonas showed us how to kill slugs by laying boards between rows. Slugs collected on the cool undersurface and were easily killed by turning the boards over and shaking salt on them. In spite of difficulties, Mother, with the lukewarm aid of her children, harvested beans, carrots, peas, cabbage, onions, potatoes, radishes and lettuce.

Corn and tomatoes would not grow. A bluegrass classic states, “There’s only two things that money can’t buy, And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” We proved that you can get by on one of the two. We bought ample supplies of the tropical exotic Solanacaea on trips to Billings. Mother tried Jerusalem artichokes, eggplant, asparagus, comfrey, dill, cucumbers and other fabulous plants. Some succeeded; some were pure hallucination from the start.

In June, July and August, our lunches were the simplest. Sometimes I could hardly believe my eyes. On the table would be a dozen fresh leaves of lettuce, (two calories each), maybe some leaf spinach for balance, a forkful of tuna fish, or a small mound of cottage cheese, neither of which appealed to me. A two gallon crock full of radishes was the only other sustenance in sight. “All you can eat” meant unlimited radishes, (Oh, yum!), and more lettuce in the garden. These days, even Weight Watchers warns that such meals are medically unsound. None of us starved, but we grew tall and thin, some would say gaunt. Slimness was thus one of the positive side effects of our being poor.

 

Berry Picking

 

It may seem to readers that picking wild berries is an unprofitable activity, like straightening nails pulled from old boards. But to a family living on teacher’s wages, it was a way to augment the food budget. Alexander the Great could not pass an unconquered country; food free for the picking was an opportunity Mother could not ignore. Apples wasting on lawns affronted Mother’s “waste not, want not” ethic. She so excelled at utilizing scraps of food that our garden rarely got the benefit of composted kitchen refuse, though the pigs received a few morsels.

Chokecherries line Bear Canyon Road. Could it be that the soil disturbed by road-building is an ideal medium for them? We harvested these prolific berries; many townspeople came for them, too. That the bushes grew ten to fifteen in height, and hugged the steep roadside, made stripping all the fruit difficult. But the clustered fruiting pattern, a raceme, made filling the bucket go faster than with any other wild fruit.

The ease of picking was not lost on bears either. Our neighbors, the McGoughs, reported watching one bear gorge himself. They stopped their car. The bear was grsping the bushes at a height of eight to ten feet. He looked indifferently over his shoulder, evaluated the danger as negligible, then resumed his meal. He was farther up the thin grey stems when his weight overcame them and he tumbled to the road like a down pillow. He was no Newton; the laws of gravity cause him no reflection. He immediately climbed back to his meal, tickling his observers.

Chokecherries are barely edible. They are so sour, only bears and desperate wintering birds eat them plain. Honey and pectin make them palatable in jams and jellies. The berries are mostly pit covered by one-eighth inch of white flesh and a purple cloak. Mother extracted their juice by boiling and squishing them in a colander. On cold winter mornings, the syrup was a deep red, bittersweet dressing for pancakes. Jelly spread on buttered toast was a delicacy. It was anticipation of these sweet treats that caused us to pick until late in the evenings of September.

Raspberries and wild strawberries were such diminutive delicacies that we didn’t bother to accumulate them. Eating, not gathering, was the aim. They are so few and far between, you eat them as you find them, exclaiming with delight as each bursts into flavor. If you tried to “live off the land,” surviving on wild strawberries, it would be a brief but ecstatic existence.

In contrast, sarvice berries are plump and prolific. Some people call them June berries. They are roughly the same size and shape as commercial blueberries available at the supermarket.

This berry grew with abandon around our mountain home. When the berries ripened, we worked for two weeks gathering them. They were sweet enough to enjoy while picking and prolific enough to fill the bucket. The season was one of pleasant weather, the longer days of the year following the monsoons of June. Within 300 yards of our back porch enough of these berries grew that one year Mother canned the results of our pickings into 100 quarts. Other years we froze half the harvest. They went into our hot cereal along with brown sugar and cream. Fresh, we ate them with honey and cream. They made delicious open-faced pies. Mother sometimes added lemon rind or rhubarb to impart tartness. Blueberry pies in the restaurant will never rival these homemade, home-gathered pastries.

Huckleberries are the reigning Champions of Taste. There are two varieties in my experience: large and small. Large are best, of course, but no one spurns a patch of the small if that’s all there is. Huckleberries seem seedless, augmenting their appeal. They are 100% flavor, no bothersome pits. This is an “eat only” fruit, as opposed to a fill-the-bucket type. Anyone who has filled a bucket is either a self-denying masochist, or has found Mother Lode of berrying. A piece of advice is in order: bears are attracted to huckleberries like coyotes are to sheep. If you seek huckleberries, watch out. Bears are dangerously territorial when foundering in a prime huckleberry patch.

Mabel Curdy organized a gooseberry expedition with Mother and several of us children during one of our four summers in Deer Lodge. We threw sun bonnets, plastic pails, and belts to hold them, into the back of the station wagon. Past the city dump three miles, in a creek bottom, was a winning patch. Gooseberry bushes have real thorns. The women persisted but we dropped out of service to play hide-and-seek while watching for cows and bulls nearby. We were eager, though, to eat the pies the ladies’ persistence produced.

Thoreau picked the berries growing near his cabin. In Walden he tells what prices they fetched, or at least what they were worth. Calculating dollars per hour probably never occurred to Mother. Were her labors profitable? Of course not. But the pies, jams, jellies and experiences were rewarding beyond measure. We felt satisfactions in our small discoveries and conquests at the berry patches and later as we feasted on the spoils which would have made an emperor jealous.

 

Beverages

 

Root beer was the theme upon which Father built a party. He had grand hopes of filling twelve dozen brown bottles for winter consumption while also indulging the palates of party attendees.

Several families gathered on the appointed summer evening. The tubs and dry ice stood ready. The cook added sugar, color and flavoring to our mineral-rich well water. All hands tested. A few reluctant praises were given. Then all the cooks offered how to improve the broth. What ingredients should be added? Dad’s brow puckered. He did not want either the party of the concoction to fail. The children were willing tasters also, but as the flavor was experimental, not engineered in the laboratories where A&W and Dad’s Root Beer were perfected, they left their posts early and the gritty adults retained the task.

We rinsed the bottles one final time and filled them. Where did they all go? None showed up at winter festivities as had been the plan. As with many enterprises, the pleasure of planning and anticipation exceeded the pleasure of the finished product. We only had one root beer party; that was our first and last.

Cider parties drew a better crowd and rewarded the attendees, so we held them annually. The product was superb. Dad bought the cider press in a moment of inspiration. Perhaps he got it at the weekly auction in Deer Lodge. Usually the machines he bought were useless except as stimulants to the imagination. “What could I do with this thing? Put a pulley, gear box and some wheels on it and it would make a hot go cart for the kids.” But most of the machines languished. Pumps, chains and tools were some of his weaknesses. It was a harmless and inexpensive hobby he had, one that provided parts and kept our shed an interesting place to tour. But when he purchased the cider press, his judgment was impeccable.

The machine worked as follows. One person dropped whole apples into the grinding box while someone else turned the crank arm. The shredded pieces dropped into a cylinder of wooden slats without top or bottom. When the cylinder was full, we pushed it forward twelve inches directly under the screw press with a round foot. The round foot was the same diameter as the inside of the cylinder. By screwing the foot down into the pulverized apples, juices oozed out between the slats of the walls. They drained down the slightly sloped board into a pitcher, ready to drink. Two cylinders came with the press. While one was in squeezing position, the other filled up with mangled apples.

The apples were usually free, the profit of Mother’s scavenging around town. She would see a lawn strewn with windfall apples and inquire of the owners. It seemed most owners of apple trees let the fruit go to waste rather than putting it up. Mother thought such wastefulness was criminal and cheerfully offered to correct their fault.

People of all ages enjoyed cider nights. Many hands helped. Kids could romp in the dusk; they helped when called. The September weather was usually beautiful, though chilly. The juice was delectable. There was plenty for both drinking and saving for later. The root beer party was a flop, but cider nights more than compensated.

 

A Brief Catalog of Edible Plants and Unorthodox Foods

 

Burt King was one of Dad’s fellow teachers. He hung pheasants on his back porch with guts and feathers intact. He influenced my parents to unorthodoxy in foods. His idea was Asian: ripened innards supposedly seasoned and tenderized the meat. Mother learned from Burt that pigweed was edible. It certainly was plentiful. When it germinated around our back step, Mother forbade us from pulling it. A weed we didn’t have to pull? Great! But saving the labor hardly seemed worth the prospect of pigweed salad, or bacon-pigweed-tomato sandwiches. Maybe her technique was devious; spinach and beet greens tasted pretty good when threatened with pigweed. She called it “lambs quarter.” This fancy name didn’t impress any of us. A sucker might be born every minute but our gullibility had been stretched before and we were cool skeptics.

Watercress was another of Mother’s favorites. She used it as a salad garnish. She teamed it with alfalfa sprouts on cream cheese sandwiches. It grew in the same shallow, cold watercourses that peppermint did, or at least, near the more terrestrial peppermint. We were all in agreement as to the merits of mint, perhaps because it was used for tea, not eaten outright, as was watercress.

Lou Jonas taught our parents another culinary delight: stinging nettle. This gangly weed is the poison oak of the northern Rockies. Picked with gloves, and boiled to remove the poisons, we ate it with butter and salt. Butter and salt can transform about anything; stinging nettle gave them a sore challenge.

Dad was enthusiastic about preparing the most sinister-sounding foods. Some never got past the planning stage, a fact for which we were often grateful. We were content to eat Spanish Rice, cornbread and potato soup routinely, and let Dad talk about head cheese, (actually made from head meat, tongue and brain), as long as it never materialized on the dinner table. Calf brains were supposedly good in scrambled eggs. He offered samples. None felt the need to prove their bravery. We all declined.

Dad bought an antique crock and filled it with five gallons of chopped cabbage. He intended it to be sauerkraut. Nose-clearing fumes rose from where it sat by the back door. When it was “ready”, even Dad decided that he wasn’t sufficiently German to appreciate it. The pigs seemed grateful.

With Lou Jonas, we went to Canyon Ferry Dam, and in the shallows, pitch forked a station wagon full of carp, one of the least desired fish of Montana’s waters. Carp were more fun to hunt than to eat. Canned, they were edible but not highly sought after. Mother sneaked them as a substitute for tuna fish in casseroles.

The Indians are known for using the whole buffalo. Dad was nearly as efficient when it came to the animals we slaughtered. We had oxtail soup. The tongue was boiled, skinned and sliced for sack lunch sandwiches. Reluctantly we tried it, grudgingly admitting we liked it bearably well.

When we had milk cows in production, Mother tried making a variety of foodstuffs from the milk and cream. They ranged from nasty, to fair, to irresistible. In the first category were buttermilk, cottage cheese and cheese. Yogurt was moderately good, though the thought of all those beasties fermenting was daunting. Most excellent were butter, made with a variety of churning methods, whipped cream on cake, and ice cream. But that was in the days before the harpings of government and the media about cholesterol and heart disease. We indulged innocently. In later years, Mother cut us back on milk fats and tried to sell us on tofu, soybean products, sprouts and cayenne pepper. It almost made us long for stinging nettle and “lambs quarter.”

 

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