The Simple Epicure


As an occasional diversion from the inroads of despair evoked by threats of Communism, Fascism, Naziism, Socialism, Nudism, and Cataclysm, we play anagrams. One of our number is a professor of economics at Harvard and whilom member of the famous Brain Trust at Washington — a man whose word the laity would hesitate to dispute, no matter how casually uttered. When, therefore, with solemn mien and fixity of stare he combats the challenge of some absurd combination of letters with the apparently immutable statement that it is ‘a weed in Southern Michigan,’we sit meekly back in our chairs, doubt in our hearts, but not unmixed with envy of his cultured bravado. For God knows that Southern Michigan, at least some fifty years ago in the days of my childhood, grew as large and varied a crop of weeds as any state of its size could do.

Some of these ‘weeds,’ eaten as ‘greens,’provided us with whatever stood for vitamin content in a day when spinach was practically unknown. The earliest of these to find its succulent way to our table was the dandelion. Now the dandelion is without doubt a pest. Crowding and shoving his arrogant way through, past, over, and beyond his betters, he thrusts a gamin head above the more legitimate occupants of lawn and field, and later flings his silvery whorls abroad with happy abandon, kin to all shiftless gentry. And yet, in all the rich roster of more refined vitamin-producing vegetables, including broccoli, escarole, endive, and the plebeian cabbage, richest contributor of them all, is none that has the lusty tang and flavor of the dandelion.

After dandelions came narrow dock, pigweed, pursley (called ‘ pussley’), the tender unfurled stalks of young milkweed (a close second to asparagus), and the leaves of mustard, horse-radish, turnips, and cowslips. My father was a man of prejudices, especially in the matter of food, and, being possessed of a somewhat testy disposition, had small scruples about stating them. He did not care particularly for greens. He called them ‘fodder,’and said if you were going to eat fodder, why not eat something that had some taste to it, like cowslips? Cowslips, he stated, were the only greens fit to eat. What if they were bitter? Bitter things were good for you. Moreover, they were the only greens his mother had ever cooked, and his mother was a good cook. Therefore each spring, when the pale yellow blossoms began to dot the edges of streams and begold the meadows, he would get into his high rubber boots and, with a market basket on his arm and the dog ‘Shep’ nosing about for muskrats, would sally forth to provide the family table with a delicacy which he pretended merely to tolerate but consumed with avidity.

My mother was not partial to cowslips, because of the snails which sometimes clung tenaciously to the underside of leaves. My father snorted with derision at her discrimination and reminded her that in certain countries snails were regarded as a delicacy. To this my mother equably remarked that they were welcome, and that if my father had to clean the leaves he would n’t be so lenient; whereupon he rejoined, with not unreasonable contention, that cowslips throve in water and therefore did n’t need half the cleaning dandelions did, considering the questionable places where they grew the best.

In spite of such altercations, at least once a year cowslips were added to the varied list of greens that made springtime meals something to be anticipated then, and afterward remembered with pleasure.

They were cooked, these greens, with salt pork or a ham bone, and made a delectable addition to a diet grown monotonous through a long winter when potatoes and cabbage had monopolized the vegetable content of the menu, with perhaps even the cabbage giving out before spring. Indeed, they are not to be despised even to-day, when vitamin-producing and appetiteprovoking foods may be found from June to June in almost every village and town.


Farmers in general did not bother themselves much with gardens in those days. They were concerned with larger affairs of stock and grain, and looked upon the garden as ‘truck,’ leaving it mostly to the care of women and boys. My father, however, had but a few acres, and he liked puttering with truck. It was his special pride to furnish the table with a mess of green peas and new potatoes on the Fourth of July. If he had been a New Englander, salmon would have been added to the menu; but he was not a New Englander, and meat was a secondary consideration.

The new potatoes, not fully grown, were carefully fingered from the hills, and cooked with the peas in the smallest amount of water possible, to which, when they were done, butter and cream were added. And no other method of cookery that I have ever seen can approach this for full and delicious flavor.

In my childhood carrots were not considered a desirable food for man. They were raised for beasts, and the fact that they were supposed to make the horse’s hair soft and shiny may have given rise to the tradition that a generous diet of them will put curly hair on a child’s head. Tomatoes, too, had not been accepted as suitable food for man. They were looked upon as a distrusted adventurer into the vegetable kingdom. Indeed, they were regarded by the conservative (in which class my father was to be accounted for his zeal) as a distinctly dangerous vagrant threatening life itself. Rumor had it that tomatoes were the direct cause of cancer, and there were those who claimed that a law ought to be passed forbidding their further entrance into a hitherto hygienically established domain. If it had become known that the tomato is close kin to the so-called deadly nightshade (one of the varmints among the weeds of Southern Michigan), its recognition would have been delayed still longer.

Long after the zestful and now admittedly health-giving tomato had been accepted in the horticultural world as an aristocrat among vegetables, my father would have nothing to do with it. He grew tomatoes and would sell them, but he carried an unwritten notice to the effect that all who traveled that road did so at their own peril. When he was seventy-five he was induced to try them; perhaps he thought the end so imminent that a hazard more or less was of small moment. Between that day and the day he died, ten years later, there was not time enough for him to get all the tomatoes he wanted; but he never once alluded to what his stubborn prejudice had lost him.

Cucumbers my father ate as he ate apples, except that he peeled a cucumber and not an apple. It was a daily custom with him to pause long enough of a summer morning to select two or three of the slenderest and choicest of the lot, and, with me hovering close to his side, make his way to the edge of the stoop, where we would sit, my bare legs dangling pleasantly beside his cowhide boots, while he, with the trusty blade of his huge jackknife, peeled the cool, delicious fruit. He would then cut them into strips and divide them, share and share alike, utterly oblivious of dietary rote for child or man. With an old nicked glass saltcellar (now a treasured antique) between us, we would dip and chonk, dip and chonk, each juicy mouthful punctuated and accompanied by generous bites of bread fresh from the oven and topped with butter often fresh from the churn. And if by this time any misunderstanding reader happens to be thinking sympathetically of us as an ‘ underprivileged child ’ and a ’forgotten farmer,’ let him turn his commiseration elsewhere.


The ‘full pork barrel,’ in the days when weeds from Southern Michigan played an important part in the spring diet, was no empty metaphorical expression of plenty. It was what you might call the backbone of our meat supply.

And speaking of backbones brings me again to the literal. What housewife of to-day knows the delightful satisfaction of committing to her timeand-temperature-controlled oven a vast dripping pan filled to its generous depths with fresh, full-length spareribs? No four-inch, parsimoniously stripped, palely corned bones, barren of taste or flavor, but long, slender, well-padded ribs firmly attached to the spinal column with tenderloin still intact, and the whole imbedded with stuffing. And such stuffing!

Modern exponents of the art of cookery, ever seeking to divert the mind of man — and particularly of woman — by new and often outlandish methods, have conceived and devised many strange combinations of ingredients under the name of stuffing. Chestnuts, which belong on the hearth or in a boy’s pocket; oysters, never quite at ease except on the half shell or in a stew; raisins, whose proper métier is the pudding, the fruit cake, or on the stem; cheese, the dominating flavor of which should rule the dish (and will) — these and other alien comestibles have been dragged in to give the hotly pursued ‘unusual’ tang to a dish as strongly naturalized as the American Eagle, only to give a flaccid, anæmic effect where thews and sinews are indicated. For good old stuffing as known to old-fashioned folk of Southern Michigan, and to other epicures, is made of bread properly moistened, chopped onion, salt, pepper, sage, and savory, the whole generously enriched with melted butter.

Licking the dish after the stuffing had been transferred to its final use and purpose was a treat in no way second to that offered by the yellow bowl in which molasses cookies had been mixed.

The advent of spareribs in the days of my childhood was one of the anticipated seasonal returns, like greens in spring and sweet corn in summer. They came with the first severe frosts of early winter, when butchering time brought as welcome a change to the meat diet as the greens did after a winter of potatoes and cabbage, and bespoke not only a delightful treat in themselves, but a round of family dinners and neighborly exchange. For the farmers of a community usually made of butchering a succession of events in order to help each other, and to keep the feast of fresh meat going as long as possible.

Besides the spareribs there were, in the rich roster of kitchen-tested recipes, fresh baked shoulder with apple sauce; sausage, packed away in small stone jars protected by a thick coating of melted lard; souse; and headcheese.

Now headcheese, as made by my mother and her contemporaries, was a harmonious and appetizing unification of savory meat and piquant spices. And yet, nowhere in the two hundred or more cookbooks that burden my shelves do I find any reference to it. But in a yellowed, thumbmarked, eggand molasses-stained old copy book, where some faithful recorder set forth her ‘rules,’ I find the following rather dramatic account: —

The head is singed, then soaked in salt water for twenty-four hours. It is then taken out, scrubbed, and cleaned. A red hot poker is thrust into the ears and nostrils. If large it is split in two and then placed in a kettle large enough to hold water to cover it. [At this point one’s imaginative tendency inclines toward a highheld platter borne either by a fat-calved butler or by a sandaled Salome, as the whim turns.]

Into the kettle are put a few bay leaves, a bunch of parsley, a sprig of sage, another sprig of thyme, and some summer savory, two or three onions, and a good-sized carrot cut into pieces. In a bag are put some whole spices, some peppercorns, a few cloves, and this is added to the others.

The meat is then boiled until it drops from the bones. A thin clean white cloth is placed in a large colander and the meat drained onto it. When quite drained it is either chopped or picked into fine pieces and packed into a bread tin. Add a very small portion of vinegar to the liquid in which the head was boiled and pour enough of this over the meat to mould it. Over the meat place a clean dry white cloth and on top of this a weight, say a sadiron, or a stone placed on a board. Take note that the eyes, which in boiling will be removed from their sockets, are taken out and thrown to the hens. The ears are chopped with other meat.

‘Souse,’ the faded, meticulous message goes on to say, ‘is made in the same way, except that the meat is not allowed to cook from the bones. The feet and hocks are set in a crock and the liquid poured over them to jell.’

I have never made headcheese, but there are moments when there is tranquillity to a harassed mind in the thought of fingers caressingly engaged amid a bed of herbs including sage and savory and a sprig of thyme, preparing for a day when they will be used to flavor the detached timber from a porcine head; and other moments when the hot poker, with its savage, hissing thrusts, offers an ameliorating suggestion not incompatible with one’s belief in justice.


Southern Michigan, in the days of which I write, was farther by many hours from the seacoast than it is to-day. There were no refrigerator cars, no method of preservation other than that of salt and the commercial tin, and even this latter method was often fraught with danger. Nevertheless, one of the rarest treats that ever came into our lives was the tin can of oysters which my father once in a while brought home from town on a winter’s day. This was a squarecornered quart tin with a softer piece of tin at the top for cutting. I wish that I could again turn a twitching nose to the exquisite aroma that came from that container as the knife severed the top.

I have lived in New England now for many years. I have eaten oysters from Maine to Baltimore, and in every shape, form, and manner, and never tire of them. But even so, never has a fresh-from-the-sea Blue Point on the half shell smelled or tasted one tenth as good, as delectable, toothsome, delicate, and appetizing, as did those tinned oysters back in Michigan.

Doubtless some analyst of foods — or fools — will rise up to declare that this is but an attitude of mind; that because oysters in those days were a strange and foreign food, adumbrating an air of mystery, the memory is deceived. But, remembering the fragrance that floated through the house as the liquid from the can was mixed with milk or cream and heated to the boiling point, I am not convinced. Perhaps when clouds of witnesses arise from the ranks of Atlantic readers to verify claims made for spareribs and headcheese, as well as weeds from Southern Michigan, some will come forth to testify also to the merits of the tinned oyster.


In the days when men wrested almost an entire living from the soil, there was little talk about dieting, and little need of it. People, old and young, worked and walked and had small occasion for reducing girth or girdle. They ate strong food, and bread was believed to be the staff of life. Flour was not as yet too refined, and milk, or the water in which potatoes had been boiled, was used as liquid, lard from the crock as shortening, and the whole when baked provided a rich, luscious, and nutritious food from infancy to old age.

My father did not like yeast bread, however, and would not eat it. He said there was nothing to get your teeth into and that it was n’t fit for a dog. My mother said, be that as it may, she was not going to feed it to the dog; that she liked it, I liked it, and she was going to make it. To which my father replied she could make it if she wanted to, and eat it too, but as for him he wanted salt-risin’ bread and he wanted it fresh.

So twice each week the big elevated oven yielded three fat, brown-crusted loaves of salt-risin’ bread, along with an equal or greater number in which yeast cakes were the leavening power. And no one living at that time could have dreamed that in a few years the dry yeast cake would have gone the way of pungs and cutters and driedapple sauce.

My mother never became quite reconciled to what seemed an unnecessary demand. She thoroughly disliked making salt-risin’ bread. It was temperamental, required longer ‘raising,’ and took more time to bake. On one occasion my father, grown unusually testy from argument, clumped about the kitchen waving his arms, shouting, ‘Jumpin’ Christopher! What’s your time for? I don’t ask much of you, do I?’

This superfluous question my mother met with an enigmatical silence doubtless harder to bear by one of a controversial nature than argument, but nevertheless she made the bread.

Three loaves went into the oven at about nine o’clock, and although my father, from long years of anticipatory watchfulness, knew to a moment the hour of their consignment and the length of time it took to bake, he would invariably appear at the kitchen door within fifteen minutes to ask, ‘What time do you think it ought to be done?’

Mother would reply, ‘Oh, in about an hour, I guess. But you can’t cut it when it’s hot, you know ’ — being perfectly well aware that when it was hot was exactly when he did want to cut it, and would.

A fat-cheeked old silver watch that kept him company throughout his life apprised him of the time, but he never waited for the hour to expire. Within the half he would again appear at the door, eager and expectant.

’Bread done yet?’ Craftily he would peer past her toward the oven as if he never quite trusted her computation of time.

‘Mercy, no,’ she would reply patiently, ‘I’ve only just put it in.’

He had various ways of employing himself during the last few moments of waiting. In winter he would fill the wood box to overflowing, or he would shell corn for the hens, an occupation customarily accorded to the leisure of evenings, but sometimes anticipated in order to provide an excuse for a position near the oven door. In summer he would go to the garden, pick two or three crisp young cucumbers, and, returning, burst eagerly into the house, lay the cucumbers in a pan of cold water, and demand testily to know whether that bread was n’t done yet.

To satisfy him my mother would open the oven door a crack and peer inside, only to close it again with the verdict, ‘’Bout fifteen minutes more,’ delivered in a professional tone.

‘Jiminy Christopher!’ The explosion was mild in word but electric in effect. ‘Can’t you hurry it up? You want some more wood?‘

‘No,’ Mother would reply calmly to both inquiries, ‘the fire’s all right and if you’d eat yeast bread it would n’t take so long. You can’t hurry saltrisin’ bread.’

Then my father would snort and clump his feet down hard as he walked away, and say he did n’t see why she did n’t bake it every day and then a man could have it when he wanted it, fresh.

No matter where he happened to be at the time, he seemed to know the moment the bread came out of the oven, if indeed he was not on hand. My mother tried to insist that the bread should be turned out upon a clean towel and covered with another until it had cooled at least a little, but this was beyond my father’s endurance. The only concession he would make was a sufficient time to peel the cucumbers that were cooling and put them lengthwise on a plate with a saltcellar. This, with another plate filled with huge slices of hot bread generously buttered, was then carried out to our accustomed position on the back steps, where he and I would feast our corporeal selves on the nutty richness of salt-risin’ bread and stock our souls with memories against another day.


When it came to doughnuts my father was quite content with my mother’s product, but he liked these, too, hot from the kettle, and insisted on a fresh batch three times a week.

My father called them ‘friedcakes.’ That was what his mother had called them and that was what they were. He said he did n’t know what a doughnut was, and he did n’t care. Friedcakes were what he wanted, and friedcakes were what he would have. Moreover, he had to have them fried in a certain iron kettle, huge, heavy, and unwieldy. Unknown to him, my mother once bought a lightweight, clean-looking kettle of granite to take its place. When, however, he came in and saw the cakes sizzling about in this alien pot, he threw what is vulgarly known as a fit. .

Who in tunket, he stormed, ever heard of such a thing as using anything but an iron kittle for friedcakes? He picked up one of the cakes, perfect in contour, light as a thistle, golden brown in color, bit into it with pursed lips, and threw it down with a contemptuous verdict.

Not fit to eat! What could she expect, coming out of that liver-colored contraption? Where was the kittle?

You fry cakes, Mother told him, in the lard, and it don’t make any difference what the lard’s in, so long’s it’s hot enough.

Father snorted and waved his arms. She need n’t tell him, he shouted, that she could fry cakes in that thing. She had only to look at them to see. He demanded the kittle. He said he would get the kittle. He got the kittle and banged it down on the stove.

My mother sought to calm him. She urged him to try another of the cakes and expressed herself as willing to wager that he could not tell the difference.

Tell the difference! he roared. Of course he could tell the difference. They tasted of that stuff on that tarnation pot she was cooking them in.

She pointed out that this could not be so, as this was an enameled surface and nothing could come off it. Father insisted that there was a decided taste of tin or something, but followed the first sample with another and another, doubtless to verify his original opinion. He had never expected, he grumbled, in his time, to eat such friedcakes. They might as well be thrown to the hogs. My mother remarked tartly that it looked as if there would n’t be many to throw, but she apparently did not consider the battle worth waging, for she went back to using the iron kettle and used it as long as I can remember — but not the same kettle.

A little while after this the iron kettle was knocked off the table and cracked. Mother said it was an accident and she was sorry, but it could n’t be helped. Anyway she had the granite kettle, which would do quite as well, but Father declared he would get another iron kettle before the sun had set. He dropped everything, hitched the bay horse to the buckboard, and took me with him. He stopped at all the near-by farmhouses and asked if they had an iron kettle to sell. Some of the women were willing to part with one (doubtless in the hope of acquiring another of lighter weight), but none of them was what Father wanted. Some were too large, some too small; one that might otherwise have done had a chip in the rim; another had a slightly cracked ear which endangered the safety of the bail. No slightest flaw escaped his searching eye.

We stopped at two secondhand stores (there were no antique shops then) and at the junk dealer’s, but nothing would suit. The perfect kettle was not found.

On the way home somebody told Father about an auction that was to be held on the morrow where there would be a lot of household goods. So, as soon as an early breakfast was over, he hitched up the bay mare and we set forth. The auction was some ten miles away over a dirt road. As if all roads were not of dirt, in that day! The sand on this particular road, however, was unusually deep and the day was hot. We proceeded slowly while Father perspired and the horse lathered. Father took off his alpaca coat and vest and opened his shirt collar. When we came to a stream he drove through on the shallow side of the bridge and let the mare stop to drink. He said it would soak up the fellies on the wheels as well.

After we had driven through he told me to get out and pick some elderberry leaves and wet them in the stream. He put these inside his hat and I picked some more, wet them, and stuck them in the bridle to keep the flies away from the horse’s head.

Ten miles was a goodly journey in those days over a dusty road, but we reached our destination shortly after the auction had begun. My father immediately began to prowl among the junk which was gathered on tables, benches, and on the grass. There were several kettles, but again none suited him. Vexed and disappointed, he turned away, and was making toward the buggy when a leather-faced, hornyhanded stranger approached and said he’d heard my father was looking for an iron kittle. Father said he was.

I got one over to my house,’ said the stranger, ‘that’s had more friedcakes cooked in it ’n you c’d put in a hayrack. House’s just down the road a step. Come down, I’ll show you.’

We followed him down the dusty road, his bare feet plopping in the dust, fringed overalls flapping about his thin, dirt-encrusted ankles.

‘This-here kittle,’ he volunteered, ‘was my mother’s and her mother’s afore her, and just as good to-day as ’t was then. Hain’t no wear-out to it. My first womern set store by it, and fried a million cakes in it. But thishere one—’ A flip of the hand, significant expectoration of tobacco juice expertly aimed at a ragweed taller than its thousand mates along the road, and scornful lift of moustached lip (badly discolored), gave mute commentary on this-here present ‘womern.’

‘C’mmin.’ He pushed open the dilapidated door of what was clearly the most desolate, rickety, junk-strewn excuse for a house that ever disgraced a township. ‘ Womern’s up t’ the auction,’ he explained. ‘I’ll git the kittle.’

Rattling and banging about amid the general debris in some outlying district which he designated as the woodshed, he came back triumphantly bearing an exact replica of the late lamented article for which we were seeking a duplicate.

‘Thar she is!’ He set the kettle down on a cluttered table and, giving it a hasty brush with his sleeve, stood off to observe the effect of this miraculous consummation of a desire.

My father clutched the kettle, struck it resoundingly with a knife which he picked up from the table, listened critically, and nodded his head. He inspected the rim for nicks, the ears for cracks, and the handle for balance. His investigation seemed to give him complete satisfaction.

He inquired, tersely, the price. The owner, shifting ballast to the other jaw, hitched his overalls a notch higher, squinted speculatively at his customer, and said with equal brevity, ‘Fo’ dollars.’

My father took a worn leather bag from his pocket, counted out four silver dollars, and handed them over. He took the kettle carefully in hand, bade the man good-day, and we started back to the scene of the auction, where our horse was tied.

As we were about to climb into our wagon a slatternly woman approached.

‘Got that kittle from the ole man, did n’t you.’ Which was a statement rather than an inquiry. ‘How much d’ja pay for it?’

‘I paid four dollars,’ my father said shortly, his voice edged, and his eyes sharp with suspicion.

The woman gave a toothless chortle, flinging her sunbonneted head back upon a dirty throat. ‘He sure stung you good, mister,’ she said with obvious amusement. ‘He snatched thatthar kittle out’n the pile of junk over thar’ — gesturing toward the auction — ‘when he hearn you was lookin’ for one. Paid fifty cents for it.’

My father made no reply, but set the kettle carefully in the buggy and bade me, curtly, to climb in. So far as I know, he never related the terms of transaction to my mother, nor did I.


As for desserts, we probably missed something, judging by the myriad varieties advertised in full page, spread, and column of magazine and newspaper, and lauded by air, platform, and print. But we did not know it, and although our choice was limited the quality was unexcelled, except in the one instance, so far as I was concerned, of my father’s favorite, which was known as a ‘Minute Pudding.’ It seemed to consist of flour being slowly sifted by the fingers of one hand into a kettle of boiling water while the other hand diligently stirred — this, however, to small purpose, for the result was a lumpy concoction which was served with sweetened and flavored cream in a certain small white pitcher which had purple lustre flowers on its fat cheeks. I have never seen or heard of a Minute Pudding in my later life, and shall feel no regret if I never do.

There was another pudding, however, that I tasted first upon a Sunday visit to my Aunt Hanner — a relation by courtesy. This, when carefully unmoulded from the good-sized coffee cups in which it had been cooling in the springhouse, proved to be a rich, yellowish preparation, semi-globular in shape, fine of texture, perfect in consistency, and also served with cream, sweetened and flavored with vanilla.

Experience of later years taught me that this delicious dainty was no less but certainly more than what is called by the commonplace name of ‘Cornstarch Pudding,’ but I have never tasted a cornstarch or other pudding that could compare with it. I have myself tried many recipes, some of them my own, in quest of the ideal, but apparently the ingredients are not the same; the cream is not as rich, the eggs are lacking in quality, or perhaps it is that the technique is not — and can never be — the same. However, or whatever the reason. Aunt Hanner’s Cup Pudding, as she called it, was a dessert unsurpassed to my virgin palate, and in my memory of sweets.

Interspersed with the pies of the early season (which we had in plenty) was strawberry shortcake. Now strawberry shortcake, as my mother made it, was no mean matter of one small, rangy biscuit split apart and sparingly smeared with a little strawberry juice.

My mother made strawberry shortcake in a small dripping pan and of a very rich biscuit dough. When this was baked to flaky perfection it was turned on to a platter and split in two. The top half was laid aside and the bottom part lavishly spread with butter. Over this the berries (already crushed in a blue and white porcelain bowl) were thickly poured. Then the top half was laid over this (still piping hot), fulsomely buttered, while the remainder of the berries completely canopied the whole. The juice ran off and made a crimson lake on which the shortcake rested. A pitcher of cream stood by as accompaniment for those who wanted it.

When we had shortcake we had but little else, nor needed more. Here was a dish complete in itself, perfect in quality, adequate in quantity, and presenting a feast sufficient for gods or epicurean man.

Neither my mother nor her contemporaries had recipes as a recipe is counted to-day. They had ‘rules,’ but many of their rules were in their fingers and eyes. They had ‘heaping spoonfuls’ and ‘heaping cupfuls,’ ‘pinches of salt,’ ‘lard enough to make a short crust.’ But when they got through, the result was such as not many of to-day’s ‘experts’ can approach.

My mother’s piecrust was flaky, crisp, and tender. She used lard, and she mixed this with the flour until it ‘felt right.’ And she knew to a nicety when it did feel right. She poured in water from a teacup, or the dipper, or whatever was at hand, but she never poured too much or too little. She laid on to the lower crust a bed of sliced apples to exactly the right height for proper thickness when the pie was done. It was never so thick that it felt like biting into a feather bed, nor so thin that your teeth clicked. It never ran over, and it had just the proper amount of juice. She sprinkled sugar over it with neither mete nor measure, and allspice or cinnamon from a can. But when that pie was done (crimped around the edges and golden brown on the humps, with an ‘A’ slashed in the dough) it was a masterpiece of culinary art. With the edge of the oven’s heat taken off, but never allowed to chill, and a goodly piece of cheese from the neighboring factory lying alongside, here was a dish which the average citizen of any country rarely meets. For not one woman in ten thousand can make a good apple pie, and if I now need witnesses to corroborate my statement, there will indeed be clouds of such, darkened by frustrated desire.


For beverages in those early days I cannot, claim any measure of variety. Certainly nothing to compare with the poisonous-looking but probably innocuous ’tonics’ that infest New England roadsides and the hot-dog stands on every route from coast to coast.

My father was very fond of buttermilk, but he wanted it as cold as he wanted his friedcakes hot, a feat difficult to achieve with no means of cooling except to set the pitcher in a bucket of water drawn from the well, and especially since he was as impatient of waiting for the buttermilk to cool as for the bread to bake. Mother churned three times a week, and Father insisted on her using an old-fashioned stone churn with wooden dasher. My mother wanted one of the more modern barrel churns, which required less effort and brought results in less time, but my father’s mother had used the dasher type and one of his chores in boyhood had been to manipulate the dasher. Sentiment therefore clung to the stone churn, but I never noticed that sentiment urged him to revive the boyhood occupation for old time’s sake.

’You can’t make the same kind of buttermilk,’ he argued, ‘from any of these newfangled dinguses that you can from the old churn, and I want my buttermilk the way I ’ve always had it.’

‘You waste more butter in this chum,’ Mother told him reasonably. ‘The new kind does n’t leave so much butter in the milk.’

‘Well,’ said Father irritably, ‘what are we after? A little more butter or good buttermilk? We’ll have butter enough anyway.’

Once when Father was growing difficult because the buttermilk did not cool quickly enough, Mother put some ice in it. He did not see this done, but when he was handed a glass of the beverage to drink he tasted it, licked his lips, and eyed Mother with bitter suspicion.

‘ What the — what in tunket’s the matter with this buttermilk?’ he demanded. ‘It tastes like swill!’

‘I put some ice in it,’ Mother said. ‘You been hollerin’ so to have it cool, I could n’t do anything else.’

Father looked at her a full minute, his eyes cold, his cheeks red. Then he set the glass down on the table, walked out, and did not return until called for dinner.

On summer days when there was no fresh buttermilk, my mother would make switchel. This was concocted by taking the coldest water that could be drawn and adding a certain amount of vinegar, sugar (or molasses), and ginger to taste. This was put into a brown stone jug, corked, and carried to my father and any helpers he might have in the hayfield. The gurgling sound of this beverage tumbling its way from the wide-lipped mouth of the jug to a tin cup was a pleasantly teasing sound, and the flavor of switchel, while I have not felt impelled to test the recipe in order to lend authenticity to my tale, was, according to my memory, a not altogether unpleasant substitute for the average throat wash of to-day.

October days ushered in the time to expect sweet cider from the mill. Gathering windfalls and seconds into barrels and baskets to be taken to the mill was another of those homely tasks that gave zest to the lives of country folk. Moreover, here again you reaped the fruits of your own labor, as in other instances.

You carried your own corn to mill, for example, and you took your own meal home for your johnnycake. When you ate buckwheat cakes in winter, you were partaking of the buckwheat that had grown from your own sowing. And when you took apples to the mill you drank what flavor you preferred. My father liked the amber fluid pressed from russet apples, and when he took russet apples to mill he got russet apple cider — or he knew the reason why. And while he was at the mill he drank copiously from a tin dipper kept for the customers’ use, although cider, he contended, reached its perfection just two weeks after grinding. And so he took small loads to mill, and brought small kegs of cider home.

He was an exceedingly temperate man, and with small tolerance for the toper. When cider began to get hard he neither touched it nor served it to callers.

‘Don’t intend to make a fool of my self,’ he said, ‘and ain’t nobody going to blame me for makin’ a fool of them.’

Once the cider barrel became unfit for sober men to enjoy, it was but a receptacle for vinegar. Except in one single instance: when my father had a severe cold he would draw off a pitcher of hard cider, mix with it a powerful dose of cayenne pepper and some rock candy, and heat it on the stove. With his feet in a pail of hot mustard water and a blanket around him, he would sip this pungent remedy, to the complete routing of the disease.

Food, and drink, it would seem from these simple annals, played a most important part in the lives of ordinary country folk these many years ago. And so they did. And so they do now, with more fuss and less enjoyment. Concession to mass production we must make. We cannot eat bread from our own grain or butter from our own churn (unless there should be a millennial trek back to ‘good pervidership’), but we might, it would seem, gather comfort from the fact that these lives, so plainly lived, held courage and a goodly measure of enjoyment.