Breakfast, Old Style

I

‘JUMPING Christopher!’ I can hear my father say. ‘What do you mean by setting pap down in front of me? Where’s breakfast?’

I do not remember what it was that provoked this outburst, but it must have been some experimental item of the menu, a faintly suggestive forerunner, perhaps, of the orange juice, cereal, toast, and coffee which have now become the standardized American breakfast. My father was not one to tolerate novelties, and when he came to the table in the morning it was with every intention of making a hearty meal.

My memories go back to a childhood in Southern Michigan fifty years ago, when men worked from sun to sun, and women longer. In the interval, food habits have changed in keeping with a changed way of life, and no meal reflects the transformation so strikingly as breakfast.

My father came to the breaking of his night’s fast after a preliminary hour’s wrestling with chores, and he went from the table to a day’s work in which fields had to be ploughed, seed sown, hay cut, grain reaped, corn husked. To men like him, breakfast meant meat and potatoes — the chief staples around which the meal revolved. And meat usually meant pork in one form or another, commonly salt. Variations there were, to be sure. In the butchering season there was fresh pork, and liver; later on there would be sausages, or smoked ham and shoulder. After a rainy day, when the men had not been able to work in the fields, there might be fish. But always there were potatoes. Sometimes they were boiled, with an accompaniment of milk gravy or creamed codfish; again they were sliced and crisply fried; or they might be baked, with pink slices of home-cured ham and gravy.

Our home-cured ham was like nothing I have seen or tasted since. Packing houses are hereby warned that it will be futile to bombard me with their highly renowned products, for I have tried them all and regard them with due approbation. The difference between their smoked hams and those cured in the little slant-roofed shanty out behind our house is traceable, I suspect, to the fact that they do not burn corncobs. Some of them burn hickory sticks, yes, but no corncobs. If you have ever smelled freshly shucked corncobs burning, you can imagine what that odor did to a ham.

When it came to cooking the ham for breakfast, my mother sliced it about one fourth of an inch thick and freshened it in cold water brought to warm on the back of the stove. It was then drained and wiped dry. In its own firm border of fat it was fried slowly to sweet perfection, and then removed to a hot platter. The remaining fat was allowed to reach a smoking heat, and into this she sifted flour to a bubbling paste, stirring while it seethed and browned. When enough flour was added to absorb the fat, warmed milk was stirred in gradually and evenly to make a gravy having the consistency of heavy cream. It was then salted and peppered to taste.

This recipe, you see, is not modern. It does not tell you how much flour to use, nor how much fat, nor how much milk. But that is the kind of milk gravy men’s memories cling to because it is the kind their mothers made, and that is the way they made it.

II

Our breakfasts did not begin with fruit or fruit juices. If we had fruit at all, it was eaten with friedcakes and cookies; but in general fruit was reserved for supper, fresh in season, preserved the rest of the year.

Friedcakes were always, month in and month out, as much a part of the first meal of the day as coffee. I think my father would have considered it a personal affront to ask him to make a breakfast without friedcakes. He did not ‘dunk’ them, and he did not hold with men who dunked them. I remember his once reproving a hired man who had the habit. ‘Well, Curt,’he said, ‘I see you been hobnobbing with the Lunkers.’ (The Lunkers were a sort of Jukes family that lived down by the river and kept hogs, and were known for their slovenly habits.) I felt a little sorry for the man, who laughed awkwardly and soon after left the table.

Cookies, too, were a regular addition to the breakfast menu — molasses cookies and sugar cookies, which more favored children than I were allowed to ‘ soak.’ Soaking a cookie is not the same as dunking it. Dunking is accomplished by holding one portion while dipping the other, but soaking is crumbling the cookie into a partly finished glass of milk and eating it with a spoon. To this my father also objected. ‘If you want dough,’he said, ‘lick the dish. If you want cookies, then eat cookies.’ I ate cookies at the table, but spooned them when the occasion allowed. I also licked the dish.

My father liked eggs for breakfast — two or three, at least — and he wanted them fried or boiled. If boiled, they must be boiled hard. But a hard fried egg was his abomination.

Few women can fry an egg as my mother could. Her technique was perfect, and the result was no leathery mass of frizzled white and broken yolk, but an intact globule of filmed yellow set in a circle of delicately congealed albumen. She fried eggs in the fat from bacon or ham, whichever happened to be in use. This fat was made hot — sizzling but never smoking; if it was too hot, it was drawn to the back of the stove until there was no danger of browning the thin edge of the white before the yolk was cooked.

Each egg (taken from the nest the night before) was broken separately and gently into the sizzling fat, and never were so many introduced into the spider at one time that their edges mingled. Then my mother stood by, spooning the hot fat over them until the yolks presented an opaque appearance and the whites were coagulated but not hardened. They were then, at the exact moment of perfection, taken from the spider with a pancake turner, and laid on a warmed platter along with the ham, rosily tender and faintly browned, or bacon, done to a curl but never to a crisp. An egg fried in this fashion, its qualities and verities instantly sealed within it by a hot, sweet coating of honest fat, cannot be too great a tax upon the digestive machinery. Numberless were the fried eggs my father consumed, and he bore up under them until well past his eighty-fifth birthday.

A poached egg is another dish apparently difficult to achieve, but it was not beyond the scope of my mother ’s culinary art. The water, she maintained, should be at the hard-boiling point when the eggs are slid into it, one at a time, and after that it must be allowed only to bubble. This is accomplished by drawing the pan to one side of the stove, while the bubbling winter is spooned over the eggs until the yolks are filmed and the whites ‘set.‘

III

‘ You have to stand over things,’ my mother always said, ‘to make ’em right.’ She was none too fond of housework, often preferring a day in the garden or field, but she was extremely conscientious and ‘stood over’ her cookery until she herself, a critical epicure, could pronounce it good. Then she felt reasonably sure that my father would at least find no flaws in it. He was a man of just if not equable nature, little given to praise.

‘If you think a thing’s good,’ I have heard my mother say, ‘I should think you could say so.’

‘If I don’t say it ain’t good,’ was his reply, ‘you’ll know it is.’

Salt mackerel was one of my father’s favorite dishes. It came in a ‘kit,’ a small wooden pail, and smelled to heaven when it was opened.

For breakfast, a fish was put in cold water the night before and set on the back of the stove to freshen. In the morning the water was changed, and the fresh water was brought forward to heat. When everything else was about ready to serve, the water was drained off and the fish was allowed to panbroil for ten minutes or so. It seemed to require no more cooking than that. Dotted with butter and transferred to a platter, it made a most palatable dish.

Fried mush came along in the fall, after the first harvest of winter corn and before the pancake season set in, and again in the spring when the batter pitcher was washed and put away. Fried mush for breakfast followed a preceding supper of mush and milk. My mother made her mush by sifting yellow corn meal, fresh from the mill, into an iron kettle of boiling salted water; with one hand she sifted the meal while with the other she stirred it with a wooden spoon. It was then drawn to the back of the stove to bubble and sputter and spurt for an hour or longer — and woe to you if it happened to spurt onto bare hand or arm while stirring.

Whatever mush was left over after supper was packed in a greased bread tin. In the morning this was sliced and fried in hot fat, and eaten with butter and syrup.

We did not often have maple syrup. There were a few maple trees on our place and my father would occasionally tap them to get enough sap for a drink; or, as a special treat, my mother would sometimes boil down a little sap into sugar. Although other farms about us boasted a ‘bush,’ and maple syrup was not an unknown luxury in Southern Michigan, it was not common as it is now. Instead, we had sugar syrup — white and brown sugar boiled together in a small amount of water — and it answered the purpose very well. And, of course, the covered glass dish of honey — honey in the comb and fresh from the hive — was as customary an accessory to the breakfast table as the butter dish.

IV

In winter, breakfast took on new meaning, for then the fried mush, johnnycake, or ordinary plain bread gave way to buckwheat cakes. There were differences in taste regarding the lacing of these cakes. Some insisted that the only proper sauce was melted butter; others preferred sugar and thick cream; still others liked to pour over their cakes the hot brown fat from fried ham or pork. But the general preference was for butter and syrup.

After the buckwheat crop was harvested, my father, never a patient man, could hardly wait for the pancake season to open. My mother did not like to begin too early, for, like other habits, once started it was difficult to break, and the routine lasted until spring, without respite. This meant added details in an already crowded day of petty tasks: the cakes had to be ‘set’ the night before, and while the rest of us were at breakfast she had to stand over a hot fire to cook them, for she would not compromise with her belief that buckwheat cakes should be eaten direct from the griddle, a theory in which my father upheld her to the teeth. Ours was not a large family, but there was often a hired man, frequently a visiting relative, sometimes the itinerant preacher, or perhaps the ragman spending the night. And my father himself was no light eater. So, if my mother seemed to dally about beginning the ritual, she had good cause.

My father, however, was not one to let excuses stand in the way of the execution of his desires. ‘It’s about time to get the batter going, ain’t it?’ he would remark on a frosty night of late October. Each time my mother offered some reasonable objection to explain why that particular night was not the proper occasion. This went on into early November, my father growing more and more impatient. I remember once when, after he had repeatedly raised the pancake question without effect, he attempted to take matters into his own hands.

My mother was frequently called upon to sit up with some sick neighbor, and it was on one of these occasions that he tried to speed the pancake season. Unfortunately he had small knowledge of the chemistry of food and absolutely no imagination with which to offset his lack. I, being a very small child, was put to bed before my mother left the house, and it was not until next morning that cataclysmic noises in the kitchen warned me that something untoward was afoot. I rushed in to find the whole top of the stove covered with a grayish, foaming mass which had gushed from the mouth of the batter pitcher to overflow upon the floor into rivulets, pools, friths, firths, lagoons, narrows, guts, and whatever other forms a seething fluid may take. Over it all stood my father, a heroic figure with bald head flushed, fringe of white hair and beard awry, steel-gray eyes snapping with temper and dismay.

At that moment my mother appeared. She opened the outer door and stood speechless on the sill.

My father faced her in belligerent but wordless challenge. Finally he exploded, ‘ How many yeast cakes do you put in the dang things?’

Without answering, she stepped inside the door and took from him the mop with which he had been trying to clean up the mess. ’Go along out,’ she said tersely, ‘and tend to things you know something about.’

He went, and when he had gone my mother burst into gales of laughter that fairly rocked the now-empty batter pitcher standing on the stove. ‘He must have put in a dozen yeast cakes,’ she gasped, and then, more soberly and not without some measure of scorn, ‘Serves him right! Meddling with things he’s got no business with!’

But it seemed to me that, however right it served him, it was she who bore the brunt of his unhappy venture.

That night after supper, while my father was doing his chores, my mother busied herself with the ingredients that go into buckwheat cakes. When we were finally seated about the lamp for the evening, my father perusing the weekly Patriot, my mother with her mending basket near, she remarked casually, with a gleam of mischief in her mild eye: ‘ I set the cakes to-night.‘

‘Time!’ said my father, and the incident was closed.

Sausage was a frequent accompaniment of buckwheat cakes. If any among you who ever ate sausage as it used to be made in the homes of Michigan has tasted its like in, say, thirty years, I want to know where. Its odor and flavor still haunt me, vivid reminders that some mystery that went into its making has been lost to mankind. As I pondered this culinary conundrum, the answer suddenly came to me. It was the sage. The whole secret lay in the sage. We grew our own in a neat little row along the garden’s edge, picked and dried it, and crumbled it — aromatic, fresh, and pungent — into the meat. But, on second thought, perhaps the pepper may have had something to do with it, too. My mother ground her own pepper in a little wooden mill. I wish I had it now. If I had, and could grow some sage, I might make some of that sausage, just to prove that it could be done — if I had the sausage meat.

V

What did children eat at those breakfasts of meat and potatoes and pancakes? They ate meat and potatoes and pancakes. I never saw a cereal other than corn meal during my whole childhood, nor did I ever hear of it in the houses of my contemporaries. We drank quantities of milk, ate acres of bread, consumed butter by the pound (a pound pat was always put fresh on the table), and we also ate doughnuts and cookies by the dozen. My pleasantest memory is of breakfast in a nice warm kitchen on a cold morning, with my little glass mug of milk, a huge slice of bread all buttered at once (there was not a single book of etiquette in our community), some little pancakes cooked just for me, and my eye on the cookie plate.

Men in those days certainly lived by their breakfasts, but not by breakfasts alone. Supper was the least important of the day’s three meals, because by then the rigors of the day were done, but dinner — at noon — was a ’fillin’‘ meal, designed to sustain the menfolk through a lusty afternoon’s work in the fields.

The dinner menu varied with the seasons. The best time of the year seemed to be the early fall. Then we would have fresh meat — spareribs, pork shoulder, loin, liver. And a little later in the season one neighbor after another would kill a ‘beef,’ sharing with one another and thus continuing the succession of fresh meat as long as possible.

In winter our diet was more monotonous, but we had the cellar to draw upon. Among the usual provisions were a barrel of salt pork, a keg of kraut, crocks of sausage and pickled pigs’ feet, jars of mincemeat, a barrel of cider vinegar, smoked hams, bins of apples and potatoes, and shelves loaded with canned goods. At that time women did not know enough about canning to preserve any great quantity of fresh vegetables except tomatoes. But there were jars of chowchow and chili sauce, pickles of every description, both sour and sweet, and fruit of every variety, as well as jellies and jams. There was a barrel of flour in the pantry, and in the house of the ‘ good pervider’ a barrel of white sugar and one of brown, with sacks of unground coffee and caddies of tea. And of course there were pans of milk, jugs of cream, pats or jars of butter, crocks of lard, and combs of honey. Between Christmas and the first ‘greens’ of spring our only vegetables were Hubbard squash, cabbage, ‘beggies,’ and such others as could be kept in the cellar or root house.

I spoke of the monotony of winter meals, but as I reread the foregoing paragraph I cannot work up much compassion for our sad state. Within the past few years I have seen times when to have stepped into cellar or pantry such as we knew then would have seemed like entering Aladdin’s caves of treasure. To be sure, we lacked the fresh vegetables which are abundantly available to-day in almost every market the year round, but, if we now have them, we do not have the butter fresh from the churn with which to dress them, or the bread fresh from the oven to accompany them.

VI

My mother and her contemporaries were as stubbornly partial to certain utensils in which they cooked their favorite dishes as my father was to the iron kettle in which he insisted doughnuts must be fried. It made no difference, for example, that the iron spider was heavy and unwieldy, and that its handle was so short and got so hot that an inadvertent touch without a holder would sear the flesh as quickly as fire itself — all frying had to be done in the spider. Used as it was over a wood fire, the outside was encrusted with burned-on soot, but the inside was as smooth as the softest satin.

Every housewife of that day had such a spider, and she treasured it in the same way she did her pie tins after they had been slightly burned and browned. You could not, so my mother said, bake a good pie in a brand-new tin, so the tins were used for this and that until they were properly tempered and seasoned.

Then there was the iron kettle in which only could a proper Irish stew be made; and the well-seasoned dripping pan, into which went, in turn, the turkey for Thanksgiving, perhaps a goose at Christmas, and, at odd times between, a whole pig with an apple in its mouth. Like the spider, these utensils were tempered by long use and marked by frequent scourings.

Cleanliness was a fetish with my mother. There were few commercial cleaners on the market when I was a small child, but there was the brick board onto which dust from a fine brick was shaved with an old knife, and with this and a piece of soft cloth the steel knives and forks for the table, as well as the kitchen cutlery, were scoured. Wood ashes were used to clean the spider when fish was fried — to remove the odor — and were generally employed for other purposes as well. Soft soap also had its part in keeping chopping bowls, cutting boards, and wooden-topped tables clean. Baking soda was used to remove stains from the inside of tea and coffee pots, and to sweeten milk pails and pans.

Keeping things clean in that day was a task not to be lightly undertaken. Water was heated in the tea-kettle (also of iron, pot-bellied and black as night), and in the reservoir at the back of the stove. You had to use it sparingly. The sink, if you had one, was of iron with wooden drainboards reduced to the splintery stage by much scrubbing. There was no smooth enamelware, no light-weight aluminum. Utensils were black, ugly, heavy, and unwieldy. Dripping pans, saucepans, and kettles had rolled edges under which grease and dirt could collect if allowed.

In spite of all this, my mother’s creed was firm. ‘Things must be clean,’ she said, ‘or food won’t taste good. Don’t think the coffee’s to blame when it’s the pot.’

VII

The hired help in those husky days were almost always the social equals of the family itself. There were no ‘foreigners’ in Southern Michigan at that time, the land being tilled by men bred on the soil, all of them more or less akin. The hired girl came from some neighboring family where girls were plentiful enough so that one or more could ‘go out to work.’ They were trained by their mothers and grandmothers in housewifely ways, and there were few of the daily tasks that they could not perform. House cleaning was second nature to them. They could not only make a shirt, but also wash, iron, or mend it as the need arose.

The hired girl and the woman she worked for were always on equal terms. They worked together, sat and sewed together, and sometimes took turns in going to the little country church. They confided in each other and praised each other.

‘Your bakin’-powder biscuits is always just a mite lighter ’n mine, Miz Eddy, and I don’t know how you do it. I use the same rule to a T.’

‘Mebbe it’s the oven, Marthy. But if they are, your piecrust’s flakier’n mine. I just can’t get a flaky piecrust the way you do.’

Sometimes the ‘girl’ married one of the boys in the family, and the two would set up their own housekeeping on a rented farm or in a small house on one of the parental acres. Sometimes a beau came wooing from another farm, to meet with jest and joke from the boys on her farm. Sometimes she never married, but just stayed on and on, cooking, washing, cleaning, attending her friend the mistress through childbirth, and nursing the children. And sometimes she nursed her friend the mistress through a final illness and then married the widower. If so, it was a satisfactory arrangement all around, and one approved by the neighbors. She was used to the house, the children were used to her, and a man with a family had to have someone — so why not her?

Equally friendly were the relations with the hired man, although he was a little less likely than the hired girl to be taken into the bosom of the family. There was a subtle difference in caste. The boys on neighboring farms were needed at home, so that those who hired out were likely to be homeless men or wanderers. Just the same, they ate with the family on all occasions; they washed in the same basin and used the same comb. They held the baby, played with the older children, teased the girls, commented freely on family affairs, and asked to have their favorite dishes cooked. In short, the hired man was just as good as anybody else, and did not hesitate to remind the family of this fact if they chanced to forget it. An incident of my childhood illustrates the point.

My uncle Frank was what the neighbors called ‘a little nigh.’ He not only hated waste, as did all thrifty farmers, but he was a shade less than generous in all his dealings. His wife set a bountiful table, for Uncle Frank was a hearty man, and, while he was exceedingly hospitable in urging food upon his guests, he viewed the greediness of children with disfavor and the robust appetite of the hired man with hostility.

The hired man was particularly fond of butter. One day at dinner Uncle Frank watched him for some time as he plastered one knifeful after another onto bread, potatoes, and whatever else happened to be on his plate. At last Uncle Frank could contain himself no longer, and said, casually but pointedly: ‘Tom, l see butter’s gone up to twenty-five cents a pound.’

Tom, undismayed, affected a lively interest in the fact. He looked over at the depleted butter dish and, reaching across the table, took half of what was left onto his own plate, then remarked with the air of a connoisseur: ‘Well, Frank, it’s wuth it. That’s danged good butter your womern makes!’