|Ma's Apple Pie|
I have never considered my mother a good cook. Even as a child, I thought that what she put on the table was put there out of duty, necessity, not out of love or interest in cooking. In those days my ideal was Williams Holsum bread in a waxed paper package or, better, our neighbor Mrs. Powell's plump, white loaves, slices spread wih Peanut butter — "American" food. But perversely enough it was the Italians I envied, the ltalians on the other side of our double house, whose kitchen sent out the most tantalizingly garlicky aromas. When Ma made spaghetti sauce, as she sometmes did, she did it her way. So instead of basil, she added rue, a bitter herb growing in our garden, not the ideal fusion of cultures. Still, we ate it. And , true to her own frugal principles, the tomato cans were carefully rinsed with water to stretch the tomatoes. For cooking meat, there was one rule: wash everything that comes into the house. “All those people, poking at the cuts of meat, you never know." After washing, boil it. Recipes did not exist for her. Someone might tell her how to make something she had tasted and liked. But she always said, "Well, you can do it this way (or that way)." Her way, I don't know whether it was lack of ingredients, or the fact that Depression era shopping didn’t allow for anything but the absolute necessities. So Ma did things her way. She had a way for most everything, ways she had learned in Lithuania, while doing rural domestic service, learning everything from animal husbandry, culltivation of flax, harvesting it, retting, spinning, and weaving, to kitchen garden work, all under the direction of the mistress.
What she didn't learn about was apple pie. I don't know what inspired her apple pie production. Our clamoring? The abundance of drops we brought home from an abandoned orchard? But I remember those apple pies. They were the only ones she attempted and she went into mass production, as she tended to do when she was trying something new. Since meals in our house were regulated by our coming home from school and my father's coming home from his shift in the mines, they were mainly to fill the belly. Dessert was not a concept we understood. The apple pies Ma made were main meals, emergency rations, snacks; they fit any bill. I don‘t think I ever saw her putting one together — I remember only the stack of pies. Those we dldn‘t consume at one meal were stored on a shelf in the cellar, stacked one on top of another. As our appetites for apple pie waned, the stack down in the cellar seemed to sag and sink into itself until, finally, driven by hunger or the need for something sweet, we would lift one off — the pale crust now abloom with the first flush of green mold. "Never mind, scrape it off, cut out the really bad parts." It was edible, and we didn't get sick. Better than throwing it to the chickens or the ducks, a waste of all that good lard (benefit of surplus food distribution) and apples (pirated from the nearby orchard). Not to mention the sugar.
So, Ma's attempts at being an American Mom didn't really work. She did have an unvarying repertoire, though. She was good at cabbage soup and borscht. So good, one or the other was on the daily menu, a week at a time. Cabbage soup with the addition of sauerkraut, sometimes with canned sardines, her own idea. And in the lean days, when there was no meat for the stock, she added a large spoonful of lard. If the apple pie didn't call forth the "green apple quick step", this soup did.
Those were the hard times, when what the garden produced was eked out by handouts of government surplus flour, and canned meat. Pa went fishing in the Susquehanna River and brought home the plentiful carp that went into a soup. if it was an especially big carp, one big enough to fill the wooden tub, it seemed to be understood that Pa would sell it to a Jewish family nearby.
On trips to the woods with my playmates (they were mostly boys) or to the riverbank near the dump where we often scavenged for scrap metal to sell to the "sheenie," l would make sure to gather bunches of an ubiquitous broad-leaved, tiny-flowered plant the ducks loved; years later l identified it as Galinsoga. This thoughtfulness appeared to make playing with the boys more acceptable.
When a holiday came around we sacrificed a
duck for the traditional Lithuanian soup. Ma chose her
duck, caught it and held it between her knees, grasped its bill
and held it firmly bent down next to its neck, gripping them
together. She plucked some of the tiny feathers from the top of
the duck's head until the skin was laid bare. Then , with her
sharp knife she made a quick jab into the bared spot. She held the
duck tight as the blood dripped into the bowl of bread crusts at
her feet. When the duck was bled she slit its throat. The blood
and the crusts were set aside as the basis for the soup. Ma then
put the duck into our wooden bathtub, poured boiling water over it
and began to pluck it. The feathers were set aside to be washed
later. Ma then slung the carcase onto the kitchen table and
proceeded to eviscerate it. She cut it up and put the pieces into
a soup pot with onions, peppercorns and bay leaf. The blood and
crusts were added to the resulting stock, along with some dried
prunes. This was the Christmas soup known as juka.
On fast days, on Fridays, there was herring. Ma had a wooden keg of herring in brine. She first soaked the herring in water to remove the salt. The slightly greasy feeling skin was peeled off, then the herring was filleted or cut into chunks. She added vinegar and onions, the fish to be accompanied by boiled potatoes. If there were potatoes left over, we ate them cold, out of hand, and maybe a chip of butter on top. On the infrequent occasions when Pa prepared his own food, he would take a herring from the keg, wrap it in newspaper and place it on the coals in the kitchen stove when the fire was slackened. When the newspaper had blackened, he lifted out the package with two forks and the charred paper fell off, along with the charred fish skin. Newspaper was used too to hold a hot potato pancake, fried in lard in the black cast iron spider, or skillet. The cook was prisoner of the waiting consumers — as fast as the pancakes were done, the faster we ate them, sometimes just impaling one on a fork.. Why do I so fondly remember those tastes? lt was that hunger, the search for a more satisfying taste.
Sometimes it seemed as though the ducks
and chickens got all the attention. The sound I
remember: chop, chop, chop — chop — chop, chop. It's the sound of
Ma's knife on the chopping board. She is chopping up potato
peelings for the ducks, potato peelings our neighbor Mrs. Powell
has handed over the back fence, for the ducks. Ma prepares a sort
of slurry of the finely chopped peelings that she puts into a
basin out in the back yard. The snow white ducks push their bills
through it, making chattering sounds as they gobble it up. The
chickens parade around, stepping high — their turn will come. It
would take a lot of Ma's peelings to make good duck food — her
parings were the thinnest of thin; Mrs. Powell ‘s showed a good
bit of potato.
It occurs to me that most meals l prepare begin with chopping: the garlic and onions the carrots and the celery, the basis of most of my composed dishes. Instead of ducks and chickens to feed, the parings go into the compost bin. Ma used a paring knife for peeling; a ‘butcher’ knife for chopping. After she'd lost most of her teeth, she used a paring knife to reduce meat and bread to small and smaller than bite size pieces. The bread, bread she'd baked, she cut into cubes and soaked in the tea she kept stewing in a pot an the back of the stove. Her black bread tended to get hard after it was more than a day or two old (Pa ate white bread, because of his poor teeth). She was finicky about the care of her knives: they were always wiped off or washed and dried after she‘d used them.
Her kitchen equipment was limited but adequate. in addition to the iron spider and the soup pot, there were some black metal bread pans, a small pot or two, and a tin can for boiling eggs when it was set directly on the coals. But her pride was a copper boiler. When it wasn't doing service on washday for boiling clothes, it did occasional duty in the performance of an illegal activity. There was elaborate preparation: grain was obtained, and bagfuls of chunks of corn sugar. A part of the kitchen between the stove and the sink was appropriated for a bench atop which Ma positioned a clean lard tub. In the tub the rye mash and sugar fermented. At the appropriate time the mash went into the copper boiler on the stove. When the cover was put in place, one end of a copper tube was inserted into the boiler and the cover and the tube were sealed in place with a rope of fresh dough. The copper tube was connected to a coil of copper tubing in a tub filled with cold water. The coil ended at a spigot at the bottom of the tub. My task, (because l was of a biddable nature and because Margaret was too young and Adam, seven years older, was earning money caddying at Fox Hill Country Club), was to cool the water in the tub where condensation took place. As distillation went on, I bailed out the warmed water and replaced it with more cold water. At the little spigot, the distillate, a clear liquid, was drawn off. The product was pronounced good by the select few customers who sought it. And they were few: the dollar a pint would not begin to compensate tor the still's real function: it was meant by Ma to try to keep Pa's drinking at home. It didn‘t.
Who knows how things would have turned out if, one day, a constable hadn't appeared at the kitchen door with a warrant for my brother Adam's arrest. In an altercation at a nearby gas station, he'd blackened someone's eye (this was at a time when Adam was trying out his boxing skills, though this time, admittedly, without the gloves, and with perhaps , some provocation). The constable made a more important haul: he confiscated the still, which, as luck would have it, was in full operation at that moment. To Ma's dismay, he took the copper boiler too. It was probably just as well. There was too much anxiety associated with disposing of the rye mash. To get rid of it, Ma had to disguise it in loads of rubbish, mostly coal ashes, for the dump. The ashes concealed everything but the whiskey smell. West Pittston on our side of the tracks must have emitted a heady aroma since there was more than one Lithuanian family that was its own distiller.
At this distance the immediate
confiscation seems punitive beyond what the crime
merited. The boiler was used to boil our washing; Ma used it to
boil as well, the washing of those people who paid her to do their
washing. Perhaps the judge of that time was wise enough to
consider that removing the machinery of one activity endangered an
alternative activity that contribluted to a family's survival. Ma
paidthe fine and retrieved her boiler. it seems Pa paid Adam's
I now have the copper boiler, and
it is used in a quite licit manner as a storage container for the
tools of weaving: rag rug shuttles, extra reeds, lease sticks,
rolls of rag strips for the next rag rug project, projects Ma
never realized when she had her loom constructed so many years
ago. As for that particular loom, after her death, it was
dismantled and the parts sat on the porch of a cabin in Maine,
until, ﬁnally, we decided to give it to the American Museum of
Textile history, as an example of pre-industrial looms (click HERE
for information about the closure of the AMTH, and list of
possible destinations for Ma's loom).
Text © Lenore M. Dickinson 2017. [scanned and OCRed by TAD using ViewScan 9.95.94]