Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pennsylvannia German Tuesday-Sweets and Salts



UPDATE: Thanks to all who sent well wishes for my mother-in-law. Surgery to put a rod in her forearm to stabilize the bone went well. It's important to give her wrist and arm strength so she can use the walker while her pelvis is healing. I spoke to her and there has been some talk of going to a nursing home for a couple weeks instead of a rehab hospital for some reason. This is more upsetting to her than it would be to most people because of some very protracted and unpleasant history with nursing homes. Continued prayers and good thoughts are most appreciated. Now onto the post...



*image taken from http://www.all-about-dessert-sauces.com/jamsandpreserves.html


I'm back in my grandparent's tiny kitchen. It was just big enough to hold the refrigerator, sink, a small cabinet, and stove on one wall. There was no dining room so the table and four chairs were squeezed next to the opposite wall. Once the table was pulled out and everyone sat they stayed put. One had their back against the wall, one against the cabinet opposite the stove, one against the sink, and one with their back to the doorway. Only the one in the doorway could make an escape but no one wanted to. This was Mom-mom and Pop-pop's kitchen.

Tiny as it was, countless meals, baked goods, preserves and canned goods were made there. Mom-mom and Pop-pop both cooked. After his mother died and his stepmother kicked him out of his father's house he bounced around between other family members and eventually lived with his grandmother who was a cook at a local mansion. He learned cooking and sewing from her and whether he was producing something in the kitchen or by needle his end results were as fine or finer than that of many women.

The foods my grandparents made were very unlike what my mother served. Mom-mom made chicken potpie the Pennsylvania Dutch way. This was no pastry covered pie dish with chicken and vegetables floating underneath. What heresy! Any Dutchman knows Chicken Pot Pie has big, square, homemade egg noodles, potato chunks, corn, and the chicken, all together and swimming in a sea of gravy. It's really more of a stew. Other dishes were fresh peas cooked in milk, apie cakes, rice pudding, a pickled bean and vegetable dish called Chow-chow, and endless jams and jellies.

The canned goods alone were astonishing. Their basement, which was clean enough for surgery, had row upon row of canned goods they'd put up themselves. Everything was lined up and labeled in the most orderly fashion, a library of cans and jars indexed by date and contents. That's the meticulous Pennsylvania Dutch way. There was an array of jams, jellies, and preserves. You could easily find the obvious and expected flavors like grape, strawberry, and peach. Amongst those fruits you'd also find crab apple jelly, elderberry jam, and whatever other interesting things they could find. I'd seen many canning sessions when Mom-mom boiled the fruits and pectins and then watched as Pop-pop squeezed it all through many layers of cheese cloth, warm juices running down his forearms, sweet aromas taunting my nose. If there was a fruit to be harvested locally it was turned into something you'd want to spread on a slice of bread. And as far as a Dutchman is concerned, dinner has not been proper unless there is buttered bread at the table and something else to smear on top of it. You also have to keep a balance between sweet flavors and salty flavors. Seven sweets and seven salts is the official rule though some things like chow-chow pull double duty since they are both sweet and salty.

In their final years my grandparents did much less canning as Mom-mom's heart weakened and she could spend less and less time on her feet. Pop-pop also slipped into deep depression. They let a couple seasons pass by as they struggled. Mom-mom left us during the June Diana was a baby. Pop-pop was never good for sitting still and without her to take care of he suddenly had much more time on his hands and needed activity to keep his mind off missing his wife. He decided to put up a batch of preserves by himself. One weekend at the end of summer when I came for a visit he loaded me up with jars of strawberry and peach preserves. We sat at the little table enjoying buttered bread and preserves. He smiled a smile I hadn't seen in a long time and it sweetened my soul like the jam on the bread. In November he was gone too.

It was February and my husband and I had gone through all but one last half-pint jar of peach preserves. He was at work, the baby was sleeping, and I was hungry for toast. I reached for the final jar and found just the last remains of preserves clinging to the sides and bottom. I scraped out every last molecule and spread it slowly over the surface like it was some ancient ritual. I think it took about 15 minutes to eat that one piece of toast. Each mouthful felt sacred. I had a hard time getting the last bite over the lump in my throat. The sweetness went to my belly as salty tears ran down my cheek to my lips. I half cried and half laughed because a proper PA dutch meal has to have its bread and it has to taste of both sweets and salts.



24 comments:

Sis B said...

1. If your mother-in-law is elderly, it is common practice to keep them in a nursing home. We went through that with OF's father. It was extremely difficult for him, as he was the most capable and mentally alert one there. Nursing homes are very hard places to be--does she have a choice about where she can go, so she kind find a nice one?

2. I thought chow-chow was a western NC thing! Ours was kind of a sauerkraut/coleslaw thing. Is that like yours? I used to love canning: green beans, chowchow, bread and butter pickles, wild blackberry jam... :) Thanks for the memories.

furiousBall said...

There's an Amish market around the corner from me that's only open on Fridays and Saturdays and wow, everything in there is delicious. I need to see if they have preserves there now.

Jeni said...

Boy, did this post bring back memories to me! As far back as I can remember, until my Grandma could no longer participate fully in the cooking and canning, she and my Mom would start in mid-to-late June preserving things. First it was strawberries from the big patch we had -and they'd make jars and jars of strawberry jam. Then, there always seemed to be another fruit ripening -blueberries, raspberries, currants - and vegetables ready to harvest from the garden -peas, carrots, beets, corn, cucumbers turned into scrumptious bread and butter pickles. They would take little jaunts to purchase bushel baskets of peaches and pear. The ghost town about a mile down the road from us held many apple trees that produced great apples for canning - applesauce as well as putting up apples for pies. Virtually every fruit or vegetable they could lay their hands on went into mason jars in some form or another. They rarely purchased vegetables at the stores or canned fruits either -never jams or jellies -as we always had a plethora of those on hand -more than an ample supply for us and also plenty to give out to my aunts and uncles as well. When I look out my back door and recall where the strawberry patch was, the vegetable garden, currant bushes, rhubarb patch, raspberry and elderberry bushes too -it amazes me how much came out of what really wasn't all that large a space.
Great post except for one thing -it made me very hungry!

Keyser Soze said...

Mercury?!?! In Uranus?!?!?
Oh Noes!!!!11111eleventy

S said...

I might have been tempted to save the last bits in the jar til it got all moldy...but I think you did it the right way!

Suldog said...

Lovely. Similar when my Dad died. We had a few jars of his homemade apple sauce. When I ate the last of it (couldn't just let it sit too long, as this would have gone bad and then been no use at all) I felt as you did, perhaps. Thanks for sharing that. I enjoyed it a lot.

Cooper said...

My grandmother made the best peach preserves. She always gave me a jar of may own for Xmas. I would attempt to use it sparingly over time....near impossible.
There's nothing like GOOD PA Dutch cooking. There are some nasty imitations..mostly at restaurants...but I was treated to enough of the good stuff to really spoil me. Your post makes me hungry...

lime said...

sis b, yes i know it's common practice, there is just a particularly unpleasant history with nursing homes for her, makes it harder to accept. chowchow=green beans, wax beans, carrots, cauliflower pickled in a sweet/salty brine

furiousball, oooooh i am sooo envious now, we have nothing like that near us now and i do so miss it!

jeni, if i wasn't hungry before i sure am now! thanks for sharing the memories:)

keyser, :P lol

s, it was hard to use up the last bits but i'd have cried buckets if someone else had done so

suldog, i'm glad you enjoyed. there's just nothing like homemade goodies

cooper, i am glad we agree on the REAL cooking and the imitations. ;)

Maddy said...

I recently visited home in England and I thought I'd help myself to a jar of jam from the pantry to take back home to the States. My mum has always had tonnes of home made jams, always asking me to relieve her of some of it especially the more obscure ones like gooseberry or damsen. I looked, the shelf was bare. She said she'd stopped making it, so I'd missed my chance.
Best wishes

Pauline said...

What a touching reminisence! It made me call to mind my maternal grandparents house of which I can recall every detail.

david mcmahon said...

I'm so glad you m-i-l is better.

And when can we all come round for Chicken Pot Pie? It sounds wonderful ...

Swap ya a great pasta bake (or chicken and mushrooms in port wine) for the pot pie. Deal?

BBC said...

"I'm back in my grandparent's tiny kitchen. It was just big enough to hold the refrigerator, sink, a small cabinet, and stove on one wall."

My place is like that, and I'm okay with it, I'm country and proud of it.

lime said...

maddy, oooh, i am so sorry you missed your chance :(

pauline, i hope you enjoyed your own memories:)

david, ya know? i just had dinner but somehow your offer has made me hungry all over again!

bbc, small kitchen, LOTSA love in it.

Hypersonic said...

Jeez lime, make me cry will ya!

Sweet story, excellent writing and made me homesicki for my gran's jams.

~Tim said...

This is a wonderfully yummy post.

G-Man said...

Michelle...
You've outdone yourself!!
WOW!!!!
Great post...I'm starved!!!
xoxox

jillie said...

I can remember all the years I hung out in my grandmother's kitchen. She lived upstairs from us and I loved to bake with her. She never had a cook book and it was always a little bit of this and little bit of that.

What a great story Lime and thanks for sharing it with us. Brings back a lot of fond memories for me.

My thoughts are with your mother-in-law. For all the bad nursing homes there are out there, there are a few good one.

;o)

Jocelyn said...

Stop. Stop. I'm alone, and our house is cold, and now I'm crying.

This was gorgeous writing--both sweet and salty, like yourself. You are the perfect legacy.

barman said...

Wow I got to enjoy this twice. I guess I only read part way yesterday and was distracted. What a wonderful story and it is a shame the canning had to come to an end.

My Mom and a friend used to can a fair amount usually starting with strawberries and ending with tomatoes in many different forms. Now the friend is gone and my Mom just cans strawberries. But this story does bring back memories. That and it makes me so hungry.

Glad to hear things are going a little better with you MIL.

Merisi said...

Life writes the best stories, thank you for sharing these memories.
I came over from David.
Greetings from Vienna,
Merisi

Sandi McBride said...

Prayers for your Mother in law...we'll think of her and petition Him for recovery...I can really relate to the jam ritual. I have one jar of Mama's homemade fig preserves left...I have contemplated the opening of that jar and just what bread to make to enjoy it with. I just hope I've not left it too late! That would be a shame.
Sandi

OHmommy said...

That pot pie sounds wonderful. We have a pennsylvania german cafe here in Ohio, I should check it out. Terrific story!

Thanks for the comment.

Jo Beaufoix said...

What a lovely post. I'm glad David sent us this way.

San said...

Lime, you made me salivate. Then you made me want to cry--that final paragraph is touching.

Mother-in-law (sad) coincidence: my own M-I-L had a partial hip replacement this morning. She fell at the senior center in our community Monday afternoon and fractured her hip. She's in pretty good health otherwise and the doc is anticipating a decent recovery. Who was it said "All age, it's not for sissies"? Unnervingly true words.