Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sweets and Salts

I think I may have been hanging around Suldog too long because the re-post bug has bitten me.  Heck, it seems to work well for him so maybe it will for me.  February 2 is my grandfather's birthday.  Although I first posted this story 3 years ago it just seems a fitting remembrance of him on a cold day.


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 German way. This was no pastry covered pie dish with chicken and vegetables floating underneath. What heresy! Any Dutchie (local term for those of PA German heritage because they are often called PA Dutch) 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. My grandparents' basement, which was clean enough for surgery, had row upon row of canned goods they had 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 German 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 Dutchie is concerned, dinner has not been proper unless there is buttered bread at the table and something else to smear on top of it. It's also important 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 summer 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. I toasted some bread. 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, spread it slowly over the surface as if it were 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 tears ran down my cheek to my lips. I half cried and half laughed because a proper Pennsylvania German meal has to have its bread and it has to taste of both sweets and salts.



19 comments:

Hilary said...

Oh you so made me cry with this. What a beautiful story and tribute to your Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom. That sweetness does live on.

G-Man said...

Good Food brings a tear to my eye as well...Loved this Trini

(M)ary said...

Mmmm....that would be a perfect post if you could also provide taste samples to go along with it!

Gaston Studio said...

Beautiful story and so well told.

Congrats on POTW!

Craig said...

Awwww. . . Schweet. . .

Jen loves to home-can. This year, I think she put up something like 90 quarts of homemade applesauce. In years gone by, she's often done peaches and pears, and occasionally tomatoes and a few other things.

Family traditions are just utterly precious. One of my grandmothers was an avid card-player. Aside from Bridge, one of her favorites was a kind of double-solitaire called Russian Bank. Jen and I were married six years, I think, before she died, and whenever the family got together, Jen made sure to spend an hour or two playing Russian Bank with my Grandma. I didn't realize what she was doing until after Grandma was gone, and Jen was adamant that I learn Russian Bank, so we could carry it forward and teach our kids. My wife is incredibly wise, sometimes. . .

TechnoBabe said...

Visiting from Hilary's blog. Your grandfather and I share a birthday.
Hearing how they lived in a simple home is exactly what I like.

Pauline said...

As sweet a story as the last of those preserves - and a well deserved mention as POTW!

Dianne said...

what wonderful memories
I loved the part about once everyone was at the table they stayed put
my Nana's kitchen was exactly like that
I always got the seat in the corner where the pendulum from Nana's beloved clock would hit me in the head :)
I never complained

congrats on POTW

Friko said...

I came because of Hilary's POTW and I have come to stay.

This is a fascinating story, particularly for me.
Many Germans from my home town, Krefeld, left for Pennsylvania, perhaps your pop-pop and mom-mom were part of those emigrants. When I see pop-pop and mom-mom I see Papa and Mama, as they were and the wonderful things that happened in their kitchen and my aunts' kitchens. I never knew my Omas; I am sure they would have had similar ways.

I do remember our own cellars full of provisions, just like you describe, except there was also a cellar for potatoes and apples.

Have you continued any of the old customs yourself?

I am going to follow you and would be happy if you came to have a look at Friko's World too.

Congrats on POTW.

Sandra said...

Such a sweet, sweet story and so well told. Congrats on the POTW. It was very well deserved.

p.s. my word verification is "duitche". Sure sounds like something a German from PA would say to me! :)

Cricket said...

Whoa... it appears a congratulations on the potw is in order, and I thought I was just trying to catch up on posts.

Well, even though I didn't come here from Hilary's, I see why she would have chosen this. I've read it before, though I don't remember if you linked it to something else or if I was just reading archived posts. It was a great one then and it still is now.

I have a big soft spot for grandparents, as you are aware.

Someday I'll have to bust out my home-canned mushrooms. I serve 'em with pork tartare. Like to live on the edge, y'know?

Jocelyn said...

Ah, damn girl. What you wrote.

Lori said...

What a touching post...it reminds me a lot of my own growing up and grandparents...this speaks of a much simplier time and yet a lot of work...such goodness created with the hands of love...congrats on POTW at Hilarys...so glad I stopped by!

Susan in the Boonies said...

I loved reading your beautiful post.

It reminded me so much of something that happened to me.

My Mom was quite famous in her circle for her spaghetti sauce. I grew up on it, having it nearly every Thursday night, and would beg to eat the leftovers for lunch after we'd opened a quart from the freezer.

My Mom died shortly after I was married, but she had given me some spaghetti sauce for my freezer the month before. When I thawed it to eat it, I could not bear to finish it. When I finally decided to have my last meal of Mom's spaghetti sauce, I opened the container in the fridge, and discovered mold on it.

I sat down in the kitchen floor and cried huge, ugly, body-shaking, gut-wrenching sobs.

Food connects us to those we love, in that we take what they have lovingly made, into ourselves.

Dave said...

I also enjoyed your story Michelle and can understand the affection you must have felt for your Pop pop at that time. Specially as this was to be your last contact with him - Dave

Suldog said...

That's a lovely, lovely story.

MY WIFE often speaks of my "inheritance" from My Dad, which consists of a few odds and ends, such as toiletries and small non-perishable food items, still remaining some 17 years following his death. I know exactly how you felt. He used a specific aftershave, and I used his last bottle of it intermittently for years. When I could finally get no more from the bottle, it was a small bit of him dieing all over again, to me.

And, insofar as reruns are concerned, yes, I guess I've become The King. However, if my being a lazy slug brought you to posting this great piece again, my work has not been in vain.

Ananda girl said...

Somehow I missed this one and I'm so glad you re-posted it. What a lovely memory!

secret agent woman said...

I don't remember ever reading this. Lovely story - that toast was an exercise in mindfulness and gratitude.

Moannie said...

Beautiful, Lime, just heartbreakingly lovely. Thank-goodness you re-posted and I, browsing, found it.