Monday, February 03, 2014

Sweet and Salty

February 2 would have been my grandfather's 101st birthday.  Today was a snow day.  I couldn't help remembering.  I bought a bit of peach preserves at the Amish market over the summer to save for a day like this.  I first posted this 6 years ago and reposted it again 3 years ago.  Hope you don't mind a third run. 


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 his back against the wall, one was against the cabinet opposite the stove, one was against the sink, and one had his 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.



12 comments:

Jocelyn said...

STOP MAKING ME CRY WITH YOUR FINAL PARAGRAPH.

(*skitters off to find some jam that can't possibly match what you describe*)

joeh said...

First time read for me...loved it...from the heart is always special.

Stephen Hayes said...

This was the first time for me to read this and I'm trying to swallow over the lump in my throat.

Kat said...

What poetry!
Thank you for sharing that with us. Just beautiful. :)

Suldog said...

As I think you know, I love family reminiscences. This was a great one. Thank you for sharing it with me. It brought back so many of my own memories of times in my grandparents' kitchens.

Jackie said...

And this was a first read for me.
Your Mom-mom and Pop-pop would be so proud to know their love of each other and of preserving the sweetness of the fruits was so beautifully shared in this post. I cried as I read it. Such love. Thank you for sharing the love you have for them with me. This was such a blessing to me....

Bijoux said...

Special memories, for sure!

G-Man said...

Wunderbar!!!!!

silly rabbit said...

Lovely remembrance. I could almost taste it.

It's.a.crazy.world said...

You reminded me of my Grandma (who lived in rural Pennsylvania). Although her heritage was mostly Irish, she made many of the food items you described. My fav in her cellar was her homemade pickles. I've never had another pickle (store bought or otherwise) that comes close to the flavor of hers.
Thanks for reminding me!

VE said...

Great story. I'm down to just a couple of canned pears from my Mom and she won't be doing any more so my kids and I are savoring them too. And after 18 quart sized jars of homemade strawberry jam that my wife made a few years ago, I cannot believe we are actually down to only 3 left. There so many when we first started....what happened?

coopernicus said...

Speaking of which, did I mention I made Maple french toast and bacon cupcakes last week???