Homemade noodles, crates of oysters, fried chicken, and more

Because of the geographical distances, Dad’s sisters and their families were to a large degree alien to my sister and me. Family reunions, gathering the descendants of Grandpa’s father, Joshua, were no less confusing, even though they were attended largely by people who lived within driving distance of us. Only after I undertook the genealogical research did the connections become clearer. Fortunately, I launched into this project shortly after cousin Floyd had begun collecting materials and asking questions, and we were soon swapping our findings and hunches.

Reflecting on the reunions, Floyd recalled:

“Uncle James, no one enjoyed the food more, unless it was me. Remember the homemade ice cream! Aunt Erma with her quiet manner always enjoyed herself being with the family.”

Food, of course, quickly points to the kitchen where Grandma rolled out dough on tea towels and deftly cut with an unerringly accurate paring knife her homemade noodles – a vestige of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, as I would learn. TJ details the process: “She would spread her homemade noodles on clean dish cloths on the kitchen table and then, after they had dried some, transfer them to dowels between two chairs.” In my memory, wooden yardsticks were used instead. Either would work.

Only when I was reading Emerson L. Lesher’s humorous The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Guide for Humility and Success and came across his mentioned of how the generation moving away from the farm prefers “pasta” to “noodles” did it click – none of her daughters or granddaughters learned the recipe or the knack.

Only now do the vague memories linger of overheard discussion of scrapple and German-named specialties we children would never touch willingly in a million years – one sounded vaguely like, hog maws, pig stomach, or maybe “corn paws.” Another was their synonym for cottage cheese, along the lines of “shmear-case” (schmerkase). A Sunday after-church dinner typically included pickled eggs and pickled beets, possibly also from that tradition.

Grandpa’s steaks, meanwhile, would be pounded out with a tenderizing hammer, breaded, and fried Southern-style – definitely not the marinated ones we now grill and savor.

But the smell and sound of percolating coffee still remind me of their kitchen, as does deep-frying their made-from-scratch French fries, especially, served with homemade ketchup. (In contrast, in my parents’ house, French fries came from a frozen package and emerged from the oven.) Even a waft of cream-filled vanilla wafers or the feel of an Oreo, which we always took apart before eating, brings back Grandma’s kitchen. These days I suspect she bought some of these as much for herself as for us kids and shared them as a guilty pleasure. Barq’s “red pop,” the cream soda from Cincinnati, was another product we associate with her refrigerator; now I recall, too, the jar of drinking water, which at the time seemed peculiar.

Considering the amount of time we spent there, it’s odd how nebulous many of the details are. For instance, I have no idea what color the kitchen was. Yellow, with a green pantry? I recall a circular fluorescent light overhead, but my wife says it must have had long tubes instead. The pantry must have been the depth of the stairs to the basement, with a window at the top of the stairs and another to the side of the pantry.

Our focus as kids was always on the boxes of toys kept on the floor behind one pantry door anyway.

Thinking of the windows raises the curious insight that the back of many city houses isn’t at the rear, but rather at one side along the property line. In this case, I’m surprised by the number of windows theirs had, upstairs and down. Opposite the pantry was the sink, though I cannot recall if it was single or double, and a long counter. Pink?

*   *   *

I’ve also been trying to recall some of the other dishes that typically filled the Sunday table, besides the meat – chicken or ham, especially. Dumplings. Green beans garnished with bacon. Slaw, I presume. Creamed corn. Sliced celery and carrots. Baked tomatoes, or fresh sliced, in season. Colby or longhorn cheese. Cranberry salad, made with with Jello. Mandarin orange salad. Fruit salad. Strawberry preserves. Iced tea.

The peanut brittle and fudge Dad loved, especially.

As I review the recipes in a mimeographed family reunion cookbook, an “Ohio cuisine” of the era emerges, heavily influenced by brand-name canned and frozen products. Grandma had a well-stocked top-loading freezer in the basement. No wonder her punch recipe calls for cans of frozen orange, pineapple, and lemon juice augmented by a frozen package of strawberries and two quarts of cream soda. Still, some other family members – older, mostly – stick with recipes that likely came down from their mothers, rather than from the side of a box or can. Ruby Meeks, for instance, with her pie dough using lard (rather than any mention of Crisco), or Ruth Jones with Mother’s Vegetable Soup, which her daughter, Jeannette Jones Hagerman, the cookbook editor, noted: “This will cure almost anything.” TJ, meanwhile, weighs in with a number of dishes no doubt new to the family; as Jeannette remarks on the Tijuana Tamale, “This is a long way from the Miami Valley.” With Myrl’s more traditional Chicken Casserole or 5-Can Casserole, Jeannette notes: “We call this the Garden Club Special.” Still, when Martha Jones Hill’s Spaghetti Sauce simmers down four quarts of tomatoes and four small cans of tomato paste, it’s joining already browned pepperoni, hamburger, green peppers, garlic, and sugar in the pot.

Eating at the McOwen Street kitchen table was more relaxed than in the dining room. Grandpa preferred his toast slightly burned – “Gives it more flavor” – and they used butter, unlike the margarine we always had at home. Breakfast often included fruit salad, which I still associate with them. In either room, my sister and I savored the treat of a pool of real butter melting in their mashed potatoes.

As treats from his rounds, Grandpa would sometimes bring us “Brookville bacon,” thick-cut from a slab, and “Brookville bread,” which came unsliced. To us, these were a taste of earlier ways and places.

Now I wonder if Grandma home-canned fruit and vegetables. I don’t remember her doing so, but there were ample opportunities for her to do so without my knowing. She would have no doubt had the requisite skills. She, did, however put up homemade ketchup and possibly pickles. As TJ recalls, “She made delicious strawberry preserves, ketchup, and loved to bake pies, cakes, and cookies. (Aunt Edna could bake better pies.) I make the porcupine meatballs, one of our family favorites, but I’ve modified Grandma’s recipe … I like the taste of the soup rather than sauce or paste.”

For me, the idea of working in a kitchen brings to mind an apron, which my wife rarely uses, so my thought leads in turn to Grandma’s, the memory of her tying one securely before stepping toward the sink or stove. There are proper ways to approach the task. Or, in my case, to keep from splashing water upon my pants while working at the sink.

As the memories well up, I recall a cistern along the walk outside the kitchen. How was it hooked up, and how was it used? Mostly for yard and gardening watering, or was it in case the city supply ran low?

Once, I rode with Grandpa to a farmers market on Third Street on the West Side of Dayton. There, he bought three live chickens, put them in a wooden crate, came home, and butchered them back by the plumbing shop. So that was what the big-bladed knife and the handled sharpener hanging by the basement stairway were for! What I remember most vividly, though, was one hen running around the back yard, spurting blood where the head had been. I have no idea how Grandma and the other women plucked the quills and feathers, either. Even now, the smell of boiling chicken is a reminder of her kitchen.

Mention of live chickens prompted TJ to relate an incident related to the Wisconsin trip:

“Another major, major meal was to raise money for Mary Louise Aldrich. She was a member of the Euclid church. She had severe arthritis, usually in a wheelchair, had a beautiful voice for solos, lived with her mother in low-income housing near us. She wanted to go to the Mayo Clinic for an evaluation and some new treatment but didn’t have the money. So Dad offered to have a fried chicken dinner at the church to raise the money. He ordered 50 live chickens from his meat market, recruited church members to come to our house to help kill the chickens in our backyard (like you remember three chickens), dip them in boiling water to de-feather them, etc., etc., place the pieces in tubs of ice, transport them to the church where other volunteers had been peeling potatoes, green beans, and preparing whatever else we had. It was a huge success, very exhausting. Mary Louise and her mother made the trip to the Mayo Clinic but there wasn’t much that could be done for her arthritis.”

For summer events, Grandpa liked to pull out his ice cream making gear – the wooden paddles that sat inside a metal canister that in sequence sat inside a wooden bucket. The bucket would be filled with crushed ice and salted, to lower the freezing point, while Grandpa’s recipe blended milk and whipping cream, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and lemon extract – all poured in the canister, closed, and connected to a crank that required hand (and arm) turning. The older folks were always gleeful that homemade ice cream was on the way – something they echoed as they coerced us kids into the labor of cranking. At last, as the ice cream solidified, the presumably more muscular men. What I remember is that we kids would have rather eaten Dairy Queen than the grainy substance dished out of the canister. As a teenager, though, I once tasted some that had been kept overnight in the freezer and recognized a significant difference. Years later, TJ confesses, “I never liked my dad’s ice cream, but I ate it anyway. I would top it with chocolate syrup. In addition to his ice cream, and especially making it during the war when the invite guests had to bring eggs and sugar because of the rationing, he loved to make fried oysters.”

I didn’t remember those, but once saw the arrival of iced crates for an evening of oyster stew. Understand that in Ohio, especially then, the arrival of exotic fresh seafood from the East Coast could be an occasion to celebrate, as I discovered later when a conservative Quaker meeting in the northeastern corner of the state held its own annual oyster stew dinner. For the record, I didn’t like it then and still think it’s a terrible thing to do to oysters; as a New Englander these days, I much prefer mine raw, on the half shell, thank you.

In the reunion cookbook is Grandma’s recipe for oyster stew, apparently using “tinned” or canned oysters: Use equal amounts of milk and water according to the number of people to be served. When hot, add 1 pt. oysters or more. Add ¼ cup butter or margarine, salt and pepper to taste. Do not let it boil, but let the oysters come to the top.

She also has a recipe for Scalloped Oysters, based on one quart: “Drain liquor from oysters and reserve.”

TJ’s remarks on the fried oysters, however, brings another revelation: “He would order three or four dozen, when in season, from his favorite meat market. He would dip them in egg, then in cracker crumbs, back to eggs, and then to cracker crumbs. The oysters were spread on clean dish cloths on the kitchen table and then deep fried. He mixed ketchup and horseradish for his sauce. He would have invited the Gregorys and other Euclid Ave. folks for dinner.”

Fried oysters, rather than clams, is an interesting choice, considering the preference in New England. Fresh oysters in Ohio must have been shipped from Chesapeake Bay, where their season alternates with crab.

*   *   *

The selection, preparation, and serving of food is only part of the family dining experience. What transpires at the table itself is more basic and revealing. In some families, the occasion can be boisterous, overflowing with gaity, or even turning loud and violent; in others, etiquette and decorum prevail. Ours always began with a dramatic recitation of grace, usually from the head of the table and in a traditional Protestant version. Placement of knife and fork and the like received little attention, from what I can tell. (But Aunt Donna’s husband several times ordered me to eat less quickly or he would lock me in the cellar.)

Maybe a few jokes were related, although I have no memory for that. Nor was there any singing or other music before or after, unless it was Wilma’s brother Kenny at the piano with one of his brief but miraculous improvisations.

There was no wine or other alcohol. Which may have been a good thing, considering the political discussions. What I remember is an impression of the Great Depression and how, now that we’d progressed into the 1950s, the world was now going down the drain, thanks to the threats of godless Communism, high taxes, labor unions, Democrats, Roman Catholics, and professional experts. There was a pronounced distrust of erudition, at least beyond a basic level and especially if it were theoretical rather than practical – even though both Grandpa’s mother and Grandma herself had at times taught school. Yet I think, too, of one of Grandpa’s favorite expressions: “Great land a’ livin’!”

Other strands of dinner conversations also surface in my memory. One was a recurrent fear of being buried alive. They seemed to know of instances here and there where the body or the coffin was being readied when something moved or knocked. This were somber talk among adults, not in the least intended for the children. Another was a fear of being declared insane, especially by spouses or other family members – and their unscrupulous physicians – intent on rifling an individual’s estate. Where did such macabre obsessions originate? And why? Was there experience in one or both of their ancestry to stimulate such worries? Neither TJ, Wilma, or my sister, by the way, recall hearing these themes.

 

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