When Mama cooked Solomon Grundy
In the warm spicy-smelling kitchen there was always something baking in the oven or bubbling on the stove, and for Mama and Papa and thirteen children there was good eating and happiness in that house by the sea
IN THE LAST few years there has been a great growth in the popularity of cookbooks. Books of recipes from every country, for every kind of food, and for every occasion crowd the shelves in the bookstores and libraries. But search as you might I'm afraid you'll never find the cookbook I long to have, titled in my mind Menus From Barrett's Landing, Nova Scotia.
1 know the food there very well. In fact, 1 know the cook very well— she's my mother and she was the chief cook for our large family. Most of my memories of Mama have her in the kitchen, walking steadily back and forth from the stove to the pantry. The kitchen was large, painted red and white, with brightly patterned linoleum on the floor. There would always be something baking in the hot oven, and the tinkling sounds of the covers of the pots steaming and bubbling away on the top of the stove.
The kitchen was the centre of our whole house. We came in from school or play and went straight to the kitchen to see what Mama was cooking for supper. We told her all the news we had heard during the day, and w'atched our chances to snatch apples and raisins when her back was turned. She used to save her mixing bowls for us and we'd scrape out the last remains of the heady gingerbread mixture, or we might be in time to crush the nutmeg seeds for the top of the applesauce dessert. There were no prizes in boxes of merchandise in those days, but a famous tea company used to put a dime in every large package of tea, and each of us in turn was given these dimes. Mama kept our names on a piece of cardboard tacked on the pantry wall, and she checked them off as the dimes were handed out. Tea was very expensive and was used sparingly. It was steeped over and over, so we had to wait for a long time for a package to be used up.
I think of Mama often when I read those articles in women's magazines that run under such headings as How A Family Of Four Live On $4,000 A Year and You Can Feed Five On $250 A Month. My mother would
never understand such dizzying amounts of housekeeping money, and she could, it seems to me, write an article herself that would shake those magazine editors.
In the first place, at Barrett's Landing there was no such thing as "housekeeping money.” My father simply gave my mother every cent he earned, and she threw it all into the desperate race to keep their large family clothed and fed. The finances were strictly Mama's responsibility. The only thing my father ever bought was chewing tobacco.
Papa's money came mostly from lobster fishing, but he made a little extra money selling eggs and chickens from our small farm. It wasn't much, though, because we ate up most of the produce from our own land. We of course had all the milk we could drink (we often gulped it down still warm from the milking pails), all the eggs and vegetables we could eat, and just about any kind of fish or seafood you can imagine. The summer was fairly easy on Papa's pocketbook and we all enjoyed the larger variety of food available then. One basic dish— winter and summer—was boiled salt herring and potatoes cooked in their jackets. In the summer we added beet or turnip greens. That dish with vinegar and mustard is still my favorite to this day. but my sister Orete and I only make it once or twice a year because our apartments smell of herring for days afterward. And it never tastes as good as it did at home. 1 think it's the atmosphere. The modern sterile white little kitchens we work in are so different from my mother's big warm spicy-smelling kitchen. We miss Papa there, too. At mealtimes when we had herring he often used to shock Mama and make us kids laugh by rocking back in his chair and singing loudly, "Herrin' and taters, the food of the land, if you
Adapted from the book. Tales From Barrett's Landing, to he published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
don't like it you can starve and be damned.”
There’s another good herring dish, too. called Solomon Grundy, which I've never eaten outside Nova Scotia. It's easy to make if you can get good herring. You need about six salt herring, three or four large onions, about half a cup of sugar, and some whole pickling spice. Soak the herring in cold water overnight, then clean them and take off the skins. Cut them in small pieces and, if you like, you can fillet them at the same time. Heat enough white vinegar to cover the herring—just to the boiling point. Add the sugar and spice and simmer for an hour or two. The idea is to make sure the vinegar is flavored with the pickling spice. Allow this mixture to cool, strain out the spice, and then pour the liquid over the rawherring and onions. Keep it in a cool place and it should be ready to eat in three or four days. Serve this dish with boiled potatoes, and sliced cucumbers with sour cream.
In the spring we had fresh codfish, mackerel, herring, smelts, and flatfish. When I say fresh I mean that they w'ere swimming around in the ocean fifteen minutes before they were cooked. We had all the crabs, mussels, clams, and lobsters we could catch ourselves. We would walk out on the sand at low tide and dig the big clams, slapping our bare feet on the sand until the clams squirted up at us. And we gathered the mussels that were holding fast to the rocks, almost entirely hidden by seaweed. We would build an oven with the rocks on the shore and bake our clams and mussels on hot flat rocks, and eat them then and there.
I’ll never get used to the idea that lobster and crab are luxury foods, and that lobster costs considerably over a dollar a pound. We ate lobster because we were poor. 1 remember that
sometimes Mama put fresh boiled lobster in our school lunches and we always threw them away on our way to school. We were ashamed to let the other kids see them because then they would know that w'e didn't have anything else to cat in the house. As it was, we ate so much fish that the other kids, most of whose fathers were farmers, would chant, "Antigonish, Antigonish. boiled potatoes and salty fish,” when they saw us coming down the road. We figured that it w'as best to eat our bread and molasses as quickly as possible and pretend to them that it was a meat sandwich.
The main idea was to fill the kids' stomachs. A good start to the day was a big soup bowl full of porridge with milk but no sugar. We never put sugar on anything. If it was something that had to be sweetened, we used molasses. After we'd had the porridge we'd devour fried eggs, and potatoes, and herring or codfish. This, topped off with several slices of bread and a cup of strong tea, sent us off into the world prepared for anything. Sometimes on Sunday, as a special treat. Mama put a few raisins in the porridge to make it a little fancier.
We made our own butter, too. Each child had to take a stretch at the churn, and after the butter was made we could drink down the tangv sour buttermilk, with pieces of salty white butter floating on top. My mother made curds from the leftover milk and cream, and w;e ate these smothered with wild strawberries or blueberries in the summer, and with nutmeg or cinnamon in the winter. Since we didn't have a refrigerator of any kind, butter, milk and eggs were put in a sealed bucket and sunk to the bottom of the well, where they stayed cool in the cold spring water. The water in our well was supposed to be the hest for miles around. "You can travel the world,” my father still says, “and you'll never taste as good a water.” When we were kids we were sure he was right and we were always happy when tourists stopped their cars and came in for a drink. After we had drawn up a dipperful from the well for them, they'd usually say,
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MAMA'S SOLOMON GRUNDY
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We were never sure how many would turn up for meals. Sometimes there’d be three shifts
“That's good water.’' and we would answer proudly, “Yes, it's the best in the world.”
In the summer, to make a change trom all the fish, we would trap porcupines, and Mama would make porcupine stew. To supplement our meals or to save going home for lunch in good weather, we ate berries, mountain tea (a leaf that tastes like wintergreen) and seaweed, and anything else, I must admit, that we could snatch from the gardens we passed in our wanderings. Seaweed played a very important part in our diet. We gathered it from the water and spread it out on the rocks to dry in the sun. We let it dry until it got good and rubbery and all the salt cl ried on top. and carried it around in our schoolbags anti pockets to chew on when we were hungry. I'm sorry that we didn't know then that one kind of seaweed, dulse, was eaten in other parts of C anada. If we had known about those little packages of purple dulse that were sold, seaweed picking could have been a lucrative pastime for us.
In the winter there wasn’t nearly as much choice. All the meat and fish was salted, and the most memorable dish was boiled salt codfish with pork
scraps — pork rinds cut into long thin strips and fried very crispy with onions. We caught rabbits for stews and roasts and had salt pig’s feet with the sauerkraut Mama had made in the fall. Mama made baked beans with big pieces of salt pork and a cup of molasses on the top. The beans baked away in a huge stone crock in the oven for hours and hours. We ate beans with hot brown bread and more molasses, and boiled potatoes.
Mama had to make enormous meals because we all had good appetites, and besides there always seemed to be a few extra people at mealtimes. Papa brought home any men who happened to be working with him, and during the Depression there were often men walking the roads looking for work, and Papa would call them in for a good meal. Usually there were several pretty girls in the house and young bachelors often turned up for meals. In those days it was considered wise to find out what kind of a house a girl's mother kept before you got around to thinking of marriage. A girl who was simply pretty was not of any great use to a man in that country. She had to be a cook, a capable farmhand, a good woman for having babies, and in a pinch, a fisherman.
Mama fed all the people who turned up at mealtime without any complaint. even though four or five loaves of bread and a half a gallon of molasses would sometimes he eaten at one meal. Also perhaps there would have to be three shifts at one meal, and the dishes would have to be taken
off the table and quickly washed and the table set again for the next group.
There is one specialty that Mama has that all the cookbook writers would do well to get the recipe for, and that is her way of making molasses cookies. She’s famous for them down home. The molasses cookies I’ve bought from bakeries are much too gingery or something, and just not the right shape. My mother’s cookies are very fat looking and only a little bit of ginger is used, and they’re very soft — just writing about them makes my mouth water. Mama used to say that baking molasses cookies was the quickest way to get her family home. She'd look out the window and there would not be a child in sight, but as soon as she got a batch of cookies in the oven the kitchen would fill up with kids in a matter of minutes.
My mother made another dessert that I'll always remember. It's called Foxberry Grunt. Why a dessert is called a Grunt. I'm not sure. Perhaps it is meant as an expression of satisfaction, or merely based on mispronunciation of the name of the person who first made it. And to this day I don't know just what a foxberry is, either. All I know is that foxberries grow wild on low bushes, and they taste quite like ordinary cranberries, only with more flavor. And, most important, they seem to grow best around Barrett's Landing.
To recreate a true Foxberry Grunt, then, is quite impossible. But I have managed something like it using cranberries from the local supermarket, and adjusting my mother's recipe
somewhat. I use a quart of cranberries, a cup of sugar, half a cup of water, and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Mama, of course, didn't use lemon juice in hers — foxberries are more tart than cranberries, and we never saw such an exotic fruit as a lemon when I was a child.
The most important thing to remember about Grunt is not to overcook the berries. They should just come to the boiling point, so that they stay whole. A standard biscuit dough (two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, a bit of salt, a tablespoon of butter, and a half to two thirds of a cup of milk) is dropped by big spoonfuls into the hot berries. Then the whole thing is tightly covered and cooked on the top of the stove for about twelve minutes. Mama was always very firm about our not lifting the cover of the pot while the Grunt was cooking. She served it plain and it was delicious, but it's good with whipped cream, too.
Still, it’s only now that I’m an adult that I appreciate Mama’s homemade desserts and bread and cookies. When I was a child we longed to have “store-boughten” foods. We were always trying to persuade my mother to buy canned goods, and for much of my young life I dreamed of a brightpink cake with jelly beans on it that was shown on the package of the shortening Mama used. We drooled over advertisements for such things as strawberry Jell - O and five - minute caramel pudding. And a loaf of threeday-old store bread was thought by us
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to be far superior both in taste and prestige to Mama's fresh-from-theoven raisin brown bread.
We ate Mama’s cooking at a long table in the kitchen during the week and at the dining-room table on Sundays. We all took our places quietly. Papa sat at the head of the table, and we all bowed our heads while he said grace. Our signal to start was when Papa looked up and said. ‘‘Well, hoe in kids — sec how' quickly you can get outside this grub.” We promptly anil happily ate everything in sight. We were not allowed to speak at the table unless one of our parents asked us a question. This may sound harsh hut it made good sense. We all talk a lot in my family and my poor parents would never have had any peace if the kills chattered at the table.
We liked to have special company because then there would he a pretty tablecloth on the table and we could eat butter, normally only served for company, and there was usually meat -— a chicken, say — for dinner. Mama would make a pie or we would have cake for dessert.
The firmest of table rules applied when we had company; the usual rule of no talking was strictly enforced, and besides that there w'as no laughing. and we had to he sure to say please and thank you. It was the favorite sport of the older kids to work out schemes to make each other laugh without being seen by my parents, and they were often successful. But the younger ones didn't have the same self-control, and since I was at the end of a long line of kids I would usually be consumed with giggles and he sent from the table before dessert.
There's a sharp distinction made now' between children's food and adult food but, as far as I know or can find out, the Wilson children only went through three stages. We started out on mother's milk, then moved on to porridge and cow's milk, and from there jumped directly into the competition to eat as much as possible of anything that was going. Small children in Barrett’s Landing staggered happily around the yard, chewing on pieces of dried salt codfish.
Our food often went unappreciated among the people who weren't part of our community. One of my brothers in the army once invited a girl to our home for the weekend, w'hich we took as a sign of serious courtship. She wasn't a Nova Scotia girl and I think now it must have been a sad thing to see her at the breakfast table with her salt herring and fried eggs in front of her. "Eat. girl,” my father kept shouting at her. "You'll die if you don’t eat." She tried hut she just couldn't eat the herring, and since of course we could never comprehend anyone who, faced with food of any kind, didn't eat until all the plates were empty, we could only agree with Papa that she couldn't be a very healthy girl. "It won't cost Marty much to keep her anyway," my father remarked gloomily after the couple had gone. "She don't eat nothin'.” The romance must have faded rather quickly after that breakfast because Marty didn’t hring her back and he never mentioned her again.
In the evenings in the fall and winter Mama would make molasses candy. We used to put the mixture
outside to cool and when it got partly hardened we would pull and stretch it in long golden strips for about half an hour, then twist it and cut it into chunks, and then put it back outside again until it was completely hardened. T here w'as a special art to the pulling and twisting and I remember, w'hen I was little, practising and practising w'ith one piece of candy until it was grimy before finally being allowed by my older sisters and brothers to join them in the real toffee pulling.
One night in late fall just after we'd put a large batch of candy out for its first cooling, to our horror a bear sneaked up and stole it. We saw' him from the window, and w'e were half terrified and half annoyed at losing our precious candy. But as we w'atched him with the sticky mass of toffee catching on his paws, then his face, and finally all through his coat, we began to feel sorry for him. We could see him clearly in the moonlight. In his despair he stood right up on his hind legs, and with his toffee-covered paws rubbed away at his face, and then ran off toward the woods, with our candy all over him. Mama made another small batch for us and for once Papa let us stay up late enough to finish the whole routine.
We ate cranberry preserves, spicy applesauce, and mustard pickles made from pumpkin rinds. We ate whole small beets put up in vinegar, and chewed on the stalks of summer savory hanging in huge bunches from the pantry ceiling. On hot summer afternoons we picked and ate the warm dusty blueberries from the bushes on the side of the road and came home with blue mouths and fingers. Or we sat on the shore and lazily ate raw clams and bunches of gooseberries and talked and watched the big ships far out at sea.
When I remember the prickly raspberry bushes laden w'ith juicy berries, the taste of sweet wild strawberries in the summer, and the steamy cooking smell of my mother's kitchen in winter, I realize it's probably not possible to write a Barrett's Landing cookbook. The ingredients after all are a house by the sea, a mother in the kitchen and thirteen hungry kids ready to compete for every mouthful. ★