When I think of places that evoke the most wonderful food memories aside from my childhood home, my Aunt Dodie (my mom’s sister) and Uncle Gene’s house is the first one that comes to my mind most often. The fact is, you can hardly look at their modest New England style Cape home from the spring until the snow covered the ground in winter without thinking about food as it sits beside a nearly eighty acre cornfield. I know from a Midwesterners standpoint eighty acres barely even qualifies as a field… more like a front yard. But in New England getting a hundred acres together that you can actually use all of, is rarer than hen’s teeth, but probably more useless as every spring you have to go out and pick by hand the new crop of Volkswagen sized boulders the winter frost has helped cultivate.
There was one area down behind their house in the cornfield that would flood a bit each fall and in the winter provided an excellent skating surface for me, my brother and cousins. Skating in the middle of the temporary pond was a virtual skater’s paradise. If you found yourself getting near the edges it got a little tricky to stop, as the remains of cornstalks from the fall would surely humble the most able of skaters. It wasn’t the skating so much that I remember, at least not as much as the comforting hot cocoa that would be made by my aunt after we were finished skating. Using milk to make her rich cocoa was something I remembered and I still do to this day. On top of the cocoa she would float the mini marshmallows and also added vanilla so I looked at her as a virtual pioneer in cocoa research and development.
Winter also meant something else at my Aunt’s house, the holidays… and it wouldn’t be a holiday unless my aunt had made pierogi. Pierogi for those not “in the know” on the subject, (and if you’re not, you should be) are a filled dumpling from Eastern Europe that are often fried in butter until brown and eaten with sour cream. They are filled with things like potato and farmer’s cheese, sauerkraut and bacon, potato and onion, and if you could stuff a steel trailer hitch into one of these things…that would be delicious as well.
My uncle didn’t much care for them fried so we always ate them cold after being cooked and then cooled, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found out that’s how much of the pierogi eating world prepared theirs. It was all about the dough and my aunt would work for a couple of days to make and perfect these little bites of heaven. On the given holiday they were fallen upon by the many friends and family members whom frequently stopped by for a visit, until the pierogi were gone.
The kitchen at my aunt’s house was the place aside from the cornfield that I probably spent the most time. When my parents would take us for a visit, there was no telling what kinds of wonderful adventures waited. My mother would go into the house to visit with my aunt and my cousin Deb and have a cup of tea. I knew there were wonderful things to eat in the house, but protocol called for my brother and me to be with the “men” for a time out in the garage. So I, somewhat begrudgingly, and my brother would tag along with our father to the garage, where my uncle would always be working on something.
My uncle would always take on work in his spare time for friends or relatives, or just for his own use. He had a massive garage which held a wood stove for the winter, a TV for watching NASCAR races on Sundays, a refrigerator to hold ice cold Pepsi and a radio tuned to the same station for years that played old country music softly in the background. He was a mechanical genius of sorts when it came to making any thing or any vehicle work, or work better. He had drill presses, lathes, milling machines and all other manner of flotsam and jetsam and provided a bit of mystery for my brother and I to stare and wonder about.
But as genius’ often are less social creatures, my father and uncle would stand looking at a project not saying a word, than as if on cue, one would grab a tool, hand it to the other and tap this, screw that, jiggle this or wiggle that… then take a step back and stare some more. As I was not a Star Trek fan and this was some sort of Vulcan mind meld thing… I used their work as an opportunity to escape to the house… and see what might be cooking.
My aunt’s house was the first place I had ever had tea and it’s always the drink of choice when you go to visit. My cousin Deb had been drinking it for years even though she was only two years older than me, and I took that to mean she was very worldly and cosmopolitan. I guess I never drank it before then as my mother told my brother and I that it would stunt our growth. (This was from a woman who stands four foot eleven inches, so I considered her an expert in the stunted growth field) As I wanted to be a fellow sophisticate, I put aside the cocoa of my early youth and struck out into uncharted territory and began drinking tea. The tea wasn’t anything special, but to this day whenever I have a cup it always reminds me of my aunt’s house…unless it’s served with toast then it reminds me of being sick and at my parents’ house.
The kitchen was a very social place and when there were more people than chairs I often saw cousins, uncles and visitors propped against, and on top of the counters joining in the always lively conversation. The table was always filled with a variety of food for visitors to snack on while waiting to jump into fray of conversation, or listening to family friends sing and play music “a la” Little House on the Prairie, complete with spoons and a washboard. Sharp Vermont cheddar, crackers, summer sausage, pepperoni, fried shrimps, Spanish bar cake, fried oysters, chips, clam dip, horseradish and bacon dip… There was no way to tell what would be there, but all of it good. The one thing that stood apart from all the other food items, were my aunt’s pies. I don’t know how many souls she had to sell, steal or damn to hell for her pie making abilities, but in my mind… it was worth it.
My aunt makes the finest blueberry pie on the planet hands down, and her raspberry pie is right there with it. The crust being flakey yet firm, the filling being just juicy enough and yet somehow holding together is a miracle on par with loaves and fishes in my book. The berries, apples and various fillings were always maintaining a perfect balance between sweet, tart and savory. I tell you it was art, art to the point of making the Sistine Chapel look like a cave painting. My mother’s pies, not so much, she would stand beside my aunt making a pie together step by step and the end result of my mother’s pie was something firm enough to drive a railroad spike with.
Ah Spring, it was a great time to be at my aunt’s house because this meant the cornfield would be plowed and there was a good chance to find Indian arrowheads in the freshly tilled soil, (my aunt found dozens, my brother and I found none) the downside was the manure that had just been spread prior to plowing left a less than appealing scent to the air. My father and uncle would tell my brother and I that the manure would make our feet grow, so it wasn’t a problem walking bare footed…I now have size eleven feet that are EEEE wide. The other downer about the big cornfield was that it only yielded “dent” or “cow” corn which was punky, chewy, milky, starchy, and all in all not very good to eat…unless you were me and pretty much ate anything anyways.
My uncle would till the area where my aunt would plant her vegetable garden, and for a few years where my mother also planted our garden. I remember the smell of the freshly tilled soil that was warm and silky under my bare feet. There was a piece of land beside the garden where a friend of the family would plant a few acres of sweet corn for them and come August, would provide the bounty for the family corn roasts that were a favorite every year.
During the spring and summer months at my aunt’s house, if you heard a train whistle and were a fan of candy it would behoove you to head for the train trestle that ran along a hill in the back yard. As kids we would stand and wait for the train to approach, when the engine would appear we would wave and the engineer would shower us with candy. It was usually things like smarties or fireballs or root beer barrels… not the best candy, but candy nonetheless! When we grew older the engineer was always there with a friendly wave as we watched out pennies get flattened as the behemoth train passed over them.
The day of the family corn roast came and preparations were underway as my uncle pulled his truck out of the garage and opened the doors so that the music from the speakers could be heard all over the yard as George Jones and Tammy Wynette would pour from the 8 track player. My uncle and father would start the charcoal for the grills and then head out with burlap bags to begin picking corn for the feast. They would pick several burlap sacks full of corn and pile it in the middle of the front yard where we would begin pulling the silk only for the corn that was to be grilled in the husk, or shucking it entirely for the corn that was to be steamed. The corn was the starring character of the day…and after a dozen or so ears of corn throughout the day it often starred in other ways the next day.
The meats were nothing special as my aunt and my mother are from a family of fifteen kids and I have something on the order of 42 first cousins from my mom’s side of the family alone. So trying to feed all of us steaks would have cost the gross domestic product of several small countries combined. So it was a typical hot dog and hamburger affair with kielbasa added for good measure. I remembered the kielbasa as it was my favorite and it was the first place I ever had kielbasa. My uncle would butterfly it and grill it until slightly charred then serve it in a hamburger bun.
Then there were the salads and side dishes that were brought by all the aunts and my mother but the one I loved best was my aunt Dodie’s cole Slaw. It was simple and in a bowl I can remember to this day, sort of a hard gray plastic number with orange white and black flecks in it. Every time I think about my aunt’s cole slaw, I think of that bowl and how delicious and cold it was on a hot late summer’s day. I got the recipe for it and still use it for slaw dogs with bacon, or I dress it up as a side and add toasted and ground caraway seed. I haven’t tasted anything like it since and remembered when I got the recipe all I could think was, are you kidding me…that’s it?! I guess it’s what they mean when you hear less is more.
There was a tall green apple tree with no low hanging branches down behind my aunt’s house where my brother and I spent a good deal of time throwing fallen apples (which were no good) at the good apples, trying to knock them down so we could eat them. When we were younger this was nearly a fool’s errand, and when we got older it became easier but still a fun and sporting challenge. After all this was an ancient act of proving one’s usefulness and therefore manhood to the tribe, having good aim was the difference between killing the mammoth or becoming impaled on its tusks as a sort of paleolithic Neanderthal-kebab.
Late summer and fall were great times to be at my aunt’s house because my cousins, friends, brother and I would run for hours and play hide and seek in the corn that was well over our heads. It was also a time of year where wild grapes grew on the banks of the Connecticut River that ran along the far side of the cornfield. I can still remember the taste of the grapes as they were tart enough to nearly seize your jaw shut. I also remember my cousin Deb making wine with those grapes, or maybe it was her two brothers Gingie and Danny…either way, the sad thing is what I don’t remember and that’s getting any of the aforementioned wine.
The grapes also provided vines that grew into the hardwood tree tops and provided swings that we would ride out over the great chasm that was the river banking, which ran down some sixty or so feet to the river’s surface. This was fun to do until it was nearly dusk and we knew we had to get back across the cornfield, because everybody knows night is when the boogie man came out and hunted for little kids souls who dared enter the cornfield…right? Well that’s what I was told by my cousins anyway.
This was near harvest time and between our garden and aunt Dodie’s garden people would run from the sight of us holding brown paper bags bulging with produce, swearing they couldn’t possibly take any more vegetables. No matter, there were canning parties where us kids would shuck the remainder of the year’s corn, and my mom and aunt would be blanching the corn in kettles during the hot days of late August…then running the cobs through a mandoline before bagging and freezing the resulting kernels. There was nothing better for a Sunday dinner in the dead of winter than that frozen corn.
There are lots of memories at my aunt’s house, from collecting fireflies in an old mayonnaise jar with holes in the lid to make what we called a Chinese lantern, (Not sure if that was politically correct, or where it came from, or even if kids call it that nowadays or perhaps they have a phone app for that so they don’t have to go outside and do that anymore) there were birthday parties, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New year celebrations(my father having had one too many high balls and walking around in stocking feet in the snow and my uncle and him laughing their butts off is one that comes to mind) Christmas and New Year’s there were always fun, as it was really only one of a handful of times my dad actually drank alcohol which meant hilarity ensued. My mom and I hunkered down their once because of a hurricane and my father was at work and didn’t want us alone at home (The hurricane died at the coast but I got blueberry pie out of the deal so I’d say the hunkering was successful)… almost all of those memories were surrounding food, and all of the food good.
The apple tree is gone as it started to rot and threatened to fall on my uncle’s tool shed, a battle between nature and man…nature 0 uncle Gene 1. The trestle was torn down and the railroad tracks we used to walk miles on were torn up in the name of progress. My aunt doesn’t have her own corn anymore as the famer that used to plant it doesn’t farm anymore and the garden she grows is much more modest these days. I haven’t skated in that field in better than twenty years, and I’m not sure if the boogie man is dead now or has just moved on to another field as the little kids he once hunted for their souls have all grown and gone. As often happens, things change, evolve and then move on until they no longer resemble what once was.
The things I love most about my aunt and uncles house are the things that don’t change. My uncle is still running a 1977 GMC Sierra, which is his old truck… his new one is a 93 Dodge Ram or whatever year it was before changing to the new body style and both of them run perfectly. My aunt still has her garden where it always was and her flowers are always just as bright, beautiful and plentiful. She still makes pierogi though not as often, and in my mind the best blueberry and raspberry pies since the invention of blueberries or raspberries. To this day I go there and pop into the garage first to say hey to my uncle who will always be tinkering on something, then head to the house for a hug and some tea with my aunt…where I relax with the warm comfort of her voice, a slice of pie…and some of my fondest memories.