Wednesday, July 15, 2015

out of sequence excursus: mother, pie, and such

My mother could bake an apple pie--she used Comstock canned apple pie filling and crust made with a recipe from the only cookbook she ever had ( ), which used Crisco. But she preferred to buy Mrs. Smith's. She did more or less cook while my father was alive--my favorite meal was breakfast, which almost always contained large amounts of butte and sugar. But when there was no longer any pressure to provide a supper with a meat and two vegetables and bread, she usually opened one can of mixed peas and corn and heated something from Swanson, or just the needed number of tv dinners. Later in life this seemed very strange to me, but when she was sick and I spent some time with mother, I began to understand why.

I have been thinking of mother this week, since her birthday was 10 July. It's fascinating how very little we sometimes know of our closest relatives. When I came finally to know something of my mother's childhood, I began to realize some of the causes of her love for closed windows and air-conditioning, driving the two blocks to the drug store where she bought chocolate milkshakes--or having them delivered--and frozen foods. I also began to realize more what a revolution world war ii was for average americans.

Mother grew up poor. Not just below the poverty line. Poor. We don't have that poor any more: outdoor toilets, baths on saturday night in a tub, oranges only at christmas in good years. Mother's family, from what I can surmise from snippets of stories, came across the country from Georgia, staying just ahead of the plantations. They were slash-and-burn farmers, living on hope and collard greens and squirrel meat. (We actually ate a lot of squirrel while I was young. Looking back, I wonder if it might have been a sort of clan totem food.) One pair of great-great grandparents were a escaped slave woman and a cherokee man escaped from the trail of tears. By the 1920's, when my mother was born, things were changing. Most of her family either had moved to town, and become beginning-to-be prosperous businessmen, or had amassed enough land to be 'planters'. My own grandfather was neither. He had worked as a tradesman and a salesman and the depression was not a good time for him. He became a share-cropper on his oldest brother's farm near Lake City, picking up a bit of extra money building forms for the concrete bridge across the St. Francis River. That job ended, according to family legend, when he dropped his hammer in the river and couldn't afford another. There was no electricity. Water came from a pump, heat from burning scrounged-up wood scraps.

The war brought a new prosperity to northeast Arkansas, just as it did to the whole country. Shoes were rationed, but my mother's family could afford them. Her family went to Jacksonville and worked building domb detonators. My grandfather managed a section; my mother was a book-keeper and tour guide for visiting brass; my grandmother cooked and did laundry. After the war, Jonesboro thrived. All of a sudden there was a whole new world of convenience and consumption available for my mother. Over the years, she spent a lot of money on furniture, none of it very 'good', because she liked being able to buy new furniture. My father had bought property and was planning to build a house, but during an ice storm when our neighborhood had no electric power, mother found a house that did, and convinced my father to buy it that day and moved her little brood into it, taking the essentials in her 1957 Ford.

I find it odd when I hear people talking about how the new generation doesn't have the advantages the post-war generation did. There are now completely different advantages, and the standards are very different. I doubt my mother's little four-bedroom house with pocket doors and tiny bathrooms could even be built now. But to her, it seemed a mansion.

Late in life, mother discovered deli food, and it was even easier than Stouffer's. Mrs. Smith's deep dish apple pie remained her favorite. I think it was the last food for which she bothered to turn on the stove.

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