My cousin Liz* instant messaged me: “Are you going to the farm for Thanksgiving?
I type back: “Yes. We’re coming over Friday.” I hadn’t talked to her since the Virginia earthquake back in August.
“Would you like to make candy?”
“Sure. I’ll ask Aunt Shelly if she doesn’t mind and find out what is left in Grandma’s kitchen.”
I called my Aunt between the news and Dancing with the Stars. Aunt Shelly told me that we’d have to bring the cookie sheets and a candy thermometer. There are only the ‘Air Bake’ pizza pie pans at the farm, which all have holes in them and therefore wouldn’t be too good for pouring the hard candy onto. Aunt Shelly said we’d need to bring the ingredients. She then went into the story about the time she and my mom made the candy. They didn’t use “pure cane sugar” and the candy never got hard. Apparently, my Grandpap lectured the both of them on the chemical properties of sugar and how not all sugar is sugar. Bottom line, you must use “pure cane sugar.” (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this story.)
Last Thanksgiving Saturday, I was up early before the remaining fourteen people and two dogs were up. It’s my favorite time; everything is quiet in this packed two bedroom ranch. I sat at the kitchen table looking out at the window feeder, waiting for the Mr. Coffee to brew. The Goldfinches sporting their new gray tweed coats and blacked capped chickadees feasted on the sunflower mixture Uncle Larry had left for them. Then Tufted Titmouse dive bombed the feeder, scaring away the other birds into the nearby bush. He came to a halt after skating across the feeder dumping a lot of the seed to the ground with his shenanigans. He looks at me directly then turns his head, modeling a gelled Mohawk look. The cool royal cardinal holds back, perched on a large flagstone surrounded by dried Echinacea, Salvia and Asters. He has a stuffy attitude towards the other birds.
I look through the binoculars. Four white-tailed does begin to cross Mrs. C’s field heading into the wooded border of our property. The forest is now a patchwork of brown, black and evergreen. Most of the trees now bare their exposed arms, multiple like Kali. They wave steadily reaching up into the gray blue skies. The oak is the last in the forest to cling to its nutmeg leaves. Something startles the gleaning does. They look towards the road then gracefully jump to take cover. I believe they know that hunting season starts Monday. Those that will survive will have to be persistent hiders.
The birds are back dining when the Mr. Coffee gurgles and sputters. It sounds more like a person with pneumonia coughing. I get up to pour myself a cup.
By the time I was thirteen I was an avid reader. I found that the best time to read at the farm was very early in the morning. I used to get out of my sleeping bag and go and sit at the kitchen table. The whole house of seventeen people and two dogs slept away while I read in quiet. The only sound was the cuckoo clock ticking off the swings of the pendulum.
My Grandma was always the first up. I could hear her coming. The pocket doors would roll open and close behind her as she walked through the house. When she reached the kitchen she would place her hand on my shoulder. “Beth, dear, you’ll ruin your eyes.” She’d reach over and turn the light on. Her slippers would scuff across the floor as she went to plug in the electric percolator. Then Grandma would sit in the chair next to me and ask what I was reading. I’d show her. She’d ask me what it was about.
Grandma was also a book lover. The L Public Library had her name on the rolodex. She’d be first in town to read the new books. Historical novels were her favorites: Jakes, Santmyer, and Herriot. Thickness of the book didn’t intimidate her. She liked Mitchener with his long winded descriptions about the history of a place.
We’d hold hands and I’d trace the veins on the back of her hands. They were wrinkled, dry and smelling of Jerkins lotion; and she used transparent scotch tape to seal the cracks from washing the dishes, canning apple sauce and flower gardening. Her thumb was always stained from iodine and a bandage hiding the nail. She’d tell me she’d split it to the quick again. And, I should stop biting mine because I was growing into a lady.
Grandma would pour me a glass of milk into a blue aluminum cup and cup of coffee for herself. She’d bring over toasted slices of her homemade bread with cinnamon apple butter. Together we’d sit at the table looking out the window until everyone starts getting up. Mrs. C’ rolling fields are plowed under for the winter.
Aunt Shelly and my cousin Steve also rise early. Steve passes by me at the kitchen table watching the birds. He’s in a hurry to get the dogs out. Aunt Shelly asks if I want oatmeal for breakfast. I decline, saying there’s leftover Thanksgiving pie. She puts the water on for tea and begins cutting up apples telling me about Mary and RJ’s new apartment and Robert driving over from D.C. this afternoon. I go and cut myself a wedge of Elderberry pie and give it a healthy splash of milk over the top of it.
I’d changed Grandma’s Elderberry pie recipe. For today’s standards, her filling recipe called for an ungodly amount of sugar, flour, butter and a splash of vinegar. Whenever I’ve made this pie, my results have been a soggy purple crust mixed with sugared elderberries. For my next attempt, I read several blogs throughout the fall about cooking with elderberries. I decided to cut back the amount of sugar and add apples to her recipe. The apples had acted as a natural pectin, jelling the berry liquid. Finally, the bottom of the crust was crisp.
Elderberries grow along the tree line of the farm and Mrs. C’s field. I’d picked them Labor Day weekend, making my way through the tall grass and poison ivy trees. They’re easy to spot in the spring, but you need a keener eye in the late summer. In the spring they have large clusters of small white flowers. Their delicate flowers remind me of Queen Anne’s Lace. By the late summer they’re hidden by the other trees. This year the purple berries heavily pulled the tree branches down. I’d carefully cut only the berries cluster off and put them in a plastic grocery bag. Grandma would say: “It’s bad luck to cut the elder down” and “take only what you need.” I never asked her what kind of bad luck.
I eat my new pie mixture sopping the crust up in the milk. It’s both tart and sweet. The little berry seeds are crunchy and a little bitter. They always get stuck in my back teeth. I pry them out with my fingernail
I used to watch Grandma make pies and loaves of bread. If we arrived in the early afternoon at the farm, I’d be there to watch her knead the bread dough. She’d scoop the newly mixed dough onto a flour dusted Tupperware plastic sheet. Then she’d press her heels into it, letting it fold in half then turn the dough to the right a quarter. The kitchen table would squeak and groan with her body’s rocking motion. Grandma would knead it until it was silky and smooth. She’d gently put the dough into a buttered mixing bowl, butter its top and “put it to sleep for a while” by tenderly covering it with a dampened dish towel on top of the stove. The whole house became warm and yeasty smelling from the bread baking. She’d let them cool and then hide the loaves around the kitchen. This was to ensure there was enough bread in the morning. She was well aware that certain unnamed family members would sneak into the kitchen to get slices of buttered bread while others were sleeping.
Grandma was a baker but not a chef. This was one of the sources of family tension, because she wouldn’t let anyone else cook in her kitchen. Nor would she consider delegation of chef duties. When Grandma went to nursing school she learned about trichinosis and e-coli, a fact that heavily influenced her cooking techniques. Vegetables were overcooked and meat became a form of carefully preserved jerky. The evening my Dad met my grandparents, he made a great first impression. In an attempt to cut his meat, he caused the very well done hockey puck to fly across the dining room, thudding into the wall. I’d try to rehydrate my meat by encapsulating it in mash potatoes and gravy. Supper would end and I’d still chew a lump like a piece of gum that had long lost its flavor. Grandma would ask how dinner was, I’d smile. Then, joining the rest of her eight grandchildren by automatically shaking our heads and in chorus saying: “hmm good.”
My Uncle Jim died in the spring of ’88. My mother called me at work detailing the funeral arrangements. They’d meet me at the farm. That evening I drove from Marion, Ohio to L, PA, arriving after midnight, but the lights were on in the farmhouse kitchen. Grandma was there to meet me, swinging open the screen door. She took my bag of groceries: a gallon of milk, cereal and several berry-filled Entenmann’s coffee cakes. Grandma began hiding the coffee cakes. I asked why she was doing this. She replied: “To stop the thieves from coming and taking it during the night.” I kissed her goodnight and rolled out my sleeping bag in living room.
I woke up hearing a commotion in the kitchen. Grandma and my Mom were whispering harshly behind the pocket door. The door rolled open and my Mom came over and shook me. “Do you know what happened to the coffee cakes? Your Grandmother thinks they were stolen.” I got up, tiptoeing around sleeping cousins and went directly to the cabinets to retrieved them. “Grandma, they weren’t taken.” I said. She was sitting at the kitchen table rolling her hands in her lap. “You hid them. Remember, because you thought they’d be eaten.” She came over and took my hand. Shook her head saying she’d forgotten. “I’d forget too. It was late last night.” It was an excuse covering up the hushed issue discussed by my Mom and her siblings. Grandma was forgetting a lot lately. That summer she’d be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Back in July, my family and I were at the farm for Aunt Shelly’s outside Americana feast. The kitchen table was loaded with salads, cut up watermelon and several desserts. Two pots were on the stove boiling corn-on-the-cob. Aunt Shelly says: “Your Grandmother would have been 100 this year. She always liked when the family got together.”
A breeze stirs the curtains from the open window. I look up from cutting brownies. Outside my husband is sitting having a beer with my cousins and Uncles, my son plays soccer with his generation and in Mrs. C’s field a Red Tailed hawk circles.
Note: The names have been changed except mine.
Grandma’s Elderberry Pie Remix
Sift together 2 ¼ cup of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt. Remove ¼ cup of flour and add to 1/3 cup of water. Mix until smooth.
In a food processor add remaining flour mixture and ¾ cups of Crisco. Pulse until mixture looks like peas. Add flour water mixture. Gather together and roll out. Put one dough sheet in pie pan and the other drape over it and put in refrigerator while you make the filling.
Into a mixing bowl
2/3 cup Elderberries4-5 peeled, cored and chopped up apples
2 ½ cups Sugar
1 Tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Tablespoons of flour
A shake of cinnamon and salt (yes this is what my Grandma says)
Preheat oven 400. Dump filling into bottom shell. Dot with pieces of 1 Tablespoon of butter. Cover with top of pie crust – cut vents. Bake for 50 minutes. Put something under the pie – pie will spill over.