Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comfort Food



When my mother finally kicked my step-father out (after he’d paid another woman to impersonate my mother in order to use our 3 acres as collateral to get out of jail), she changed her last name back to Miranda, signed us up for welfare and dedicated herself to becoming the best welfare-food cook in Western Washington.

In the three years between my step-father’s exit and my biological father’s return, I went from ten years old to thirteen, and much of what I remember from that time is the importance (and frequent lack of) food, and my mother’s cooking. It was as if she’d decided that, since we were already barely making it on food stamps and whatever living expenses the state gave us, she might as well go whole-hog, so to speak, and embrace a life of resourcefulness and economy. My mother made getting by her new career – and she took to the challenge with all the dark energy of an undiagnosed manic-depressive whose main self-medications of choice were alcohol and Pall Malls.

First of all, there was her garden – tiny in the beginning, but treasured and prayed over and celebrated for every straggly scallion, each bumpy carrot, the cucumbers that grew green and secret beneath their wide scratchy leaves. Located just behind the back end of our single-wide trailer, the small patch of earth was my mother’s produce store and cheap therapist. Western Washington is a mild climate – lots of rain, but mild temperatures April through June, and then scorching from through July and August, with a pleasant September before the monsoons hit again – and my mother made the most out of the long but slow growing season by starting seeds indoors under a borrowed plant light on the back porch. Funny thing was, Mom wasn’t known for her green thumb – she killed most houseplants outright by under or over watering – but that garden was different. For one thing, it was an excuse for Mom to get out of the trailer and away from me and my teenage brother, who was at the age of most difficulty – that is, fifteen and stuck there – and into the dirt, where no one really wanted to follow her.

Looking back, I see the garden as Mom’s Zen-thing; her chance for quiet, thoughtful work, a few good Pall Malls smoked down to the very end, and at the end of the day, a plastic bucket full of fixings for a good potato salad. God forbid she ever eat a green salad! But potatoes were cheap, mayo could be stretched, and a dozen eggs could be bought with food stamps (though not, my mother complained, essentials like toilet paper, shampoo, or laundry detergent). Add her scallions, radishes, garlic and a small dented can (half off) of black olive bits, and we had heaven on a spoon. I would eat Mom’s creamy, cold potato salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and frequently did, savoring a stolen spoonful all to myself like it was a scoop of the fanciest ice cream.

Mom’s little garden grew and expanded each spring, but we also had Mr. Franklin’s orchard. The Franklins were about ninety-nine years old and lived in a tiny white house at the bottom of our dirt road, just off 216th, the “main” road in those days. Our property was located about midway up the hill, and between the two places was Mr. Franklin’s Orchard, an ancient grove of apple trees growing up a steep climb, seemingly since the beginning of time.

Mr. Franklin used to tease me that his first name was Ben, yes, that Ben Franklin, and it was a long time before I figured out that was his favorite joke. I liked him; he was tall and thin and just about the whitest white man I’d ever met, with blowsy white hair and bright blue eyes and a nose the size of a small car, and he told us right away that he’d long since given up trying to pick his orchard clean, so have at it – and that went for the two fat hazelnut bushes near the top, too.

Well! Free apples were nothing to be sneezed at, and Mom organized us right into an apple-picking brigade, using paper bags from the Safeway and plastic buckets from the giant economy sized brand of ice cream to hold our green and red loot. Mr. Franklin had inherited the orchard from his father, and his father had evidently known what he was doing, because of the twenty-five or thirty gnarled old trees on that slope, only a few were the same kind. “Variety is the spice of life!” my mother would say, and pretty soon she and I had our favorite trees staked out: the best eating-out-of-hand tree, the best oatmeal-apple tree, and most importantly, the best apple-pie trees.

Because apple pie was the real reason we picked apples, the only reason for braving the tall unmown grass with all its leggy, surprising insect inhabitants, the buzzing yellow-jackets and bees who came to feast on fallen fruit, and the occasional invasion of starlings. Apple pie, if the apples were free, was quite possibly one of the cheapest eats around, and it was dessert! Life didn’t get much better than that. We’d generally pick in the morning right after Mom had her coffee and I had a bowl of food-stamp-purchased Captain Crunch (which by all rational thought should be as off-limits to food stamps as paper towels or handsoap) or a warm, rolled up tortilla with margarine; then we’d lumber back home with the apples, pile them up around the small table in our trailer kitchen, and set to work.

With Mom in charge, we weren’t just making one pie. Oh no. My step-father had left us with an 8-foot freezer in the barn, and it was my mother’s goal to have it filled by the time winter, with the higher electric rates, hit us.

"Midgie" Miranda, circa 1969: pausing for a photo op.

So we washed, and we sliced, and we peeled, for hours on end. In a loosely-supervised assembly line, I would peel – I still have scars on my knuckles from where the potato peeler slipped – my brother Kacey would slice, and at a certain point the big yellow mixing bowl would be full enough for Mom to measure in sugar, cinnamon, a little flour, mix quickly, and then pour into a freshly rolled-out pie shell, quickly topped with a second velvety sheet of pie dough, with four quick pokes from a fork for the “breathing holes” in the top. Mom made the pie crust dough, and only she had the “touch” – perfect, melting, substantial pie crust that cooked up exactly right no matter how many months it had been in the freezer. Her secret ingredient, she told me, was vinegar. It made the dough elastic, but kept it from getting tough, she said.

Not that Mom was hard on pie dough. Since learning to make flour tortillas from my father years ago, my mom’s arms and hands were practiced with a rolling pin, and she could whip out a pie crust on no time flat – another gift I did not inherit. From somewhere, probably a thrift store, Mom had unearthed a Seal-a-Meal machine, one of those little contraptions that allowed you to create a plastic bag out of a tube of plastic, sealing both ends with heat to ensure absolute security. When we couldn’t afford the plastic tubing, we put aside the Seal-a-Meal and just used whatever plastic bags and foil we had available.

What satisfaction, when one whole end of that big freezer was filled with Mom’s pies! I cannot tell you the deep sense of security and all-right-ness that I felt, knowing we’d be eating those pies right up until next spring, when the apple trees down in Mr. Franklin’s orchard began to blossom again and we could bear a few months without pie because we knew what was coming. Of course, we ate plenty of those pies throughout the pie-making process, too, because my mother was smart enough to know that paying her employees with this particular product paid off in any number of ways – the incense of cinnamon and apples and pie crust alone could intoxicate us through several pounds of apples needing peeling, and the taste of a hot slice of apple pie in between sacks of more apples needing peeling was just the motivation we needed.

I especially liked being part of the process of pie-making, too. Having my mother busy, happy, productive, was a rarity in my childhood, and my mother’s homemaking skills were actually not all that reliable. I didn’t know then that her depression was behind the unevenness of her days, the drinking, the silences, the pack after pack of cigarettes while she read novel after fat novel from the library. So when we worked together to pull off this apple-pie coup, I was fulfilled in just about every way possible. My mother, happy. Apple pie, perfect. And a full freezer – beautiful.

And she didn’t stop with just apple pie. Blackberries were free, too, and we had not just our own three acres of wooded land, but access to all the adjacent lands as well. Nobody thought the least about prying open the two middle strings of barbed wire and climbing deftly in between to get into the neighbor’s blackberry patch, and it was understood that the berries themselves were first-come, first-serve. With our plastic buckets and bags, my mother and I roamed the woods starting in early August, returning to old patches we knew would bear richly, and searching out new patches that hadn’t yet yielded to our persistent fingers.

Berrying came with its own set of trials – those same yellow-jackets, big thorns, spiders – but we were used to that, after Mr. Franklin’s abandoned orchard. What scared me were the horses in fields we had to cross to get to certain patches, or whose pasturage enclosed a good patch of blackberries. Once our neighbors, the Nowitskis, had a medium sized horse named Bucky who was just ornery enough to make me keep my distance. My mom and some friends had already gone into a patch deep in Bucky’s turf, and I trailed a bit behind, gleaning the last few berries before reluctantly climbing through the barbed wire and side-stepping Bucky. Bucky wasn’t in a good mood that day, and when I tentatively reached out my hand to pet him on his outstretched nose, he whipped around quickly and kicked me with both hooves! Luckily I was young, had good reflexes, and was already turning to flee when he turned to kick, so he only caught me a glancing smack in the butt – enough to teach me not to mess with him anymore. I went the long way around to meet my mother.

Blackberries didn’t need to be peeled, obviously, but they did have to be washed and sorted, and that task fell to me, as my brother Kacey had no compunctions about eating pie he’d done nothing to deserve. I’d fill the kitchen sink up with cold water, dump in a bucket of blackberries, and stand there at the sink swishing them gently with my hands. All the bits of grass, bugs, and sundry chaff would float to the surface, and I scooped up the berries handful by handful, chucking the too-green or too-ripe, the insect-nibbled or bird-pecked, and dribbling the good ones into that same big yellow mixing bowl (I saw one just like it in an antique store a few weeks ago and my heart leapt up, and my mouth started watering).

When the bowl was full enough, Mom added sugar and spices, and put the mixture to chill in the fridge for a few hours. For some reason, marinating blackberries in sugar was a necessary step, and I never argued about the application of sugar. Meanwhile, Mom would roll out the pie dough and we’d line the re-used disposable aluminum pie pans up in a row and prep them. Once again, we’d make as many pies as possible, one for now, one for later, and ten for the freezer. There wasn’t a berry bush in our neck of the woods that we didn’t visit.

In fact, there was one blueberry patch we never should have touched - but we did, simply ignoring the signs posted at the gate. "University of Washington Agricultural School Experimental Project. Do Not Disturb." Luckily, no one sprouted gills or developed strange yearnings for radioactive slime, so we must not have eaten enough to do any damage. The UW closed down the project soon afterwards, pulled up all the blueberry bushes, and let the blackberry vines take over. Just as well, given the lack of cooperation from the locals.

Then there were red huckleberries, which grew wild in the woods. Usually huckleberries were a treat, only enough for a few pies, mostly good for eating out-of-hand while wandering or hiking, which I did daily. Accompanied by my dogs – always Duffy, the Bull Mastiff, and then whichever two companions he had at the time (other dogs came and went, Duffy was forever) – I’d roam wherever I wanted to. No one ever gave me a limit, I just created my own. I doubt I ever went more than 3 miles away in any direction, but since it was all forest and all simply paths through the trees, it wasn’t like I was walking on any busy roads or anything. My dogs were the best company anyhow. I learned how to be a kid from my dogs – sniff this, dig that, run here, trot there, lie in the sun, play in the creek. If I had to pee, I moved off the trail and squatted. If I was hungry, I’d find the berries, in season, or head home, if hungry enough. There was never any hurry, never a pressing need to accomplish anything. Just – explore, look, smell, watch.

Was it freedom, or neglect, the fact that my mother didn’t know where I was for hours on end, sometimes day after day? It was freedom, of a kind my own children, raised in a much healthier, safer, supervised environment, never knew. And it was neglect – I was a ten or eleven year old girl completely unsupervised, with no one expecting me home or coming to look for me, adrift in the world. My childhood is comprised of such paradoxes.

With the essential desserts safely stored away, Mom would focus on dinners. She made exquisite flour tortillas that my brother and I would snatch off the hot frying pan bottom and slather with margarine or, when it was his birthday, real butter. Mmmmmm. Nothing, nothing in the world better than that. Unless it was a pot of simmering pinto beans, cut with a good onion and salt and pepper, the deep rich perfume filling our little trailer, steaming up the slat windows. And then there were Mom’s tacos, store-bought corn tortillas warmed on a skillet, filled with cheap hamburger fried with diced potatoes to stretch, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives and sour cream – or her corn enchiladas, baked with Old El Paso sauce and topped with sliced black olives. Ay. And her meatloaf – half hamburger, half ground pork, a couple slices of bread diced up to stretch …

We did a lot of stretching. Now my partner tells me that the correct way to eat meat is to use it as a condiment. I’m just beginning to realize that that’s what my mother was doing all along. We’d get the flavor of hamburger or pork, but oftentimes half the heft of our “meat” was bread or potatoes or tortillas or beans. And that was fine with us. When I grew up and made tacos for my own children, there was no need to skimp on the hamburger, and I did buy leaner, better-quality ground meat – but I also added in the diced potato, because that’s the way I thought tacos were made.

Of course, we were on welfare, and there were plenty of nights when dinner consisted of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with boiled hot dogs on the side. I particularly remember my mother’s brilliant rendition of Spam: sliced across the top in diamonds, studded with cloves, coated with a rich paste of brown sugar, mustard and ketchup. Coming out of the oven, it smelled like Christmas. Though I loved it, I could only finish one slice before the tremendous amount of fat would cause my stomach to protest. The next day, I could move on to a Spam sandwich, if there were any leftover. I knew even then that Spam is one of the most disgusting, and heavenly, of all human inventions. To this day, I remember that salty, porky odor, and I can see my mother reaching into the open oven door to pull out that small, bubbling cube of … whatever it was.

Whatever it was, it was dinner. My mother’s magic, her masterpiece, the way she constructed our survival in those hard, hard years. And we knew that later on in the evening, the trailer's walls bathed yellow with lamplight and flickering black-and-white TV shadows, there would be pie for dessert.


Home, circa 1969. Duffy is on guard duty.

2 comments:

  1. "Was it freedom, or neglect, the fact that my mother didn’t know where I was for hours on end, sometimes day after day? It was freedom, of a kind my own children, raised in a much healthier, safer, supervised environment, never knew. And it was neglect – I was a ten or eleven year old girl completely unsupervised, with no one expecting me home or coming to look for me, adrift in the world. My childhood is comprised of such paradoxes."

    I wonder about this: I roamed by myself for hours and hours on end, no supervision, no one asking where I was going or where I had been. Was this just the sign of the times -- our parents' generation being more lax with childrens' whereabouts? And more at ease with the world? I wouldn't trade those memories of freedoms and explorations enjoyed in childhood for anything. But I could not imagine allowing any kid the same today!

    Thank you for posting these essays. I am truly loving them.

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  2. Tiffany, isn't it strange, this freedom/neglect thing? Of course, lots of bad things happened to me, too; just not there, in the woods, where you would *think* I would be most at risk. No. It was when I was out in the world with PEOPLE that bad things happened! The woods were my safe place, my healing place. Thanks for reading.

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