In the 1940s, in the Boston suburbs, my mother, who’d married at 28 in 1938, didn’t even start to learn to cook till after her honeymoon. It was rough on my dad for several years, he confided to me over a Sunday morning breakfast when I was old enough “to understand.”
Six days a week, breakfasts were Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Sunday breakfasts were better. Mom wouldn’t appear at all till around 11 a.m. Dad would long since have plunked a bottle of Aunt Jemima on the table and made waffles in their electric waffle iron or Bisquick pancakes at the gas stove while the coffee burped in the plug-in percolator.
By contrast, starting when I was five, I spent the succeeding six or seven summers at my grandparents’ place upcountry, and, as much as possible, “helping” their nearest neighbors, Walter and Ruby Wells at their dairy farm half a mile away. This is about Ruby’s way of cooking.
She was a sturdy beer barrel of a woman, though she never took any drink herself. Except for on her infrequent visits to church, she wore 1940s-style barn boots, a wide-brimmed shapeless felted wool hat, an apron, and high-waisted dresses that reached her wrists and ankles and that she’d sewn from Sears Roebuck patterns on her pedal Singer sewing machine.
On cooler days, she’d add a gone-at-the-elbows navy blue V-neck sweater she’d knitted by the wood stove several winters earlier. More recently knitted ones, elbows intact, were for Sundays. She and her husband Walter, their son Phil, and the hired man, Stan, farmed with three horses, one pulling the cutter bar or the dump rake, the other two pulling the hay wagon or one of three or four other horse-drawn, iron-wheeled machines. Ruby helped with the evening milking and in haying season drove the dump rake. Her hands were as hard as a stonemason’s and were curved to the shape of a cow’s teat, a hay fork handle, the haft of her garden hoe. Even in winter she always had about her the sweet smell of mown hay and what I think of as cow’s breath. The four of them hand-milked between 20 and 25 mixed Holstein-Brown Swiss cows and lowered the swinging-handled milk cans into a square cement tank in the milk room. A spring-fed stream flowed through the tank, swirling around the milk cans. They didn’t buy their first milking machine – didn’t get electricity – or their first tractor until several years after the Second World War. This was before artificial insemination; Walter kept a young bull, managed its transit from barn to field and back grasping its tail bent into a curlicue that he could hold loose or tighten as needed.
Morning milking was at first light, at 6 a.m. in winter.
Breakfast at Wells Farm most days was a large bowl of smooth Quaker oatmeal heated slowly in the double boiler, with fresh cream and Phil’s maple syrup; farm bread toasted on the woodstove, butter, and honey or jam; and Maxwell House dump coffee she poured into white ironstone mugs from a tall, tapered, enamelware pot that matched her utensils set. The set had been a wedding gift in 1919.
Then chores. For Ruby, it was starting to prepare dinner.
Dinner was at noon, at the long kitchen table. Six days a week, Ruby baked biscuits (Sunday was her day off). And she cooked (usually braised) a cut-up chicken, chunks of lamb or venison, or a pork shoulder – always something from the farm. She boiled potatoes and overcooked a vegetable she’d picked that morning or that she’d put by in Mason jars the previous summer.
My wife and I often reflect on how, in our own childhood homes back in the suburbs, our mothers, grandmothers, and, it seemed, everybody’s mother, overcooked vegetables. After the War, my mother’s uncle Lou, the bachelor golf instructor and an early exemplar of the fitness subculture, stayed with us for several weeks between northern and southern resort seasons. Because he couldn’t cure my mother of overcooking, he made her save the veggie-infused cooking water until it had cooled enough for him to drink.
But back to Ruby. Ruby’s biscuits were much remarked on and first to vanish at church suppers. At home, she put her basket of them on the dinner table every noon. They were as much a staple as meat. No dessert at mid-day; dessert came after supper. In summer, when the day’s work began so early, her three men took a half-hour nap after dinner. She baked all the bread and three or four pies at a time in tinned pans and pie plates twice a week, and on summer Saturdays maybe a chicken pot pie with biscuit crust or a pie-crust-topped beef stew and a deep dish apple pie to take to a village supper somewhere or other that evening.
Supper at the farm most nights was a little re-warmed dinner if there was any left over, but generally a bowl of crumbled common crackers and fresh cream, a dollop of maple syrup, and a slice of pie. And coffee.
Her kitchen was spare – table, sink, the Glenwood cookstove, icebox (in March every year, Walt, Phil, and Stan the hired man sawed rectangular 15 by 24-inch blocks of ice from School Pond, hauled them to the farm in the hay wagon, and packed them a story and half high in sawdust in the icehouse).
Nearly everything she produced in that kitchen she worked on with just three tools. She had a long, wooden-handled, three-tined metal fork. Her cooking spoon was also long, stained and nicked. Walter had carved it from a block of maple when he was courting her. Years back, she’d used it on Phil’s bottom when he was difficult. And Ruby’s knife was a blue-steel chef’s knife much worn from sharpening over the years of her marriage. It was old, might have already been an antique, the blade about ten inches long. With it, she could butcher slaughtered livestock (or a buck), mince an onion, peel and core an apple, transform a bushel of cabbages to slivers for making sauerkraut, thin-slice a hard-boiled egg or a tomato. She was protective of her knife. It was the only one she used, to the best of my knowledge the only one she had, so she broke open Hubbard squashes and pumpkins on the barn floor with Phil’s kindling hatchet. It’s tempting to say, though I’m sure not absolutely true, that what she couldn’t do with those three main implements, she did with her hands, or did without.
In her cupboards, there were four or five nested mismatched ceramic mixing bowls and a few serving platters she’d got at auction. She had no whisk, used her all-purpose fork for working lard into flour, whipping cream, scrambling eggs. And she had a tremendous clatter of tinned-metal things for baking bread, biscuits, pies. She never allowed soap or scouring pads to touch her large frying pan. In which, Sunday mornings, she fried or scrambled eggs, cooked pancakes, and grilled meats. The word omelet was not, I think, in Ruby’s dictionary. And she sautéed chunked up parsnips and carrots in butter and maple syrup. Her enamel two-handled colander matched the rest of the cookware, but she used a long-handled wire-mesh strainer both for straining any liquids or sifting flour. She made mashed potatoes (or turnips) by boiling, peeling, and mincing them, then working them over pretty vigorously with her big fork.
Ruby served her family’s meals on the combined remnants of her mother’s china, supplemented with odds and ends she’d pick up at barn sales. Her eating utensils were also a blend of several ancestral settings, spoons in particular worn down to the base metal, the table knives with yellowed bone handles. Ruby must’ve had a mill for making apple sauce, surely a rolling pin, a couple of other things I never saw when I was a child, or can’t remember now that I’m an old man. She talked little, smiled less, and fed the farm on wholesome food she prepared with her three essential implements.
Back before there was television, on Saturdays, Ruby and Walter would gather with another couple, sometimes my grandparents, after a church supper to play canasta. Around 10 p.m., Walter would start to nod, his cards would droop, and Ruby would look around and say, “Chores.” Walt would come to life and say “Bedtime, Mother?” She’d say “ehyuh” softly, on the inhale, and take his arm out to the truck. She’d be up at five to start the oatmeal.
Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who taught at Northeastern, Harvard, St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon State College.