Sunday, January 27, 2013

Homestead Style

Alaska was a place where almost everybody grew up poor. Men made tiny fortunes fishing or working construction and then spent every cent of it to get through the winter. All of my friends grew up the way I did, usually the oldest of large families who shouldered more responsibility than almost any child would nowadays. We had to; we were needed. That was our pay-off.

Every mother had the same work load as mine; few women had small families. Only children were pitiable in everyone’s eyes because they had nobody to play with and never had to learn how to share. Families with two children were rarities; a little girl I knew once referred to them as “a rich man’s family.” Certainly two children siphoned off less income than five or six or eight, which was the maximum number of offspring in our community. Our number of five was average.

Billy and Martha’s mother had the time to make diamond-shaped sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My mother slapped out pans of biscuits at lunchtime and served them hot, slathered with margarine and strawberry jam. She could make them with the speed of a factory worker, often impatiently pulling them out of the oven when they were still slightly too soft in the middle. Two pans of biscuits served all of us, plus my father, for lunch, with a few left over, with minimal dishwashing afterwards.

Efficiency was the keynote here, as it was for most of the meals that my mother prepared. The food she served had the same quality of nourishment without flair that characterized offerings found in a school cafeteria, with lots of starch and little flavor. The cakes that she brought out for dessert were the rewards for chewing and swallowing the monotony of potatoes or macaroni, bland in spite of the dried spices that she used to give the meals an exotic cast.

At the end of every summer, my parents would put in an order to a wholesale grocery company and a month or so later my father would bring home the supplies that would get us through the winter. Fifty-pound bags of flour and sugar, a twenty-pound bag of salt, shortening in cans large enough to provide additional seating at the dinner table when company came, two-pound cans of ground coffee, ten-pound boxes of powdered milk, gallon glass jars of peanut butter and strawberry jam and many cans of vegetables. Canned fruit was a luxury, so was jello, but my father, whose metabolism was high, bought bulk lots of penny candy for quick energy bursts. Lollipops, licorice sticks, horehound drops, jawbreakers by the box enchanted our friends when they came over to play. “Your house is like living in a candy store,” one of them breathed when invited to choose a lollipop from a box, but I knew better. One of my aunts in the states owned a candy store and what she offered was candy that was often chocolate, not this hard, unyielding sugar,. What we had stored away was more like alcohol kept for medicinal purposes.

My parents were a lot like Muslims. They kept no alcohol in the house except for an occasional bottle of wine for holiday meals, but they were constantly wired on coffee.

. When I first learned to talk, one of my standard welcomes to guests was, “Come in sit down have a cup of coffee,” all in one exuberant burst of air. Coffee was always steeping in the percolator, strong, hot, and bitter No coffee in the pot was almost as bad as having no fire in the barrel stove. It meant disaster and one of the first things I ever learned to do in the kitchen was measure coffee into the percolator basket and position it on the stem that was almost submerged In the pot of water. The sound of perking was one of the most comforting sounds I knew; it meant everyone within earshot was going to sit down and take a break—free time for everybody.

Fresh was an adjective reserved for impertinent children, rarely applied to the food that we ate. Fruit came in cans, or as apples and oranges that were tasteless. Bananas were mottled, much more brown than yellow. Root vegetables were the only ones that didn’t require a can opener to prepare—potatoes, onions, turnips, and rutabagas.

Even the women who had gardens canned almost everything they grew. They canned fish too and moose meat, turning protein into mush for the winter. They picked blueberries and cranberries to make jam and jelly. To my mother, all that meant was a lot of labor for more monotony, along with the risk of botulism to liven things up. Our canned goods came from a federally-regulated food facility, food that had once been grown in warmer climates—tomatoes, corn, peas.

So much of the food that has become chic was food I craved when I was growing up. Sushi, ceviche, steak tartare—I knew them long before I encountered them in a restaurant. When I was small, I ate the fragments of partially frozen meat when my father butchered a haunch of moose on the kitchen table. I ate raw clams on the way home after a morning of digging them up on the beach. And although my mother never canned anything, she learned how to pickle salmon, which retained a large amount of texture while adding a sour zing to the chunks of fish. Uncooked, it still tasted fresh.

In the summer, we ate food that I can’t afford now and often disdain when it comes my way. Little of the fish and seafood I’ve had as an adult compares to what I ate as a poor kid in Alaska—king salmon, fried razor clams, steamed butter clams, mussels, king crab, none of it frozen, all of it only a couple of hours from having been alive.

One year a man who had been crossing the muskeg came to our house in a state of high excitement. He had just shot a bear. It was too early for the salmon run so my father knew the meat was probably edible, unlike the bear meat that he brought home to my mother early in their Alaskan years, that had tasted like fish after it was cooked. The neighbor only wanted the hide; my father brought home the butchered carcass. He hung it in a shed and built a fire from alder chunks, a slow-burning wood that smoked profusely. It was our job to keep that fire burning. Once the flies got to it, the meat would be spoiled.

It looked horribly like the body of a man as it hung in its perpetual cloud of smoke. In the end, nobody wanted to eat it and my father gave it away to someone who wanted it to feed to his dogs.

Moose was the staple of our lives, shot out of season when the world was frigid and the meat would keep. It was usually the only food on our plates that had texture, other than the ceremonial Thanksgiving turkey, and so lean that when we finally had beef, the fat coated our mouths and made us sick. “I want moose,” one of my little sistere repeatedly begged during the winter we spent in Manhattan, and cried when she was told that the beef on her plate was moose meat. We knew that difference; we were Alaskan children, carnivore connoisseurs of wild meat years before we ever went to school.


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