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SUMMER FOOD, PART ONE
I grew up in the part of the country that is between the true Middle West and the East: Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The red Monopoly states I think of them, although in Monopoly Ohio is replaced by Kentucky. I always tried to buy them. And not on a farm, but rather in a small university town and later in an old suburb. My grandparents lived in Dayton; my grandfather was an independent inventor who had a magical shop in back of the house where he manufactured fish floats for Dayton Bait. No one in my family even gardened, except during the war when my dad had a victory garden on a piece of land given to faculty members by the university. But in those days, the early ones before supermarkets and transcontinental produce, there was wonderful summer food.
You waited for it all winter, and when the strawberries appeared in the grocery store, you knew it was almost here. Then there were strawberry pies and strawberry shortcake, and Mama made strawberry jam. Before that came the green peas, which you sat on the back stoop and shelled into a big white enamel bowl, eating as many as you shelled. Your fingers turned green.
Finally the corn and tomatoes came in, and then it was high summer and there were picnics and backyard get-togethers - we didn’t call them barbecues and actually no one grilled then - because no one had a grill, except for a few people who had an outdoor brick fireplace outside the back door. Cooking was done either in the kitchen if we were at someone’s house, or over a fire (on a grill) if we were at a park.
The men played ball and the women got the food ready, setting it out on the picnic tables, making the fire for the hot dogs, getting the water for the coffee. We kids played on the swings, played tag, waded in the brook if there was one, mostly I just remember running and laughing, dust between our toes under the swings, treetops far away overhead, the fascinating map of roots around the old elms.
Then we ate: hot dogs, tomatoes, pickled beets, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, string beans, lima beans, potato salad, deviled eggs, carrot and celery sticks, watermelon, chocolate cake, lemon meringue pie, ice cream, marshmallows. Coffee made over the fire in a big enameled pot. The men drank beer, the kids drank milk.
After supper the men played horseshoes. The sound of the horseshoes’ clang as they hit the irons. As it got dark, the kids got wild, running, swinging on the swings, sliding down the slide, playing tag, until finally tired out we threw ourselves down next to our mothers, and lay in sleepy heaps listening to the grownups talk, cigarette ends glowing, the soft sweet smell of wood smoke and cigarette smoke and the wind in the trees and the soothing sound of our mothers’ and fathers’ voices.
SUMMER FOOD TWO
The morning before the picnic, Mama spent cooking. That is, if it was a serious, planned-in-advance feast, like the Ceramic Department Annual Picnic. If it was an informal get-together, she would bring whatever she had planned for dinner. To this day, I make deviled eggs and pickled beets for a summer dinner with friends. Wow, they say, deviled eggs! I haven’t thought about deviled eggs for years! Any day now I expect to pick up one of the fancy food magazines and see a receipt for deviled eggs, and one for pickled beets. Until then, here are my mother’s receipts for both:
DEVILED EGGS: Put as many eggs as you need in cold water with a teaspoon of salt. Bring them to a boil and simmer them for 10 minutes. If you boil them violently they are apt to crack and the whites come out in a very disagreeable fashion. Cool them by running cold water into the pot in the sink, and peel the eggs carefully. Old eggs will peel easily, very new eggs will take irritating bits of white with them. For this reason middle-aged eggs are best. But if they are too old the yolks will be green around the edges and not in the middle of the egg. After you have peeled them, cut them carefully in half and reserve the whites. Mash the yolks with the back of a fork, adding salt, pepper and mustard to taste, with some mayonnaise is desired. Gently put the yolk back into the whites with the fork, making a pleasing pattern on the tops with the tines. Sprinkle with paprika. Chill and serve.
You can add all kinds of things to these, and sometimes I put a slice of olive on top, or a little parsley, but if you have good fresh eggs you can keep them very simple and they are delicious. I use yellow mustard.
PICKLED BEETS: First, cook the beets. Cut the greens off leaving about an inch near the root. Put the beets in cold water and bring to the boil, then boil gently until cooked, usually about 45 minutes. Drain the beets and cool slightly, then slip off the skins with your hands. Slice the beets into a bowl. Heat water, vinegar and sugar until the sugar is dissolved and pour over the beets. The proportions are about 1/3 C. vinegar and 2 tsp. sugar to 2 lb. of beets, with water as needed. My mother used to slice an onion with the beets, and sometimes add a few hard-boiled eggs as well. You can easily make these with canned beets, just use the beet juice with vinegar and sugar added instead of water. The amounts of sugar and vinegar can be adjusted for taste.
And what about the corn? The corn we ate at home, cooked in a big pot of water on the stove. There was Golden Bantam, and Country Gentleman. Golden Bantam was yellow and Country Gentleman was white. That was before the modern hybrids, so the minute the corn was picked the sugar began to turn into starch, so you got it (always from a roadside stand or your neighbor’s garden or the university ag store) right before you were going to cook it and rushed it back home, shucked it and threw it into the boiling water. We kids often had to shuck it and there was always a worm or two - this was before spraying as well - and you broke off the tip with the worm in it.
I like corn to be a bit “corny” - that is, starchy - probably because that’s what I grew up with, and I still don’t eat it until it comes in here on the farm. One summer the farmer grew some Golden Bantam just for me. The new corn is better, but the heavy taste took me right back to Illinois in August.
Corn is better, but tomatoes are worse. I wait all year for the first real tomatoes, heavy and warm from the field, the old-fashioned beefsteaks with their cracks and green streaks, each one big enough to make a whole sandwich from one slice.