I was barely in the door from work this evening when J. informed me that the freezer had been off for an unknown time and as a result there were packages of thawed fruit. I checked meat and frozen goods near the bottom of the freezer--still solid, but a big package of blackberries on top of the stack was completely thawed. I announced that supper was going to be leftovers---the thick and hearty potato soup which I made to cheer us up after a cold dreary Wednesday or the remains of a chicken and noodle casserole. I chose the potato soup and took a bowlful out to the front porch. How much longer will the porch be warm in the evening?
J. had an errand at the other house after supper, so I decided I would make pies while he was gone. Five pies, two small and three large. There are now three in the freezer and the two I baked are being enjoyed here and next door. Grandson came down to say that the pie was good--he had two large pieces.
Baking berry pies always reminds me of a story told to me by great-Aunt Julia. Julia was sister to my Grampa Mac.
Mac, his brother Andrew and his little sister, Julia, grew up in the little hamlet of Graphite, NY. His father, who had worked in his youth on the building of the Union Pacific railroad, came back to NY to work as a foreman at the graphite mines. Like so many men of that time and place, he was chronically ill with "black lung". By the time Mac had finished the 6th grade at the local school, the family needed him to help work the hill farm which his mother had inherited. Times were hard for everyone, the boys and girls of all the local families were expected to do their share to maintain the household. Mac hired out to other farmers who needed a smart, strong lad to help with haying. In the winters he drove his team of horses hauling logs to the lumber mill. Andrew found work at one of the livery stables in the village. The family raised a big garden and Julia helped her mother put up vegetables and fruit against the long cold season. They had cows, chickens, a pig.
Graphite was only a few miles from the resort hotels down in the village of Hague. Mac's mother grew extra produce to sell to the hotels and boarding houses. Once a week she packed eggs, freshly churned butter and whatever could be spared from the garden. Mac loaded the wagon, climbed in and "pedaled" the goods in town. Mac also picked berries. The farm was tucked against the base of Tongue Mountain and Mac ranged over the steep hillsides, filling clean lard buckets with wild blueberries. Some of the berries went to feed the wealthy summer visitors at the hotel, some were kept at home to be picked over and set in the cool pantry.
One morning when Mac had hitched up his team, loaded the produce and set off on his pedaling rounds, sister Julia decided that she would make him a blueberry pie. Julia had been helping her mother in the kitchen and was just learning to put together a meal or do a bit of baking on her own. She stoked up the wood range, brought flour and lard and sugar from the pantry, and happily began to create the surprise for her beloved older brother. She rolled the pastry on the clean pine tabletop, mixed the dusky plump berries with sugar; a dash of cinnamon, the top crust fitted and crimped and the pie was ready for the oven. Julia tended the fire carefully, keeping the oven of the old black stove at just the right temperature. From time to time she peeked in at her pie, satisfied that the crust was browning nicely, the rich sweet juice beginning to bubble through the slits in the top. She heard the wheels of the wagon crunching on the gravel of the dooryard, knew just how long it would take Mac to unhitch the horses and rub them down before turning them into the pasture.
The pie was ready to take from the oven, golden brown, a triumph of cookery. Mac's boots clumped against the steps leading from the woodshed to the kitchen as Julia bent, hands wrapped in a folded kitchen towel to slide the pie carefully from the oven, to place it on the broad pantry shelf to cool. The kitchen door clicked open, Julia half turned, a smile of welcome on her sweet round face. The hot pie elluded her grasp and landed, upside down, at Mac's feet. While Julia gazed woefully at the mess, tears of humiliation smearing her flushed face, Mac snatched a clean china plate from the cupboard, slipped it under the fallen pie and flipped it back into the tin. "Nobody will know the difference," he assured his sister. "It will taste just as good and we won't care how it looks!"
Julia grew up, married, raised her two daughters on the farm her husband took over from his parents. She kept the house a picture of neatness and cleanliness. Her kitchen sparkled, she gardened, canned, pickled and baked. Each year, early in December, a dark moist fruitcake, neatly wrapped , arrived in my Grampa Mac's mailbox, sent across the lake from his sister's home.
When I think of Aunt Julia the verses from Proverbs 31 seem fitting: "She arises while it is yet night, and provides food for her household..She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her."