Friday 17 January 2014

On largo and fugues in winter

When I was a child, winters in the Midwest were long and hard. This is not merely the memory of a person entering into "older" age, but a statistic one can trace. In this part of the world, winters come and go in patterns. The Natives told the White Men that seven times seven times seven, a really bad winter would cause tremendous hardship. That meant seven months of winter, every forty-nine years.

This winter in the Midwest is one of the worst in years. It most likely is not one of the seven times seven times seven winters, but today I am witnessing the fifth storm of the season, with winds so bad the local police were advising people not to be on the roads, as the gusts can push cars out of control, especially as there is still two inches of ice on many streets, covered by the blowing snow. It will be 5 Fahrenheit tonight, and the high tomorrow will be 19 Fahrenheit.

One wonders, growing up in a cold climate, what life was like for one's ancestors. One of my great-grandmothers was on the Oregon Trail. A grandmother was left here as she got small pox and her parents thought she would die on the way. But, she survived. Her family went out to Oregon while she was raised by an aunt in Iowa. People made horribly dangerous journeys, for what? For new lives, to have land, a home, prosperity. The brothers of that smallpox-ed girl became cattle ranchers. The brothers of the great-grandma did well, better than in the dairy farms of Luxembourg, all having a good life. But, not without pain and hard work. Families crossing a few hundred miles to the south were swept away in the rushing, fast floods of the Platte or One Hundred and Two Rivers, which suddenly became fierce, fast currents.

Great-Grandmother Mary would tell us stories of the log cabin and the Indians, as she called them, who would come to the back door, and disappear again, taking a few chickens or tools with them. She remembered the days of preparation for winter, of using every possible bit of the pig, or deer, or bear.

Grandmother Anna had a butcher block in her kitchen and when my dad, with his dad and brothers would bring home the deer, she and her daughters cut it up right there.

I use to watch my mom and dad clean rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, wild goose, quail, and various fish caught in the many rich rivers of Iowa, fish like trout, sunfish, and bass.

These days passed when life became more sophisticated and men who went hunting went to lodges and did not necessarily bring back the goods.

Hunting became not only a necessity but a sport. The need for food diminished and my dad put away his hunting guns, knives, and deer bow and arrows. (No cross-bows, by the way but huge bows taller than myself at nine).

Winter was a time for baking what had been "set-up" in the summer. The pantries, a great idea, which were large walk-in cupboards off the kitchens, were full of preserves, such as strawberry jams, peach jams, apple sauce, pickles, pickled beets, sauerkraut and tomatoes all in Mason jars. To make a pie in January, one only had to go to the pantry and choose a fruit which had been laid up in August or September.

Grandmas made sausages and head cheese to store over the winter. They dried fruit. They canned and taught us girls to can, but we learned by watching, in silence. The women worked with the women, and the men with the men. There was something soothing and real in these communal bakes or times of canning. We did not gossip, but worked, even in silence, like nuns in the monastery kitchen.

We made pies, strudels, coffee cakes, buttermilk pancakes (not from boxes) and put the strawberry jam made months back, on the waffles.

Most things were made by hand, and I inherited most of my Grandma Miller's kitchen utensils, including her scone cutter, when she died in the mid-1970s. No one else wanted these things. My cousins were not "back-to-the-earth" like I was, instead getting business and accounting degrees, which my grandma got in 1909 as well. I loved to cook and loved to do everything "from scratch".

I used her kitchen items until my son left home in 2010, when I downsized, knowing I would never make huge pots of chili, two pans of corn bread, chicken soup using the whole chicken, two coffee cakes, or five dozen scones, or ninety cookies at a go. Or, can tomatoes or make pickles, or fill the freezer with cut up apples cooked in cinnamon and sugar to be used later.

Like the guns, bows and arrows, the tools of the men's trade,  the women's tools were passed on to someone who would use things someone who would actually cook and bake, and magically make wonderful warm smells come out of the kitchen, and waft through the entire house.

Winter was the time to eat the work of summer. We lived in seasonal patterns. Oranges were only eaten at Christmas for a treat, and when the two bushels of apples in the dark cupboard in the basement were all used up, we had to wait until apples were harvested again.

We ate in patterns, and we worked in patterns. Our lives resembled a symphony, with times of andante, or largo, or fugues. Winter was the time of  lento, which had followed the presto and allegro of the late summer. The soto of winter would pass into the dolce of spring, and the circular schedule of growing, harvesting, canning and baking would continue.

All this ended in the 1970s, when we all became prisoners of the sameness of shopping, and as the older generation with all their skills died and joined the earth which had provided them with both the pleasures and pains of the prairie.

We shall never see this pattern of life again. The music had changed into a rubato of sameness. We have lost the rhythm of nature. We have lost the skills of making and doing from the raw materials God has given us.

Such are my thoughts on this day of the fifth storm of the season.


  1. Thank you for this great post STM, it strikes a very strong chord with me as, for a few years, we lived a similar existence in the Forest of Dean.

  2. Thanks, Richard...simple is good. I love the forest of Dean area.


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