As part of my 3rd anniversary celebration of Cherries in Winter, and as a teaser for those gifts I mentioned (coming soon; stay tuned!), here is the first chapter of Cherries. I hope you enjoy it, and please leave a comment to let me know what you think!
CHERRIES IN WINTER: CHAPTER 1
Hudson County, New Jersey
“You know what you have to do now,” my mother tells me. “You have to put up soup.”
Put up soup; that’s what my family says when times get tough. Some people batten down the hatches, others go to the mattresses—whatever your family’s code phrase is, it means bracing yourself and doing whatever will sustain you through rough going until things get better. In my family, we put up soup.
That isn’t just a saying, though—it means actually getting out a big, heavy pot, like the old black cast iron one my grandparents made stew in, and cooking up something thick and hearty that will stick to your ribs, put meat on your bones, or any of the other expressions that as a child I thought were gross—Food sticking to my ribs? Eeew!—but that, as an adult, I understand and find comforting.
So you get out your pot, and you get beans, a ham hock, a can of tomatoes. Salt, pepper, a bay leaf. Meat if you can afford it. Clams if you’re near water and can dig them out at low tide like my Grandpa did, raking them out of the muck and putting them in a plastic laundry basket with an inner tube around it to keep it afloat, the whole contraption tied to his waist. If there’s no meat or fish, vegetables and potatoes will do.
When the soup is done, you serve it with some bread, if you have it. And you wait for things to get better. They have before, and they will again.
My family knows all about putting up soup; we’ve had lots of practice. But I haven’t had to do it in a while, so I need a recipe.
* * *
It has to be here somewhere.
I’m tossing our basement like a thief, though only a thief with very practical or eccentric tastes (or both) would be interested in what’s down here. I push aside the bales of toilet tissue and paper towels that my sensible husband Nathan buys from one of those huge box stores that feed into our “stock the bunker” mentality; once you cross the state line from New York to New Jersey, you buy in bulk. Under the paper goods are storage trunks holding clothes for better and worse weather. Another box is full of paperbacks—the novels for teenagers that I’d written a few years ago. I got extras in case literary agents, editors, or anyone else might want to see them. Like the toilet paper, they’re in large supply.
Next box: My husband’s old toy truck collection. I have a passing thought about what we could get for them on ebay and lingering guilt over the idea of selling part of Nathan’s childhood. Under those are files from the apartment I’d lived in for almost twenty years before I got married. (“Cable Bills ’82-83”? Note to self: find out how long Suze Orman says I have to hold on to these.) The boxes are like an archeological excavation site—the deeper I dig, the further back in time I go. Now I’ve reached the layer of partially-read French textbooks from my college and high school eras. Oú est…er, what I’m looking for?
Aha! In the corner of the basement is the antique trunk, the one made of wood that looks just like a pirate’s chest. It could have been the prototype for the tiny replicas in fish tanks, the ones with little air bubbles that make the lid rise to reveal a plastic skeleton. The lid of this trunk, though, is weighed down with the extra cat carrier, an old hobbyhorse from the 1800s…why do we have all this stuff?
The answer to that question is simple: It’s because I can’t bear to part with anything that belonged to my family. And this is how I know that what I’m looking for, what I’m tearing through the basement and all its Davy Jones’s pirate lockers to find—
Is right here.
* * *
Inside the cardboard box is a fraying brown accordion folder that doesn’t look like much, but to my eyes it’s a precious family heirloom. I tuck the treasure under my arm protectively and run back up to our apartment. Specifically, to the kitchen.
There, I open the folder and get a preview whiff of what’s inside: paper. Yellowing with age, yet well protected through decades of being handed down and packed, moved, unpacked, and stored in the old trunk.
Nana’s recipe file.
There are pages handwritten in script so meticulous it could be a computer font, giving instructions for Aunt Nettie’s Clam Chowder and German Potato Salad. There are typewritten directions for Chicken Pie a la Mississippi in both an Old-Fashioned Method and a Modern Recipe. The one for Sausage-Corn Skillet is typed on the thin airmail correspondence paper called, appropriately enough for a recipe, onionskin.
Then there are magazine and newspaper clippings, some snipped neatly along their borders, others hastily torn out. Many of these are for chicken—Chicken Marengo, Chicken Fricassee, Chicken Roman (which, the headline announces, was the FIVE DOLLARS FOR DAILY RECIPE contest winner). The other big group is baked goods, at least fifty recipes for desserts such as Sky High Lemon Pie, Mow ‘Em Down Michigan Apple Pie, and a humble prune bread.
When I put them in order, the recipes are like a timeline of America’s eating patterns. The undated ones, and those up to the early 1940s, show that food was simple and available. I can tell when World War II came because baking directions suddenly offer creative substitutions like lard and soya flour for butter, wheat flour, and other rationed ingredients. And in the 1950s and early ’60s, there are articles on how to recreate the dishes people ate while touring Europe, a trip that was considered de rigueur at the time.
Maybe we’ll be able to go to Europe again some day, I think, reading the recipe for Italian Polenta and Chicken Livers from the January 1958 issue of Charm Magazine. But this is January 2009, when over half a million people have been laid off, banks have gone under, and huge corporations are begging the government for money. Thousands of homes sit empty because their former owners couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage and eat. Today, a woman I know—same age as I am, dresses nicely, has a job—admitted that she didn’t have enough money to buy food for her dog. In the Great Recession, the idea of a vacation seems as quaint and antique a notion as the soirée described in this fifty-year-old magazine.
I got laid off a few months ago. Nathan still has his job in mechanical systems maintenance (a fancy name for “repairman”), so we’re comfortably well off by recession standards. Our rent is low, half of our friends think we live decadently because we have health insurance, and our cats are fat and happy. But there have been changes beyond giving up on the idea of taking a trip, and I notice them mostly when I’m in the kitchen. Last year, I shopped at Whole Foods, a.k.a. Whole Paycheck, and got takeout any night of the week I didn’t feel like “making” lasagna (meaning I placed the frozen chunk made by someone else in the microwave). This year, I’m at our local cut-rate supermarket with coupons in hand to buy ingredients for soup I’ll make from scratch—which was what started my search for the recipe file.
Being in this recession feels like watching a nature film about the disintegration of a major polar ice shelf: huge chunks of everything we thought was solid keep breaking apart and disappearing into an abyss, the depth of which no one knows. Fear is palpable, and worry about how much worse it’s going to get is the main topic of conversation.
And yet, this feeling of uncertainty—the need to cut back and hunker down, the future reduced to daily getting-by—isn’t all that unfamiliar to me. It’s like a neighborhood I haven’t been in for a while; it looks a little different, maybe some of the storefronts have changed, and I’m older now, so more easily spooked. But I know my way around this neighborhood because I grew up here—as did my parents, my grandparents, and probably even further back than that. Occasionally, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves. And then, well. . .then there are times like this. And worse, much worse than this.
The difficulties my family has had to deal with aren’t just about money (though if financial insecurity were a business, we’d be rich). Nor are they extraordinary. Every family has stories of events that range from surviving wars against any conceivable odds to being packed into the car as a child in the middle of the night for a “trip” to avoid the sheriff knocking at the door. One only has to reach back and the stories are there, tales of courage and plain dumb luck that make us shake our heads in disbelief and respect for the ones who came before us.
If my grandparents were here, I’d ask them how they got through the Great Depression, how they dealt with World War II rationing, how they kept from being eaten away by the fear of what-next in a time when the ground under your feet might house a well-stocked bomb shelter. But Nana died when I was seven, and my Grandpa, who could put up a mean “stewp”—a thick, chunky soup—when I was thirteen. I was too young to remember their wisdom, or to have understood it in the first place.
But I have the file. The recipes Nana wrote and saved offer more than directions for making the comfort food that sustained my family for four generations. They’re artifacts from times both good and bad—not vague references, but proof that we’ve been through worse than this and came out okay. And right now, that’s something I need to know.