It’s funny how one thing, how even one kitchen aroma, can evoke so many memories.
Last week I made a batch of German hot potato salad. For the uninitiated, this involves frying up some diced bacon, and reserving that; then adding some onion and celery to some of the bacon fat and sautéing that until the vegetables are soft, then adding some sugar and flour, and then adding cider vinegar and water and seasoning, and tweaking it until you’ve created a hot dressing with a pleasing sweet/sour ratio. You then pour that over hot, boiled, sliced potatoes, and add the bacon, and let that sit and marinate for awhile, and finally top it all off with hard-boiled egg.
This is a staple of church potlucks and holiday celebrations in my family and general ethnic neck of the woods. And when I was growing up my mother also made huge batches of it, in an old bread bowl, during the haying season; not knowing exactly when the men, or just Dad and I later on in my teens, would be home for meals, it was easy to reheat on short notice, and would keep in the refrigerator for a few days.
So I was in the kitchen, working culinary alchemy on the dressing there in the frying pan, and as it thickened up and filled the air with a distinctive aroma of onion and bacon and celery and vinegar I momentarily found myself back in our old farmhouse kitchen many years ago, watching my mother, occasionally snitching a bit of bacon or celery. How odd it was, I thought, to be standing here in my own kitchen, making a bowl of potato salad by myself. There was something sad, but also something right, about doing this.
And later I got to thinking about summers in general when I was growing up. My mother canned a lot; she used to fill our fruit cellar with canned vegetables from our garden; with applesauce and pears and peaches and cherries. I was a fairly useless child – I preferred spending my summer vacations wandering our pasture looking for wild strawberries, or stalking wildlife along our drainage ditch – but once in awhile she’d succeed in collaring me for canning duty. I liked to pick vegetables, so I’d be sent to do that, or to help stuff jars with pear halves, or pick through windfall Duchess apples from the yard to find applesauce-worthy ones, or act as general go-fer between the kitchen and our basement.
And, truth be told, I enjoyed that, even though I tended to whine when asked to help. I also enjoyed our meals with our hired hands – sometimes one of the boys from the large family down the road, but usually my great-uncle E. Uncle E was a character; a “bachelor farmer,” as Garrison Keillor would say, who had a sideline as custodian for our local landfill. Unlike most of my father’s side of the family, Uncle E was tallish and rail-thin; he walked upright, like a soldier, but with a slight limp; he was given to certain clothing eccentricities that made relatives roll their eyes, like his ubiquitous engineer’s cap and his insistence on purchasing dressy, square-dancer’s blue jeans instead of standard issue workingman’s Levi’s, and ironing knife-sharp, precision creases into them. He lived with his brother, a cussing, crotchety old chain-smoking World War I veteran and fellow bachelor farmer, on their family farm, in an old unpainted house that had frightened me as a child because it looked as if it were surely haunted. (I later became the only female to ever be allowed to darken its door, albeit with my dad as chaperone – “You made history today,” Dad later noted -- and found the sort of durch-und-unter chaos that reminded me in later years of The Land of Lost Boys. And because Uncle E and his brother were enthusiastic outdoorsmen who ate everything they hunted, fished or trapped, you never knew what you’d be offered in the way of food there. Whatever it was, it was generally rolled in cracker meal and fried in a lot of fat; I ate it and didn’t ask a lot of questions.)
The story in the family was that Uncle E was a little “funny in the head” – the rest of the story, that I found out after growing up, was that his abusive father threw him into a wall when he was little, hard enough to knock him unconscious, and after that he’d never been quite the same. But I always found him funny and charming in a childlike way, and he was always kind and indulgent to me, even when I was being a nuisance out in the hayfield. He liked kids in general; on his job at the landfill, he always salvaged and cleaned up discarded toys to give away to young visitors.
He and my dad – who saved all of his vacation time from his factory day job for haying season -- baled and unloaded and stacked untold wagonloads of hay, first and second cutting. Sometimes they’d let me ride on the wagon until it filled up and my presence became a hazard. Sometimes on a weekend, if a rainstorm suddenly blew up and the hay couldn’t be baled, we’d sit and watch the Detroit Tigers on TV instead. My father, who was not much of a drinker, and Uncle E would each crack open a Carling Black Label; in those politically incorrect days I’d be given a Kinder-sized juice glass of half beer, half foam. We’d sit with a bag of potato chips and watch the game and not talk a lot.
So anyway…I made my potato salad, and thought of my mother in her rick-rack trimmed apron in our old farm kitchen, and thought of my Uncle E in his engineer’s cap and dandy jeans, and thought of my dad coming into the kitchen with him for dinner, smelling of hay and gasoline and Lava soap: “Let’s eat!”
That’s what summers used to be like at my house. It ain’t exactly Marcel Proust…but it’s my life.