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Summer Food: A Glimpse of a Vanished World

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Here’s the first part of an autobiography I wrote about eating in the summertime Back East when I was a kid in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania and free food was everywhere–in the trees, in the streams, in the fields and meadows.  Bud is the fictitious name I gave to myself.

Bud remembered how he returned home about 9:30 that night, while the western sky still glowed orange.
“Where have you been?” his mom yelled. “We were worried. How do you live? You haven’t had a thing to eat all day. Why are you coming home so late?”
“Gee, it’s still light out,” the boy said.
“Barely,” she said, peeved. “It’s almost dark.” His dad sat in his comfy chair, reading, saying nothing, but, the boy knew, listening intently.
“I was with Dit,” Bud said.
Today Bud, who was 12, would have a cell phone, and he could call home from time to time to relieve his mom’s worries. Or she could keep in touch with him if he was busy. The thought nauseated Bud, now a ripe 68 years old.
“If he was busy…” Bud leaned back in his chair and remembered those days, when his clothes lay in a lump on the damp brown earth at the bottom of the waterfall, and how he and Dit jumped in the achingly cold, spring-fed water that gushed down the smooth rock from the second pool, and how they couldn’t stay in the water more than a minute or the cold made their balls ache. The water was so pure they drank it when thirsty. He was so glad there were no cell phones when he was 12. The thought of a telephone ringing from his clothes while they were at The Kettles was sacrilege.
The Kettles was a place known only among the few farmers and the kids who lived within a couple of miles of it in the Pocono Mountains. Now, after a lifetime of learning, he knew the Kettles had been formed when the area was covered with a mile or more of ice during the last Ice Age. The torrents of melting ice fell on slate rock and gouged out a series of five waterfalls, each pouring its water over a rock lip and down smoothed-out chutes into the pool below. The pools were about 25 feet across and 20 feet deep, and the boys could slide down the smooth chutes from each pool into the one below. The place was on a steep hillside deep in a shady hemlock forest, and the smell of forest floor and sweet hemlocks freshened the air. The surface rocks were full of fossils from the Devonian Period, 300 to 400 million years ago. But Bud and his friend Dit had no idea what the strange designs in the rocks were. They knew they were fossils, but were they Dinosaur skin? Plants? He didn’t know and never learned. Cracking open rocks to find fossils was time-consuming work. Oh, he’d been busy all right. If only his mom knew.
He and Dit had been busy from the time they teamed up about 10 that morning until he got home at night. When he got to Dit’s house, Dit’s mom was slaughtering a chicken. She had a tree stump with two nails about two inches apart. A black line was stretched from the nails out to the edge of the stump and she laid that chicken down on the stump so it could see the black line, and that seemed to calm its squawking and fluttering. Its head was held between the nails and its neck was taut. Holding the chicken to the stump with one hand, she picked up the sharp hatchet with the other and with a deft chop, cut the chicken’s head off. She let the bird’s body go and it fluttered, blood squirting from its neck, and actually flapped and ran a few feet, twirling around headless, then flapped down on the ground, quivered for a while, and lay still. She picked up the body and took it to an aluminum pot by the house, and there gutted it and tied its feet together. She hung it upside down by its feet so the blood could drain while she went in the house to set a pot of water to boil—for plunging the bird’s body into so she could pluck it easier.
Dit and Bud were halfway down her driveway when they heard her yell from the door. “Hey, you boys want to pluck this chicken?” They didn’t answer, but scooted around the bend and out of sight.

They were on their way to Leah Alpert’s house when they saw the large papery grey hornet’s nest hanging from a tree limb. A few well-thrown stones got the hornets riled up and buzzing furiously around the opening in the bottom of the nest. The boys knew that the next move by the hornets was to spot them and come after them, so they ran down the dirt road, laughing, with Dit waving his rapier over his head like he’d seen Scaramouche do in the movies. The rapier was an old toy fishing pole with the reel gone, the eyelets ground off, and the tip ground to a point. Bud had the same kind of fishing pole, only this one intact with a functioning reel. Brown and brook trout lurked in the streams around Sand Hill Road. And all the kids knew where Old Gramps lived. That trout must have been two feet long, but everyone knew he was so wise and wary he wouldn’t take bait. His home was in a deep pool of clear water that ran under shady trees by an old stone arched bridge. Bud had tried to catch him many times, but his existence was more legend than fact. Bud had never seen him directly, except that one time he thought he’d caught a glimpse of the huge fish.
When they reached the Alperts’ house, they ran onto the long greensward lined with apple trees that led down to the creek. Someone had dammed up the creek and behind the dam, it was deep enough to swim. The boys never thought about who might have done the work, or why. Or who put the inflated inner tubes on the flagstone walk that edged the side of the pool. It was just a playland that existed. As they walked by the apple trees, they saw that the late June apple drop had happened, and the ground was littered with fallen fruit. Apples will set three to five fruits in one clutch, and to self-thin, the tree will drop some of the fruit while it’s half grown. Dit picked up an apple, stuck it on his rapier and slid it down to the handle. Then he rared back and slung the rapier overhand and forward as fast as he could and the apple sailed off, up into the air, and all the way down to the dam, where it plopped into the swimming hole—a good 75 yards. Bud said, “Ohhh…” Dit looked at his rapier, almost in disbelief. He’d just reinvented the catapult. For the next 45 minutes, they took turns slinging apples to see how far they could throw them. “I bet even Allie Reynolds can’t throw an apple this far,” Bud said, hurling one over the swimming hole and into the trees on the far side of the dam.
Bud made a mental note to turn his pole into a rapier, but then thought more about it and decided he needed his pole to fish more than he needed it to throw apples. When they tired of throwing apples, they went down to the swimming hole, dropped their clothes, tossed two inner tubes into the water, cannonballed themselves into the water, climbed into the tubes, and began what they grandly called “Great Naval Battles of History.” The game was played with the boys sitting in the inner tubes, legs dangling over one side. Steering was accomplished by paddling with both arms for full steam ahead, with the left arm for a turn starboard, and with the right arm for a turn to port. Reverse required kicking hard with both feet. The object of the game was to sink the other guy by overturning his inner tube and dumping him in the water. Furious battles ensued, and both boys tasted victory and endured defeat. Soon they endured exhaustion, because it is not easy to overturn a fellow whose center of gravity is underwater, and they just floated in the warm sunshine. Until they saw a small head darting up and down in the water, moving forward and leaving a zigzag trail in the water behind itself. “Snake!” Dit yelled, and they paddled as hard as they could to the side of the swimming hole and hauled themselves out of the water, pulling up their inner tubes behind them. “I bet it was a water moccasin,” Bud said. “Or something,” Dit said. “I don’t want to find out.”

It was getting on toward noon, and the boys were hungry. They put their clothes back on and walked up the fifty yards of green lawn to the Alpert’s house and knocked on the door. They knew Leah Alpert—a middle-aged Jewish lady with a kindly disposition—and didn’t think she’d refuse them. “Could we have a sandwich?” Bud asked.
“You each get a sandwich and a Coke,” she said, “but not until you weed that flower bed over by the garage.”
“Okay,” Dit said. Seemed like a fair deal. Leah went to her garage and brought out two trowels. She showed the boys how to dig under the weeds’ roots with the trowel. “If you don’t get the roots,” she said, “the weeds grow right back.” They set to work. It was hot and uninteresting for two adventurers like these boys, but the prospect of a sandwich and a Coke goaded them on. In about a half hour, the bright, cheerful marigolds and zinnias were alone in their bed. The redroot pigweed and lambs-quarters and purslane and who-knows-what-all were gone. As Bud returned to Leah’s place in memory, the smell of marigolds and zinnias came back to him—pungent, herby, a smell the same color as the yellows, oranges, and reds of the flowers.
After their sandwiches and Cokes, the boys wandered down by the next house, where John Woods lived. John was an older boy—a man, actually, about 20 or 21 years old. He rode a big Harley but he wasn’t a Bad Biker. He wore leathers and a helmet and was a friendly guy. But John wasn’t around. The Woods family dammed up an upstream stretch of the same creek as ran through the Alperts’ property. In the deep woods, they built a concrete pool and a spillway. The water ran clear in the summertime, and the boys spent hours diving for colored marbles on the cement bottom of the pool. On the other side of the pool and down the creek about 50 feet was a springhouse—just a small little house with a peaked roof covered with green moss, no more than three feet high, with a screen door to keep out bugs and a dipper that hung on a nail by the side of the door. Someone had fitted a large flat stone into the wet earth next to the door, so people could kneel to take a dipper full of water without getting their knees muddy. Watercress grew in the clean outflow from the spring, which ran down to join the creek that flowed by 15 feet away. Bud could remember the taste of that water, though he hadn’t tasted it in 50 years. It was living water, crisp and lively, clean and cold, welling up through rocks and picking up the faint flavor of the stones through which it passed.
The boys drank deeply.
Not far up the road was a stone arched bridge with the date, 1910, carved into a stone plate fixed into the edge of the buttress. The creek flowed under it. Bud took took out a slice of white bread from the small zippered carry-all he’d tied to the pole. He took a pinch of bread and rolled it into a tight ball and fixed it on the hook. Bud thought to himself that people think trout like flies and worms, but it’s bread they go for most. Bud and Dit walked to the center of the bridge and dropped the hook into the creek below. They could see the multicolored cobbles in the creek bed, wiggling in refracted light as the water flowed over them in small waves. Soon the bread, soaked into sogginess, fell off and Bud fixed another ball to the hook. This time a seven-inch brown trout took the bait. Bud let him take a good bite before jerking the tip of the pole quickly upwards to set the hook. When Bud reeled the fish up to the bridge, Dit got out his knife and gutted the flapping fish, tossing the guts back into the creek to be food for the next fish they’d catch some other time.

The boys took their fish to a clearing just north of the bridge and cut off its head, tossing it into the creek. Then Bud used his knife to cut along the spine and splay the fish open so its two flanks opened like pages of a book. Dit built a small pyramid of twigs and sticks stuffed around the bottom with dry leaves and moss. He had matches and got the fire going while Bud cut some thin green twigs that he wove into a lattice around the fish’s flanks. They knew how to cook that fish—gently, not right in the flame, but to one side, turning the outside and inside of the fish alternately to the heat, dozens of times, until after about five minutes, the flesh became opaque and pink, the way wild trout does. Only farmed trout turns white. As the fire burned itself out, they took apart the springy lattice and pulled the spine and its myriad small bones from the filets. Each boy ate one side of the fish with his fingers, pulling the few remaining bones from their mouths when their tongues encountered them. The fish was delicious. Trout was good, but pickerel was sweeter. Yet pickerel was so bony they had trouble eating it. One day they encountered eels swimming upstream below a dam near Dit’s house. They caught one and killed it, and wanted to cook its snake-like body the way they cooked fish. They tried to take off the skin, but the eel skin was so slippery they couldn’t hold on to it and strip it off. So they cut the eel down the middle and gutted it, then cooked the halves over a fire they built. It was sweeter than either trout or pickerel.
After they finished eating their trout, they doused the fire and set off across the creek into an open meadow. Along its shady north side grew hundreds of wineberry bushes, just flowering. Bud made a mental note to get back there in mid-July, when the berries—dark red-orange, juicy, and sweet—would hang thickly on the canes. Like blackberries, you had to tickle them from underneath. The ripe ones would fall off into your upturned palm. If they didn’t come loose easily, they weren’t ripe. You could also tell by the color. Orange-red berries weren’t quite ripe. The red-orange ones, the color of garnets, were the ones to eat.
Dit stopped in the meadow and lifted his nose into the air. “Strawberries,” he said. Both he and Bud started looking down through the mixed meadow grasses and forbs and soon saw the little wild strawberry plants and the tiny strawberries the size of a little-finger nail that hung on branched stalks an inch or so above the leaves. Both boys dropped onto all fours and started picking and eating. After about three quarters of an hour, they’d had their fill, and headed down the road past Fudd’s house. Neither of these boys liked Fudd, who was a little older than them and had a cruel streak. Once they’d watched in disgust as Fudd shot a litter of kittens with his .22. Fudd was always trying to get them to jerk off together, but while the boys were curious about it, neither Bud nor Dit had quite discovered that pastime yet. When Fudd explained that pulling at yourself made you feel “hot,” neither boy understood the word or found that prospect particularly exciting. Fudd’s burgeoning sexuality was still beyond them and made them recoil. Now they passed his house and his father’s welding shop without stopping and walked down the hill to the old mill in Sciota. The mill was a large, low building that, legend had it, ground grain for Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary war. Its door was locked and signs warned trespassers to KEEP OUT, but the boys knew a way in through a side window that was unlocked. The mullions were gray and weathered and what they saw through the glass was wavy and flecked with captured bubbles of air. The mill room was dusty, but the millstones—two of them, top and bottom—were there, seemingly at the ready to grind someone’s grain, although the boys knew the mill hadn’t operated in years. Outside, a great compartmentalized wheel poised over a wooden spillway, but the spillway also hadn’t been used in years and was weathered to the point of falling apart. Water from the creek flowed over a dam, and the boys had in the past caught catfish in the deep water behind the dam, happy for the meal but careful not to touch the fish’s barbels, which country-boy lore had it were electrified and would sting like hell if touched. The morning’s trout had been meal enough for them this day.
About 100 yards down the creek from the old mill was a cave bored into the shale rock cliff that bordered the flowing water. It extended back about 30 feet into the rock—far enough to thrill the boys with thoughts of the uses of caves, for stashing loot, for revealing gems in the rocks, for hiding out.

A half mile farther down the creek was a paradise. There were no houses within two miles. The creek was bordered by flat open woods on the east bank, and the west bank was flanked by a steep cliff held together by many old and mighty basswood trees. The creek made a sweeping bend at this point and was broad and deep, with water so clear you could see the trout darting to and fro into and out of deep, dark pools.
Dit and Bud would make this their home. Their plans included a cabin with bunks, a dock that extended 10 feet out into the creek, a wire and pulley system with a sturdy wooden platform suspended from it so they could pull themselves across the creek without getting wet, and a cave dug into the silty soil at the top of the steep bank on the west side. Invaders would be dealt with by logs laid horizontally at the top of the steep bank, held back by posts driven into the soil, and rigged with pull-ropes. When the invaders came, the boys would come out of their cave and pull out the stakes using the pull-ropes. The logs would roll down the embankment, wiping out invaders under their rolling, grinding weight.
Things went well that summer. They got a small hut built, with the joints covered with flattened tin cans nailed down tight to keep out the rain. The dock was assembled on land and dropped into the creek, where it functioned well. They realized, however, that they needed a raft, and rigged one from downed logs and wild grapevines. They hooked the wire pulley to trees on either side of the creek and found that, with a great deal of effort, they could pull themselves and whatever loads they had back and forth five feet above the water from bank to bank. The cave was harder to dig, but they managed to make a depression in the silty soil big enough for the two of them to sit in.
The rolling log defenses worked too well. While they were up at the cave, a fisherman came by on the water’s edge below them. Here was a real invader, they thought, and pulled the ropes. The posts came out and several heavy logs went rolling down the hill toward the fisherman. Then they realized to their horror that the logs meant business and the fisherman was in real peril.
“Watch out,” they yelled. “Get out of there.” The fisherman saw the logs coming and dashed to his left and out of the way, but not before three large logs rolled past him into the water, creating a big splash and ruining whatever chance he had to catch a fish.
“What are you kids doing?” he yelled up at them. “I could have been killed!”
Dit yelled down at him, “Our logs got loose. Sorry.”
They could hear him grumbling as he walked downstream and out of sight. As far as Bud could remember, that was the only time they ever saw another human being at their redoubt in the woods. Other than that, their idyll was theirs entirely. They spent their summer days patching their cabin, sailing on the creek on their raft, and floating naked downstream. One day on a naked float, they grew increasingly anxious as they left their citadel behind and traveled into unknown territory. It was beautiful. They floated on their backs and looked up into the overhanging canopies of the trees, festooned with grapevines and woodbine. The leaves were backlit by the sun and glowed prettily. But they didn’t know this stretch of stream. They didn’t know what lay around the next bend.
Suddenly they felt their nakedness—and their vulnerability. Now they were maybe a mile or more downstream from their cabin. They realized that they wouldn’t be able to float upstream. They would have to fight the current all the way back. Which they tried for about 100 yards until they began to feel exhausted. Their feet were slipping on the slick cobbles. It was difficult to make headway. The sun was lowering in the west. And so they got out of the water and, two boys as natural and bare-assed as two boys can be, fought their way through the underbrush all the way back to their cabin and their clothes.
Once dry, clothed, and refreshed, they struck out through the woods toward home. On the way, as they crested a hill covered with aromatic wild beebalm, they spotted a red fox in the valley between them and another hill, making his way along a well-worn path toward the tangled woods they’d just emerged from. Bud thought how at home that fox must be on that path, in those woods. He thought of Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. He remembered how panicky they felt and how hard it was to get back to their cabin by the creek. And he felt a respect for the wild animals who make this country world their home, although he had no words for the concept and kept his thoughts to himself. He wondered if Dit’s mom would have food for them—and she did. He had a piece of fried chicken. She always had fried chicken. And then, with the sunlight fading, he struck out for home two miles away along dirt roads that choked him with dust when a car roared past, up the steep grade of Hagerman’s Hill, past the woods lined with ground pine and moss and dewberries, until he saw the lights of his house.
He entered the house through the kitchen door.
“Where have you been?” his mom yelled. “We were worried. How do you live? You haven’t had a thing to eat all day. Why are you coming home so late?”
“Gee, it’s still light out,” the boy said.
“Barely,” she said, peeved. “It’s almost dark.”


The Jersey Shore

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I don’t know who Van Ness is, but his/her memories are spot on, regarding the Jersey shore, where I spent my teenage summers eating fresh corn and tomatoes and blue crabs and littleneck clams. Since he uses the phrase “down the shore,” I’m assuming he’s from Philly. The following is Van Ness’s material, and I’m glad to reprint it:

“Down the shore! Lucy the Elephant. Camino Open pizza place in North Wildwood. The big Bethlehem Steel strike in the ’50s which meant we could stay down the shore an extra week. Paper boats in the gutters after thunderstorms. Sand in bed. Outdoor showers. The coolness under the boardwalk. Hot pretzels w/mustard. Card games at night while big bugs buzzed the screens trying to get in. The sound of the ocean, which permeates my childhood and my present. In our 60s, we still go to the Jersey Shore, to the last motel in Brigantine that’s actually on the beach. We sit with our morning coffee and read and do puzzles on the balcony, and listen and watch. We see dolphins, birds and other creatures. The moon, sunsets, that glorious feeling of just a bitty sunburn.”

Posted by: Van Ness | May 7, 2007 5:29 PM

Fried Lebanon Bologna Sandwiches

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We all have a few quirky favorite summer foods. One of mine is fried Lebanon bologna sandwiches, which mom made for me during summer days when I deigned to be around the house at lunchtime. Of course, during the school year, I ate lunch at school. It was usually bad cafeteria food at my elementary school—ugh, spaghetti and white bread, and metallic-tasting salad that I called “irony salad,” much to my mother’s amusement—or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the high school lunchroom.

But when summer came, mom would buy Lebanon bologna at local Pennsylvania Dutch markets in the Pocono Mountains, where we lived and where the Dutch were still the primary farmers of the area. These weren’t the plain Dutch, as the Amish and Mennonites called themselves, but the hoefti Dutch, or fancy Dutch, which was another way of saying they were just local farmers who had TVs and drove cars instead of horses and buggies. And they weren’t Dutch anyway. They were Germans who had immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries from the Black Forest area of Germany, “Dutch” being a corruption of “Deutsch,” as Germans call themselves. It’s a mark of how insular the Pennsylvania Dutch can be that, plain or fancy, when I was a kid they were still speaking German 250 years after coming to America. And many still are. Even 25 years ago my nearest neighbor, known to all as Pappy Greiss, raised pigs and made his own sausage. It was wonderful good, as the Dutch might say.

The Pennsylvania Dutch also invented Lebanon bologna, named for the town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Lebanon County. The original European settlers of this region of fertile rolling hills, fields, and woodlands were Christian sect members seeking to escape persecution in Europe. Many towns in eastern Pennsylvania are named for Biblical places—Bethlehem, Emmaus, New Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Lebanon among them.

Lebanon bologna is a coarsely-ground mixture of beef chuck mixed with white pepper, paprika, allspice, nutmeg, onion powder, powdered milk, vinegar, milk powder, corn syrup, and who knows what else. Along with real Pennsylvania Dutch summer sausage, it’s the most highly flavored bologna there is. After being stuffed into sausage casings, it’s hung in a smokehouse and smoked for varying lengths of time, depending on the maker.

Mom would buy it fairly thinly sliced and slap rounds of it into a hot skillet, flipping it a couple of times. Its sweet smoke would fill the kitchen and it drew me from whatever I was doing to watch her finish making the sandwich. The fried bologna went on wheat bread where a bit of its rendered fat would stain the bread. This was topped with a pad of Iceberg lettuce leaves. The top piece of bread was smeared with Miracle Whip and put on to make the sandwich. She placed it on a plate, cut it in half, and gave it to a grateful young kid (me). My dad,a freelance artist who worked in a studio on the property, would come in for lunch, but he didn’t like Lebanon bologna sandwiches. He went for Liederkranz cheese and saltines for lunch.

I still make fried Lebanon bologna sandwiches for myself occasionally. Though I live in California, there’s just one market in Santa Rosa that sells it. When I ask for a pound, sliced thin, the counterperson invariably says, “Hardly anyone asks for this.” The smell and flavor puts me right back at the summertime table with mom and dad—though both are gone now.

That’s reason enough to make that sandwich.

BBQ Chicken

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One of my clearest summer memories is waiting for the barbecued chicken legs to come off the grill. What a delicious smokey smell!

Tomatoes from the Garden

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nothing says summer like a just-picked tomato

nothing says summer like a just-picked tomato