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Good Strong Food

"I'll have a double bland... with extra bland... (1994 TV commercial).

I grew up on good strong food, and lots of leftovers. I wonder if the latter helps explain my left-handedness, if the former chunked-up my determined approach to life.

My youngest years were largely spent in my grandma's boardinghouse, usually with four or five male boarders and her husband, John Mahaney. I was accepted, which meant expected to sit up, eat up and get up. And eating was power.

Most of our food came from the garden, the farm, or other local farmers. When a crop was ripe we gorged on it, and canned, dried or cold-stored the rest. I do not know if we were poor. But we were never hungry.

How could we want, when the adults turned their own food back into hard daily work? The cycle was small and complete.

And the foods - bushels of potatoes, fried, baked, scalloped and, best of all, served mashed with lots of butter and pepper, and a well full of thick brown gravy properly made from drippings. I well remember constructing the lake amid mountains of yellow-white, slightly lumpy white potatoes, right under my nose.

Fried potatoes, usually with onions from the full acre garden patch, normally came with fresh eggs from the hen house and occasionally dry, salty ham or a sage sausage patty. The hen house also produced most Sunday entrees. Hens nearly as big as me ran headless in circles after grandma drove her special hatchet into the chopping block. They were redeemed at Sunday dinner, boiled, baked or fried.

We ate lots of cabbage, in New England Dinners and as a side dish in one of the small bowls called sauce dishes. Cabbage salad with sweet-sour dressing, and cold slaw usually sliced, occasionally hand-ground, and occasionally dark red Danish cabbage were winter salads.

Strong flavored foods were our favorites. We ate our turnips diced and hot from those sauce dishes. We turned to rutabaga later in the winter, when freezing had brought out their mouth puckering flavor. Nobody called rutabagas "Swedes" - ours was a heavily Scandinavian village.

Parsnips, another winter vegetable, were sliced lengthwise and sauteed in butter. We said "fried". Ralph, a recent immigrant from Sweden, told Grandma "Maggie, those are the sweetest fish I've ever eat."

Green onions and radishes could make me weep, when pulled, wiped and chewed in the garden. Carrots had an orange flavor, and were even better dirty than washed.

My uncle Harvey, an urbanite from Rochester and a continual trial to his in-laws, destroyed one whole crop row of young carrots. He'd ventured behind the hedge and weeded the garden without supervision.

Every meal included a dessert - usually native. No one though of a balanced diet, as far as I knew. Slightly wormy, sour apples made fine applesauce - in sauce dishes. Pies were cherry, apple, pumpkin, rhubarb, plus peach in season. Apples dried on the back of the coal range reappeared brown in winter strudels, puddings and pies.

Rice pudding, and tapioca pudding (large and small size tapioca) were exotic substitutes in our stream of bread puddings. Laced with fresh, home caramel or dried fruit, these came daily from the always-hot ovens.

My grandmother made the last good chocolate bread pudding I ever ate.

We snapped green beans and shelled fresh peas to serve swimming in a milk-butter gravy in those sauce dishes. More peas were winterized in flat drying pans, creating an entirely different taste. We ate even more home-canned tomatoes than fresh, testing new varieties from each year's seed catalog.

This serious food production included herbs and condiments - not only ketchup, but horseradish sauce. One of my earliest memories is of standing next to John Mahaney in the summer kitchen to turn the big grinder's handle. I was just eye-level to the hub of that machine and I wept mightily as the biting juices leaked out while I turned with both hands.

I accept change, and no longer wonder why the veggies in the grocery just don't taste like they used to. I know. But my grandson's Oklahoma grandparents still grow and delight in preserving some garden produce. They share samples sometimes. I love them for it.

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