I really hated those Saturday nights. I knew what was coming after dinner when my dad opened the record cabinet; there would not be any television tonight. Soon, I was entertained by Misters Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and more. The great tenor, Mario Lanza, usually made a guest appearance and sang his famous operetta, The Student Prince. I made any excuse that I could to go early to bed. That didn't help; dad always cranked up the volume. Funny thing about this kind of stuff. As I got older, I actually liked some of that music, especially Lanza's Student Prince. As a teenager, mom and dad yelled at me to turn down the volume as I listened to Lanza singing Drink! Drink! Drink! I used to make the walls vibrate with that one.
I remember well being dragged out of the house on early Saturday spring mornings by my parents so we could join the rest of the family to pick dandelions. Yes, you read it correctly, dandelions. We used the bright, yellow flowers and stems to make our spring wine, and ate the leaves covered with a hot, semi-sweet bacon dressing. How I used to hate the whole thing! It seemed to me that somebody always was correcting me on the art and science of using a hand-held weed puller. And eating the leaves used to make me gag. But by the time I reached my mid-teens, I could pick'em with the best of them and looked for seconds of the dandelion salad. The men of my family made sure I got a little more salad but were special in other ways.
As a kid in short pants I truly believed that my father, grandfathers, and uncles could do anything. And when needed, they did. At one family gathering it was decided that the family needed a truck; the men made one. My uncles found an old but very serviceable Oldsmobile four door sedan. The back half of the Oldsmobile was cut off with an acetylene torch leaving the rear of the frame exposed. A truck bed was welded together out of stainless steel and oak planks were bolted to the stainless steel floor. I remember those planks. My cousins and I were tasked with sanding them. And this family truck was used for a few things.
In late August the family gathered to harvest cherries to make the fall wine. Here, think a working picnic complete with a barrel of beer; having an uncle as a brew master at a local brewery was a big help! It was amazing that nobody fell off of a ladder. The family purchased what would be today's equivalent of 30 gallon stainless steel trash cans. Enough of those cans were bought to fill the back of the truck; every one of those cans was filled with cherries. As a youngster, the women would not let me climb the ladders to pick. The men yielded to the good sense of the women, but I did not feel that way. I was a man, I insisted, just shorter. This usually got a good belly laugh from my grandmother. So, I was relegated to pick what I could from the ground. It did not take long for me to get bored. I needed to do something constructive and made myself 'the retriever.' I retrieved beer and sandwiches for the folks on the ladders. It was one way for me to climb the ladders. When the family figured out what I was doing, they met me half-way. I guess they thought that falling off of two ladder rungs was not going to kill me. A word about that wine. To my knowledge, we never used sulfides and never had a bottle go bad; I don't know why. If it did turn to vinegar, I never knew about it. In 1949 or 1950, my grandfather made something that was a bit like a fine Sherry. I discovered a three gallon bottle of this stuff hidden away in my father's garage in the late '80s. My dad and I finished it off sometime in 1991. It was incredibly smooth, tasty, and packed a punch. Nothing on any liquor store shelf today can equal what my family made in first my grandfather's, then my uncle's basement. Then there was the meat.
Mid-October was butchering time and again the truck came in handy. We did not butcher, kill the animals, but went to a slaughterhouse and bought the steers and pigs already dressed and awaiting our saws and knives. The dressed meat was thrown into the back of the truck and covered with a canvas tarp. Obviously, this was long before today's cry-o-vac packaging. I am sure that many modern health codes would be broken if we did this today. The meat was taken to my one uncle's house who had a huge detached garage. There it was cut, packaged, and frozen. However, a great deal of the pork was smoked; the same uncle had a collapsible smokehouse. And the smoking process took a few weeks. We ate this meat throughout the year but it tasted its best during the holidays.
Those days were always festive and bright, with enough food, beer, and wine to feed a small army. Small fir trees were carefully selected, dug up, balled and immediately used to add to the sights and odors of the season (these trees were planted in the spring). Larger fir trees were cut to "deck our halls" and decorated with tinsel and brightly colored lights. In all of the families homes, evergreens were everywhere the eye could see. And at this time of year, baking was a major priority.
The women of my family were amazing. Always, they made sure that their homes were a welcoming place. And like the queens of old, who efficiently took care of their castles, so did the women of my family care for their homes. And when needed, they worked side by side with the men of the family. But do not get caught in their kitchens during the holidays!
All of my aunts, both grandmothers, and my mother baked year long. However, the holidays were a different time. This was the only time of year that you got to eat some very special cookies, pastries (like strudels and kiffles), breads, cakes, and pies. If you missed it, you had to wait until the following year - because it was that special. That was just one reason you were thrown out of the kitchen when they were baking; no sneaking a taste was allowed. Sadly, nothing today comes close to matching that special goodness; when warm, my grandmother's apple strudel dripped butter down my wrist. I believe today that my grandmother's strudel would be declared a health hazard.
So much has changed - those days are long gone, but small efforts are made to try and duplicate some of the high times. Sadly, you cannot duplicate the past. But the memories are sweet, and they live on.
Copyright @2013/2014 Terry Unger