Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Simpler Times

Recently I discovered several boxes full of old letters dating back to my childhood. One was from my Great Aunt Mae--who lived in Fredericksburg and was related to Wayne Newton somehow or another--to my Gloucester Grandmother.

Here is an excerpt:

September 10, 1975

"....Have you been doing any canning? We have been busy this summer, Pierce helped me. We did twenty eight quarts of tomatoes and I think fifteen pints, so I think we will have about enough for the winter. Then we canned thirty six quarts of peaches, and about two gallons of Damson preserves. We like them, with hot biscuits they will be good. Wish I were near you I would give you some of them. We had one bushel of peaches given to us. Our next door neighbors have some fruit trees, and they share with us, they are very kind. We bought the rest at six dollars a bushel, but even at that they are cheaper than what you buy out of the stores, and better too I think.

Everything is so high, nothing is cheap any more even salt fish. We don't have them too often, we love them, but I have to keep a check on my blood pressure, so that is why I don't like to eat anything too salty...."

There is much more to the letter, but this sample alone brings a flood of thoughts and memories.

Although my Gloucester Grandmother was the best cook ever, this Fredericksburg Aunt Mae could give her a run for her money. Whenever we'd visit her impeccably clean house, she'd have freshly brewed iced tea cooling on the table. Because you never put hot or tepid tea directly into the icebox--this causes it to cloud. Of course the tea would always be sweet, because really is there any other kind of tea?

(Also, did you know that Chesapeake Bay Woman's litmus test for whether you're in the North or South is this: If you order a large iced tea from a drive thru window in the South and don't specify what you want, they automatically assume you want it sweet. If you're in the North, they default to unsweet. For this reason alone, I love the South. But we're not here to start the Second Civil War. We were talking about something else. Remind me what that was again?)

People ate so much better back then. Gardens were the norm rather than the exception and most meals were made from scratch instead of coming from a box or a drive-through window. Around here, fresh vegetables and seafood were staples. The salt fish she mentions was (and still is) a local favorite. One time a gentleman shocked me by telling me his age, a number which far exceeded his youthful appearance. When I asked him his beauty secret he said, simply, salt fish.

In addition to eating foods closer to their sources folks also shared and traded. If one person had a surplus of vegetables, another might have a surplus of fresh fish and after a few trades everyone had what they needed. My father was infamous for his use of the barter system. As a mechanic, he might repair someone's vehicle in exchange for a piece of furniture, or an airboat, for example.

It saddens me to think we're moving farther and farther away from those simpler times. I miss eating my mother's homemade crab apple jelly. I miss walking barefoot through rows and rows of corn, squash, peas and tomatoes. I miss my grandmother's fried chicken and my Aunt Mae's sweet iced tea.

Those homemade hot biscuits didn't sound too bad either. Maybe I could trade a dead airboat for a batch. Does anybody want a dead airboat bake biscuits?


Karen Deborah said...

yep on all counts, we are doin the back to the biscuit thing around here. I love this post. What is that one kind of preserves Dammon? sorry cant go back and get the word, what is that?
We are so goofy we put up 7 pints of peach preserves tonight and then I had Kayla dig out jars from the bottom of the cabinet, from last year. We had enough for the year and forgot they were there. I need a pantry, you know that is easier than a brain.
are you getting excited about the blogfest?

Grandma J said...

Those were the days when women worked their hineys off, canning, stewing, baking...then hanging clothes out to dry, then ironing everything, and no AC.

Maybe you can teach pjb how to do something worthwhile instead of acting like a prince on vacation!

Pueblo girl said...

Lovely post, but like Grandma J, I'm a bit sceptical about the "simpler" life. I know what you mean, but...

My village is still like how you describe, and in fact it's a lot of hard work, not just physically but also socially. There's a delicate web of relationships to be kept going and conflict to be avoided at all costs, meaning that whenever you go onto the street, you won't be back for an hour or so because there'll always be someone who wants to talk and that's what the web is based on. The trading and handing around of surplus is generous, but brings in obligations, which must also be met if you want to stay within the magic circle. Life like this is, in fact, full of unwritten obligations, as well as many, many pleasures. I'm not complaining in the least - this is precisely why I moved here, because I wanted to live where these values still existed.

But it seems to me that in many ways, life is "simpler" in Madrid, where you don't talk to your neighbours (in fact, you don't even know them) and you do your shopping at the supermarket, where cash (or plastic) frees you from any social obligations.

Bayman said...

Your post takes me back to my childhood, growing up on the island. We had fish at least once a week, and I can remember eating shad and herring roe. At dinner,if anyone asked where a particular vegetable came from, my Grandfather's response was always "fresh out of Pappa's garden." He kept a small, wooden cask of chutney out in the "toolroom," (his workshop.)

Mental P Mama said...

Oh I miss it all. My mother made the best Damson Plum preserves....Oh I miss the South. sigh

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Caution Flag said...

Sometimes I think I miss the "simpler" times, but it takes a lot of emotional energy to live the simpler life. I suppose I do miss the social connections I knew back then, but it's kind of freeing to live without them (to a certain extent) these days.

Anonymous said...

Ah the memories....My Mother ALWAYS made home made everything. When I first got married I did the garden thing...canned tomato sauce, vegies, jams, jellys. Sewed the girls clothes, cross stitched, candlewick, you name it I did it. I dont' think I even remember how to do that stuff now LOL. When did life become so hectic we forgot the joys of doing things ourselves. I miss those days so much. Life was simpler. I still make biscuits from scratch, and home made potato rolls and breads from scratch. when my girls were in school others took cup cakes for their birthday parties. I took home made cinnimon rolls. Other kids used to be excited when my kids class 'cuz they knew they would get cinnimon rolls LOL.Oh, and I don't care what they say, hand kneeded breads are much better than the bread maker!

Annie said...

I am not much of a cook or gardener, so unfortunately I don't really have much to barter or exchange, except my time for babysitting etc. But at Christmas I have a recipe for simple jellies (like turkish delights) that I love to make, and give away a small portion as a small gift to people. I am thrilled to note,that often people will now respond in kind, with a small portion of something similarly hand/home made.

big hair envy said...

What great memories! Seems that everything is reminding me of Grandma these days...:)

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

KD-Damson preserves...a type of plum. Can't recall having any myself, but slapped in the middle of a homemade biscuit it has to be good. My mother was big on the crab apple jelly.

GJ-Yes, but I would argue I work my hiney off NOW - at least back then I would not be expected to go to a paying job, then come home and do all that stuff. Granted, I don't can and I'll throw something away before I iron it, but I'm sure I would do well at the stewing....

Pueblo Girl-The sense of obligation is something I never considered, probably because my father never complained about his little system (he would complain about spending money though). Your town sounds wonderful and your descriptions are fascinating.

Bayman - I confess that chutney, shad and/or herring roe never made its way on to the Chesapeake BAy Family's table, although my mother had her fair share. CB Father would have turned his nose up, and Middle Sis would have gagged at the sight of anything that wasn't white bread and cheese. So we were depraved. I mean deprived. The vegetables were out of this world, though.

MPM-Hopefully your trip here in ONE MONTH FROM TODAY will bring back even more memories. WE might not have damson preserves on hand but we'll come up with some southern concoctions....

WWOW-Sounds like a great cause. I'll have to go visit.

CF-YOu make a good point. Personally, I found that when I lived in the suburbs of DC/Northern Virginia it was that lack of connectedness in a sea full of aimlessly wandering people that disturbed me the most. On the flip side, I can't even walk down my lane without three neighbors stopping me to talk, which forces this introvert to just walk around the yard or somewhere else. Don't even mention how many people you have to talk to in the grocery store. But it's all good, wouldn't have it any other way.

MsSeabreeze - Your skills are impressive, were you around for Mrs. Thurston's home ec class? I'll have to save those memories for another post entirely. Maybe you could whip up some homemade cinnamon rolls (something we made every single day in home ec) for the Blog Fest, which I KNOW you're coming to, even if you did not.

Annie- You cannot put a price tag on Grandmother's Help with Baby. Please add me to your Christmas list. I like strawberry or blackberry jelly the best. The store-bought just cannot hold a candle. Yours are wonderful, I'm sure.

BHE-Me too. A grandmother--especially one who fries her own chicken--is impossible to replace.

Anonymous said...


I can make up biscuit dough almost as fast as most people can make them from a can, but I do cheat and use bisquick.....

Damson plum preserves can be bought at Best Value Supermarket, Trappist is the brand name I believe. We didn't make it from scratch, but my Granny F. always had FFV (Fine Foods of Virginia) Damson Plum on the shelf (with crunchy peanut butter it is the BEST PBJ EVER).

After FFV disappeared, you couldn't get DPP anywhere. Then Trappist appreared and every time I saw it, I bought all they had.

My reasoning was that they'd keep carrying it if there was a demand. Granny and I were ROLLING in Damson preserves.

How many people are coming to blogfest? if it's not a crazy amount, I might bring them all some damson preserves to take home.....

Also, are there any potluck events? Because I could make some REAL ham biscuits.... NO boiled ham on a potato roll -- real red-eye ham on a fluffy little biscuit cut out using grandma's juice glasses as a cutter.....is it dinner time, yet?

We ate roe and salt herring at our house (and by "we" I mean Anonymous Mathews Parents, me -- not so much). And we ate Fish at EVERY meal.

I am very proud of Anonymous Mathews Husband. The produce is rolling in from his first real garden, and it is GOOD!

Happy Summer (a few days early!)

Anonymous Mathews Native

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

AMN- PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!! bring ham biscuits (and anything else) to one of the events - either dinner Thursday night at my house or Saturday night at the beach. Actually,if you brought some Thursday night then we could eat them again Friday morning...for breakfast. What I"m trying to say is bring eighteen tons of ham biscuits because I'll be eating them for weeks on end.

How many are coming...guess I should sit down and focus on that. For right now, a rough estimate would be between 15 and 25 depending on the day, the event, and the moon and the stars. That may be totally wrong--because details and precision are not exactly my forte--but I'll be updating the Blog Fest website one of these years when I can focus on anything.

I best be focusing lickity split because it is ONE MONTH FROM TODAY EXACTLY!

Thanks and can't wait to see you.

p.s. Got any posts handy? I'm dying here trying to keep up with this and Life, yet my competetion with myself will not allow me to take a break from this. SOS!! How about Anonymous Mathews Mother...she must have plenty of good stories.

OK. Off to do four thousand things and hopefully then get some sleep tonight before another brutal day tomorrow.

Serenity now.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

AmN- Exhaustion must be winning. There will be more than 15-25. I forgot to include my family, other locals, their families, etc. I'll get back to you on the estimated count closer to the date. But ham biscuits sound wonderful.

Karen Deborah said...

you inspired me i baked biscuits.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

KD-I'd knock people over to get to a handful of those freshly baked biscuits with gobs of butter. You'll have to share the recipe if you haven'r already on your site-- which I can't pull up due to my internet situation...Biscuits sound heavenly right now.

Meg @ Soup Is Not A Finger Food said...

Aw. I had a great Aunt Mae. Same one?