Friday, July 21, 2017


Paul helps our Mom canning berries   1948

Though my mother aspired to be a city girl, she was still a country girl at heart.  Anyway after WWII everyone was used to raising food in Victory Gardens and otherwise enjoying the fertile bounty of Oregon.  In those days school ended soon enough for kids to do the berry harvest.  Part of being a preteen was having strawberries squashed down the back of your neck and eating so many that you had a red smear like the Joker across your mouth.  The fields where my brothers and I picked (WITH my mother) had a field foreman from the Japanese family that owned the Columbia River acreage and she was not easy-going.  We did get to keep our profits from the pennies per hallock that we picked.  There was no need to involve Mexicans.

Two vivid sense-memories.  One was stopping at the Frosty Root Beer drive-in on the way home.  They kept their glass mugs in the freezer so the root beer was actually frozen into sludge at the thick bottom of the mug.  Surely ambrosia tastes like that.  

The other one was that after a day of stoop labor and sunburn, my mother slathered us with Absorbine Jr. which hurt in a very good way, stinging and then finally soothing so we could nap away what was left of the afternoon.  One had to quit at a certain point in the day or the berries became mush.

One of my great life-humiliations came when we switched from picking strawberries to raspberries (which was okay because less stooping) to green beans.  I hated beans, particularly since they were encrusted with black aphids that year and they squashed all over your hands, but the problem was that I couldn’t see them.  (See earlier comments about seeing what you expect.)  My brain was searching for little red dots, not big green dashes.  The field boss made me re-pick my row and my mother took it as a reflection on her (another of my issues, her failure to observe boundaries), so she was angry enough to threaten not stopping for root beer which made my brothers desperate.

By now the rich fields along the rivers have been built up as housing for families, who sometimes lose their houses to foreclosure.  They eat mac and cheese from a box.

Paul recommends smelt  1946?

A harvest of a quite different kind was smelt, small fish who came up the Sandy River to spawn.  They were schools and swarms, soon visited by humans until the banks were covered with people operating long-pole dipnets and filling buckets.  In those days freezers were commercial lockers, so the fish were more of a seasonal food.  My mother cleaned them with scissors, cutting off heads, snipping head to tail up the stomach.  For a few days we had three or four fish on our plates every meal.  They were too rich to eat many more than that at once. I recall the satisfaction of lifting out their spines after they were fried soft.  The backbones looked like zippers. 

Between Portland and the coast was a huge area of many square miles called the Tillamook Burn.  By the Forties most of the snags had fallen and been replaced by huckleberry bushes, miles and miles of them.  We didn’t camp the way the Canadian Cree Chippewa did to harvest their low-bush berries, but we drove up for the day and filled lard buckets and coffee cans hung on strings around our necks.  Through the winter canned huckleberries were celebratory food and huckleberry syrup was the crowning touch for sourdough pancakes.  In Browning it was chokecherry syrup, which took a lot of sugar to compensate for the bitterness so as to get the tang of them.

On my earliest trek to pick berries, I was barely walking, so I was left on a blanket and told not to leave it.  "BUT," the grownups said, "If you see a bear, don’t move."  When they returned, I was still as a statue on my blanket, with my eyes fixed on a bear-sized black snag.  On a later expedition, Paul — the brother in these photos — clambered up on one of the huge stumps left by the Doug Fir forest giants.  He was proud of growing into his climbing ability and teetering up there pretty high for a little guy.

“Don’t fall,” advised the grownups.  But he did and broke his collar bone.

This time of year, when things began to ripen, my mother became Queen of the Classified Ads.  In those days the community called Albina, that has now become a neighborhood of Portland, still had its country identity here and there.  When an apple or cherry or pear tree was ready to pick, an ad for U-Pick was put in the paper.  I don’t remember peaches but apricots sometimes.  My mom loaded up her wooden boxes and we all went out to see.  There would be a conference with the house-wife over cost and methods.  Most of the U-Picks were around the edge of settled land, semi-country.

My mother went up the ladders.  We piled fruit into the boxes, petted the dog, and tried to make friends with the wary cats.  Sometimes there was a horse or a curious set of cows.  Country women love to feed people, so we often got cookies.  

My mother grew up in a prune orchard.  She was efficient and careful and we were soon home for canning, the giant kettle boiling to sterilize the jars, maybe fruit juice dripping from cheese cloth bags to collect for jelly.  The pressure cooker rattled its weight on the top valve that regulated the steam.  She wasn’t big on pickles, which was a mercy since pickle cucumbers are murder to pick — spiny.  Sometimes I still crave fresh Gravenstein applesauce made with a food mill instead of a blender, sprinkled with nutmeg.

At least two old women I can remember lived only blocks away but raised chickens and sold eggs.  Probably they sold chickens for meat as well, but I don’t remember us bringing chickens home.  I think farm-raised women of a certain age have had their fill of plucking and gutting.  But the family in the house behind us did kill a chicken one day, which we three kids observed with interest.  It is true enough that after its head was chopped off, it ran around spewing blood for a while.  It is a vivid metaphor once you've seen it.

Montana is different.  About the only thing I harvested was alfalfa to dry to make tea.  Every sarvisberry was eaten on the spot.  People in Valier are not fond of fruit trees, though some have apple trees, because of the mess and because of attracting bears.  They hang discarded CD's to discourage birds, which makes a summer tree as festive as a Christmas tree.  Sometimes their grandparents left legacy apple trees in the yard.  In Great Falls trucks bring in loads of fruit to sell in quantity for preserving.  We do raise a lot of zucchini, but who doesn’t?

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