Intro: I love the fancy traditional meals that we’ve been enjoying over the holidays. Here’s a story about expectations related to food. And just maybe, it’s a longing for summer foods, in this, the coldest month of the year in Saratoga.
When I was nine, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta. Horse country. Big cattle ranches. Rodeos. In Calgary, you can saunter down the street wearing a cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots and not feel foolish—even if you happen to be a teacher or a construction worker or a poet.
In Calgary, my father made a new friend, an ex-bronco-riding, calf-roping cowboy named Slim. Dad bought two horses from him, a big feisty buckskin and a gentle bay mare named Talullah, a horse for him and one for me. Why just me, you say? Well, my little brother was a toddler. My older brother came down with polio and couldn’t ride. My sister thought that horses were smelly and disgusting, and my mother didn’t care to ride. So it happened that my father and I rode together, almost every day, for several years. Good years.
Every once in awhile, our horses needed shoes. And he and I would ride on paved streets around the edge of Calgary to the blacksmith’s shop. I loved everything about the shop. The strong warm smell of the horses mixed with the burning smell of the fire. The flames that lit up the room, casting shadows on the plank walls. The massive iron tongs, hammer, and anvil. The hiss when the hot iron shoes hit the water. I even liked to see him pare the hooves and nail on the horseshoes, reassured by my Dad that it didn’t hurt.
When I was not quite thirteen, my father was posted again, this time down East. Before we left Calgary, the blacksmith and his wife invited us to their home for a farewell dinner.
Their house was next to the shop, but I had never been inside. I wondered—I worried—that the house would be the same as the shop and the lot. I liked the look of the place, but what would my mother say? The blacksmith’s shop was a dilapidated, ramshackle place in need of paint. It always reminded me of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies I watched on Saturday mornings. Outside, in their dandelion field of a yard, was a shed with a purebred stallion that the blacksmith put out to stud; another shed with cocker spaniel puppies for sale; stacks of wooden crates, in case he wanted to start a mink ranch some day; and goats. I was quite sure this was all irregular, something my mother would not approve of. I also wondered what kind of meal they would serve. I have always been a person passionately interested in food. And, even then, I gave much thought to the meal we would be given, and I worried…would this eccentric couple come up with a meal my parents would find acceptable?
We didn’t eat at other people’s houses very often, but I knew what was normal, expected, and proper in a meal in my world in 1956. There must be some kind of meat: roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers, pork chops, maybe ham. There must be potatoes: boiled, mashed, baked, scalloped, hash, or potato salad. And there must be some kind of vegetable, probably canned. Canned peas, canned green beans, canned wax beans, canned corn. Maybe canned corn with pimentos, something fancy. Maybe we’d have molded jell-o with grated carrots or celery. Maybe a salad with iceberg lettuce. And for dessert—well, my father might hope for pie—but as for me, I preferred cake. Spice cake, yellow cake, white cake, upside down cake, tomato soup cake, wacky cake, marble cake, blueberry cake, gingerbread are all good. But I was hoping for devil’s food cake–with sweet seven-minute frosting.
One August evening, we went to the house and were invited inside. I looked around. None of the rickety chairs around the dining table matched. Nor did the plates on the bare wood. And other than plates, knives-forks-and-spoons, glasses, salt and pepper, and butter, there was nothing on the table.
The blacksmith and his wife were both behind the kitchen door.
“It smells funny in here!” my kid brother blurted.
“SHHHHHH.” said my mother. And she whispered, “It’s the goats.” She sniffed in shocked disapproval: “And she used to be a nurse!”
I understood the message. Nurses, taught to be acutely aware of hygiene, should not have a house that smells of goats, even after they retire.
A few minutes passed. And then the blacksmith opened the door, and the blacksmith’s wife came in carrying a big galvanized steel tub, the kind people used to wash clothes in years ago, the kind people carry ice and beer in, to the patio nowadays. But this tub was filled with neither. She sat it down on the wooden table. It was almost full—of corn on the cob. And that was it. No meat, no potatoes, no canned vegetables. Just corn.
I like corn on the cob. We had it a few times every summer. My mother would give us one ear, one and a half, maybe two. Never more. But today we could eat as many ears of corn on the cob as we wanted to, all slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. I ate many.
When we’d all had as much corn as we wanted, she took the galvanized tub away. I looked sideways at my parents, looking to see their reaction. Only a minute or two passed before she came back through the kitchen door, holding the door open with her hip, both hands wrapped around a huge watermelon.
I also like watermelon. And we had it every summer too, once or twice. And we would be given a big slice or maybe two. But as much watermelon as we wanted? That was something else. And that night I ate a lot of watermelon.
My parents said their good-byes to the blacksmith and his wife. I sat in my place in the back seat of the Ford, nervous, waiting to hear what my parents would have to say after they were out of earshot of the blacksmith and his wife. Would they be outraged? Mocking? Would my mother say,
“What kind of dinner was that? Ridiculous! Can you believe it?”
I hoped not. That would spoil everything.
My parents looked at each other. I waited.
“I told you they were eccentric,” my father said. They both laughed.
“Good corn,” my mother said.
“Good watermelon too,” my father replied.
I could relax. The meal would not be marred by their disapproval. I was free to enjoy it completely.
It was the best meal I ever ate.
Copyright by Margaret French