July 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Mama's Plants

Part 2


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Mama saved all the fat drippings from cooking meat. Grandfather sent her a small bucket with what he called biscuits (you call them crackers) and in this pail she collected such fat. Some went into soap making. She also used it in baking when she lacked butter. Meat drippings were especially helpful in flavoring any stew she made without meat chunks. This was most true when preparing spring greens.

At the rare times, before we owned pigs, when we had bacon or fried pork, she used these drippings, once hardened, to spread on cornbread. We loved that! Although our cow was generous in giving us milk, with a growing family of younguns her milk was pretty much used up at meals or for puddings and baking and only occasionally did we churn butter. When the cow dried up to have a calf, we children drank water. At times, Mama would share her precious tea, particularly in cold weather when a hot drink was most welcome. After Papa found two sassafras trees, we often had that kind of tea.

When we had white flour, Mama made a bread that was such a treat that we thought it almost as delicious as cake or cookies or cobbler. It was especially tasty when eaten hot and spread with bacon drippings.

A few years after Papa settled here, Telenemut showed him where there were a few wild apple trees. The fruit was small and turned yellow as it ripened. It was quite tart when eaten fresh. The trees grew on land as yet unclaimed so we picked apples each year until someone settled there.

The apples were so small and hard that we had trouble coring them as Mama showed us but we all worked at it, often after supper so Papa could do the ones we could not. We did not pare them. Once the hole was through the center, we strung them on a sort of twine made from wild grape vines. Papa drove wooden pigs into the ceiling above the fireplace and we hung the strings of apples there to dry. In winter, Mama baked cobblers with them or soaked them in water until they softened enough to boil and be mashed into applesauce.

Mama had found wild onions growing plentifully and she used them in uncooked green mixtures or put them with roasting meat or chopped them for stew flavoring. When the cabin was shut tight against cold weather, our house had a nice smell from the drying apples, herbs and onions.

Papa had early discovered some Sugar Maple trees way out at the edge of our farm. At first there was no way to boil down any amount of sap and it takes about forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup.

There came a time when a sap house was built in an area convenient to several neighbors with Sugar Maples. The blacksmith created a huge shallow pan and it was installed in this community sap house. During sap season, those who wanted syrup or maple sugar would draw their collected sap to the sugar house. Families took turns manning the fire and stirring the boiling sap as it condensed into maple syrup. During the season, that sugar house was busy all day and night.

The syrup was alloted according to how many gallons of sap any family had contributed, taking into consideration, too, the hours that any family had a member at work around the fire and pan. Everyone shared in providing the wood for the fire. Maple sugar was made at home, if desired, by further boiling of the syrup to the sugary treat. This activity began when I was seven or eight and after that, we always had maple syrup and sugar.

Telenemut loved that maple sugar more than most anything else we ever fed him, I do believe. As far as that is concerned, all of us children looked forward to having this candy. We never had much candy.

I think my most favorite treat of all that our Mama made was egg custard, especially after Grandfather sent her some nutmegs. Papa ground them to make the powder she used for flavoring the custard. When we were ill and had to stay in bed, if the chickens were laying, she fed us custard because she said it was easy to digest and also nourishing.

Another invalid food was pudding made with ground cattail roots and flavored with lemon balm or wild wintergreen. Or we would have cornmeal mush with a wee bit of sugar if any was availaible.

Mama also made medicinal teas. Most of them tasted horrible! Papa would assure us that the worse they tasted, the faster they cured.

One time when Telenemut came as the first snows of autumn were settling in and he was on his way to spend the winter with the Onondaga Indians, he brought some corn. It was not like any corn we had ever had. He borrowed Mama's spider (frying pan) and put some of the corn in it with a melting of her fat drippings. He placed a cover on the spider and set it at the edge of the hearth fire which was burning strongly. We watched, trying to guess what was going to happen. We had never seen anyone put whole corn kernels, that had not even been softened by overnight soaking, in a fire to cook. After a few moments, we heard a popping sound inside the spider pan, followed shortly by another — and another — and another. Telenemut wrapped one of Mama's dish rags around the handles of the pan so he would not burn his hand and began to gently shake the spider to and fro.

Soon the popping noise became continual. Johnny wondered aloud if the pan was about to explode. Telenemut shook his head and kept the pan moving. Moments later, the popping became less and less frequent and Telenemut withdrew it from the heat. He opened the cover. We couldn't believe our eyes! The pan was full of little white lumpy things and we did not see even one corn kernel. Telenemut poured the food on the center of the table and told us to each take one piece and taste it. I had not ever seen anything like it so I waited to see what Papa and Mama would do.

Papa tried this new food first and smiled a little. He told Mama to go ahead and sample Telenemut's offering. She did and they both pronounced it "good," It did not taste like anything they had ever had before. We all began to eat it then and, for once, Telenemut laughed out loud, throwing back his head as he realized we were all enjoying this new kind of corn. Telenemut was good-natured but we rarely saw him laugh this hard. He was pleasuring in our reactions.

He told us that this was a food that his people first got in trades with some Indians who lived near the Atlantic Ocean but he did not know where they had gotten it.

Telenemut knew that this corn was planted like any other. It grew smaller ears than his tribe's maize and it had to be allowed to dry thoroughly. This was the only way he knew how to cook it.

Before he left us, he gave Papa a handful of corn for seed so we could grow our own. He told Mama that she could boil some maple syrup until it became very thick and then cool it. When this heavy syrup was mixed with popped corn, the kernels would stick togther. It was a very special treat, he assured us.

It took many years from that handful of corn for popping until we could grow enough to satisfy our own desire for it, keep enough for the next planting and have any left over. However, in due time, Papa came to grow enough to trade at the store and give some to friends and still have enough for all of us. He, and later Johnny, continued to raise popcorn as an annual crop.

I still love popcorn mixed with thickened maple syrup better than any other sweets — except maybe Mama's berry cobbler with sweet cream. Many a Sunday supper was popcorn in milk at our house.

Your Friend,


© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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