September 1995

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Letters to Suzanna



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.

Dear Suzanna,

There are many ways our meals differed from the way you eat today. We had no freezers except that, in winter, Papa might get a deer and hang it in the barn loft to keep it and it would freeze hanging there. He would cut off a slab whenever Mama wanted some to cook. He was glad for a sharp saw, in those days, because the meat could be cut faster that way than with his hunting knife.

A few years after he came to the Town of Reading to live, Papa experimented with making barrels. He finally became able to make a snug one that could hold liquid and he was skilled enough to make them in different sizes. The person who made barrels was called a cooper.

Once we had barrels, Mama would keep salted pork and corned beef in them. There were no such things as canning jars when I was a child in the western wilds of this land.

We had a root cellar where potatoes, carrots, salsify, beets, turnips, squash and pumpkins kept quite well through most of a winter.

Another way we preserved food for winter had to do with apples. We sliced and strung unpeeled apples and hung them above the fireplace where the heat would dry them. In the winter, Mama would reconstitute them, by overnight soaking in water to make them ready for sauce or pies or her special apple jumble. Sometimes, Mama dried herbs and pears by hanging them near the board ceiling. Pears, however, were not common until some of the settlers imported the young trees to start an orchard. We dried blackberries in shallow pans set at the edge of the hearth with two stones to hold them off the floor to allow heat to circulate underneath. These were then kept in the barn loft until needed. These too would be reconstituted by soaking in water to a soft consistency. Mama used them in pies and tarts and cobblers.

When the men and boys were sweating in the hayfield or cultivating corn or doing other farm labor under a hot sun, the rest of us usually took lunch to them. Part way through the morning or afternoon, we also carried a bucket of switchel to them to help quench their thirst. Switchel was made from a combination of molasses, vinegar and water. That may sound like an odd mixture but it served its purpose very well. We did not always have the kind of molasses that came from a big barrel in the general store but Mama made a substitute. When we had cider, she would boil it down to a thickness about like maple syrup. That was her substitute for molasses and it worked quite well even though it lacked the sweetness of cane molasses.

At home, she sometimes made tea and cooled it in the running waters of the creek. However, we did not always have a plentiful supply of tea and more often than not, our cooling summer beverage was just well water, fresh-drawn. There came a time when Papa had a thrifty apple orchard so we had our own cider and used that to make our own vinegar.

We could not go to the store and buy potatoes for the first years of my life. Early on, the storekeeper never had any. Everyone had to grow their own, and it was one of the staples for pioneers in the Town of Reading. After enough farmers had prepared ground enough and suitable for that particular crop, the storekeeper might take in a few bushels during harvest but, unless he built a root cellar, he had no way to keep them very long after they were dug.

At least once, as I recall, some of the traveling peddlers brought potatoes and they were all sold to the storekeeper.

During Papa's first winter here, his diet was somewhat monotonous. There was no dearth of game and he had found wild onions and hung them in his dugout shelter where they dried a little more every time he had a fire burning before his entry. When winter set in, they froze but that made no difference about using them in stews.

He had gathered a supply of spicebush berries but a squirrel or some animal stole them all in November. He told us how he had gathered edible weeds, some of which he would discover whenever there was a considerable snowmelt. These lent a little variety to his daily stews. However, he was so busy cutting logs and preparing the homestead that meals became secondary except as he recognized that he must eat to keep up his strength. There was alway enough that he never felt deprived. Occasionally, he would put a little variety in his meals by going fishing at Seneca Lake for a few hours.

Even after Mama came, they rarely had ground wheat flour. Mama used cornmeal and sometimes even had to grind her own with a stone mortar and pestle. She baked a lot of journey cake and corn biscuits. She made a sort of corn pancake or flapjack and something she called Indian Pudding. This was a lot like cornmeal mush but was flavored with whatever sweetening or suitable spice or berry she had at the moment. Meals were very simple. After she came to the homestead, meals probably tasted a little better, though, because she could gather herbs and wild greens which Papa, when alone, had no time for.

Papa had alway roasted his meat on a green branch over an open fire or cut it into small pieces to use in stew. Most of the time, he roasted it first and then used left-overs for stew. Mama roasted meat much the same way except she had a fireplace. So once she came, meals were not quite so unvaried as they must have been during Papa's first year.

Our grandparents certainly realized the short-comings of food in those early settlement days. Whenever they could, they would send something to provide a change in meals. It might be a bit of herbs from the kitchen garden or a little spice, or some white sugar or ground flour. Sometimes, they would send some of the winter vegetables. There was a limit to what they could send because whoever brought it was either walking from Connecticut or riding horseback. It was rare that visitors making such a delivery had a pack horse.

Travel from Connecticut to Reading was not at all easy before there were roads.

It seems easy to understand why housewives welcomed the first greens of spring, doesn't it?

I have already told you some of the ways our Indian friend, Telenemut, brought variety to our table, helping Mama find natural foods. He immensely enjoyed Mama's cooking and looked forward to having some good meals, not of his own making, when he came to our home. He felt it was good manners to supply something toward those meals. I recall that he once came with a bundle of frogs' legs. Mama had never cooked or eaten any and she did not really feel like handling those strange-looking things, but neither did she want to hurt Telenemut's feelings. She fried them in bacon drippings. They wiggled, as they cooked, as though they still had life. At the table, to be polite, she started to nibble one and discovered that they tasted fine. There was only one time of year, our Indian friend said, when frog legs were all right to eat. We did not have them very many times. What a lot of work it must have been for Telenemut to catch and "dress" enough for a family meal!

Popcorn, when it finally became a staple here, was certainly welcome.

Three years after Papa brought the milch cow here — that was when he first arrived — the Culvers told him they had a young bull with their four cows. So our cow was bred, for the second time in her young life, and then Papa had a calf to trade. It was to be a few more years before we could butcher a calf or cow. First it was necessary to replace our aging cow when her output of milk dwindled and she was no longer earning her keep. This was done in a barter and the man who took her butchered her for his family's benefit. Meanwhile, we had a heifer which Papa took, in season, to the Culver bull. She led more calmly than did the bull so the cow walked over the lane to her mate.

Later, I knew a Reading farmer who had such a mild-tempered bull that he could lead it without worry to the cows at different farms.

The first calf we kept to raise for meat was a little boy-calf born when I was five. I knew our cow was "in a family way" but I knew almost nothing about how animals — or people — were born. I just knew that we were going to have a baby cow. The idea excited my interest. Papa let me touch the cow's fat old side so I could feel the calf moving. I kept watching the lean-to when the cow was there and I would run out to look at her every time Papa brought her in from her day of foraging.

I was in the lean-to when the cow laid down with a sort of grunt sound such as I had never heard before. I wondered if she were going to sleep. Or could she be dying? I already knew that sometimes a human mother died when she had a baby.

I sat down beside her and patted her kindly. She was breathing as she always did and she rolled her eyes to see who was touching her. Mama called me to eat, about then. I did not see any reason to tell that the cow was lying down. That was nothing new and I of course, did not know it was about time for the calf to arrive.

After supper, Papa went out to do the evening chores and put out feed for the cow. He was gone so long that the sun set and Mama stuck her head out the cabin door and called to him.

"Where are you, David? What's taking so long? It will soon be dark."

Remember, there were still bears and wild cats around in those days and, sometimes, unfriendly wanderers. Mama heard Papa call from the animals' lean-to. He assured her that he was all right but that the calf was coming. I heard that and was anxious to see the baby animal. Mama took my shoulder and told me I should stay in the house with little Johnny and not bother Papa. I began to argue with her and Papa heard us.

"Let her come, Phoebe," he said. "Things are going well. This might be a good time for her to start to learn."

So Mama and I went hand-in-hand into the lean-to which, with all of us there, was somewhat crowded. Mama said I watched wide-eyed and totally silent as the calf entered this world. I do not remember, myself, some of the things she related to me about the event, many years later.

I recall that it did not look like any cow or other animal I had ever seen as that calf laid on the straw. It was shiny wet and partly covered with a film. Papa took some old soft straw and wiped it off and it began to kick and try to stand up. The cow turned her head to look at it but made no effort to help. I thought she was a mean old mother not to even try. Then the cow moved aside.

Soon the calf was able to stagger to its spindly legs. It wobbled and I thought it would fall but Papa steadied it a little. I asked if I could pet it but I was not allowed at the moment. By the time it was standing, I could see it really was a calf and not just the wet blob it had looked like immediately after birth. Instinctively it moved toward its mother and she finally began to lick it.

After that, I saw many an animal born. When I was bigger, I even helped in the birth process of our calves or foals. However, I did not care for that part of farm life as much as Ruth did so I was usually spared such chores. She relished everything about animal life and care.

That first calf, the little bull, never seemed like a pet to me. It always wanted to butt folks. It was very strong and rough-acting so I stayed away from it. That was before Ruth was born, of course. She arrived the next year.

Would you believe I never tasted orange juice? We had an orange a few times at Christmas or when Grandfather came to visit but we ate them and never dreamed of turning them into juice. Mama saved the rinds to make candied skins for a treat.

There was no such thing as cereal like you buy from a grocer today. We had oats for a gruel like oatmeal. Boiled cornmeal mush was something like a cooked cereal.

All our cookies, cakes, pies and fruit muffins were homemade. Ready-baked desserts were never seen in our general store. There were only a few kinds of candy. I especially liked peppermint stick candy which Grandfather sometimes sent from his store. I was a grandmother before I ever saw a piece of chocolate candy even though we sometimes had a hard chunk of bitter chocolate to be used in baking or a hot drink. Mama never heard about making chocolate fudge but we had molases taffy a few times which she made and the rest of us pulled into its finished color and texture.

There was no such thing as chewing gum, in my day, and you must realize what you cqll soda pop or soft drink never existed then. We never heard of potato chips or any of those snacks. Women might fry potatoes, of course. Maybe they tasted a bit like potato chips when we had salt to sprinkle on them. They were thick slabs, though, and not see-through thin.

We never missed such foods because we never knew about them. It would be different with you if you suddenly discovered that there were no such treats.

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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