Editor’s Note—An old column returns with
new life. The new Foodways seeks guest authors
with heirloom recipes to share, along with the stories
that keep these recipes alive and meaningful in our
families and communities.
My mother-in-law’s name was Fern. She
set an example in her mastery of all the survival
techniques that are necessary for living
in the Adirondacks. She had been the
daughter of a farmer—a herdsman, actually,
who had moved his family from farm
to farm while he gleaned all the ginseng in
the area. When the ginseng had all been
harvested in one area, he’d find a new job
at another farm and start over. Greg [the
author’s husband] had lots of happy memories
of the summers that he spent at his
grandparents’ farms. I think the last one
was somewhere near Cherry Valley, south
Fern was one of five children, and all of
them were good at coping. When I met her,
in 1945, she was keeping a fire going in a big
black cook stove, carrying buckets of water
from the well, maintaining the outhouse,
stoking the fireplace, and generally “ruling
the roost.” Greg’s father, when he came in
from his latest business deal, hunting session,
or card game, was trained to remove
his shoes. Actually, when he was particularly
late, he might throw his hat in first. If it
came sailing out again, he knew he’d need
to go and get a peace offering of some kind.
Fern kept an immaculate house, with
polished floors and furniture, and squeakyclean
windows with starched curtains. Also,
she was a good cook. She usually had a wellstocked
pantry. Her husband enjoyed shopping
and kept her well provided. However,
he was away a lot, and if she ran out of anything,
it was a three-mile trip to town, and
she did not drive.
Whenever we happened by, she could be
counted upon to whip up a good meal with
whatever was handy. Her biscuits were especially
good, and there was a never-ending
supply of jams and jellies.
She was particularly good at scrounging
in the woods. She knew where all the berries
were—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries,
cranberries, and even wild grapes.
During apple season, she hiked around
sampling all the wild apple trees to find the
best ones. There were apple pies, applecranberry
pies, applesauce, canned apple
juice (to use for pectin when making jellies),
and at Thanksgiving, there were pickled
crab apples, a real delicacy.
She taught her grandchildren to enjoy
sweet fern tea, and when in season, cooked
wild greens: pigweed, dandelion greens,
milkweed, and fiddlehead ferns. She knew
where they grew, when to pick them, and
how to cook them. She also made hand
cream using the fat of muskrat. And, of
course, she cooked all the fish and wild life
that the hunters provided.
There were goats for milk, and for awhile,
there were two pigs and a few ducks. I recall
a few down-filled pillows.
At the same time, she kept a huge garden.
When the asparagus and rhubarb were
in season, we were swamped with them. She
even grew celery, a real feat in this climate.
When the cucumbers were ready, there was
a siege of pickling.
As the years went by, they dug a well in
their basement and acquired plumbing, so
Fern no longer needed to carry water and
service the outhouse. Then she decided that
all the canning that she was doing needed to
be moved out of her immaculate kitchen.
There was all that room in the basement,
and all it needed was an outside entrance.
There was a big mound of dirt in front
of where that entrance should be, so she
started digging. Eventually, she got that entrance.
Then Mr. Gregson acquired a nice
used gas range and installed it for her. During
the pickling season, you could go down
there and smell that brine, and look forward
to all those good pickles.
The crowning glory of the tomato crop
was her chili sauce, and she was pretty
famous for it. I never acquired a flair for canning of any kind and had a rather disastrous
experience trying to do pickling, so
we learned to look forward to grandmother’s
chili sauce. Now that Fern is gone, my
daughter Kris has acquired the chili sauce
talent, so we count on her to supply the
family with what we all refer to as:
Grandmother’s Chili Sauce
12 large ripe tomatoes
1-1/2 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons salt
2 sweet green peppers
2 sweet red peppers
2 tablespoons pickling spices
3 tablespoons celery seed
2 cups vinegar
Peel and dice the tomatoes. Also
dice the peppers and chop the onions.
Put everything in a big pot, including
the spices, in a cheesecloth
bag, and simmer for a few hours
until you like the looks of it. Then
ladle it into sterilized jars and seal
immediately. It should make four or
Photo by Gene Ostertag, courtesy of Carol
was born in
1925 in Seattle,
and worked as
a draftsman and
War II. In 1945,
she married a
sailor from New
York State, and
they came to
the Adirondack Mountains to begin their
family. Seven children later, when the
youngest child was ten, Carol’s husband
Greg died at the age of 50. She has carried
on for another lifetime since then and
lived to tell her tales of creative careers,
brilliant friends, and progeny beyond
measure. Now in her eighties, she says
“I’m not looking for work any more. I’m
Sauce” comes from Carol’s forthcoming
book, Wet Socks, due in March 2013.
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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