Savannah, Georgia; July 23, 2017: I don’t blog much any more. I’m in my late 60s and am pretty much retired, though my yard keeps me busy. or, rather, it did until we put in an irrigation system, allowing me the freedom to travel. I’ve been to North Carolina twice recently, each time for a week; to Florida for a week at the beach with my best friend; and to Washington to be with my husband, Mikel, for 10 days. He works for the federal government, and the current situation in DC is nearly unbearable. The anger and fear on both sides of the political spectrum is palpable in the city. Everyone seems to be on edge. Though I have never owned a television, the news is inescapable these days. One of the ways I try to maintain some sense of calm is to broaden my perspective with historical research. I have long delved into culinary history, but more and more I find history in general to be fascinating. I read about war and court cases and economies and religion in hopes of understanding our volatile times.
World War I was a major event in western civilization that I previously knew little about. I knew that my maternal grandfather had served in France, but I knew little of the war’s background, only its outcome. And I had no idea what role my grandfather had played. I had always chosen to read history as it was lived through the arts and humanities, not in the courtroom and battlefield. Human rights, agriculture, musical styles, architecture, scientific discoveries, and anthropological studies piqued my interest far more than borders, guns, and legislation.
But I always adored my grandparents and wanted to know more — not about our ancestry, but about their lives and how they dealt with the times. I began by tracing my grandfather’s military service. Born in Hardin County, Tennessee, in 1892, he registered for the draft in 1917, when he was 25. A month later, he married my grandmother on July 28. The 100th anniversary of their wedding will be this week. And, on the same day, it will be mine and Mikel’s 24th.
A year later, Grandpa was sent overseas as a doughboy of the 79th Division of the 312th American Field Artillery. There were ten American divisions in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, each 26,000 soldiers strong. It was the biggest operation and victory of the AEF in the war. In the six weeks of battle that raged from September 26 to November 11, 26,277 American soldiers were killed and 95,786, wounded. But it ended the war.
The United States was an independent power and never officially joined the Allies, but 4 million military personnel were mobilized in the war. According to then Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, “over 25 per cent of the entire male population of the country between the ages of 18 and 31 were in military service.” Over 100,000 of them died, nearly half of them from the flu. The influenza epidemic in 1918 may have killed as many as 25 million people. It is estimated that 675,000 Americans died. Back home in Tennessee, my grandmother and her sisters and cousins and neighbors entertained themselves as best they could, ever fearful of death notifications. In the photo at right, they are acting out a male-less wedding. My grandmother is playing the groom.
I have always loved this photo, but I well knew the playful nature and great senses of humor that both my grandfather and my grandmother had. They came from tiny towns in western Tennessee but were worldly in some ways nonetheless. Many of my grandmother’s clichéed sayings that I rolled my eyes at as a child continue to prove true the older I get — everything from “A penny saved is a penny earned” to “Pretty is as pretty does.” But she also loved to say, “Lucy Martin came a-fartin’,” and Grandpa would accuse us all of stepping on frogs when he himself let one rip.
The photo at left, however, is more powerful. Grandpa had just returned from the war after 10 months away. She holds his helmet. He is home safe, but so many others were lost. There is poignancy and consolation and solace in the image, in spite of her relief. My mother would be born a year later.
When my grandfather died in 1962, I went to spend some time with my grandmother at her marvelous house out in the country. I have written extensively about that time with a real homemaker and gardener, when I learned so much about growing and preserving your own food. But we also dove into the trunks in the attic. She gave me a lot of photographs which I have kept to this day. I don’t remember seeing the helmet — they were issued to the doughboys after they arrived in France for their advanced training. But she did give me his army issue blanket — a rough but simple Army green wool, which the soldiers carried into the battle stations strapped across their chests. I used it for years and eventually gave it to one of my nephews. I wonder if he still has it.
It’s hard to imagine that there followed 14 years of Prohibition. Or that women’s suffrage wasn’t national until 1920. The temperance and suffrage movements were intricately entwined, but that’s another can of worms for someone else to blog about. Of course for me it always comes back to the food. In the thousands of cookbooks that I have owned, there is only one that belonged to my grandmother: the Bee Brand Manual of Cookery. First published by McCormick & Co., the spice company, in 1912, it remained in print in various forms for many years, and was a kitchen bible for many until the publication of The Joy of Cooking in 1931. Throughout the book Grandma added her own hand-written recipes — Fruitcake, Blackberry Jam Cake, Strawberry Preserves (“I cap berries and measure before I mash them….Preserves are bright if foam is skimmed off during cooking.”), Cucumber Pickles (“On 8th morning drain brine off and cover with boiling water. 9th morning drain and add teaspoonful alum and cover with boiling water….”), Cranberry Salad (the Jello salad I loved with cranberries, pecans, and celery), and various cookies.
She taught me that summer how to make jams and jellies, how to peel apples and dry them, and how to know when the potatoes were ripe. While the attic was filled with inestimable treasures — every Life and National Geographic magazine ever published as well as the family photos and army blankets — the basement served as her pantry of canned vegetables and pickles and preserves and apple butter. She loved to bake, but had all of her cavity-less teeth except the one she lost on a piece of hard candy as a child. Next to the sink, a lidded glass sphere sat on a metal stand. It held her sugar cookies. Though these cookies were made with the same dough that we rolled thin, cut into the shapes of Christmas trees, reindeer, bells, and stars, then decorated with colored sugar glazes for the holidays, the ones in Grandma’s kitchen were plumper and seasoned with nutmeg or mace. In the untitled version at left, the recipe calls for butter, sugar, milk, eggs, flour, cream of tartar, soda, and vanilla and a “hot oven.”It is basically the same recipe I use today and which I posted on the blog 10 years ago with a Christmas menu.
Thirty years later, after yet another war, Grandma reminisced: “In the 1920 [sic] Cookies I made for Rebecca [my mother] & Bud [my uncle].” The entry is dated 1-20-59. The proportions are the same but she has substituted “shortening” for butter. “Grate nutmeg over top,” she adds. By that time, she had seven grandchildren and we saw her perhaps once or twice a year — at Easter or Christmas. We were all used to making our own sugar cookies by then, with a silver dragée as the clapper on the bells (always red!), chocolate sprinkles on the reindeer horns, and a red nose on only one of the reindeer-shaped cookies. The angel wings shone with sugar crystals.
Every year my sister Nancy, who was closest to Grandma, makes tin after tin of the cookies. I think I will make some this week to take to my sisters and some to Mikel. It is, after all, our anniversary.