– Shelter Island, 1969

Grandma Munson always made her own bread, enough to last a whole week. She scooped flour into her mustard yellow earthenware bowl to a line that only her eyes could see. Running water over the inside of her wrist until it was just the right temperature, she filled a chipped china cup halfway with lukewarm water, then added yeast and sugar. Turning back to the earthenware bowl, she spooned in pillows of lard and strewed salt with no discernable measure. Rubbing the flour and lard between her fingers, she told me how butter was scarce during the Great Depression and the ration-card days of World War II. Oleo was tasteless, little improved by adding the packet of dye intended to mimic the rich yellow of real butter. And so she became accustomed to using lard, with its earthy animal essence, smelling like wet puppy on a rainy day.

Forming a well in the center of the flour laced with lard and salt, Grandma poured in the bubbling yeast and more lukewarm water, stirring it all with a long-handled wooden spoon. As the bread dough gathered, she took the bowl up in her left arm, inching her right hand down the handle of the spoon to get a better purchase, pulling the bread dough up and out, snapping it like some great elastic band. Then dumped the mass onto the floured counter, dusting her hands and the mound of dough with more flour, kneading the bread into submission. She left the dough to rise overnight, covered with a damp dish towel. Waking the next morning to the smell of yeast and fresh brewed coffee, I came downstairs to find her placing new-formed loaves in six bread tins, lacquered from years of baking.

But not all the dough went into the tins. Butter sizzled in a black cast iron skillet as Grandma plucked one nugget of bread dough after another with a fork cocked between her palm and ring finger. Flipping the walnut-sized bread cakes in the pan until golden brown, and then onto the platter for serving, she sent me to the cabinet to fetch the blackstrap molasses for dipping and for Pop Pop’s coffee. We ate breakfast around the dining room table, where Pop Pop outlined our chores for the day: there were summer apples to rescue from the deer, tomatoes to pick, and knives to sharpen for the fish that would surely be arriving later in the day, the next door neighbor having already promised a share of his catch in exchange for some vine-ripened beefsteaks.

Pop Pop called them his bluefish tomatoes because he put fish guts and heads into the ground before planting them each year. “Like Indians,” he told me, “nothing wasted.” The plants grew big and tall on an elaborate wooden scaffold that held them up to the sun, the whole surrounded by chicken wire to keep out the deer. The grass under the apple trees, still wet with dew, recorded the evidence of the midnight marauders: half-eaten apples and tracks just outside the tomato enclave. Shaking the trunk of each tree, Pop Pop pointed to the new fallen apples, pippins he called them, directing me to gather them up so Grandma could make pie. Then he turned his attention to his tomato vines, chortling over the size of this tomato and that one. Cradling one in the palm of his hand, he hefted it up and down, declaring it to be a whopper, a pound and a half at least.

Carrying bushel baskets laden with apples and tomatoes back to the house, we stopped at the asparagus bed, where Pop Pop drew out his pen knife and nipped the thickest spears close to the ground, placing the asparagus on top of his basket. We entered the back door to the scent of baking bread, heavy with the promise of lunch. After washing the apples in the sink, I sat on the stool watching Grandma peel, quarter, core and slice them into green-tinged wedges, the knife blade flashing in her hand. She blessed them with sugar, freckles of cinnamon and a touch of cornstarch, then turned to making the pie crusts. Once again ladling flour, salt and lard into the earthenware bowl, she cut the lard into the flour with two knives drawn past each other like dueling swords. Running the tap until it was icy cold, Grandma shook a shower of water over the bowl, drew the pie crust together, rolled it thin and draped it like elegant linen into each pie tin. Filling the tins impossibly high with apple slices, she draped a second crust over the top of each, pinching and turning, pinching and turning to seal the apples within.

Pulling the loaves of bread out of the oven, Grandma rapped them with a knuckle to be sure they were done, then turned them out on to wire racks, leaving them to cool on the back porch. The loaf tins she returned straightaway to the cabinet, the mahogany veneer of baked-on grease undisturbed by soap and water. The pies took their place in the oven, whiffs of burnt sugar and apple juice layering over yeast and lard as they bubbled and browned. The bowls washed and put away signaled time for lunch. And I was granted a prize: the heel of a still-warm bread loaf, slathered with butter and dusted with sugar, all chased with a tall glass of cold milk.

As promised, the neighbor-man arrived in mid-afternoon with bluefish for our dinner, leaving with the lesser tomatoes after a being treated to a discourse on the genesis of the largest bluefish tomato, destined to be served at Pop Pop’s table. Putting the still-twitching snapper blues in a bucket, Pop Pop selected two knives from the drawer and took them out to the barn as I trailed behind. There he filled a tin cup with water from the rain barrel and hung it over the grindstone. A slow steady drip, drip, drip of water fell through the hole punched in the bottom of the cup. Sitting astride the grindstone bench, Pop Pop’s foot pumped the treadle, starting the massive wheel turning, water flying as the stone gained speed. As he drew each knife against the stone, a keening wail joined the rhythmic thump of the treadle, now high, now low, the blades moving back and forth. Holding the knives up to the sunlight, Pop Pop tested the blades against his thumb, making me wince in anticipation. No blood did he draw, but found the blades to be worthy. Spreading out newspapers on the bench, he scaled the fish, a shower of sequins leaping into dusty sunbeams. Then dispatched heads, fins and tails with the heavy carving knife, and eviscerated each fish with the filet knife. On the way back to the kitchen, entrails and offal were buried a short way from the garden, in the plot allotted to the next year’s tomato harvest. “Always rotate crops,” he said, “just like the Indians. Don’t forget.”

Who could forget? The smell of butter browning flour-dredged fish, thick slabs of tomato, tender crisp asparagus. And better, apples reduced to a thick sauce encased in a crust that shattered in the mouth, releasing salt and sweet bathed in the rich earthiness of pork fat. Washing and drying dishes and silverware, folding linen napkins into napkin rings to be used the next day and the next day and the next day. All the days flowing together.

Bread Knots for Two

½ cup bread flour (for openers)
1 Tbs. wheat gluten
½ tsp. kosher salt
One splash of Unio olive oil (instead of lard)
½ cup lukewarm water
½ Tbs. yeast
½ tsp sugar

Run water over your wrist until it is just this side of warm. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the water, stir in with your finger and let it sit for 5-10 minutes.

Measure the flour, gluten, salt and olive oil into a small food processor. My old stand-by is a Royal LaMachine I, purchased when I was too strapped (more like too tight) to afford a Cuisinart. A couple of years ago I bought one on eBay for Melissa’s birthday … but I digress.

Pour the yeast into the food processor and process while slowly adding more flour until the dough just clumps into a ball. Take it out, dust it with flour (it should be pretty soft and sticky) and hand-knead it into a flattened disk. Place in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rise for an hour or two.

Divide the dough into eight pieces (break it in half, break each half in half again, and finally break the four pieces into eight … hopefully all about the same size). Hang the finger-sized pieces of dough over the edge of the bowl to rest.

Fill the bottom of a small cereal bowl with a puddle of olive oil (a few tablespoons), a sprinkling of kosher salt and some garlic (powder or fresh, strictly optional). Dredge each piece of dough in the oil, twist into a simple knot, and place on a cookie sheet.

Cover the bread knots with the damp towel and let them rise for another hour (if you have that long … I often hurry things along by putting the cookie sheet in a warm place). Pre-heat the oven to 400 and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.

Apple Pie (adapted from The Joy of Cooking, 1975)

3 lbs. Granny Smith apples
2/3 cup sugar
1 Tbs. cornstarch
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbs. cream

1 ¼ cups of flour
1/3 cup lard, chilled (best is partly frozen)
½ tsp. kosher salt
2-3 Tbs. iced water

Peel, core and slice the Granny Smith apples into a large bowl. Stir in the other filling ingredients and set aside while making the pie crust. BTW, I only make a top crust, my reasoning being that the bottom crust is always a sodden mess and just doubles the caloric guilt anyway.

Process the lard into the flour and salt until it is somewhere between pea-sized and corn meal. Transfer to a mixing bowl, sprinkle with ice water and gather together into a loose ball with your hands. It’s better to add a little too much water, as it is easier to remedy a sticky crust with a little more flour than it is to salvage a crust that is too dry.

Place the apple filling into a pie plate, roll out the crust, drape it over the apples and fold the crust up and over the edges of the pie plate. Cut slits in the crust, brush with a little cream and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 450 for 10-15 minutes, turn down to 350 and bake for another 30 minutes, then put a cookie sheet on a rack under the pie plate to catch drips. Keep checking every 5 minutes until the filling is visibly bubbling and a thin knife blade inserted into the apples meets no resistance. The apples should be soft to the point of chunky applesauce (IMHO).

2 thoughts on “– Shelter Island, 1969

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