Sunday, August 28, 2011

Grandma Minnie's Currant Jelly

Currant bushes

I am five years old, picking currants in the back yard of Grandma Minnie’s house. I am wearing a light summer dress, maybe the one with the hoop skirt and frilled hem. My blond curls are glued to my damp temples. 

Me and big sis in Grandma's garden
  It is the summer of 1954, and I am going to watch Grandma Minnie make currant jelly. The currant bushes are at the edge of the lawn that goes up the hill to the cemetery fence. My sister and I each have an enamel bucket into which we drop the perfect round globes of translucent red. We do everything together  --  she the leader and me the follower, but on this particular occasion her year-and-a-half head start on life doesn’t give her any particular advantage.  I can pluck berries as quickly and as nimbly as she can.

Plump red currants

When our pails are full, we bring them in to Grandma, where the currants are washed, boiled, strained, and mixed with sugar and pectin to become quivering melt-in-your-mouth jelly in jars topped with paraffin plugs. We take several home . . .

I almost believe that even now, if I go down to the basement in the house where I grew up, I will find some of those jars in the corner cabinet in the laundry room, with labels in Grandma’s handwriting: Currant Jelly, August 1954

Currant jelly on wheat toast
I didn't find Grandma Minnie's recipe for currant jelly in her notebook, but it was easy enough to find several recipes on the Internet. Similar to what I recall about  Minnie's recipe, these call for large quantities of sugar, as currants are notoriously tart. The jelly is tasty spread on whole wheat toast, or can also be used as a glaze on your favorite Dutch apple cake recipe. If you'd like to try that, be sure to beat the jelly with a fork, then spread it on top of the apple cake as soon as you take it out of the oven.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Tale of the Traveling Trunk

This week we return to the Mohawk Valley in Upstate New York to re-connect with Grandma Minnie’s side of the family.
This is the tale of the traveling trunk, and how it was lost and found again.
The mysterious trunk
On a sunny summer day when the blueberries were ripening in the hillside garden behind the house, a trunk arrived on the porch of the family home. It was an old worn traveling trunk barely a yard long, and less than two feet high. It was made of wood, covered in black oilcloth, with rusted brass hinges and hasps. Its leather straps were stiff with age. Opening it with difficulty, Aunt Doris found a faded lining of pink rose wallpaper. There was a set of initials and a name etched inside: FKF and MLWetterau, Ft. Plain. 
Trunk interior
The trunk was over 80 years old. Doris and Glen were able to piece together its tale from their own childhood memories, along with the help of the family who had returned it to its home in Fort Plain.

It was the era of flappers and 23-skidoo when Great-Uncle Frederic Fineour went off to Hamilton College in 1923. His was the first set of initials etched into the frame of the trunk.
My great-grandparents must have been very proud of Frederic, the first in the family to attend college. Hamilton College in Clinton, New York (just south of Utica) is a small liberal arts college, the third oldest college in New York State, having been chartered by the Board of Regents in 1812. I imagine that in the trunk my Great-grandma Nan packed an assortment of woolen knickers, neat white shirts, and pullovers such as Frederic is seen wearing in old photos in the family album. 
Frederic 1926
I remember Uncle Frederic as a robust man with a booming baritone voice and a hearty manner, wreathed in fragrant pipe smoke. Photos from the mid-1920’s show him as a dapper young man, already with the ubiquitous pipe. During what must have been his senior year in college, he acquired his first car, a huge heavy Ford. When Uncle Frederic graduated from college in 1927 and took his first teaching job in a small town in central New York, he returned the trunk to the family home in the Mohawk Valley.

The traveling trunk sat forlorn and empty in the woodshed behind the house for four years, until the next family member was ready to go off to college. In the meantime the Roaring ‘20’s had ended and the Great Depression had begun. My father was eleven years old, and helping to support the family with the earnings from his newspaper route, when his eldest sister Margaret (Frederic’s niece) graduated from high school and went to Albany to attend what was then the New York State College for Teachers. We now know this institution as “UAlbany,” the State University of New York at Albany.
The second set of initials was Marg’s: Margaret Louise Wetterau. Again the trunk was packed with woolens and tweeds, and perhaps a dressy dress or two like the one Aunt Marg wore for her high school graduation in June of 1931.
Marg:  high school graduation 1931

When Marg came to Albany, the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building on Washington Avenue was brand new, and it was the tallest building between New York City and Chicago. Marg studied English on the newly expanded college campus on Western Avenue, and probably did her student teaching in the Milne School adjacent to the college. Hopefully she and her classmates were oblivious to an event that took place during the fall semester of her freshman year: the shooting death of gangster Legs Diamond, only a few blocks southeast of the campus.

Aunt Marg graduated from the State College for Teachers in 1935 and sent the trunk back home when she got a job teaching English in Schenectady. But the trunk did not stay home for long this time. That same year, Marg’s younger sister Glenadore finished high school, packed the trunk and went off to Albany to study at Mildred Elley Secretarial School. Her flawless complexion and bright smile earned her the nickname “Peachy.” 
Glenadore 1935
At Mildred Elley, Glen studied shorthand and business, and learned to type on an Underwood manual typewriter, which would seem to us today an impossibly clunky and cumbersome machine. Her diploma from Mildred Elley earned her a secretarial position at Niagara Mohawk Power Company upon graduation, where she rose to a supervisory position before retiring in 1980. When she began her job, she moved into the apartment in Schenectady that her sister Marg had already rented, and sent the trunk back home to Fort Plain.
Great-Uncle Frederic moved several times during his long career, and used the trunk again each time he moved. His teaching career took him first to Collins Center, then to Springville in the Southern Tier of New York State, where he became the principal of an elementary school. I remember visiting his family there when I was a young child. It was the era of the “Dick and Jane” primers, and Uncle Frederic gave my sister and me a couple of extra books from his school. And that was how I learned to read: by poring over the stories about Dick, Jane, and their friendly little dog Spot.
Frederic’s children may have used the trunk to store toys, or perhaps they also used it when they went to college. But after Uncle Frederic passed away in 1979, the now dilapidated trunk was either given away or sold at a yard sale, and the rest of the family forgot about it.

So how did the trunk arrive back at its original home in the Mohawk Valley? In the fall of 2004, the Mayor of Fort Plain received a letter with an intriguing story: a resident of Hilton, NY had found the mayor’s address on the Internet. She wrote: “Years ago we bought a trunk from a garage sale while living between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Over the years it was used to store things like our sons’ sports equipment. It was shifted from house to house, garage to shed…” Now interested in genealogy, Mrs. G. wondered whether the family who had owned the trunk was still around; if so, she and her husband would be glad to give it back to its original owners to keep in their family.
The owner of the trunk and my aunts corresponded back and forth several times before arranging a mutually convenient time for a friend of theirs to deliver it. And so that’s how it arrived back home in Fort Plain after crisscrossing New York State several times. It is now at the home of my sister Margriet (Aunt Marg’s namesake), who plans to restore it.
The traveling trunk will soon have shiny new brass hinges and hasps, new leather straps and a new layer of oilcloth. But I doubt it will be off on another trip anytime soon. This time we plan to allow the trunk a well-deserved rest.

                                           *   *   *
The blueberries are ripening once again in the hillside garden. Maybe they will be used in Doris’s recipe for Blueberry Tea Cake:

Tea Cake Recipe

I tried the recipe out this afternoon, modernizing it somewhat. For the most part, I used the same ingredients on Doris's list, substituting margarine for the shortening and reducing the sugar by half; 1/2 cup sugar seemed sufficient. I followed these steps:

- Pre-heat oven to 350 F. degrees (175 Celsius), or 325 F.  (160 Celsius) if using a glass pan. 
- Grease and flour an 8" x 8" pan. 
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
- Cream shortening or margarine with sugar. 
- Add egg and mix well.
- Add flour mixture and milk alternately while mixing on low; do not overbeat.
- Fold in blueberries.
- Pour batter into pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean (approximately 40 minutes). 

- Serve with tea:

Teacake with teapot

The cake is not very different from blueberry muffins, but you can make it more festive for a tea party with a dab of whipped cream.

Teacake - ready to eat!

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Altamont Enterprise on September 14, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Last(ing) Impressions, Part II

View from terrace
The evenings were long in mid-summer in the Netherlands. Dusk came upon us only at 10:00 P.M., which gave us ample time to stroll, read, or daydream. It was relaxing to climb up to the third-floor terrace of Sonja's house in Zaandam, to chat while taking in the view. In the distance we could see the churning arms of the modern counterparts of traditional Dutch windmills. Depending on which way the breeze was blowing, we might catch a whiff of the chocolate factory a few miles away, or perhaps the more rural scents of outlying farms.

Directly below the terrace, we could see the canal behind the house, and across the canal, the neat homes of the neighbors.

It was on one such evening that I realized that pretty much all aspects of Dutch history and culture could be traced back to the two essential elements before me at that very moment: wind and water.

The water of course, is ubiquitous, whether in the form of canals, lakes, or the sea. And the wind  --  well, the wind enabled Dutch engineers to pump the water, beginning in the 14th century, by means of inter-connected windmills, creating dry land from lakes and marshes.

Land created by this engineering feat allowed the population to expand and establish dairy farms; hence the delicious Dutch cheeses we learned to enjoy. Windmills also ground grain to feed cattle and to bake bread; sawed wood to build homes and ships; and even ground pigment for paint  --  the green paint for the traditional houses of Zaandam, but also the pigments used by the classical Dutch painters.

Pigment-grinding mill at Zaanse Schans

The wind also billowed the sails of Dutch ships that carried the seafaring merchants of the Dutch East India company far afield in search of exotic spices, and those of the Dutch West India Company to New Netherland to barter for furs from the Native Americans.

It was this trade in beaver pelts that brought my earliest Dutch ancestor, Cornelis Van Slyke, to the New World in 1634.

One day while exploring the city center of Amsterdam, I was amazed to come upon a house built that very year:

1634 Doorway

A doorway into the past if there ever was one!

(Many thanks to cousin Robbertjan for the photo of the mill in Zaanse Schans.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Last(ing) Impressions

On my last full day in the Netherlands, I struck out on my own in Zaandam, without a relative to guide or interpret for me. I wanted to set myself the challenge of shopping, visiting a monument, and ordering a meal in Dutch with no assistance. (My level of proficiency in the language is probably akin to that of a four-year-old.) Would I stick out as a foreigner, or be able to blend in unobtrusively?

Canal in Zaandam
Not ten minutes out of the house where we were staying (at cousin Sonja's house in a labyrinth of lanes and canals), I was accosted by a young woman on a bicycle asking me for directions  --  in Dutch, of course! Well, as least I didn't look like a foreigner, I thought. But taken by surprise at being taken for a native Netherlander, I could only stammer a reply in English, which startled my inquirer to no end.

I did better ordering a snack of appelgebak met slagroom (apple cake with whipped cream) in a cafe near the train station, where I actually understood when the waiter asked me if it was tasty. I went on to a card store, where I bought a birthday card for my sister. Hearing my accent, the cashier asked if I was German. "Neen, ik ben Amerikanse," I replied, remembering the phrase I had repeated over and over from the language CD I had borrowed from the library the previous month. So far, so good, I thought. At least I'm making myself understood.

I continued on to the pedestrian shopping mall behind the train station, where I purchased a bestseller I saw advertised in a shop window: "In Mijn Dromen," (In My Dreams), by Simone van der Vlugt. It's described as a literary thriller. Okay, I thought, I'll have to work my way up to that one. My reading level in Dutch is closer to "Nijntje," ("Miffy"), a picture book series for pre-schoolers.

Next I ventured into a clothing shop, where a couple of brightly colored t-shirts caught my eye. Luckily, I had also studied the section on shopping in my phrasebook, so choosing a couple of shirts, I asked an employee, "Mag ik dit proberen?" and she directed me to the trying-on booths in the rear of the store. I may not have used the correct word, but she understood me after all.

To the right of the shopping mall was a narrow street that led to the monument I wanted to visit: a wooden house dating from the early 17th century, where Czar Peter the Great of Russia had stayed for a short time in 1697. To protect the old wooden house, it is now enclosed in a brick outer structure built many years later, making the structure "a monument within a monument."

Czar Peter House, Zaandam

Peter the Great had come to Zaandam to study Western methods of shipbuilding, when the Zaanstreek was an important shipbuilding area. Inside the house you can see the tiny wooden cupboard bed into which the 6 ft. 8 inch (2 meter) tall emperor supposedly folded his lanky frame:

Cupboard bed
This historical site has been visited by a number of dignitaries over the centuries, not the least of whom was Napoleon Buonaparte, who reportedly said upon viewing the cramped sleeping quarters, "Nothing is too small for great men." I was able to decipher much of the historical information in Dutch around the walls of the enclosing structure, but there was also a multilingual brochure available for those who don't read Dutch.

Wandering around after leaving the Czar Peter House, I came upon a small square named after the Czar, where a half-dozen or so cafes and restaurants catered to the weekend shoppers. I sat down at a table with a good view of the square so that I could indulge my hobby of people-watching, and ordered a typical Dutch lunch  -- an uitsmijter, a sort of open-faced fried egg sandwich with cheese. Mine also had bacon and tomato, and it was lekker (delicious)!

As I enjoyed my lunch, I gazed out at the monument in the middle of the square. It was impossible to tell from the rear what the figure represented was supposed to be doing:

Statue in Zaandam
After I finished eating, I went around to the other side of the statue to get a better look.

Czar Peter Monument
Of course  -- it was a statue of the Czar himself, intent upon plying the tools of the shipbuilding trade the Zaandamer scheepstimmerman had taught him.

I peered at the inscription on the pedestal, which indicated that the statue had been presented to the city of Zaandam by Czar Nicholas II, the last of the Russian czars, in 1911.


1911  --  the same year my grandparents had left the Netherlands to emigrate to the United States. And so on my last day in the country, I was led back full circle to the reason I had come to the Netherlands   --  to reconnect with the country my forebears had left behind a century ago.

                                                                              *  *  *

I've been back home now for two weeks. And so now I awake to the chirp of a chickadee instead of the warble of a European blackbird; at lunchtime I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of an uitsmijter; I walk down to the Hudson River after lunch instead of to the nearest canal; and I take the bus to work instead of riding a bicycle. If I take my bike out on the weekend, I am usually the sole cyclist on my neighborhood street instead of peddling along among a swarm of bike riders.

But I can still have appelgebak for dessert. The only catch is that I have to make it myself.

Homemade apple cake