Saturday, January 27, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different...

(I'm going to take a break from the curriculum dialogues and give my brain a little breathing room...)

I grew up in Mt. Kisco, New York, in Westchester County, which was basically a commuter town for people like my father, who took the 6:42 train into New York City every working day, arriving home on the 5:47 each night. My father was not around much when I was a child. I would wake up in time to see him off at the station with my Mom, and I would accompany her to pick him up, but after we came home we would have dinner. After dinner he would retire to his den—a small room just off the front porch where he kept his desk, his bookcases, his scrapbooks and hunting and fishing equipment—I would take my bath and get ready for bed. Sometimes he would read me a story before I went upstairs. He was a big fan of the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess. These stories, in which various animals (Peter Rabbit, Sammy Jay, Jimmy Fox, Johnny Chuck, Old Man Coyote) were given voices and personality traits and were made to interact in ways which put certain virtues and on display—were serialized in the New York World Tribune, and my father would read the current installment to me from the paper, and then neatly clip the story and paste it into a scrapbook after I had gone to bed. Whether or not he read me a story, my mother would always read to me before I went to sleep: Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Books were regular selections. I grew up surrounded with stories of talking animals. Those animals became quite real in my imagination.

My mother—like most mothers of that era, did not have a job outside the home. Her job was to take care of the thirteen room, three-story house on Croton Avenue which I lived in with my parents and my five older brothers and sisters. As I was growing up, I would tend to follow her from room to room as she cleaned and swept and made beds and did the laundry and cooked. I stayed close to her so that I would not have to worry about the wolf, the fox, the pig, and the other animals who I could see outside the windows waiting for me to be left alone so they could come and do whatever it was they were planning to do to me.

Our house had a large, flat, well-groomed front yard and a much larger, sloping, wild-looking back yard. The garage, separate from the house at the end of a long drive way leading down into the back yard, was surrounded by trees, one of which was a crabapple tree. Each year in the late summer as the dwarfish, wormy, sour crabapples began to fall to the ground, my mother would begin gathering the best of them up to make crabapple jelly. I don’t remember all of the mechanics of this process, although I was certainly there with her in the kitchen as she prepared the jelly. I remember large vats of boiling water, and muslin cloth through which the steamy, aromatic pulp was squeezed, and the clear amber liquid that wound up being poured into the rows of jars my mother had boiled and sterilized.

Once the jelly was made and put into jars, it went onto the shelves in the pantry where it became one of the staple foods of my childhood and beyond. Peanut butter and jelly is for me, even to this day, a sandwich, and not a very tempting sandwich at that. But peanut butter and crabapple jelly, well, that’s a meal, and it is one of the most satisfying meals in my repertoire of gustatorial choices. Comfort food.

We moved out of our house in Mount Kisco when I was eleven years old. We were moving to a farm in upstate New York, where it was my father’s intention to retire. It never happened. He died of a heart attack three months before the retirement was finalized. My mother wound up sending me off to boarding school for two years, and by the time I was living at home again, we were living in a small house in a small yard in Fairfield, Connecticut. We had no apple trees, and my mother, who now had to work, had no time to be making jelly.

From time to time in my adult years I would find a store which sold crabapple jelly, but as the supermarkets which drove all the smaller stores out of business began streamlining and standardizing their stock, crabapple jelly disappeared from my life.

Then one day, during a time in which I was spending part of each night reading Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Books and Thornton W. Burgess to my own three children in Randolph, Massachusetts, we got a catalog in the mail from the Vermont Country Store. (Let us pause for a moment to consider the postmodern ironies of a country store with a sophisticated web presence. Okay, that's enough. Back to the story already in progress.) In the back of the catalog was offered a selection of traditional jams and jellies, including, to my delight, crabapple jelly. For nearly twenty-five years the Vermont Country Store supported my addiction to crabapple jelly. The jelly comes neatly enclosed in a cardboard box. (It used to be a wood box, but times have changed. The jelly, thankfully, remains the same.) Each box contains six cylindrical jars about five inches high and an inch and a half around. Each jar contains enough jelly for ten or twelve sandwiches. Two or three years ago I gave up ordering the jelly on the grounds that it was a bit of self-indulgence—these jars ain't cheap—which was probably not logically (or financially) supportable.

But then this year a friend at my school who does business with the VCS learned of my attachment to the jelly, and sent away for a couple of jars and gave them to me for a Christmas present. So now, from time to time, as at lunchtime today, after coming home from three hours of admissions interviews, I can put together a small but satisfying repast that reconnects me with my past: a peanut butter and crabapple jelly sandwich. Can't beat it.

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