A Cold January Evening / Paul Rest
When I was growing up, the New Year began with a culinary change. Sadly the remaining Christmas tins were slowly being depleted of their delicious, sugary contents. Outdoors, the weather was often below zero with overcast slate gray skies and the streets a mess with slushy snow, now sprinkled with a coating of coal dust. When the Christmas tree came down on Epiphany, the “season” was officially over.
But then interesting things revolving around food began to happen. My mother would discover a jar of canned cherries from two years before, now extra delicious and syrupy, perfect on top of an angel food cake. Our next-door neighbor across the street would drop off a venison roast from his kill during the last November’s hunting season. A venison stew slow cooked over the course of the day would be our stick-to-ones ribs dinner that night.
Another neighbor would bring by a brace of freshly killed and cleaned rabbits. After being braised in a cast iron skillet, these would be put in my mother’s oval roasting pan with cut vegetables, her home-made beef stock, a sprig of rosemary and cooked until juicy and tender. This would be served on a dinner plate piping hot with potatoes, carrots and fresh dark bread from the German bakery in town.
Trips to our cellar under our house would then become an important part of our diets during these winter months. The truth be told, it was always a dark and mysterious place that scared the bejesus out of me more than once. There was only one low watt bulb that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room, which meant the room was in a perpetual state of semi-darkness. The walls were brick and the floor was earthen. There were three windows, think small, very small, covered with so many cobwebs and dust it barely emitted any outside light. The far wall was lined with shelves which was where my mother put all the vegetables and fruits she canned during the summer and fall months. Apricots, peaches, pears, string beans, peas and other foods from our garden were canned in labeled Mason jars.
On the floor were stones jars containing pickles, beets and other root vegetables awaiting our winter table. At times, cases of a locally made soft drink would be stacked in a corner where boxes of apples and bushels of onions and potatoes would be stored. The air was filled with a heady mix of what was upon the earth (apples) and under the earth (potatoes and onions). A basket or two of walnuts would later appear, to be used for my mother’s future Christmas baking or set on the kitchen table as snacks to munch on during an afternoon visit from a neighbor.
Occasionally we would receive jars of olives from our neighbor down the hill who had a cousin in far off Southern California. Or, a whole hickory smoked ham would be brought by and then hung on one of the gigantic nails that had been hammered in the cellar’s crossbeam ages ago. And on occasion, bottles of homemade wine (usually terrible tasting stuff) would show up on the cellar’s shelves. A gift from the gruff man who had a garden in the lot down the hill. My mother usually used this ungodly potion for cooking, adding a little sugar (maybe, lots of sugar) to help it along. It especially helped when she pulled a sinewy cross rib roast from the deep freezer. The liquid somehow transformed the almost uneatable into something that with a knife and fork and a little work yielded some good pieces of hearty meat when dipped in the rich dark gravy.
With the fields now fallow and laying under a blanket of winter snow, the local farmers would then start appearing at our back door with gifts of bacon, pork roasts, chops, steaks, sausages and other farm products. These were “thank you” gifts to my parents. My dad, a minister, was “on call” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When someone became ill, after the doctor was called, the next call was for my dad. The phone was downstairs in the hallway and had this ungodly loud ring that would jar us all awake, no matter the time of the day or night. When those calls would happen, he would answer, quietly get dressed and leave, often for hours. Some times the crisis would pass and he would return early and other times there would be an announcement of a funeral at the following Sunday service. All of these visits he did were appreciated and not forgotten by the local farmers and tradesmen.
So the winter months, the beginning of the year, were months of hearty meat dishes for dinner, stews, casseroles and roasts served with potatoes, carrots and what the jars in our cellar would provide us and arrived from our neighbors and those in our small community. It was food that would keep our bellies full and our bodies warm until the days lengthened and we began to notice the crocuses and tulips popping their heads up through the last of the winter snow.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin