Arlington Heights writer remembers when everything was handmade
A splashy headline in the food section of The New York Times recently suggested that handmade pasta is the rage. As my mother-in-law, who was born about the time of the first handmade pasta "rage," would have said, "What goes around comes around. Handmade pasta is just better."
Imagining those New York cooks with flour "frosting" their hands and seeping into their apron pockets brings me back to the day when our long-ago neighbor Henry Leark described to me his mother's kitchen accomplishments, including the making of pasta.
"My mother made the spaghetti and everything all herself. Oh, yeah, roll it out on the kitchen table and take a knife and cut it. In strips that long."
Henry Leark's theme, principally, was that his mother had everything "to hand." She bought flour in 100-pound bags. "She'd open up the seams of the sacks and use them for towels." There was no such thing as going uptown every five minutes and getting something to eat.
Putting aside the subject of pasta, I am amazed at Henry's recipe for keeping pork sausage indefinitely. On a brisk fall day when the last apples were falling to the ground, Henry's father would butcher half a pig.
"Used to make a lot of sausage. He'd cook the meat, put it in crocks, render the lard and pour it over the meat." Henry told me you could save it for months and months and months in the basement.
When you were hungry for sausage you would brush your fat back and pull out your piece of meat. "No refrigeration."
Henry slept on a corn husk mattress that his mother made.
"You seen sweet corn. You keep pulling the husks off until you get the corn in your hand. You have that all dry, bone dry. Then you put it in a great big whatdoyoucallit and make a mattress out of it. We used to sleep on them. You did everything you had to do to get along in those days. Everybody was in the same boat."
Henry's mother, like everyone in this orchardy town, canned all her own cherries, "canned a lot of stuff," according to Henry. The potatoes lasted all winter on the floor of the basement. Apples were kept on a higher layer.
Chickens were fresh. When Henry's mother wanted a chicken for Sunday dinner, she delegated an under-chef to find a bird, chop off its head, and laboriously pull out its feathers. Chicken feathers weren't that useful, but duck and goose feathers made good pillow stuffing.
Like his mother, Henry Leark was a man of many skills and talents. He had a rich perspective on life which underlaid his sense of humor.
I recall his telling me the story of one of the most important social occasions of his life. He wanted to make a good impression.
"I can still remember the first time I met my wife. They had spaghetti. I thought what the devil is this? I didn't want to act like I was too dumb, but I couldn't figure out what it was until I got it on my plate. And then I saw. Oh, my God! They had bought it."