by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Some of my grandmother’s possessions arrived here the other day. They have been in storage a long, long time and, at last, my brother and sister decided (no surprise this) that I, as an historian, should store these things until they (or my sister’s 2 children) should be ready to take on the task of dealing with items that are valuable but which no one really wants… the trouble with “heirlooms”.
Anyway, one box of the many boxes received here contained my grandmother’s best china. It’s Lusterware, made in Japan, highly decorative, but very thin and fragile. Irritatingly, two cups were broken, thanks to UPS; that is, however, another story…
What is the story (as you’ll see) is that grammie’s desert plates all arrived intact… carrying with them a host of memories which seized me the minute my helper Mr. Joseph opened the box.
This china, you see, was only used on the Most Important Occasions. And children were not allowed to use it, or even touch it, for Any Reason. I wasn’t allowed to eat off it until I was in college, and even then the idea seemed unduly fast, even heretical. Where china was concerned, no rushing was the way it was; other things, too.
I don’t remember how many times I was allowed to eat off one of these honored desert plates; not often. But one of those rare occasions was when grammie, Victoria Burgess Lauing, served one of her entirely memorable, joy to behold, more joy to devour, pies you never forget. And if (as was common) the conversation was all the usual family-get-together type (dull as dishwater) until someone (could have been me) “mistakenly” mentioned one of the (numerous) forbidden subjects which even when whispered was sure to lead to the desired altercation, hot words, family entertainment…
but I digress.
With grammie (we never thought of her as “Vic” though that was what her friends called her… we were shocked by this… but never said so)… with grammie I want to make perfectly clear, it was always about the pie, the whole pie, and nothing but the pie… and when the Lusterware was added, it was,quite simply, the stuff of family lore.
Grammie was a renowned cook, so renowned that all her children (including my mother) could hardly boil water; I like to think they were in awe of her abilities and never ventured to outdo her. That was inconceivable. Or perhaps, like the children of so many celebrated people the talent couldn’t be passed on.
In any event I feel bound to tell you that every single pie grammie ever produced was delicious; it was a matter of pride, as I daresay it was with every other Illinois housewife of the period. But the plain, irrefutable truth is that grammie never baked a mediocre, second-rate pie with any deformity whatsoever. We’d all rather have a hand cut off than say otherwise. So her cherry pies, her blueberry pies, her show-stopping pumpkin pies, her peach pies… but you get the idea… were, each and every crumb of them, astonishing.
But the pie that took the cake was her rhubarb pie… and as her “helper” from an early age with this important project, I feel it only fitting and proper to tell you about my pivotal role… and about the rhubarb, too, which always rose to the occasion whenever my magic grannie summoned its potential and turned its bitterness into poetry.
A minute’s walk from her kitchen, always spruce and never out of control, was the kitchen garden, mostly vegetables, some fruits, always flowers, too, for grammie had an eye for color and arrangement; here, too, I was her “little helper” because I liked vegetables and adored flowers. Those were sufficient passport into the significant zones of her influence. My grandfather was per force allowed in; he loved using his tractor in the largish garden; it was his special task. I was a card-carrying adult before I realized that the apple-pie ordered garden was not only testament to his very Teutonic traits… but also to the fact that he loved her so and took this entirely personal, and useful, too, way to show it. Young people, as we know when we aren’t one, see much but the meaning often follows years behind.
As the designated “helper” (interestingly enough and to their complete irritation not another of her numerous grand children received this high accolade); it was mine and mine alone. These things can happen when you are the first born son and grandson, you know what I mean if you are one and probably take umbrage if you’re not.
As helper, I say, I was given the task of selecting just the right rhubarb stalks, for you may very well imagine grammie was precise and unyielding about ingredients. They must be just so.
I may imagine, for I can no longer recall, how she took me by the hand (for she believed in education and knew when to do her part) and showed me the rhubarb patch. She would have shown me, daughter of England that she was, sharing the great queen’s name, too, how a garden is fashioned and what must be done; in this case regarding the all-important rhubarb stalks. If they were poorly chosen, they might get into and threaten perfection. (She never told me, but I know now, that would never have happened; she had a keen eye for such things and she never overlooked the crucial fundamentals. Substandard stalks, or anything else inferior and not quite good enough for her cuisine and her family, they would have been promptly removed and sent to the compost heap.
In due course, I learned the key facts about rhubarb. First, the leaves are toxic and could quickly and forever end your pie-eating career. She made it plain that testing her on this matter would result in any number of demerits.
She made it clear just which stalks were desirable; which ones might be down the road apiece (but not yet); which ones were too old and past consideration, which ones needed to be picked, and picked at once. It was rhubarb 101 and in my mind’s eye, I still see us as we were these 60 years and the high importance of the task in time I did alone, without supervision, knowledgeable myself and reliable. She had selected, as she knew, just the right “helper”.
Once the stalks were brought inside (with the poisonous leaves removed), she perused my work and made appropriate comments, with a courtesy that was all her own. Then she said I could run along, and it was seldom, if ever, that I left without a tip, for she knew, too, having had such days herself, that no child should ever feel impoverished or neglected when so very little could make such a difference.
I doubt that she kept up with the latest news about rhubarb and its uses; she had a system that met the needs and garnered unceasing, universal approbation. Who could improve on perfection?
But perhaps in 1947, the year that brought her in February, her first grand child, and a son to boot, she saw this bit of news about the plant she knew so very well, its secrets, uses, deficiencies, and the way to wend them all to her will… Perhaps in 1947, she noticed that a court in New York State made a significant ruling about rhubarb. The court noted that rhubarb is not a fruit but a vegetable. However, it also noted that Americans in common usage regarded rhubarb as a fruit. And so the court ruled that rhubarb for purposes of regulation and duties must be regarded as a fruit. A side effect was an immediate reduction in taxes paid.
Her comment might well have been of the down-home common sense variety, thinking the court had done the right thing, recognizing the reality and using their noggins. Then, with the certainty that she was sharing a masterpiece, she would have offered you some pie; rhubarb if you were lucky.
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at worldprofit.com and JeffreyLantArticles.com
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Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.