Aunt Julia’s Pudding Tale


Wilford Cameron Ross and Julia Lewis Ross on their wedding day, 25 Oct. 1911.
She was 18, he was 20.

Aunt Julia's Pudding Story

Julia plunged down the back pasture slope, treading underfoot the purple violets and yellow disks of dandelions that studded the fresh spring grass with color. The empty bucket in her right hand rasped against her starched calico skirt, with every hasty step, her round face was pink with heat and distress.
She came to an abrupt halt at the pasture gate, wiped her face with her apron before sliding through the narrow space by the gatepost. Walking slowly now she crossed the dooryard to the back porch, let herself in to the dimness of the entry hall and through to the kitchen.
The kitchen smelled of scalded milk, burned sugar, boiled potatoes. Crossing to the dry sink under the east window, Julia clattered the pail alongside an enameled kettle caked with a sticky residue. 
Pudding. She had intended making pudding as a surprise for supper, but the project had gone wrong.

The day began in an ordinary way, Andrew coming in with two pails of still foamy milk, Mac in from tending the team of work horses. Julia had the table set by the time Mother had breakfast ready, pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, oatmeal porridge. The family ate quickly, quietly, as the early sunlight slanted across the worn boards of the kitchen floor. Father and the boys had jobs at the Graphite works, Father as a foreman, Andrew assigned through the summer to work in the stables, Mac using the team of Belgians to haul timber.
Rising from her place at the table, Mother announced, “ I need to drive over the mountain road to brother Squire's; Betsy sprained her ankle several days ago and I expect she could use some help. Mac, harness Sal and hitch her to the buggy for me; I'll be ready to go as soon as I scald the milk dishes.”

With the men of the family off to work, Julia hurried to clear the table. She was concerned for Aunt Betsy. “How did she sprain her ankle?” Mother, dipping hot water from the reservoir of the wood stove, answered from behind a cloud of steam, “She tripped on the back steps heading to the clothesline with a basket of wet sheets. Knowing Betsy she'll be struggling to tend the house and do the ironing when she should be staying off that ankle for a day or two. If I spend the day there I can keep her off her feet while I do up the ironing. Hurry now, with the chamber work while I wash the dishes and put away the milk.”

Early June and school closed for the summer. Julia wondered if she would be accompanying Mother to help Aunt Betsy, but wasted no time in questions.  She quickly made her bed, smoothing the patchwork quilt, fluffing the pillows, did the same for the towering oak bed that was shared by her brothers in the room across the hall.. She bundled the rag rugs downstairs, shook them over the back porch rail, trotted upstairs to align them neatly alongside the beds. 
Mother was packing items into a basket, a loaf of bread, a tin of molasses cookies, a jar of pickled beets. Before Julia could ask her question, Mother stated briskly, “ I've made up the fire and while its going good I'd like you to bring up a dozen or so potatoes, scrub them and put them on to boil. Don't bother to peel them; when they're done, drain them and set them on the broad shelf in the pantry to cool. We'll have them sliced and warmed up with fried ham for supper. Don't try to keep the fire going. 
When you've tended the hens and washed the eggs, take a dishpan and that old bone-handled knife and dig a mess of dandelion greens. They'll taste good tonight.” 

With that, Mother swept out the door, starched skirt rustling, basket over her arm. Julia watched until the buggy was out of sight round the bend in the lane, then turned to her tasks. The chickens, released from the nightly protection of the chicken house, clustered about Julia's feet as she flung cracked corn into the shallow wooden trough, brought fresh water from the backyard pump. She collected eggs, carrying them gently in a fold of her apron to be wiped clean at the kitchen sink, then stashed in a shallow brown bowl on the pantry broadshelf. 

The dirt-floored cellar smelled of  potatoes, apples and onions wintered there in wooden bins. There were only a few potatoes left, wrinkled, slightly shriveled. Mac had already planted those that had been allowed to sprout.  Julia picked out a dozen, took them up to the kitchen, scrubbed them with cool water from the pump. Fetching a kettle from the big pantry she lingered to appreciate the neat rows of glass canisters that lined the wooden shelves. Her eyes rested on the container of pearl tapioca and a plan sprang instantly to mind. With the potatoes put on to boil, while the stove was hot, she would make pudding for supper—a sweet surprise to go with plain fare.

Julia was three months past her 12th birthday. She had been helping Mother in the kitchen since she was big enough to stand on a stool and carefully dry silverware as it came steaming from the rinse pan. She had never made pudding. Mother cooked from long habit and experience rather than written recipes, but Julia had watched and pudding couldn't be that difficult.
Settling the potatoes toward the back of the stove where they would stay at a comfortable simmer, Julia returned to the pantry for a large saucepan, the jar of tapioca. Sugar was in a canister on the hutch Mother used as a work station. Julia remembered that the tapioca needed to soak in the milk for a few minutes before being set over the heat of the stove. She fetched a quart of yesterday's milk from the ice house outside the back door, dumped it into the saucepan and after a moment's thoughtful hesitation added a heaping cupful of tapioca, a generous cup of sugar. She knew the mixture needed eggs added at some point, so broke four into a bowl and set them aside. Placing the saucepan on the edge of the stove, she skipped upstairs to open bedroom windows to the fresh early summer air and whisk a feather duster over the old dressers and chairs.

Fifteen minutes later Julia prodded with a wooden spoon at the glutinous mess in the pudding pan. The mixture was already so thickened that cooking it would be difficult. Pondering, she decided that the ratio of milk to tapioca wasn't quite correct, so in went more milk and the eggs. Pulling the kettle to the hottest part of the stove Julia settled herself to stir. As the mixture grew hotter it swelled, bulging toward the top of the pan. Julia stirred frantically, scraping as the too thick stodge began to scorch on the bottom of the pan. The eggs instead of blending nicely with the milk had formed unappetizing yellow streaks. The ever thickening pudding boiled with a plopping sound, bubbling, spattering hotly onto Julia's hands as she yanked the kettle away from the heat. Her face was hot, sweat prickled along the parting of her hair. Tears of frustration blurred her vision. She let go of the spoon which stood   stiffly in the hotly thick, scorched mess.
This was not pudding. It was never going to become pudding. 

Fetching potholders, Julia dragged the saucepan onto a trivet. The potatoes were done, and she carried them to the sink, carefully poured off the water, left them cooling in the kettle on the drainboard. Avoiding the stove she replaced the canister of sugar in its place on the hutch, took the depleted jar of tapioca into the pantry and shoved it behind a big tin of cornmeal—out of sight.

Julia stood on the back porch, hands twisted in her apron. The sun was sailing through a clear blue sky, a light breeze cooled her hot cheeks and brought the scent of lilacs from the twisted old bush at the corner of the house. A robin flew down from one of the dooryard maples, bounced across the grass searching for worms. Julia sighed, turned to go inside and deal with the mess.

In the entry her gaze lit on the battered galvanized pail she had used earlier to carry water to the chickens. Snatching the pail she marched to the kitchen stove, remembered in the nick of time to protect her hands with potholders as she heaved the pudding pan off the stove and attempted to dump the contents into the pail. It took some doing. Already the sticky mess had turned to glue in the bottom of the pan. There seemed to be a great deal of it. Wrinkling her nose at the smell of scorched milk and sugar, Julia scraped with the wooden spoon, digging at the last bits. Clattering the kettle into the sink she filled it with water from the teakettle, grabbed up the pail of ruined pudding, stomped out of the house, letting the screen door of the porch swing wide with a protesting screech of hinges.

Julia strode the pasture hillside with frustration-fueled energy.  At the top of the slope an out-cropping of granite rimmed the edge of the woods. Julia made for a large boulder and behind its rough grey shelter upended the bucket and tunked it against the ground until the solidly congealing mass of pudding landed in the short grass. 
Back in the kitchen Julia gulped cool water from a tin cup, opened the windows, tackled the sticky saucepan. It took considerable time and elbow grease to loosen the cooked on residue of pudding. Again and again Julia brought a dipper of hot water from the stove reservoir, rinsed until there was no hint of the pan's recent misuse. Drying it carefully she returned it to the accustomed low shelf in the orderly pantry. Surveying the kitchen, alert for anything out of place, Julia was astonished to hear the chime of the steeple clock in the sitting room announcing the noon hour.  Taking a half loaf of bread from the breadbox she cut a careful slice, smeared it with butter and blackberry jam. She ate it slowly, sitting on the edge of the back porch, feet barely touching the ground. 

Julia was at the back yard pump rinsing a full dishpan of dandelion greens when she heard the brisk clop of Sal's hooves on the lane that turned off from the main road. Mother wheeled the buggy to a graceful stop alongside the horse barn, climbed down with a sprightliness surprising in a plump woman of middle age. Setting aside her empty basket she dropped the buggy traces, led Sal to the pasture gate, peeled off the harness with the ease of long practice. Mother watched for a moment as Sal slurped water from the spring-fed tub before ambling toward the shade of a newly leafed elm.
Hanging the harness across pegs just inside the barn door, picking up her basket, Mother joined her daughter on the short walk along the grassy path to the back door, glancing with approval at the pan full of greens.

Did Julia imagine that Mother paused in the kitchen doorway puzzled by the lingering odor of scorched pudding?  Was this the time to blurt the details of the morning's failed cookery, to endure the well-deserved lecture about the sinful waste of food or ingredients?  While Julia dithered, Mother hooked the handle of her basket over the peg rail, directed Julia to set the pan of dandelion greens in the sink. 
“We'll give them one more rinse before we set them on to cook.”  Julia plonked down the greens, gave one more anxious glance around the tidy kitchen, then followed Mother to the sitting room.

Mother sank into her familiar cushioned rocker with a contented sigh, pulling forward the mending basket that lived under the small table. Selecting a blue work shirt with a three-cornered tear in the elbow, she threaded a needle and began to darn the rip with small neat stitches. Julia took the rocker on the other side of the table, rummaged out a pair of her brother's socks, found a length of woolen yarn and the darning egg before venturing a question.
“Is Aunt Betsy feeling better?”
Mother launched happily into the details of her visit, the ironing she had finished while Betsy rested in the rocker by the kitchen stove, the supper she had laid ready to be heated up when her brother Squire came in from the field, noting wryly, “I doubt Squire could fix a meal for himself, Betsy has spoiled him.”  
An hour passed quietly, the little pile of darned stockings and neatly mended garments growing on the table. Several times Julia was almost ready to speak up, confess the morning's mess, but always the right moment passed until the old clock let them know it was time to stoke the kitchen fire and have supper hot and ready to put on the table when the men returned from the labors of the day.

Early October 1955 brought a week of golden blue-sky days. After school each afternoon I hurried into jeans and scuffed sneakers and trotted down the dirt road the short distance to Grampa Mac's farm. A leaf-strewn path cut between the hen houses and the tangle of Cinnamon Roses that had taken over the edge of the west lawn. The inner door of the back porch stood half open and enticing cooking smells leached into the back yard. Bounding inside, letting the wide screen door slap behind me, I crossed to the kitchen. 
Great Aunt Julia  straightened from the black cook stove oven, placed a baking dish on the warming shelf. Aunt Julia came most years for a week in autumn to visit her brother, my Grampa Mac. Uncle Wilford delivered her on a Sunday afternoon after church and an ample dinner; their older daughter, Mildred, released from her teaching job on the weekend would fetch her home tomorrow.
Aunt Julia would have left her own farmhouse immaculate, the season's canning done, fall house-cleaning finished.
During the week of her stay with her long-widowed brother, my Uncle Bill was released from the tasks of meal preparation that had fallen to him after the too early death of his mother and later the great grandmother who had raised him and my mother.
Aunt Julia, now in her early 60's, seemed to glory in the work of homemaking. She greeted me with a smile, then turned back to the stove to prod with a black-handled fork at the contents of a stew pot. Her soft cheeks were pink, her brown hair only lightly threaded with grey was drawn into a neat flat coil at the back of her head. Everything about her spoke of cleanliness and efficiency—the tailored percale dress of her own making, the neat bibbed apron, her polished black lace-up shoes. 

Satisfied with the contents of the pot, Aunt Julia stepped away from the stove. “Mac will enjoy this supper: a cut of beef cooked with potatoes, onions and carrots from the garden, baked apples from that old tree across the road.” A quick glance at the dining room clock suggested there were a few minutes to spare before time to set the table and put the evening pot of tea to steep. I followed Aunt Julia into the sitting room, pulling forward the old hassock to sit near the platform rocker she had chosen.  She glanced around the room, frowned at the starched but threadbare white curtains at the window.
“I'd like to do more for Mac and Billy. I could hem up new curtains, send them over, but he won't have it. Men,” she sighed, “ can't do for a house what a woman will. It was a sad loss when Helen—your grandmother—died so young, and Mac never thinking to remarry.” 
Aunt Julia rocked, lost in thoughts of a time I didn't know.

“When did you learn to cook?” I queried. 
“Oh, mercy!” Her laugh was soft. “ I've always known how to cook” She brought the rocking chair to a  squeaking halt. “I take that back; one of the first times I tried to make a meal on my own I made a terrible mess. I'm going to tell you a story.” 

The rocking chair resumed its gentle creaking; Aunt Julia's eyes were soft, fixed on a time 50 years earlier.  At the end she chuckled, “ No one has lived on the old farm for years. I married at 18 and moved along the road to the home of Wilford's parents—and it was more than 30 years before his mother died and I had the full running of that house. The place where Mac and Andrew and I were raised is long gone, the house and barns fallen in and anything usable carted off. The fields and pastures are grown up to weeds and brush.” 

The steeple clock alerted the half hour and Aunt Julia levered herself from the rocker; it was time to put supper on the table.
As I trailed her toward the kitchen she turned and smiled, her eyes warm. 'Do you know—I could still go back there and climb the hill, walk straight to that rock where I dumped the pudding.”

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