Plum Lucky

By spring of 1920, twelve year-old Johnny Welles had made up his mind to leave the only home he’d ever known.  As hard as it was to say goodbye to his beloved stepmother, Collie, Johnny was determined to escape the tragedies that marred his childhood.

His three older siblings, Stanley, James, and Eunice, supported Johnny in his decision even though it broke their hearts to see him go.  His Aunt Prudence, who would take over Johnny’s care, was thrilled by his choice to reside with her in Baltimore and even more so with his pronouncement that he wanted to become a doctor.

In the months after his youthful declaration, Johnny spent all of his free time with Doctor and Mrs. Hager.  The Hagers, German immigrants with no children of their own, welcomed Johnny when they discovered his passion for all things medical.  The Hagers, aware of and sensitive to Johnny’s heartbreaks, couldn’t resist the opportunity to share their medical knowledge with the young boy.

Whenever possible, Doc and Mrs. Hager included Johnny in consultations and examinations.  Between patients, the three would pore over medical journals and Mrs. Hager’s pflaumenkuchen (plum cake).  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the scene above.  This rich, delicious cake is quick and easy to make.  The beauty of this recipe is that you can substitute any stone fruit for the plums.  Consider peaches, nectarines, or cherries as an alternative.

Little Italian plums are my favorite when making pflaumenkuchen with black plums as a close second.  Italian plums aren’t available in my area until July, so I’ve presented this cake with black plums which are also quite appealing.  If using Italian plums, cut them in half and pit them.  The same goes for cherries.  For large stone fruits, cut them in half, pit them, and cut into slices.

The Gibson household enjoys this cake still slightly warm and served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Pflaumenkuchen

1 c sugar (I used raw)

½ unsalted butter

2 eggs

1 t vanilla

1 c flour

1 t baking powder

Plums, pitted and halved

2 T sugar (I used raw)

1 t cinnamon

Powdered sugar (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Grease an 8 X 8 glass baking dish.

Cream the sugar and butter.  Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat well.  Add the flour and baking powder, and mix thoroughly.  The batter with be thick like soft cookie dough.

Spread the batter into the baking dish and level it with a knife or spatula.  Place the halved plums (if using Italian) cut side down in even rows across the surface.  The same applies to cherries.  All other stone fruits should be placed in single-layer rows across the surface.

Combine the two tablespoons of sugar and cinnamon.  Sprinkle the mixture across the top of the cake and plums.  Bake for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

When cooled, sift powdered sugar over the cake if desired.

Enjoy!

Answers to the Question Y

answers-to-the-question-y2The summer of 1928 was a busy time for young John Welles. Although his schooling was going well, he fought to maintain top spot in the grade standings just ahead of the lovely, yet annoying, Garland Griffin for whom he was developing serious feelings. Also on the young man’s mind was the odd behavior of one of his best friends, Claude Willoughby.

Claude’s personality was always fiery and his temper unpredictable, but as of late, John knew there was something more going on with his friend than Claude would admit. The truth of the situation almost becomes clear to John during an afternoon spent at the YMCA with Claude and their friend, Sam Feldman. What John discovers aren’t the facts in their entirety, but what he assumed was bad enough. Only later does the full truth come out, and by then, John has absorbed Claude’s secret as his own.

My research on the YMCA led me to the Y’s own history page. I’ll direct you there for a comprehensive overview, but I do want to point out some tidbits about this benevolent organization that I found to be most interesting:

In 1844, industrialized London was a place of great turmoil and despair. For the young men who migrated to the city from rural areas to find jobs, London offered a bleak landscape of tenement housing and dangerous influences.

Twenty-two-year-old George Williams, a farmer-turned-department store worker, was troubled by what he saw. He joined 11 friends to organize the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets.

Although an association of young men meeting around a common purpose was nothing new, the Y offered something unique for its time. The organization’s drive to meet social need in the community was compelling, and its openness to members crossed the rigid lines separating English social classes.

Years later, retired Boston sea captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan, working as a marine missionary, noticed a similar need to create a safe “home away from home” for sailors and merchants. Inspired by the stories of the Y in England, he led the formation of the first U.S. YMCA at the Old South Church in Boston on December 29, 1851.

I pressed on with my research because I needed to know what the YMCA was like specifically in the 1920s. What I came across confirmed something I had heard about on a television show back in the 1970s but assumed was intended to be a funny portion of the storyline: swimming nude at the Y. I’ll direct you to Eric Markowitz’s 2014 article, “Until Fairly Recently, The YMCA Actually Required Swimmers To Be Nude,” because it has to be read to be believed. While nude swimming may have been the standard in the 1920s, I’ll allow potential readers to envision the above-mentioned scene based on what he or she is familiar with in regards to swimming at the Y.

I’ll Drink to That

ill-drink-to-thatWhen you ask people about Prohibition in the United States, the response they most readily provide is that for some strange reason it became illegal to drink alcohol of any kind. This is usually accompanied by mystified looks and slow shakes of the head.

Unfortunately, what many don’t know is why this occurred and that it was actually part of our Constitution at one time. So, here’s a little history lesson born of my own need to understand Prohibition more thoroughly for the sake of my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.

By definition, Prohibition was the legal prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933 under the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment. Note that the consumption and private possession of alcohol was not illegal, so what a person already owned could be enjoyed in his or her own home. Just drink responsibly and sparingly as it was now tougher to resupply one’s stash.

The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, set down methods for enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, and defined which intoxicating liquors were prohibited, and which were excluded from Prohibition (e.g., for medical and religious purposes). The Amendment was the first to set a time delay before it would take effect following ratification, and the first to set a time limit for its ratification by the states. Its ratification was certified on January 16, 1919, with the amendment taking effect on January 16, 1920. For the following 13 years Prohibition was officially in effect, though the ability to enforce it was limited by the Volstead Act and by corrupt and complacent politicians who overlooked illicit manufacturing and smuggling.

The Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler conceived and drafted the bill, which was named for Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who managed the legislation. The Anti-Saloon League was the leading organization lobbying for Prohibition in the United States in the early 20th century.

So, why all this hatred toward alcohol? The Eighteenth Amendment was the result of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement in the United States and at the time was generally considered a progressive amendment. The Temperance Movement, which went back as far as the late eighteenth century, was born of the concern for alcoholism and how it played into spousal abuse, family neglect, and chronic unemployment. However, the desire for cheap, plentiful alcohol led to relaxed ordinances on alcohol sales, and the problem persisted.

A tract published in 1784 by Benjamin Rush detailing how excessive use of alcohol was harmful to one’s physical and psychological health. Many people got on board with the idea, initially proposing temperance rather than abstinence, but like most well-meaning organizations, political in-fighting stalled the group.

Throughout the decades, the Temperance Movement received support from various religious denominations and temperance groups, but it also took a back seat to issues such as slavery during the Civil War. It wasn’t until the third wave of temperance that any movement achieved success. With the formation of The Anti-Saloon League by Rev. Howard Hyde Russell in 1893, the Temperance Movement found footing not by demanding that politicians change their drinking habits, only their votes in the legislature. Under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler, the Anti-Saloon League stressed political results and perfected the art of pressure politics. The Anti-Saloon League’s motto was “the Church in action against the saloon,” and it mobilized its religious coalition to pass state and local legislation, establishing dry states and dry counties.

By the late nineteenth century, most Protestant denominations and the American wing of the Catholic Church supported the movement to legally restrict the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. These groups believed that alcohol consumption led to corruption, prostitution, spousal abuse, and other criminal activities. Brewers and distillers resisted the reform movement, which threatened to ruin their livelihood, and also feared women having the vote, because they expected women to vote for Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League achieved its main goal of passage of the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1917.

Just after the Eighteenth Amendment’s adoption, there was a significant reduction in alcohol consumption among the general public and particularly among low-income groups. Consumption soon climbed as underworld entrepreneurs began producing rotgut alcohol, and the speakeasy quickly replaced the saloon. Likewise, there was a general reduction in overall crime, mainly in the types of crimes associated with the effects of alcohol consumption, though there were significant increases in crimes involved in the production and distribution of illegal alcohol.

Those who continued to use alcohol tended to turn to organized criminal syndicates, who were able to take advantage of uneven enforcement, suddenly overwhelmed police forces, and corruptible public officials to establish powerful, murderous smuggling networks. Anti-prohibition groups arose and worked to have the Amendment repealed once it became apparent that Prohibition was an unprecedented catastrophe.

The Amendment was repealed in 1933 by ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, the only instance in United States history that a constitutional amendment was repealed in its entirety.

Comfort Food

comfort-foodThe spring of 1920 sees the end of a turbulent time in the life of Johnny Welles. Three tragedies for which he feels responsible plague him until he seeks to escape the only life he’s ever known. Nothing his stepmother, Collie, or his three older siblings do helps to put Johnny’s mind at ease. Prudence Welles Mayfield, the aunt Johnny has never met, provides the solution to her nephew’s grief.

Prudence visits the Welles farm when Johnny is twelve with the express purpose of taking him to live with her in Baltimore. She has an agenda that will not only please her nephew, but will also satisfy her own hidden desires. Without waiting for an invitation to lunch, Prudence seats herself at the kitchen table to eat the simple, delicious food Collie prepared and reveal her plan.

I had fried okra in mind as a side dish when I wrote the scene above. It’s amazingly simple to make, but tastes incredible. The great thing about okra is that it can be canned for frying and enjoyed in the middle of winter or any other time the vegetable is out of season.  Simply open a jar, don’t rinse it, and proceed with the following recipe.

Collie’s Fried Okra

1 lb. fresh okra (choose small, bright green pods free of rust or black spots)

1 egg

Tabasco

1 c cornmeal

3 T flour

1 ½ t sea salt

½ t black pepper

⅛ t cayenne

Dash of garlic powder, optional

Peanut and/or canola oil for frying

Bring about one inch of oil up to 400° in an electric skillet or in a cast iron skillet with a thermometer to gauge the temperature.

Wash the okra and pat dry. Trim both ends and cut into ½ inch pieces. Mix the cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add garlic powder to this step if using. Toss the dry ingredients with a fork to blend.

Break the egg into a bowl and add several hearty dashes of Tabasco. Beat the egg thoroughly. Dip one-third of the okra in the beaten egg and toss to coat. Transfer the okra to the dry mixture and stir to ensure the pieces are thoroughly covered.

Carefully float the coated okra in the heated oil in small batches. Allow them to cook on one side then turn them to finish cooking on the other. When the coating is golden brown, transfer the okra to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining okra.

Season with more sea salt if desired. Keep the okra warm in a baking dish in the oven while cooking in batches. Serve warm.

Enjoy!

comfort-food-4

When Life Gives You Lemons

When Life Gives You Lemons 3In June of 1920, Prudence Welles Mayfield picked up her nephew, John, to take him to Baltimore to live with her.   The event proved to be a difficult time for her and her sister-in-law, Collie Mercer Welles.

Collie, the midwife who delivered John, raised him from the day he was born when his mother died due to complications from childbirth. She knew the opportunity to live and attend school in Baltimore would be one she could never provide for her youngest child, but the thought of letting him go broke her heart. For Prudence, anxiety came from her insecurities about parenting her nephew when she had absolutely no experience. A dose of guilt also plagued her because she alone knew her intentions weren’t as altruistic as they appeared on the surface.

When Life Gives You Lemons 1The two women were never close and barely tolerated each other at best. The only thing they had in common was their deep, abiding love for John. They would never let him see them quarrel over his upbringing. And yet, a gentle tug of war went on just below the surface as they vied for John’s affections. Collie’s last ditch effort to lure her young son back to his family and life on the farm was the simple picnic she sent with Prudence and John for the trip to Baltimore. She hoped her good cooking, the favorite dishes John grew up eating, would produce a change of heart in the boy. Included with the meal was a Mason jar of lemonade, sweet and chilled, the perfect taste memory that would hopefully send John fleeing from his rich aunt and back into Collie’s waiting hug.

My own memories of lemonade began with that made by my Aunt Ann for family picnics. I remember she served it in a large brown crock; such an unusual container for a kid who grew up with Country Time Lemonade drink mix and Tupperware pitchers. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted Aunt Ann’s lemonade, lightly sweet and refreshing, as delicious as any food item on the picnic table at our family gathering.

The following recipe is the one that I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene. It’s every bit as wonderful as what my Aunt Ann made, and I hope you and your family will enjoy it.

Homemade Lemonade

6 – 8 large lemons, enough for 1 c of juice

1 c sugar, I use raw

1 c water

8 c water

Squeeze enough lemons for one cup of juice and set aside. Cut remaining lemons into slices to float on the lemonade. Mix the sugar and one cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is heated through. Do not boil or scorch. Allow the sugar syrup to cool completely.  Raw sugar will produce a darker syrup and a deeper yellow lemonade, but it absolutely will not alter the flavor.

To prepare the lemonade, pour the lemon juice in a large glass bowl or crock, stir in the cooled sugar syrup and the 8 c of water. Float lemon slices on the surface. Stir thoroughly, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

For individual servings, fill glasses with ice and a slice of lemon. Ladle the lemonade over this and serve.  For a pitcher or beverage dispenser, fill the container with ice layered with lemon slices, pour the lemonade over this, and serve.  The ice will melt into the lemonade and dilute the tangy/sweet mixture to the perfect flavor.

When Life Gives You Lemons 2

All-American Goodbye

Granny Smith ApplesWithout a doubt, apple pie ranks among the top choices of best comfort food. Like the other recipes I’ve shared here (biscuits, cornbread), every family has their own version, compliments of mom or grandma, and their own opinion of exactly how authentic apple pie should taste. This humble, all-American classic, often the cornerstone of Sunday dinners, picnics, and church-hosted bake sales, is also the dessert of choice that Collie Mercer sends with her youngest child, John, as he leaves the family farm to go live with his Aunt Prudence in Baltimore.

Collie’s decision to send the pie with John is probably based on the fact that apples are a readily available fruit, and her hands could make the pie from memory. Or perhaps her choice is slightly more self-serving as she silently prays the taste of the pie that John grew up with will prompt a change of heart and return her youngest child to her.

Whatever Collie’s motivation, the following recipe is the one I had in mind for her to bake during that melancholy June in 1920. I hope you enjoy it as much as my family does and as much as John did on the day he began a new chapter in his life.

Collie Mercer’s Apple Pie

5–6 Granny Smith apples

2 c flour plus 2 T for thickening

1 t salt

1 c cold, unsalted butter, cut into dices

¼ – ½ c ice water

½ c sugar, I use raw

1 t vanilla

1 ½ t cinnamon

Allspice

4 T butter for dotting

Cinnamon or sugar for dusting

Preheat your over to 425 degrees.

Mix the two cups of flour with the salt. Toss in the cold butter and cut it into the flour/salt mixture with a pastry blender or two knives until it resembles coarse meal. Slowly work enough ice water into the dry ingredients until you can form a ball of dough, making sure it’s not too wet or too dry. Work quickly by hand to ensure that all the dry ingredients are mixed in thoroughly. Be careful not to overwork the dough or the butter will become warm and the dough will be tough. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic and place in the refrigerator for twenty minutes.

Peel and slice the Granny Smith apples to approximately ¼ inch slices. (They are an extremely firm apple and any thicker will require sautéing prior to being placed in the crust or they may not cook well during the baking process.) Toss the apples with the sugar, cinnamon, a couple of hearty dashes of allspice, vanilla, and the two tablespoons of flour. Stir to coat the apples thoroughly and set aside.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into two pieces. One piece should be slightly bigger than the other to serve as a top crust. Working on a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough enough to cover the bottom and up the sides of an eight-inch pie plate. The bottom crust can hang over the edge of the pie plate just a little. Fill the bottom crust with the seasoned apple mixture and place four tablespoon slices of butter on top of the apples. Roll the top crust larger than the diameter of the pie plate and place over the apples. Tuck the edges of the top crust beneath the edges of the bottom crust and crimp to seal. I prefer pressing with the floured tines of a fork to create an old-fashioned look.

Cut several vents in the top crust with a small, sharp paring knife to allow steam to escape. Brush the top crust with your choice of wash. I prefer a milk wash, but egg white thinned with water is also a good choice. Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon or sugar. Bake for 30 minutes. Check on the brownness of the crust and bake in five minute increments until a golden color has been achieved but no more than 45 minutes total.

Remove the pie from the oven and let stand for fifteen minutes. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

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