Wickford Tales

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Johnnycakes are a ritual, just as a clambake is. First of all, the white corn meal must be ground very slowly so that the millstones do not get hot and burn the meal. To make the perfect johnnycake, two thirds of last year’s meal and one third of this year’s is used. To use all this year’s meal makes it too moist. The meal, with some salt, is put in a pottery bowl and heated red hot, either in the oven or over a fire. It must be so hot that a slight crust forms on top.

While the meal is heating, a soapstone or iron griddle should also be heated, and a kettle of water set to boil. Any fat—bacon, lard, butter, etc.—can be used on the griddle. After the meal is red-hot and the water is actively boiling, the water should be poured onto the meal a little at a time and stirred in. The meal should be kept on the stove or as near the fire as possible, for it must not be allowed to chill. When the water and meal are well mixed—the more stirring or beating the better—the meal should be soft enough to drop off a spoon.

When the griddle is red-hot, and covered with a very thin film of grease, the top of the meal should be scraped with a large spoon and dropped onto the griddle. The meal should always be scraped off the top, and when the first batch of cakes is on the griddle it should be beaten up again, and the top scraped for the next batch, and so on. The cake should never be patted or touched until it is turned over to be cooked on the other side.

All this trouble is worthwhile, for the johnnycakes will be light as air and the crust will melt in one’s mouth.

We were very particular about our cider, too. No wormy apples were allowed—every apple was carefully picked, and the straw used in the press was clean and changed every time. We made sure that the pressing was never hard enough to break the apple seeds. We thought the best cider apples were Gravenstein and the best eating apples Baldwins or Seek-No-Further. The sweet cider was nectar, with the loveliest aroma. The hard cider was pure and strong, and the applejack had a kick that nothing else could equal. Applejack is simply the part of hard cider that doesn’t freeze when hard cider is frozen. The part that freezes is thrown away.

At the clambakes we always sang, and it was fascinating how our guests changed the type and tempo of the songs. When we had Whiffenpoof boys we of course had charming close harmony. Southern friends meant “Dixie” and such-like songs. On the rare times in the past when we were only family or had oldfashioned guests, we sang the standard old tunes, and Mother’s dear voice rang out with every word of every verse of “Johnny Sands,” “The Flying Trapeze,” “In the Gloaming,” “The Spanish Cavalier,” “Tell Me, Kind Sir,” “Seeing Nellie Home,” “Now the Day Is Over,” “Home on the Range,” “When Day Is Done,” and all the rest.

It was always beautiful at our clambake place but when the moonlight was on the water it was very lovely to sit looking at the ocean, singing with friends and being at peace with the world.

PICTURES

Mother and I could always laugh over the Crockers’ Christmas picture. The Crockers were very poor relations—and there were a lot of them. One year when we were little, about a month before Christmas, Mother received a forlorn letter from Aunt Betty telling, among other troubles, how Uncle Crocker had no job and the children apparently none of anything. Mother and Father talked late that night and decided they would give up Christmas that year except for some cheap toys for us children, and send all the money to the Crockers. “And David,” Mother said eagerly, “let’s do it right away, so the poor things can have a Christmas and get things now, when they need them.” My parents sent the money right away.

The day before Christmas a big flat package came to the house, and we opened it. Inside was a huge, elaborate photograph of all the smiling Crockers—not one copy, but one for each of us. They had spent all the Christmas money on that panoramic family photograph.

My father kept his copy of the picture hanging beside his bureau to the day he died. The card addressed to him was inserted in the corner, and under his name he had written “SUCKER.” He said it was one of the best lessons he ever had. They were a very homely family.

Another photograph, which always made my Mother weep gently, was the one taken the day before Father’s funeral. We had been in Europe that summer and had had the most wonderful time and had all bought beautiful dresses to wear at Gladys’s coming-out party.

My father kept begging us to have our picture taken for him in our Worth dresses. But after the coming- out ball there were lots of parties and football games, more parties, my brother David home for vacation, more parties, Christmas, more parties, David leaving for school.… We couldn’t stop long enough to have a picture taken.

 

Then like a ton of bricks—Father’s pneumonia. It could not be fatal, of course: he would be all right. He was only fifty, and so big and strong and red-cheeked and gay.… But he wasn’t all right. He gasped for breath. We sent for more doctors. First we couldn’t speak, then we begged the doctors to do something. Father turned gray and choked. We huddled in the corner of his room, Mother on her knees beside his bed holding his hand all night.