Su Lum: Slumming
November 2, 2010
In the fall of 1962, my ex-husband Burt, our just-born daughter Skye and I moved to The Burma Road, where Burt was to teach at the one-room schoolhouse with 13 students in grades 1-8.
The school was a Quonset hut about 10 crow miles from our homestead, but it might as well have been a hundred miles over impassable winter roads. Rather than attempting a commute, we rented an A-frame cabin across the way. It looked like an old witch’s hat from the outside but the inside was quite nice and rustic: one big room that held our bed, Skye’s crib, a kitchen area and right in the middle stood a large “barrel stove,” a wood stove made out of a 55-gallon barrel with a door fashioned onto the front.
No electricity and no running water, but it was cozy.
Our arrival was a big deal back in the woods – a new teacher, a brand new baby – and the neighbors, which consisted of five or six families of varying sizes, swept down upon us bearing well wishes and gifts.
Most of the gifts were food: home-canned moose for stews, home-canned smoked salmon (very delicious), several cakes, pies and casserole dishes, while another gift was a live rabbit and yet another was a dead chicken.
The rabbit was huge, almost the size of a jack rabbit, and it galumphed around the cabin while I had a protective new-mother fit. It was a sweet rabbit, and I didn’t want it killed, much less to eat it after I had petted its ears, but it couldn’t stay in the cabin, and we prevailed upon a visiting friend to take it away, no questions asked, a few days later.
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The dead chicken presented a different problem, namely its feet, its head and its entrails, all of which were intact and had to be dealt with before having to pluck the thing. Note to gift-givers – at least chop off the head and feet and gut the creature before delivering it to your new family.
Burt was teaching at the school, and my friend Callie and I pondered the chicken. There was no time to spare, so we played Odds and Evens and Callie got the head and feet job and I got the gutting job.
While Callie got the hatchet, I looked up chickens in my early edition of Joy of Cooking, which actually gave specific instructions, including strict warnings not to pierce the intestines lest the entire bird be contaminated. I may have closed my eyes at the final moment but pierce it I did, ruining a potential dinner and wasting the life of the chicken, which we quickly buried before Burt got home.
These woods ladies were fierce cooks, and one of them alerted me that any dish received had to be returned promptly, filled with a dish of my own, preferably an even better dish than the original.
Our kitchen had a dangerous old oil stove and a very cute wood stove. The oil stove smoked oily fumes, and the cute wood stove would madly heat up or cool off if you added or pulled out a stick the size of a straw. After a time I got to be a pretty inventive cook, but in those early days I was run ragged, deep in the cookbook hunting for new recipes for tuna casserole (adding curry powder makes it taste like chicken) and pies made from dried apples and canned cherries. There were, alas, no supermarkets nearby.
Then, of course, having received the return gift, the neighbor would prepare something even more elaborate to thrill the new family and I’d be at it again. I felt quite overwhelmed and outnumbered and began to dread the sight of someone getting out of a vehicle, carrying a covered basket.
I never did master the art of frying donuts, but I did learn to bake tasty loaves of bread in coffee cans, an old homesteaders’ trick, and we could turn out crystal home-brew (8 percent), 72 quarts to a batch.