by Ray Allen
Part 2 - The Hannah Sisters
Chapter 6 - Southern Cooking and Canning, with Help
. Since the Hannah Sisters were southern ladies, they had always had “help.” We found out that meant maids and cooks, plus of course, someone to do the yard. They were never really rich, this was just the way it was in places like Milton, and of course, all the “help” was black. We heard that precious Ralph, our father, had had a “Mammy” when he was a baby. And of course, anyone who’s seen Gone with the Wind knows what a mammy is. Mammies were black servants who specialized in helping new mothers with babies; today, they’re called nannies. We have an old photo of baby Ralph in an elaborate lace christening dress held proudly by a large black woman, but no one ever told us her name.
During our childhood stays in Milton, Grandmother Allen always had a maid who came twice a week, and was paid something less than $5. I remember a nice young black woman who was always smiling and energetic. I also remember that Grandmother Allen really liked her, often joking and laughing as they went through the day. Nobody in the Hannah houses was lazy, so lots of work got done. Grandmother Allen also had a yard man who was quite old and had been keeping her yard for decades. He’d quietly show up, trim and mow everything, and disappear. The yard was always beautiful.
Our most vivid memories are of Minnie Lee, another young black woman who worked for Weadie. She came every day, and was both maid and cook. We really liked Minnie Lee, and once I remember at some meal, she had served us fried onions. I don’t know how she fixed them, but they were the best thing I had ever tasted. The next day I told her I had loved them, and she and Weadie decided to make me all the onions I could eat. They took me into the kitchen and showed me how fried onions were done, and then cooked pan after pan for me until I was full. I remember the smell of all those frying onions, and it was lots of fun. They kept making them, and I kept eating them. There was lots of laughter among the three of us. We even gave our onions that day a special name. I said something about Western Union sounding like Onion, and our special dish became “Western Onions.” Of course Weadie was her kid-loving self and was running the show. But Minnie Lee loved it too, and we all had a great time.
The kitchen at Grandmother Allen’s was huge to us. It was a large square room with none of the built-in counters and cabinets we thought every kitchen had. No, it had none of that. Instead, it just had various things around the walls with the kitchen table in the middle—a big round oak pedestal table with tavern-style captain’s chairs. The dining room with the really big dark formal table was in the next room, through a swinging door.
I remember looking up at the walls above the kitchen wainscot and the very high ceiling itself, and noticing that they were all paneled with what I later learned was “matched lumber”—the then old-fashioned scored wood that appeared as 2-inch wide planks running vertically. I thought it was ugly, and the fact that the whole room was painted grey didn’t help. The floor was linoleum and the windows were bare. The fact is, in their day, kitchens like that were no-nonsense work rooms, not the pretentious entertaining spaces we create today. Grandmother Allen’s kitchen was there to put out the meals, and it did.
To us of course, everything in this room was never before seen. Along one wall, there was a huge old wood cookstove. Maxie would start the fire with kindling and wood that Fred dutifully split and had ready on the back porch. I remember the “burners’ were removable, and I liked to look at the fire down inside. There was a more modern gas stove beside it, but both were used. The sink was sunk into a homebuilt cabinet…not really a counter…the only counter space was what they called the “drain board” beside the sink, where freshly washed dishes were stacked to dry. The refrigerator was one of the old ones with the big round compressor on the top for all to see. Canned goods were in a pantry, and there were some shelves for dishes and pans around the room, but that was about it. In the middle of the room, a bare light bulb hung from the high ceiling with an old Bakelite turn-switch. It was right over the big round oak table, and the adults had to stretch to reach it. No fancy lights in here.
Of course, like kitchens of its time, this big room served several purposes. It was, in fact, the family room. Card games were played at the table after supper. There was constant snapping of beans, plucking of chickens, and peeling of potatoes. Daily, the members of the household simply sat at that table and talked. We never ventured into the living room unless we had company. The kitchen was truly the center of the house.
Several times during our visits, we witnessed the rural ritual called canning. Of course, we thought all tin cans came from the supermarket, but we quickly learned different. Canning in Milton was an all-day activity, and involved everybody—all three Hannah sisters, and usually a few other helpers.. Always, there were several commodities canned, usually things like pickles, tomatoes, and maybe some jam. If jams or preserves were on the list, pounds and pounds of sugar were required. It was a big operation.
First, the produce had to be harvested. This meant Fred was dispatched to the vegetable garden out back. He’d return with bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers, or whatever the Hannah sisters had ordered. Then the chopping and peeling began, and went on for hours. At some point, Fred would reappear with a big cardboard box filled with, what else? --tin cans! But these cans were like none we’d ever seen. First of all they had no tops—they were wide open, and of course, had no labels. Instead, they were bright shiny silver and scored around the circumference several times. We learned Fred had bought them at the hardware store, like everyone in Milton did.. There were tops, too, but they weren’t on the cans yet. The tops were shiny tin discs, sitting on the table in a nice, neat stack.
By now, the sisters had both stoves going and had their biggest pots boiling. These were huge, vat-like vessels, and they received mountains of peeled tomatoes or whatever was being canned that day. Maxie was the expert here. She knew exactly how long to cook each thing, and would call Fred to help her lift the huge hot pot off the stove. Then, with a large ladle, rows of cans were filled. At this point, there was a great urgency about finishing the job. It was something about hygiene and health, so we didn’t know anything about it. Of course, the Hannahs all knew the importance of sterilization in canning, and were seeing to the food’s safety. The tops had to be clamped on quickly, I think before the contents cooled. In any case, this was my favorite part. Because Fred brought out a big strange cast metal machine which “topped” and sealed the cans. It looked like a larger version of the orange juice squeezer our mother had at home, with a very long handle. One at a time, each can was fitted onto the machine’s round platform, and then a flat disc-like top was placed on it, just so. Then suddenly, with force, Fred lowered the boom. With a bang, the handle came down, and crimped that shiny top right on the can. I loved the fact that when the can was taken out, it looked just as slick and professional as any can in the supermarket—true magic. We had our own can factory! This went on until all the cans were sealed—bang, bang, bang! And then it was over.
Of course, these specially canned delicacies, carefully marked and dated, made meals for the Hannahs, their neighbors and friends for months. Like so many things we took for granted back in Miami, just being in Milton taught us that not all canned food comes from stores.
These “canning days” made it clear where the beautiful foods our Milton relatives sent each year to us in Miami came from. Jayne and I were used to seeing our mother opening a big cardboard box, and taking out freshly canned goodies from Grandmother Allen. They weren’t always in cans; some were in Mason jars, the ones with the familiar rubber rings and glass tops. I always wondered if creating them was called “jarring”, but it wasn’t. It was all canning.
Anyhow, our favorites of all these were the preserves. The Hannah sisters “put up” delicious sweet things in jars, with the more utilitarian vegetable things in cans. Preserved figs from the tree in Grandmother Allen’s backyard were always Jayne’s favorite. Super-sweet in heavy syrup, they were delicious. My favorite was an even more exotic item—watermelon rind preserves. Nobody in Miami had ever heard of such a thing, but the Hannah’s created them every summer. It was a matter of taking several watermelons, cutting out all the red parts, and then peeling the green off the thick white rind. This thick white rind was then cut into squares, cooked, and preserved. They were sealed into the Mason jars with the same thick sweet syrup used with the figs, and I thought they were the best thing in the world. I’d beg for a whole bowl of them whenever they arrived.
Chapter 7: Rural Adventures and Aunt Alma's Flowers