food stories

3. Parts of a Pie: The meal finally

For sweet pizza:

Inside the barn, I stepped onto a floor made from several thousand neatly stacked haybales. At this midpoint of summer the hayloft contained only half its fill. Through late summer, my father baled hay and the rest of us slung it into place until our heads hit the rafters and even then we kept going. Deep August saw us pushing haybales around while standing on our knees, heads tucked to our chest. Not a task for a claustraphobic person. The loft held a temperature that ranged ten to fifteen degrees hotter than outside. We relied on natural light for our work, but the sun only angled through the doorframes at the front and back of the barn.

I stood leaning against the cool gunwales of the elevator and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Dust reigned in the loft. My asthmatic father stayed below waiting to feed bales of hay onto the moving teeth of the elevator. I watched him and the bales from my perch. After him I was the first to touch the hay. I guarded the fractious juncture between the vertical elevator I had just climbed and the separate elevator running horizontal along the length of the loft. This used to be my brother’s job. I’d sat and observed him many times. Now he was big enough to sling bales at the end of the line.

A chain of shouts started. My father yelled “ok!” to my mother, brother and sister who stood around the electrical outlet waiting to plug in the power cords for the elevators. “Ok?” my mother shouted back to confirm I was safely off the elevator. He gave back a sharp yep and she plugged in the first cord. The horizontal elevator came to life and commenced its rattling trundle. The second electrical cord connected and I watched my father adjust out of his resting state where elbows rested on knees that he propped on the bottom gunwales of the elevator. He looked up to the loft with a crinkle in his nose from bad eyesight. I knew he couldn’t see me. I heard my mother and siblings mount the wall-ladder built at the back of the loft. I listened to the way the haybales separating us muffled their voices.

The first bale off the wagon headed towards me. I touched it only slightly as it moved from one elevator to the next. The fifth bale bobbed on the track, nodding off side to side. Its shape had an upward curl that promised a challenge to the rafter at the apex of the first elevator. Refereeing all charged interactions between a wayward haybale and this rafter constituted 90% of my job. I took the front and back of the bale and pressed it down onto the track as hard as I could. The bale’s front end almost made the awkward drop onto the next elevator, but at the last moment, the little remainder of u-curve shape caught the rafter at the bale’s rear. This was my moment to get physical. In a few seconds the next bale coming up the track would also need to move through the juncture. Each passing tooth of the track tried to push the bale forward as it hung stuck. Suddenly the dusty, noisy air took on a full charge. Unless I found the strength to force the reluctant bale forward, it promised to burst between the pressures of the unyielding rafter and the relentless forward cluck of the elevator chain. Popping baling twine can be a horrible sound. But silence was worse. In these moments, I hustled because I must prevent the stuck bale from shorting the electrical-mechanical relationship of the elevator. That was a problem my father did not know how to fix.

I yelled to my father to stop putting haybales on the elevator. Next I shoved the bale, already on its way, off the track, but I didn’t push hard enough. Instead of falling neatly to the side inside the loft, the bale jumped onto the gunwales. It was perpendicular to the track, but moving, and in a snap the bale skidded down the elevator so fast it almost knocked my father over. Now he looked mad.

Protecting my hands as best I could, I again laid them at the front and back of the bale and pushed down with all my nine year old strength, flattening the bale’s curve and willing it to propel forward free. When I heard the pop I knew I hadn’t succeeded. The twine released and books of hay cascaded off the sides of the elevator. Some of it slipped down to where my father stood peering up to see how I fared. I could see the small disappointment on his face. I pushed the rest of the burst bale off the track and made sure no baling twine caught in the chain.

I climbed back atop the stack of bales positioned at the juncture of the elevators. Guerilla-like down below, my father turned around and picked out the next bales to send up. I stamped my feet back and forth and waited. He fussed with another misshapen bale, pressing it with his knee and dropping it hard onto the tines of the elevator track. He placed his hands flat on the bale and leaned into it quickly like he was doing pushups with handclaps inbetween dips. I watched the next misfit come up the elevator into my hands and directed it firmly. 

Less than an hour later I saw my brother throw the last bale to my sister who nestled it into place with a final shove from her knee. My father jumped down to the ground. The elevators stilled and the muffled quiet of the loft popped. I heard my mother, already downstairs, talking with my father and I picked out the difference in sound between my sister and brother’s descent down the barn loft ladder. I followed, taking the elevator in a backwards climb.

We all met in front of the barn. I sat on the wagon tongue and listened to my parents. My father said he would bring in the day’s last wagon of hay straight away. And what about dinner my mother asked. I don’t feel like cooking he said. It’s too hot.  My chest started to get warm. Maybe, maybe, maybe, yes! My mother suggested we get a pizza. I tried to look serious. And when my father seemed to hesitate I willed my face to look tired and unexcited. Oh, pizza, humdrum. We should have a salad with it he said. They agreed; while he collected the last wagon we were to gather greens and vegetables from the garden around the house.

I don’t know exactly where my siblings wandered off to, but my mother ended up in one of her flower beds, weeding. I hauled a basket into the asparagus field. I tried disappearing in the fronds of asparagus plants gone to seed. I didn’t want get assigned to weeding or mulching. I searched for late season asparagus shoots until I heard the tractor. I saw grandness in its entrance to our driveway; the day’s last piece of work coming up to the barn.

I already had the table set for dinner in my head. I placed five of the enameled camping plates—mostly only used for pizza nights—onto placemats left from lunch. I didn’t change the napkins even though they were soiled from eating chicken last night. Something told me it was wrong to launder them after less than a day’s use. The table always looked empty on a pizza night. No serving bowls or cast iron skillet hot off the stove to dominate the table’s center.

Climbing into the hayloft for the last time, I encountered the day’s heat fully realized and trapped in the organized mountains of hay. An oven. I hoped my mother would volunteer to pick up the pizza. I would sit next to her on the bench seat of the Ford Ranger pickup. The wood booth I waited in while my mother paid for the pizza would feel extra flat and hard after the car upholstery. I could smell the fat sourness of cheese and tomatoes cooking into each other. The air in the dining room of Cubbers Pizza Restaurant tickled with suspended flour. The same lady helped us every time. She had a perm and dyed her hair my mother said. I worried the lady would stab herself on the giant needle that impaled our receipt. I liked the crisp sound of the sharp needle top breaking through the paper. The receipt settled on top of orders for calzones and pepperoni pizzas without the lady hurting herself.

As the first bale came off the wagon and headed towards me, I lifted my arms and saw them grabbing two boxes of pizza off the restaurant counter. One small cheese and a large pie split down the middle, sausage on one side, green peppers on the other. My mother settled the strap of her purse on her shoulder. She held the restaurant’s screen door open for me. It snapped shut behind us. I set the stacked boxes on my lap. The burgundy colored seats of the truck were still warm from the sun beating on them. My sweat-sticky skin grabbed and then glued to the vinyl ridges of the upholstery.

The pizza started to tease. The crust and its cloak of sauce and cheese pressed their oven warmth through the cardboard box onto my thighs. My mother started the car and backed out of the parking space. The fast spread of smells had me looking at her, silently asking if we really had to wait until we got home to eat. The work of sharing could be avoided I thought. Maybe I could have as much I wanted? But my mother looked straight ahead, her torso tilted forward. We drove the speed limit home in silence. By home I felt lucky. I would carry the pizzas inside and present them with gusto, peeling the cardboard tops back, tucking them under the bottom of the box and making a serving platter. Or would I be told to set them on the cold wood cookstove and wait until someone dressed the salad?

I heard a consistent knocking sound that refocused my eyes. My hands were back at my sides. A bale pulsed upon the track of the hay elevator, jamming its head against that low barn rafter. I stopped breathing and jumped a little, raising my arms up to wrangle down the bale. 

2. Parts of a pie: The outside work

The gore of good food. Installment 2.

Inside the Mason jar, a colony of displaced potato beetles amassed. Right side up and upside down, their striped backs and orange bellies quilted the the jar’s glass bottom. I stuck my ear against the jar’s mouth. The cylindrical glass made a miniature concert chamber of bug sound.  High squeaks roared like a bog on fire with frogs, crickets and mosquitoes.

My wrist got tired holding the jar when the grubs and beetles reached halfway up the quart. At the edge of the black plastic patch we used to grow eggplants and peppers lay two stacked stones the size of dinner plates. I tried to kneel, but the plastic was too hot. I settled into a squat and lifted off the top stone. I shook my jar like a salt shaker, laying down a layer of beetles and grubs onto the bottom stone. Two beetles found their legs and started off the stone. Like they held a compass, the beetles headed straight back to the potato patch. I picked them up and knocked them into the crook of my palm. Like two dice rolling off my fingers onto a gameboard, I shook the beetles back onto the stone slab.

Between swivels of my rock grinder, I felt the plump bodies of the grubs collapse and heard the crackle of the beetle shells breaking. It felt like my throat had a worm in it, heavy and squiggling. I doused the stone with more bugs, mostly grubs now, and again rubbed the two rocks together. The rock’s gray surface darkened to black. Orange mucus from the beetles and the pink skins of the grubs glistened against the stone my brother and I called the killing block.

I heard the sputtering exhaust of my father’s tractor. It signaled his descent downhill. Ian, Moira and I looked up from our places in the garden. Behind him, my father hauled the next wagonload of hay bound for the barn. My mother stayed bent over at the waist, speed-weeding young rows of Red Ace beets until the tractor stopped alongside the garden. Everyone but my mom headed to the haywagon. She said she would walk and meet us back at the barn. The rest of us scrambled to find a place atop the stacked haybales by climbing the outside of the wagon’s sides like they were sparse rungs on a ladder. After a scratchy ascent, we gained a bird’s eye view of the garden. I could see exactly where my brother had stopped thinning the corn.

Out on the paved road, the wagon slithered roly-poly and headed into the s-curve before the straightaway marked by our house on the right. I wondered if we would spill out onto the pavement. I ducked down into the hay when I saw the Box Elder tree branches coming towards me. I smelled machine oil in the baling twine. I breathed in through my mouth to catch the hay. Its scent moved faster than the twine’s, fat with heat from the sun and thick like the smell of a horse mane.

Tree branches snagged in the wooden joints of the wagon sides as we came up the driveway to the barn. For a moment the tree limbs stretched with the tractor’s velocity, then a tart sound of leaves plucked off their branches like feathers. I couldn’t climb down the front side of the wagon. Feeling for splinters on the weathered two-by-fours that made up the wagon sides, I climbed down to the ground and circled around to the front of the wagon.

In a moment I was climbing again, walking up the rust-brown wagon tongue, squeezing my body into the foot of room between the front of the wagon and the barrel that held up the hay elevator. Without knocking my shins on the tongue like I had so many times, I grasped the elevator gunwales. I popped my feet onto the barrel’s top, stood all the way up and walked up the length of the hay elevator with my eyes.

I had studied my siblings do this ascent many times. The track running up the elevator used steel teeth about an inch and a half long. The teeth dug into the haybales, securing them to the chain track that led into the hayloft. The teeth worried me. I feared for some confusion on the ground where my brother turned on the elevator with me still on it. I climbed, my eyes watching the track—making sure it stayed still—and craning my neck to see the oncoming windowframe I must climb through. At it, I dipped my head, lowering my body as deep as it could go and scooted under the wood sill, feeling the track’s teeth brush my belly.

I. Parts of a pie

Here is the pizza I promised, well, the start.

This is a slow roll out of stories about the place where I grew up and where I return to in May 2015. A lot of it is about my father who passed away 2 years ago. You'll hear a lot more about him.

Okay, installment one:

It had to be a hard enough day to order pizza for dinner, a sun up to sun down, put five wagons of haybales in the barn loft and and work all day in the garden kind of day.

Tonight promised the start of two rainy days. In the fields lay wagonloads worth of raked, dry hay ready for baling and then a trip into the hayloft. If not baled and put away today, we might lose the feed to a mildew the cows refused to eat or worse, a mildew that simmered in a stuffy barn loft, building heat until fire broke, a fire like we heard other farmers shake their head over, where a barn and the herd of cattle inside were just gone the next morning.

We packed Mason jars with water and orangeade, twisted rusty screwcaps over lids that smelled like the canned peaches they had previously sealed. My brother, sister, mother and I followed each other out the house door, heading to the paved road at the end of the driveway. As we found our stride, water made hollow sloshing sounds on the glass walls of the mason jars. Back in the yard outside the house, my father started up the tractor.

Hauling an empty hay wagon behind him, my father passed us just a hundred feet from where we all turned into the hayfield from the paved River Road. He waved hello to us even though we had all been speaking just ten minutes ago. Behind the steering wheel, my father let his shoulders slump in a relaxed fall. You could read the dips of the road in the way his arms jostled under a thinning white undershirt. His hands hung on the steering wheel. My father wore glasses that perched large and square between a full grey beard and eyebrows like whiskers that made his eyes beady and his smile wild. He downshifted the tractor to take the left turn into the hayfield. He signaled with his arm, the wagon hiccupping as he gassed the tractor and spun onto the field’s dirt road.

The rest of us walked over the same ground moments later and heard the squeak and groan of nails and wood talking as the wagon bumped over ruts in the dirt road beyond us. The garden lay at the base of the hayfield. We stopped midway along its length and fanned out; Ian headed to finish thinning the corn, Moira and Mom to mulch the onions. I walked to the trenches made from hilling the garden’s twelve rows of potatoes. The plants hadn’t flowered yet and until they did it was my job to fend off the black and white striped potato beetle and their soft pink grubs. Killing the bugs and their clusters of orange eggs set to hatch on the potato leaf undersides was the goriest and most repeated task in the garden. I tried to make the most of the assignment.  

A pair of beetles mated at the base of a potato plant under the canopy of its leaves. They looked furtive there. I scraped the pair into my empty mason jar. Their shells made a small, definite sound on the jar’s glass bottom. For a few moments the beetles lay on their backs, legs folded flat, their underbellies still. Playing dead. I picked a leaf off a potato plant and dropped it to the beetles. I meant the offering for food but when the beetles came to, they saw a ramp and started climbing the glass sides. I flicked the jar and the beetles lost their ground. But they rolled over and retried. They’d spend the rest of their time like that, trying to escape.

Several acres away I heard the rhythms of the hay baler eating up rows of dried grasses and alfalfa, ramming it into a shape to be twined and shot out the rear of the machine. The haybale soared into the air and landed in the wagon.  I couldn’t see this from my position in the potato patch, but I knew the routine. The whole machine vibrated with effort. My father bounced on the tractor seat according to the shape of the clay soil underneath the wheels. He would be looking forward, steady on the rows of raked grass ahead and then all of a sudden lash his head backwards to make sure the bales fell in the wagon and stayed put. When my father killed potato bugs he liked to squish them on the plant. He took their front end between his thumb and index finger and squeezed hard. The wet innards and occasional set of unlaid eggs squirted out the bug’s rear in an orange and black pool. Then he’d flick his thick fingers, flinging the dead bug back to the soil. But the grubs, the beetles that had no shell yet, didn’t die so neatly. The grubs overran the potato plants, came in all sizes, but always fat and bulbous. They had guts that did not come out neatly. My dad didn’t care. Watching him mash his way through the beetles and grubs disgusted me. I found other methods, ones I thought cleaner.