Thursday, August 12, 2010


To follow up on the last post, a passage from Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties, that captures so well the toil and fast pace and difficulty of canning in an early twentieth century kitchen, with sick kids and flies and heat to boot:

     "In the humid kitchen, Anna works on alone. Mazie lies swathed in sweated sleep in the baking bedroom. Jimmie and Jeff sleep under the kitchen table, their exhausted bodies, their hair damp and clinging to their perspiring heads, given them the look of drowned children. Ben lies in sleep or in a sleep of swoon, his poor heaving chest laboring on at its breathing. Bess has subsided in her basket on a chair where, if she frets, Anna can sprinkle her with water or try to ease the heat rash by sponging. The last batch of jelly is on the stove. Between stirring and skimming, and changing the wet packs on Ben, Anna peels and cuts the canning peaches--two more lugs to go. If only all will sleep awhile. She begins to sing softly--I saw a ship a-sailing, a-sailing on the sea--it clears her head. The drone of fruit flies and Ben's rusty breathing are very loud in the unmoving, heavy air. Bess begins to fuss again. There, there, Bessie, there, there, stopping to sponge down the oozing sores on the tiny body. There. Skim, stir; sprinkle Bess; pit, peel and cut; sponge; skim, stir. Any second the jelly will be right and must not wait. Shall she wake up Jimmie and ask him to blow a feather to keep Bess quiet? No, he'll wake cranky, he's just a baby hisself, let him sleep. Skim, stir; sprinkle; change the wet packs on Ben; pit, peel and cut; sponge. This time it does not soothe--Bess stiffens her body, flails her fists, begins to scream in misery. Just then the jelly begins to boil. There is nothing for it but to take Bess up, jounce her on a hip (there, there) and with her one free hand frantically skim and ladle. There, there.  The batch is poured and capped and sealed, all one-handed, jiggling-hipped. There, there, it is done."

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