Strawberry shortcake for lunch

ANNO Domini 1919, the Glorious Fourth fell on the hottest Maine day I can remember, and I remember that holiday in part because Jack Dempsey lifted the heavyweight title from Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio. But just in part. I'm only too happy to explain: My father's youngest sister, my maiden Aunt Lillian, had many nephews and nieces and entertained them variously one at a time in one way or another. It came my turn, and she suggested we spend Independence Day by riding the cross-country electric car to call on Grandfather -- her father -- and see how he was making out by his lonesome on the old hillside farm. She liked to check him out now and then but hadn't for some time -- it would be fun to surprise him. It was already a rip-snorting hot morning when we caught the 7 o'clock car, and it began to get hotter and hotter. The Toonerville-type trolley car rocked like a leaping gazelle, but would stay on the track if held under 10 mph. At that speed, no cooling breeze was generated at the open windows, so we stifled along.

Four men sitting together across the aisle talked all the way about the Willard-Dempsey encounter due that afternoon. My delicately oriented aunt was one to shudder at the uncouth thought of fisticuffs and kept saying ``Oh, dear!'' as the men dwelt on the niceties of pugilism, but there was also a thought for the expenditure of such athletic energy on such a hot day. Whew!

The men were still talking boxing when we came to the end of our ride and walked over to Eddie's Livery Stable. Eddie hitched a roan into his high-style two-seater, which he didn't turn out for everybody -- Eddie and my Aunt Lillian had been childhood school-mates -- and he talked back over his shoulder at us as we rode the two miles out of town to the farm. The ride came to 50 cents.

We found the big farmhouse empty and the doors wide open. Grandfather wasn't in the barn. So we found him in his far field, at the end of a merciless walk up the sunburnt lane, hoeing tomatoes. You might think the Fourth of July would be sufficient excuse, even if cool, for relaxing a mite, but Grandfather assured us he was glad we came, since it was hot and he would just as lief quit with the tomatoes. He did say, though, that the heat was just great for killing weeds. He laid down his hoe to mark his place.

On our way back to the house we passed his two acres of strawberries. Nobody was picking today, but the fruit was at its peak and first thing tomorrow morning the youngsters would come to pick. He paid 2 cents a quart for picking and sold the berries by the wagonload house-to-house ``up to the city.''

There were baskets at the ready stacked along the end of the field and we each took one in each hand and began to pick. Under the hot sun the luscious ripe berries reeked the air with their flavor. We picked two heaping baskets apiece and came with hands extended to the house, which was surprisingly cool with the faintest of a breeze wafting through the open doors.

Grandfather dumped the berries in a dishpan, pumped water over them, and drained them. He handed me his metal strawberry huller. I was just 11 then and I hulled every one of them. While I hulled, Grandfather kindled a fire in the biscuit-baker in the summer kitchen (the real kitchen didn't get ``het'' in hot weather) and my Aunt Lillian went to work in the pantry. I looked up shortly to see her floured to the elbows, romping a monstrous steel spoon through shortcake dough in a big yellow bowl with blue stripes. Grandfather had brought buttermilk and butter from the cool cellar floor. I remember he found a baker's sheet and he went to make sure it would fit in the summer kitchen oven.

I saw the Manitoba prairies long years later, and they reminded me of that shortcake. I helped twist the Jersey cream. Didn't the juice squirt when we smashed the berries! Grandfather was already at table when Aunt Lillian divided the plunder and served it in soup plates. That's all we had to eat. Just strawberry shortcake. In late afternooon, when the day had cooled somewhat, Grandfather and Ol' Tige buggied us back to the trolley. It was my hottest Glorious Fourth. Willard failed to answer the bell for the fourth round.

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