The Cutting Edge of a White String

`WHERE,'' I said to my friend Pierre, who is manager of our most-frequently-visited extra-super-duper grocery extortium, ``can I find a piece of string?' Pierre is a native of ``the Valley'' and is a mite out of context down here in mid-coast Maine. In his home town, Fort Kent, the French is interesting Old French from the days of the first acadien settlers in New France, and I like to try my high school stuff on Pierre. Pierre also teaches me a new French word - such as t'umbtack, or ping-pong. So I amended my query with, ``Une ficelle.''

``I thought that's what you said,'' said Pierre.

Mine was no idle request. I wanted a piece of string such as grocery stores, and other stores, used in times past for wrapping parcels. Does anybody remember the little wooden handles the department stores provided for carrying bundles tied with string? We had several turning mills in Maine that made these handles from white birch. When string went out of style these turning mills went out of business. Milady would buy a shirtwaist at Filene's, the salesgirl would wrap it in paper, tie it with string, and hook one of these birch handles onto the string. The evening subway cars to the suburbs would be loaded with shoppers carrying such parcels. The string came in ``cones,'' and there were holders for these cones so the end of the string hung within reach when a bundle needed tying. This string (a ficelle is a small cord) was of cotton, substantial for its purpose, but a clerk could break it over a finger after tying a knot.

This is the string that caused ``string savers.'' People saved string. Some tied pieces together and made balls; others rolled hanks about their fingers and tossed the hanks in a drawer or box. Remember the story about the man who cleaned out the family attic and found Grandmother had left three trunks filled with hanks of string, each marked, ``String too short to save?'' Every family saved string, and I remember as a boy tying enough hanks together to fly a kite.

But now, as I spoke to Pierre, I needed a piece of string. Stores no longer keep us in supply, and I did not want a twine such as I can buy in a hardware store - or some Down-East ``ganging'' as used for fishlines. Just a length of old-time cotton grocer's string.

Every Saturday night in my youth my father would go to the string drawer in Mother's pantry and select a piece of string of the right length and take it to the supper table. Saturday was baked beans night and with baked beans we always had a loaf of brown bread - lots of molasses with flour and corn meal, a generous dollop of sultana raisins, and the whole thing steamed in two lard pails on the top of the stove while the beans were osmosifying in the oven. The brown bread was in a three-pound lard pail which was double-boiled in a five-pound pail. The piece of string was for cutting brown bread.

A knife wouldn't do it. The bread was hot and sticky and a knife would glob up and make a gummy mess. But a string was just right. Father, in a ceremonial manner, would stand to cut the brown bread. He'd loop the string around the loaf, about three-quarters of an inch down from the truncated-cone top, and draw the ends away from each other so the string passed right through. Slice by slice he would work down the platter, and then in a masterful gesture he would lay the string across the diameter of the loaf and move it downward to the platter. Presto! The loaf was ready to serve.

WE have our beans the same as always, but we don't have a brown bread too often, and when one appeared on the table lately I needed a string. Pierre, of course, turned out to be no help whatsoever. He keeps some 200 people employed in his magnificent establishment, and the only string anybody knows about is used by the meat clerks to tie roasts and brisket for corning. No good at all for cutting brown bread.

``And while I've got your attention,'' I told Pierre, ``why don't you carry buckwheat flour?'' Pierre was brought up on ployes, buckwheat pancakes indigenous to his hometown. Pierre's flour display has everything else. ``I'd like to make a ploye now and again.''

``It wouldn't sell,'' said Pierre.

I guess no more than would string.

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