ANOTHER oddity of my fetchin'-up was the annual raisin-and-cranberry pie in October for my father's birthday cake. My parents married in penury, lived some years in desperation, and felt they were flourishing when they could afford window curtains. I was yet-to-be, and Mother said, "How about a birthday cake?" Dad, who was striving and would succeed, hadn't thought of any kind of a birthday treat, and bemused he said, "I'd like a cranberry-and-raisin pie." It makes sense.
On the farm where he grew up as one of a big family, frivolous food was seldom. There was plenty to eat from barn and field, pond and forest, but delicacies ran to cookies in the pantry jar and what pies could be made from the strawberries and such everyday availabilities. Perhaps custard now and then. It would be many long years before my father saw a frosted birthday cake with candles. But every fall a small offering of wild cranberries would appear down in "Uncle Niah's Swale," and Grandmother would s plurge and spend egg money on a package of the big raisins that in Maine cookery then were called "plums."
Yes, Jack Horner stuck in his thumb and pulled out a raisin. An esteemed dessert was a "plum duff," a bag pudding offered at sea as the traditional maritime delicacy. Can you suppose that left-over corned beef would be chopped, aided by a handful of raisins, fried, and then served as pudding? Some maple syrup helped. So my father brought into focus his boyhood delights, and he said he hadn't had a cranberry-and-raisin pie since he was 15. Mother made him one for his birthday cake, and did so for the next
60-odd years. As we children came along, we shared.
The wild Maine cranberry, known mostly as "island" cranberry, is common enough in some places along the coast, but upland at our old farm it was rare. They did persist in Uncle Niah's Swale, but not in great numbers. Some years scarcely any. Long after my Dad's boyhood, and when I came to have the family farm, I'd find some now and some then. A swale is a run, a gully, in a field, and after the rest of the field is machine mowed, a scythe takes care of the swale grass. Just to keep things neat, because s wale grass runs to reeds and cows don't like it. It makes stable bedding and mulch. So I'd notice if Uncle's Niah's memorial swale had any cranberries and just before first frost I'd pick what might be there. Usually it would be just about enough for one good pie, if you were generous with raisins.
Not long ago I asked Eleanor Mayo if folks still went to gather island cranberries. Eleanor was Gott's Island born and would know. "Do we?" she said. "We sure do - and we fight over 'em!" That is, if you can get some, rather than the commercial kind, it's worth the effort.
And wouldn't you know? Time ran around and October came, and I had a snatch of Uncle Niah's cranberries, and the family came for Dad's birthday. My bride, then fairly new at the job, said, "Well, I'll get started on a big birthday cake."
"Not this time," I said. "I'll go get some store raisins, and you make him his annual cranberry-and-raisin pie. You can put a candle on it if you want to, but we never did."
Dad was delighted, but sagely made no remark that would make my mother or my wife wonder whatever he might mean. Yes, he would indeed, be pleased to have a second piece - seeing's 'twas his birthday, after all. That was the last raisin-and-cranberry pie ever gleaned from the swale of Uncle Niah. The next summer there wasn't a cranberry to be seen there, and the vines had disappeared. A cycle had made its go-around. I went to mow the swale several summers after that, but never a cranberry reappeared.
But that was not the last cranberry-and-raisin pie Dad got on his birthday, and a fair approximation may indeed be made from the store-bought kind.
Again, the seasons have advanced, and I noticed just lately my (still) bride picked up some cranberries in anticipation of October.