Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chapter 10: Summertime

"Now it was summertime, and people went visiting. Sometimes Uncle Henry, or Uncle George, or Grandpa came riding out of the Big Woods to see Pa...Sometimes a neighbor sent word that the family was coming to spend the day. Then Ma did extra cleaning and cooking, and opened the package of store sugar. And on the day set, a wagon would come driving up to the gate in the morning and there would be strange children to play with."

Summer is a pleasant time in the Big Woods. The grass is long and thick, the breezes soft and refreshing, and the days long and warm. It is the perfect time for visiting back and forth and Laura and Mary enjoy having friends to play with. Of course Mary is much better behaved and angelic with her long blond hair.

It is the difference in hair color in fact, that leads to a sad moment in Laura's day. After a special visit from their aunt, who prudently declares she loves BOTH blond and brown hair best, Mary whispers to Laura, "Aunt Lottie likes my hair best anyway. Golden hair is lots prettier than brown."

Laura is so filled with indignation that she slaps Mary right on her angelic little face. Pa sees what happens (not that Mary wouldn't have told!) and gives Laura a whipping, after which Laura must sit in a chair. Laura feels very sorry for herself, but deep down is somewhat comforted by the knowledge that Mary now has to fill the chip bucket all by herself.

Summer days and good fresh feed for the cows means that it's time for making cheese. First a calf must be killed, one that has never had any other feed but milk. Laura is relieved to hear that Uncle Henry is going to kill one of HIS cows and will share enough of the stomach for Ma to get the rennet she needs to make cheese.

Cheese making is a complicated process, and Ma works for many days making a wheel each day until her pantry is full of enough cheese to last another year. Meanwhile, Pa has an adventure of his own when he finds a honey tree and brings back tubs and buckets full of sweet, sticky comb, plenty of honey for the family to enjoy during the long, cold winter to come.

It has taken me quite some time to get this chapter done. I decided early on that I wanted to make cheese, but had some difficulty finding the ingredients, and once I had what I needed, had difficulty finding a two day stretch where I had the time. As it turned out, cheese making was a much shorter process than I anticipated.

"Pa went again to Uncle Henry's, and came back with a piece of the little calf's stomach. It was like a piece of soft, grayish-white leather, all ridged and rough on one side."

I tried to find a calf's stomach, but nobody around here butchers their calves. If I'd been on this chapter a couple weeks earlier when we had the late blizzard, I could have found calves a-plenty since so many of them died in the storm. But now there was none available, and perhaps that is just as well. I think I am developing a weird enough reputation in the town as it is.

Certain well-intentioned family members suggested the stomach of a full-grown cow, but that was quickly rejected by me. Not even I want to tackle such a large and unwieldy organ. Especially since the preserving instructions require inflating it, salting it, then hanging it in a dark closet for about three months.

I searched for rennet tabs to no avail, but my mom finally found some in Plentywood. No one had recognized them by the term "rennet" because the brand name is "Junket". Now I was set and only needed to find the time. Last night, I found it.

The first step in making cheese is to inoculate your milk with live cultures. This is done by heating it to room temperature, pouring in a bit of buttermilk, then leaving it to sit out overnight. At 11:00 last night, I was sterilizing a pot and preparing to add culture to my hitherto uncouth Vitamin D milk.

Wrapping the lid with plastic to keep the flies out, I went to bed mildly disgusted by a food that required rotting in order to produce it. I didn't wake up until 9:00, in part because of my late bedtime the night before and in part due to it being the first night home for our new kitten, who decided to cry at various intervals. When he wasn't sneaking up on me and poking me with his cold nose to see if I was dead.

"A bit of rennet, tied in a cloth, was soaking in warm water."

The next step in making cheese is to gently heat the milk and pour in the rennet, which has been dissolved in water. I did this, noting with pleasure that the buttermilk had definitely made a difference in the milk, which was showing signs of curdling already, even before adding the rennet.

When the milk was just the right temperature (about 86 degrees), I added the rennet and left the milk to sit. It is critical that the milk not be jostled at this stage in order to achieve that Shangri-la state known as "a clean break". This is where the milk solidifies into a jelly-like mass of curds ready for cutting. I left it extra long to make sure it had plenty of time for the magic to work.

"When the milk was heated enough, Ma squeezed every drop of water from the rennet in the cloth, and she poured the water into the milk. She stirred it well and left it in a warm place by the stove. In a little while it thickened into a smooth, quivery mass."

At the end of the time, it didn't look quite right to me, but I cut it anyway and then plunged my unwilling hand into mix the curds like the instructions said. The mass disintegrated into a sodden pot of soured milk. This was not looking good, and I did what any pioneer woman would in that situation. I rushed to my computer and looked up cheese making articles.

What I found was the death-knell to any hopes that there was a fix to this. On a page devoted to the problems associated with getting that clean break, I read that "If you add too little starter, the milk will not be acid enough for the rennet to work. If you add too much, the milk may get over acidified and curdle. Over acidified milk is recognize the by a slight thickening (clabbering) of the milk. The milk should look exactly like regular milk when the rennet is added. If the milk is even slightly clabbered, you will NEVER get a clean break." I remembered the slight curdling of the milk before the rennet was added and I knew my buttermilk must have been too acidic for the job.

Like so many traditional tasks of the home-maker of yore, cheese-making is one that is simple if you know how and have been taught the mysterious sense of rightness that only experience can give. How am I supposed to know how acidic my buttermilk is? Send it to therapy? But the accomplished farm wife would simply "know".

"Then Ma wrapped each cheese in paper and laid it away on the high shelf. There was nothing more to do with it but eat it."

Alas, there was nothing left for me to do but throw the batch out. Perhaps I will try again someday, since I am ever loathe to let anything defeat me, but it will have to be a task for another day. For now, I am content to admire the skill of the farm wife and acknowledge her superiority over her modern sisters.