Maybe it’s the reminders in the news of hard economic times. Maybe it was that poem in Cedar Street Times last week by Rachel Krasner, a high school student, called “The Emigrant.” Maybe it was cleaning out some boxes of my late mother’s things that made me think about what it must have been like for her, and my grandparents, to emigrate from Cornwall and come to the United States, leaving one depression only to land in another.
They came from a small town in Cornwall called Hayle (or Heyl, if you go further back) which is on the west coast, and is famous for having a nice sandy beach that doesn’t freeze so they have lots of sea birds all year round. They also had a copper mine or two, but when the mine played out, my grandparents packed up and came to the United States hoping for better times.
They came through Ellis Island and went to Detroit, Michigan first. Hearing that there was more opportunity – and better weather – in California, my grandfather headed west. My mother, at age 16 and with a two-week-old driver’s license, loaded her younger brother and my grandma in a second-hand car and drove across the country to Watsonville to join him.
They didn’t bring much with them, but I still have their steamer trunks and, best of all, some old Cornish recipes.
My grandmother was one of those who never measured anything. And she never had a failure in the kitchen that I knew of. She made melt-in-your-mouth pie crusts, always in the same bowl, always perfect. She used real lard and 7-Up. I never got the gist of it – my pie crusts require a chain saw. She told me that I was overworking them, but when I tried going the other way, they melted. My mother inherited the knack and the recipes, and when I was growing up she’d make Cornish pasties for dinner. I still do, too, but I use commercial pie crusts. Grandmama wouldn’t care. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body and she wouldn’t have blamed me at all.
Now, for the uninitiated, pasties are folded over pies filled with meat and vegetables. They were made for the miners to carry in their lunch buckets, wrapped in newspaper or a dish towel to keep them warm. They could be eaten without utensils and since the pie crust wasn’t gooey, they could be eaten with dirty hands and the dirt wouldn’t stick. And they’re pronounced “PASS-tee”. Pasties with a long “a” are for strip tease dancers, not for dinner.
Marge Ann and I went back to Cornwall a few years ago and snooped around Hayle. We stayed at a B&B with a little old lady –who served greasy fried toast for breakfast — and her arthritic King Charles Spaniel. We took a train from London to Truro and rented a car, but I had to do all the driving because Marge Ann just couldn’t get comfortable with driving on the “wrong” side of the road, especially when the hedgerows were so tall and the lanes so small. We climbed around bleak, windy Castle Tintagel (King Arthur’s birthplace) and snooped out the Poldark tin mine. We found the terraced house where my mother had been born and we poked around the churchyards, amazed by all the generations of my grandfather’s family that were there.
Also in the environs were St. Michael’s Mount and its wonderful beach, and the seaside town of St. Ives where there are signs warning the tourist that the seagulls will swoop down and snatch your pasty. Or your ice cream cone – seagulls don’t care. We went to Land’s End and down to Penzance (didn’t see any pirates, though, unless they were well-disguised).
We got a personal tour of the local pasty factory and I took a long tape of the tour. The ladies were so thrilled to have someone interested in what they were doing, and they showed me all their little secrets and how they fold the edge over just so and crimp the edge. When I got home, though, I went right back to my old ways and bought commercial pie crusts, though I did add a little flair to the edge. . .
My grandmother made cobblers, too. She’d go out and gather wild raspberries, or she’d grow rhubarb, or she’d pick strawberries and make them into deep dish cobblers, the kind where the crust sort of floats on top. She’d make them in individual bowls and bake them and serve them right in the bowl. They weren’t overly sweet, and had just the right amount of tartness. My favorite was to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to a warm cobbler.
When my grandparents finally retired, they lived on East Lake Boulevard in Watsonville across from the Martinelli apple orchards. Their house is still there, but the orchards are condominiums now. The Martinellis liked her a lot, and told her that any time she wanted any apples, she should just come on over and they’d give her all she wanted. But Grandmama would tiptoe across the road at 4 in the morning and gather the windfalls she needed. She said the purloined fruits tasted better than the ones they’d give her.
Now, individual blackberry cobblers for the guys at the firehouse would be like putting spats on a pig. I preferred to make it in a big pan and serve out equal amounts of filling and topping. I developed a method of spooning out the topping part in big globs before I baked it, depending on how many guys there were. If there were six guys coming to dinner, I made six globs. If there were eight, I made eight, and so on. It just made it easier to divvy up when dessert time came.
1-1/2 sticks butter or margarine
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4-1/2 cups blackberries
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. While the oven is pre-heating put the sticks of butter in a 13-inch baking pan and place into the oven to allow butter to melt. Remove pan from oven when butter has melted.
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add milk and vanilla and mix.
Once butter has melted distribute the blackberries into the bottom of the baking dish. Next pour cobbler batter evenly over the blackberries, or spoon it out like I described above. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until done. The cobbler is done when it passes the toothpick test.
Not many people serve rhubarb these days, but Grandmama and Grandpa always had it in their garden. She’d stew it and serve it to me with ice cream, or as a cobbler. Remember if you get some at the Farmer’s Market that only the stalks are edible, not the leaves. And try to avoid munching it all raw before you try this recipe to use as is or as filling for a cobbler:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 pound rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces, about 3 cups
In a saucepan combine sugar and water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Place rhubarb in a baking dish; pour syrup over rhubarb (it is not necessary to cover fruit with water since rhubarb has so much water). Cover dish and bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, until fruit is bubbly, stirring several times.