Friday, August 28, 2015


            When admitting to a tendency to sentimentalize, I sometimes hear an “old-timer” explain by saying “I can even cry over a good piece of apple pie”. I have been known to say it myself so as to mystify a great grand-kid or two who will have no idea what I am talking about. I try though not to use the worn out canard, “As American as Apple Pie” so as to avoid insult to our English cousins, because right up front I have to admit in fact that several of the world’s best pie-making apples came to our shores long ago thanks to our English forbears and their pomological sensibilities. Bramley’s Seedling, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Ashmead’s Kernel come quickly to mind, sought after today sadly by an educated but declining few.
            As I revisit this subject so close to my heart after several writing-years of neglect I find it tantalizing to return to the oldest cook book on my shelf – in fact America’s first cook book – published  by Amelia Simmons in the year 1796. There on Page 24 is her receipt for Apple Pie and under Puff Pastes for Tarts on Page 29 Paste # 3 is her recommended receipt for an appropriate crust.
            As the weeks pass by and we approach that time of year when apples are ripening and coming of age, we start thinking of apple pies as a piece of family history. From grown children who are planning  their visits, orders for “Mom’s apple pie” are already coming in. It brings to mind an old truism often repeated by cookbook authors and those who pursue “food history”. As new families take shape. the “Mom” of that family tends to make two family dishes just like HER Mom did. Meat gravy and PIE CRUST. Looking back on three generations of our own offspring we find that largely to be true. Both my mother and my wife Shirley’s mother were devoted pie-makers who took seriously their approach to “the perfect pie crust”. It must be flaky, but soft and buttery, and able to hold up to long baking times and a range of fillings.
            Shirley and I determined years ago that the ideal apple pie should be filled with a blend of three complimenting apple varieties chosen for sweetness, tartness and juiciness respectively, yet each holding its shape in the baking process. We call it an “Orchard Pie”. A combination might include McIntosh, Rome Beauty and Golden Delicious. Back in my Mother’s day, it might have been Winesap, Rhode Island Greening and Northern Spy. I think Shirley’s mother would very likely have featured a Red Astrachan – one of which grew in her back yard – as one of her choices along with Macs which are a New England standby. If I were living back in the day when the choice was wider, I would choose Roxbury Russet, Bramley’s Seedling and Newtown Pippin.
            And along with Shirley’s incomparable pie crust under it all, there must be a generous slab of aged 4-year old white cheddar cheese at room temperature on the side! Aaahhh.

:   Grand-daughter Brittany (now a mother of  two herself) gets a lesson in pie-making from Grandma Shirley.                                                                                                                                                            Photos by Al Cooper

Monday, August 17, 2015


            Back in the 17th century, trade goods from Europe found their way across the Atlantic, changing the life of Native Americans in many ways. Arrow heads of iron and steel, weaving beads of cast glass, yarns and cloth with dyed red colors; tools that saved time and energy. In most cases though, the numerous tribal peoples continued to preserve the “old ways and crafts” as well. Mirrors however were sheer magic and revolutionized family relationships in ways that continue to impress social scientists who specialize in studying the moments of change-in-direction of entire elements of culture.
            The division of labor in the Native American or “Indian” (for convenience) family had been established over centuries of real-life experience and tradition. When preparing a warrior for battle (and inter-tribal warfare was a constant in Indian life across North America long before white man entered the picture), it was the woman of the household who meticulously, proudly and lovingly applied her husband’s war paint, stroke by colorful stroke. It was actually a “spiritual” connection between the two; a moment of profound intimacy. With the coming of the mirror the man-of-the-house could paint himself. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? In a very real way, it undercut and reduced the importance and personal power of the woman in the family and community. At a time when the arrival of white man’s alcohol was about to threaten the very foundations of a thousand year culture, the power of a village’s women might have been a bulwark.  
            In 1940-41, it was clear to U.S. leaders that we were certain to be swept into what was still “Europe’s War”. From England’s experience it was also clear that ways had to be found to compensate for the impact mobilization would have on the manufacturing industry, at the very time vital production capacity would have to expand exponentially. Experts from industry, labor and government were asked to calculate how many of these jobs could be filled with inexperienced women in a wartime scenario. The most optimistic estimates topped out at 20%. By war’s end in 1945, 85% of those jobs – especially those associated with the building of airplanes, ships, tanks, munitions and other new and complex instruments of war – would be filled by female workers.
            In 1942 both government and industry got in the business of flooding the media with advertisements urging women to help win the war, developed around an image which was a composite of American “housewives” building airplanes, several of whom were actually named Rosalind. The result was one of the most successful media campaigns in history and the creation of a near-mythological figure named “Rosie the Riveter”.

   Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover for Memorial Day, 1943 did much to spread the Rosie image far and wide. The model was a 19-year old Vermont telephone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe. The Rockwell original sold for $5 million in 2002, and Mary Keefe died in April, 2015 at age 94.

  It was hoped – and believed – that these war-time “Rosies” would return to the homes they had temporarily abandoned, when the emergency was over. And many did. But several million didn’t, perhaps influenced by new advertisements asking such questions as, “how would you like a new kitchen mixer”?
            In key ways however, American culture had been changed forever. It had been proven that women could do almost any job a man could do and even become a “second” breadwinner for a family, thus moving many into or out of the “middle class” category and able to afford a larger home or a second car. Less often mentioned but worth consideration is a marked relaxation of the racial divide and a change in attitude between white and black women who now worked side-by-side and shared lunch rooms and newborn friendships.
            And unlike the Native American spouse of an earlier century, American women found themselves with much greater power, in the family, the community and even in the country’s political arena. Many sociologists cite the “Rosie the Riveter” era as the birthplace of the modern “Women’s Movement”.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


            When at the very peak of his popularity as a writer of American fiction and an exponent of Native American culture and history, the late Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008) was being interviewed on a radio talk-show as I listened from my car radio. When questioned about the financial rewards which came with his international fame as a mystery writer, Hillerman – an author who had claimed my admiration since his very first Leaphorn/Chee novel – commented at length on the definition of success. He quoted a Navajo elder with whom he had had that same discussion: “I know a man who has always been poor; no one ever taught him any songs!”
            Now I understood at once that the word “songs” in this context referred specifically to the “healing” and “blessing” songs which are at the center of spiritual ceremonies intrinsic to Navajo religious culture. But I couldn’t help but apply the term metaphorically to the deafness many of us in the fast-paced modern world succumb to on a more worldly level. So much so that I pulled off the roadway I was traveling to write the exact quote on a pocket card. The message with both meanings has traveled with me in my life ever since, and as I listen for the stories which are carried on the wind or whisper through a stand of Norway pines or flow from the strings of a nine-string banjo, I try to listen for the hidden chords – the deeper story connected by a thin thread at a harmonic level not easily captured.
            The life of a tour guide is a busy one; driver, teacher, marriage councilor, story-teller, peace-maker, sometimes cook; shepherd really. In that role one lovely autumn afternoon I was driving a 12-passenger van on a two-lane highway in the farming country of northwestern Vermont. It was the first day of a new school year and just ahead of us a yellow school van – the kind used for the smallest of scholars – slowed with stop lights flashing. I carefully came to a stop adding my own flashers for further safety, although there was no one else in sight. About 200 yards up the long dirt driveway of a country farmhouse to our left a mother in her apron waited anxiously holding the hand of an excited pre-school age girl in blonde pigtails. A small boy nervously exited the short yellow bus and you knew at a glance this was his first day away from home. At that instant his little sister broke loose of the mother’s hand and into a full-out run down the sloping driveway shouting her greetings. The boy took off to meet her dropping a brand new book bag on the ground. The two met halfway in a power embrace that must have taken them through three joyous circuits before the laughing and crying mother could catch up and join them. I sat there mesmerized, feeling like a thief of time looking in on a hallowed moment in the life of those who were experiencing a shared piece of family history that would never quite happen again.
            Looking around the van I thought I was the lone observer. Then the passenger seated just behind me, a long-time friend and former Mrs.Utah USA leaned forward and whispered: Al, did you see what just happened?  (Two out of twelve; not bad.)
            There is a certain place in our log home where, as I negotiate a right-angle turn, passing a high shelf where I keep my family of prized Aladdin kerosene lamps, that I sometimes pause to catch a vagrant whiff of coal oil almost no one else would even notice. If the mood is right - and especially if rain is falling outside - I can hear one of those songs that serve to carry me back in time to a moment of exquisite happiness. It would have been 1937, since we were taking a trip to break in our family’s brand new Oldsmobile. I was already joyful, since our destination was an old Victorian house on a rural Connecticut back road I loved more than a modern kid might a Disney World. There was no electricity, no phone or radio, no running water unless you operated a hand pump, and an old and wonderful outdoor privy (a two-holer!) a long dark walk from the house. As we drove the last few miles, Mom and Dad in front, my two older brothers and I in back it started to rain hard. I don’t know who started it, but we began to sing” It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. . .” I was safe, secure, surrounded by those I knew loved me, and looking forward to my customary job of trimming wicks and pouring kerosene into the lamps we would soon light to push back the cricket-filled dark of the outside night.
            All these years later, I can close my eyes and hear that singing with the metronomic sound of the windshield wipers in the background reminding me that I am a man who has always been rich.