Monday, July 28, 2008

Rare Bird

It's been a wild couple of weeks over here at ETMA HQ. There have been many trips to the range and back. This year we've watched my dear grandma Gidgee's health deteriorate. It was time. She was 103 years old and I hope to poop out long before then. She had an amazing life and it was spent mostly surrounded by loving family, tons of friends and the occasional vodka gimlet.
It was a long goodbye. I can't tell you how many times I protested, "But MO--oooommm!"
Only to be answered with, "You don't know how much longer we're going to have your grandmother!" She's only been saying this since 1978.
This weekend I went up to her home to gather with my extended family and toast a remarkable woman. Paging through her photo albums, I saw all of these pictures of raging parties. There was the Halloween where grandpa Dunk had dressed up as a Native American woman and refused to get up off the floor or speak to anyone all night long. (Not entirely PC, but what do you expect for the 50's?) There was Nicey, tanned within an inch of her life in California, handing her delighted husband Tink a cocktail. Paul Brown's head thrown back laughing. My great Auntie Joy, Anne and Bob Michaelson dressed head to toe in a garish lime polyester to celebrate St. Patrick's day 1972 in Borrego Springs. They were all people I was too young to know. All these parties, these fabulous times roared through by a crowd the likes of which this world will never see again.

She was the last of that generation, the final card played. There will never be another like that one. They knew life without cars, television - heck, electricity, but they also knew how to have a hell of a time.
Looking around her home, it was hard not to want to cram every knick knack or cracked plate into my suitcase. I just wanted to make it last. I wanted to save our times - and all of her great times, but that's the thing about a party. It always has to end.
Instead I ate and drank way too much, laughed my head off and cried. The entire family came home for Gidge. Even my Duluth family and close friends made the drive over to the Iron Range to pay their respects and give us all some much needed hugs. We laughed at Gidgee's funny little sayings, crazy as a coot, colder than a billy goat, dark as a pocket - I don't understand where any of these came from. The one phrase of hers that I used the most, was that she was a rare bird.
Exhausted from the arrangements, stuffed from the fabulous food from Paul's Italian food in Eveleth - who knew that Iron Rangers could be so gourmet? (Salty, heavenly spiced Porketta and a whole platter of prosciutto, mortadella and aged cheese.) The potica from the Virginia Co-op was so good, we had to make an extra trip back to town. And it only seemed like minutes had passed before it was time for us to go.

Two of the memories that people shared with us were how Gidge would often feed people tasty lunches of cold steak, crackers and sweet onions dusted with Lawry's seasoning salt. Of course we had this for lunch on our first day of making funeral arrangements. I'd never stopped to consider that this wasn't a normal staple for most people. The other thing, so fondly remembered were banacks.

Banacks are a the love child of a biscuit and some fry bread. It's a simple, but careful mix of yeast, flour and water that is then fried in lard until puffy and golden brown. There's even a specific eating technique. You stab your fork into one end and slowly saw it back and open with your butter knife. Then, you slather the whole thing with butter - good butter counts here and drizzly rich maple syrup, boiled down from the area trees. The rich amber oozes into the airy pockets. Each bite is crunchy, chewy, sweetly salty and heavenly. I'm proud to say that I hold the family record for most banacks ever eaten in one sitting - 13. You got that right, buddy - THIRTEEN and don't even think about trying to take me down. I am the Banack Queen and her majesty has deemed you worthy of sharing the recipe. I know chances are good that you'll never attempt these, but trust me when I say, this is the stuff that legends are made out of. This is the thing that my grandmother gave to sustain me.


1/2 cake of compressed yeast dissolved in warm water

3 1/4 c. Flour
1T. Sugar

1t. Salt
2 c. Lukewarm water
Beat until shiny. Mix at 8 PM. Cover and let stand in a warm place.

In AM turn out onto a well floured surface. Cut in rounds. Let rise 1/2 hr or more until doubled. Fry in hot lard in cast iron skillet, shaking constantly until puffed and brown on all sides.

With my first bite I closed my eyes.

Screen door on the back porch slamming. Small bare feet pounding over the mahogany colored hollow wood floors. Dishes clattering. Grease sizzles, spits and snaps. A soft, arthritic hand, cups a small round chin. "There was a little girl that had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead." The banacks are laid out, taking up the entire counter, puffing beneath tea towels. Coffee on the stove top, poured through a mesh strainer into chipped cups. Chairs scraping, oil cloth sticking as warm plates are set upon it. Little pitchers and the orange yellow bottomed butter dish are passed around. The golden banack steaming as the lid is pushed back little fingers pawing it open, sticking to the green glass plates, smearing onto shirt, face and eventually blond hair. Family chortles, teases and recite sonnets for last night's dinner. Lists and debates are begun over the next dinner to come. Summer morning breezes brush the oily air outside and over the greens. Those glorious gone days at Eshquagama.


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