Ice Box Soup
That was the longest summer of my life, I think. Most every day we went to the beach, our beach, and swam and played all day long. We made a raft of sorts out of inner tubes and scraps of plywood all tied together with pieces of twine and rope. It didn't matter that the raft kept falling apart and we had to stop and put it back together all the time. That was half the fun. We had the best raft in the world. We played Pirates and had grand battles, seizing the King's ship and gold and making the soldiers walk the plank.
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Or, we played Explorers and sailed the Seven Seas (although we could only name five, counting the Dead Sea), pretending we found new worlds or got cast adrift to survive on a desert isle. We swam and dove and turned brown in the sun while our hair got blonder and blonder. Sometimes we ate lunch on the beach and then we would build a fire to roast hot dogs and made potato salad at the house which we brought to the lake and sat in the water to stay cold. It didn't even matter that there was always sand in the potato salad by the time we ate. It was OUR sand and we loved it!
Lake Tahoe Potato Salad
First ya gotta find a pot big enough to boil lotsa potatoes. We always used the turkey roaster, I seem to recall. Fill that pot up with potatoes and water and then put some eggs in there to get hard-boiled at the same. Put this pot on a high heat and then turn down when the water starts to boil. It will take the better part of an hour for the potatoes to get boiled; they're done when a fork will slip in easy. Meanwhile, peel and chop up a couple of onions. Take about four or five or more stalks of celery and cut them into thin strips and then chop those up, too. Do the same with a mess of pickles. The big debate is always: sweet pickles? Or, dill? Why argue? Use some of both. Lots of pickle is absolutely required. Drain those potatoes when they're finished cooking. Put the eggs into a sink covered with plenty of cold water to cool 'em down faster. Cut the potatoes up back into the same pot ya cooked 'em in. Why make work for yourself? I think the maid quit last night. Watch out! Those potatoes are hot. Ever play Hot Potato? Well, here is a perfect opportunity. But, no fair tossing one to baby. She'll probably catch it and then you'll be in big dutch with Momma.
Handle those potatoes with much quickness. Cut 'em, dice 'em, slice 'em, smash 'em, do what ever ya gotta go to get them into pieces fast. Then sprinkle about a cup of sugar all over the top of them and then sprinkle about the same amount of vinegar on there. Yes, vinegar! Shake on some salt and lots of pepper and some garlic if yr that kinds people. Now, ya gotta put a whole bunch of mayonnaise in. We always put some yellow mustard in, too, but go light on that stuff or you'll lose all the other flavors. Put all the chopped onion, pickle, celery in there and stir it all up. Peel the eggs and mash all but a few of them up with a fork and add that, also. The trick to making really creamy potato salad is to get all that cold stuff mixed up in there while the potatoes are still hot. So, while some use a spoon to stir this up, we always used our hands, right up to our elbows, and kept adding mayonnaise and pushing that cold stuff down in there and mixing it all up till ya got'cha a creamy, crunchy, mess that ends up to be about lukewarm. Slice the last eggs and garnish the top of the salad along with a sprinkle or two of paprika. Isn't that pretty? Now, you gotta use that mixing spoon to keep everyone out of the potato salad or else they'll eat it all up and you won't have any left to take to the lake. Cover with wax paper and put in the ice box to chill.
Watermelon was a penny a pound that summer. Oh, what great beasts of melons we could buy for a quarter. We took our little red wagon and walked up the hill to the store at Stateline to buy a melon as often as we could scrape up a quarter. I have to admit that I rummaged through the change Dad always emptied out onto the top of his bureau on more than one occasion. Sneaking into their bedroom, my heart pounded and my hands were wringing wet. Even though neither Mom nor Dad were home, I always expected some voice to say, "Hey, kid, what the hell are ya doing in here?" and was amazed that he never noticed or at least didn't ask about the mystery of the oddly disappearing change.
Going home from the store, Mosie rode in the wagon, holding on to the melon that was sometimes bigger than she. Cassandra and I took turns pulling the wagon. Orion ran along beside, hollering to everyone we passed by, "We're gonna eat watermelon. We bought the biggest one in the store." He was so excited that people would smile and answer him back. "Sure looks like you did," or "I bet it's gonna taste real good."
We dug pits along the edge of the lake and set those watermelons in the water to get good and cold. We rolled the melon over and checked on it periodically to make sure it was getting cold all over in an even fashion. Never was a melon so worried over by any more conscientious kids. And, oh! when finally it was as chilled as it was gonna get and we cut it open, how good it was. So cold. So sweet. So firm and crisp and juicy. We ate melon till we couldn't move and then we sat sticky in the sand and ate some more. We gobbled melon and spat seeds. We had contests to see who could spit their seeds the farthest. We tossed the rinds at each other and wrestled one another down to the sand, rolling about and getting up with sand and seeds stuck all over us in the watermelon juice. Then we ran in the lake to wash off. We rushed down the beach and jumped onto the rinds and slid down the wet sand at the water's edge. We used the rinds to hold up the walls of elaborate sand castles we labored all day long to complete.
We built sand castles all that summer. This was an on-going, never-ending endeavor. We dragged half of Mom's silverware and most of her bowls out of the kitchen and down to the beach in the process. She only complained periodically, when there literally was not another spoon in the house to stir the soup, whereupon we would do our best to collect and haul them all back again, those we could find. Mom was tremendously lenient towards us all the years we were growing up, whether because she was preoccupied with more important stuff or just due to her good nature, I cannot say. Every once in awhile she snapped and read us all the riot act or just suddenly reached out and smacked one of us up alongside the head or backside with a hairbrush, shoe, coat hanger or whatever she happened to have in her hand at the time. But, I do not believe she ever did this to be mean to us. At least, I never felt like she wanted to hurt me. It was just that she was so hopelessly outnumbered, what with four of us and only one of her.
We dredged out a series of moats and canals along the shore of the lake which required daily maintenance and upkeep to stay ahead of the ravages of the waves. We created castles with multiple turrets and towers and walkways and lookouts. The sand held together pretty well so long as it was wet and our morning's work would look pretty impressive. But, as the afternoon wore on, the sun sucked the moisture out of the sand and our towers and turrets began to collapse and trickle down upon themselves. Then, armed with pails and bowls, we attempted to build it back up again. Sometimes, intent on destruction, we stageed an attack on our own keep and decimated the construction, firing upon it with pinecones, dirt clods, buckets of water and our fists and feet.
When it rained, we dropped everything we were doing to run down into the water because we had been told that the lake would attract lighting. We wondered what it would be like to be struck with a bolt of electricity and bobbed out there in the water, rain drops splattering on our heads, watching the sky and hoping to see a lightening strike come crashing down on us. When the lightening flashed we all screamed with delight and began counting, "One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three..." until we heard the thunder,to see how far away the lightening had hit. We had been told that it was one mile away for every second we counted off before hearing the thunder clap and resound across the sky. We honestly hoped it would strike us despite the danger; it would be so exciting to be able to say "I was struck by lightening."
I have one vivid memory of my father during that long summer. He came to the beach with us one day and was sunning on the blanket while it was swim and play as usual for his rowdy brood at the shore. Orion and Maureen played quite naked or with just a diaper or pair of underwear. Cassandra and I wore shorts and T-shirts or our old wore-thin swimsuits. Either way, we frequently shucked them off altogether, to rinse the sand out of our cracks and away from the delicate area where our legs met our groin and where sand always collected, chaffing our skin and rubbing us raw. Dad was probably reading, after swimming with us for a bit. Cassandra and I must have been in some state of semi-dress for the sound of a shrill woman's voice caught my attention. I looked up to see a fat white woman with bright pink thighs and a small dog on a chain and a sullen looking child about my age in tow. The woman was scolding Dad and shaking her finger in his face. I wandered up to the blanket to see what was going on.
"It's disreputable, that's what it is. And, you should be ashamed of yourself, letting them run around half naked like some kind of heathens. It's bad enough with those babies, but these two girls are old enough to be taught better..." she was saying as I arrived at his feet and went down on the blanket on my knees. I looked up at the woman whom I could hardly see as she was standing with her back directly to the sun and was halo-ed with a golden blaze of sunlight. She cast a shadow on my father and me. The little boy with her was dressed in shoes, socks, dungarees and a long-sleeved madras shirt. He looked hot and uncomfortable. He had bright red hair and zinc oxide ointment across his nose, a slash of greasy white that made him look like an Indian on the warpath. She had frizzy red hair too, although hers was more of a pink and matched her sun-burnt legs. She was wearing a type of dress I had heard referred to as a sunsuit. The skirt was very short, the top was bulging and filled to bursting with what seemed like acres of her bright pink flesh against which the magenta and chartreuse flowers of her outfit fairly faded. "If not for yourself, then for them, it would seem that some sense of decency should be instilled..." she continued. She, too, had war paint ointment in a thick streak across her nose which was already peeling from a previous sunburn.
"I really don't see where this is any of your business..." Dad began but she wasn't letting him get a word in edgewise. Who WAS this creature?
"Well, I can tell you that I certainly don't appreciate having our walk interrupted by the sight of four naked children looking for all the world like a pack of savages..." she went on.
"Madame," Dad said, drawing himself up into a sitting position and messing my hair up with one of his massive hands, "It must be the result of some hideous sin committed by my wife and myself for, to the best of my recollection, every single one of our children was born into this world absolutely stark naked." Whereupon Dad put his fingers into his mouth and whistled his drop-everything-and-come-at-once whistle which he used only to call us in for supper or when there was a family mystery that must be solved immediately. Cassandra, Orion and Mo all came running and Dad gave forth a great laugh when the woman, her son and the little yapping dog all automatically backed off a few feet.
"Enough play, children, I believe it is time to take our bathes,” he said, and he stood and made as if to begin taking off HIS bathing suit.
"Oh. Oh. Oh..." the woman said, and backed off a bit further and then turned and began running as fast as ever she could on her cork, highheeled wedgies, dragging her dog and kid with her.
Dad collapsed onto the blanket in a fit of giggles and pulled us kids all down on top of him where we went squiggally-mush all over the blanket and each other, laughing just as hard as was he. "You all are beautiful, just exactly the way you are. Don't ever let anyone tell you any differently," he told us, kissing our heads and smacking our fannies.
"Dad," I asked, "Who was that lady?"
"Just some tourist that got lost when she wandered off the wrong bus," he replied, absently.
When Dad was wonderful, he was so wonderful it almost hurt..
Dad must have been working that summer. What else could explain our new living situation? I don't know how he put this deal together to buy the house on the lake. All I know is that he was gone a lot and for a long time we didn't see the Monster and life felt good. We often had soup for dinner at this time. Soup, in fact was a much-preferred all around snack food. Mom used to throw together a soup at the end of the week. It wasn't until I was almost twenty years old that I found out about Real soup: broths, consommes, bone soup. For the McElroy clan, in Lake Tahoe, California, in 1958, soup was something fast and easy to fill the belly up quick.
End of the Week Soup (Also Known as Ice Box Soup)
Get the big pot out; that turkey roaster will do just fine. Put it on the burner (or across two burners) on medium heat and pour in some water. Now, rummage through the ice box and see what manner of leftovers ya might find in there that could go into making up a soup. Be creative; do not stand on ceremony. Spaghetti sauce maybe doesn't look like soup material but toss it into the pot and see. Debone that carcass left from the baked chicken and add that. Odds and ends of peas or carrots or corn? Ummm Good. This IS how Campbell's got their start, you know? Cabbage? Hey, why not? Mashed potatoes? You bet. Congealed gravy left over from who knows what? Yeah, stick that in there, too. Macaroni and cheese? Yes siree. One little hot dog all wrinkled and ugly? Slice that up fine and toss it gleefully into the pot. Don't forget, you're cooking for a crew here. Beans? What the hell. They're good protein and add an interesting texture. Sour kraut? Well, maybe not. Better just eat that up yourself. The sacrifices a cook has to make in performance of her art! The whole purpose here is to clean out the ice box to make room for new and interesting left-overs to come. We can't afford to be feeding the garbage can and there's children starving in Asia, ya know! Let this all come up to a boil and then holler, "Supper's on." Ideally, the gang will bring a healthy appetite with 'em to the table and you won't have a jar of this stuff floating around in the back of the ice box next week for a repeat performance.
Kids today look at me with blank faces when I tell them to get something out of the ice box and hand it to me. While we actually, usually, had electric refrigerators when I was growing up (although we didn't always have much in the way of food stuffs to keep in them), I saw ice boxes, tin and zinc lined affairs with a shelf on top to hold the blocks of ice and drip pan in the bottom to catch the melt, and we always called it an ice box if it had a door and ya put food in there to stay cold. Which reminds me of a joke that was popular back then..
What ever happened to Frigidaire?
It was years before I found out why this was funny, but I laughed my head off anyway.