Saturday expedition captured the stuff of Sunday breakfast

November 24, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

On many a damp November Saturday morning, my mother bundled her children and walked us eastward along 29th Street to Greenmount Avenue, where we boarded the No. 8 streetcar bound for downtown.

We rode past blocks of urban sights Mom identified with the skill of a tour guide: the ship's anchor outside St. Ann's Church, the blackened stone walls of Green Mount Cemetery, the Department of Public Welfare building and the Maryland Penitentiary, so frightening because of its gas chamber.

She never described our outing as grocery shopping. We were going marketing. Specifically, we were looking for the specialty products of old Baltimore that the Gorsuch Avenue A&P didn't offer. Our destination was the roisterous Bel Air Market, the public food hall where you found pickled pigs' feet and other unfashionable delights.

Within that archaic market district -- there was still a wooden cigar store Indian there -- my mother bought a sack of buckwheat flour and a pound of Wetzelberger's sage-laced sausage, two items that sank like lead weights in her ever-expanding shopping bag.

Optional, but often included, were scrapple, bacon and kidneys, the last to be made into the milky stew that caused some to salivate and others to gag.

After a circuit around the bustling Gay Street district, we were off, on foot, to Howard and Lexington streets, a vigorous upgrade from the lowlands of the Jones Falls flood plain.

By the time we staggered home late Saturday afternoon, my grandmother had a worried look on her face. When would the buckwheat get there, to say nothing of her daughter and grandchildren?

Lily Rose was no procrastinator. With a metal hand-mixer, she immediately blended the buckwheat flour, water, milk and yeast. Her fermentation vat was a mustard yellow crockery bowl. Buckwheat preparation was just the kind of ordeal Lily Rose loved -- complicated, blessed by the years and generally not done anywhere else.

At that Guilford Avenue house where the 12 of us lived, we started every Sunday morning in winter with a stout breakfast. The menu never varied. Lily Rose served both buckwheat and flannel cakes (delicious yellow pancakes, soft as a baby's flannel receiving blanket), plus a platter of bacon, scrapple and sausage. Sometimes, there was kidney stew.

By the 1950s, our family's custom was to follow a Saturday dinner of standing rib roast, no-lump gravy, baked potatoes, petits pois and baked macaroni and cheese with a little $l television.

My grandparents got a chuckle out of the corny but entertaining Lawrence Welk show. Just as the Lennon Sisters were warbling a sugary ballad, my grandmother slipped into the kitchen to run a spoon through her buckwheat mix.

She gave a stir or two to that thick, grayish brown liquid that smelled like beer. If the stuff passed inspection, she placed a linen tea towel over the bowl, had a swig of Pepsi Cola and retired for the evening. She was up again at 5 a.m.

We had a cast-iron griddle that was positively scary. Its pitted surface looked like Pratt Street after the March thaw. Crooked, full of irregularities that only decades of Sunday mornings can bring, it made the food taste like the culinary equivalent of a grand slam in the ninth inning of the World Series.

The buckwheat batter hit the griddle and immediately formed flat puddles peppered with little air pockets.

Rarely did we eat together as a family unit. Sunday morning was no exception. Lily Rose sat in the kitchen and as one, two or five appeared from church, she lighted the gas under the griddle and put on another breakfast.

Those who liked them -- and not all were buckwheat boosters -- praised these sacred commodities, the blue chip of breakfast foods. Lily Rose didn't need any praise for her cooking. All she needed was the satisfaction of seeing that potentially unwieldy household run without contention, illness or want.

Occasionally, there would be a guest who praised the buckwheat cakes a little too much. For this, Lily Rose had a stock reply handy.

She looked directly at her would-be flatterer and then spoke but four words: "I hate to cook."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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