A smoky wood fire sends a clear message that it's time to get serious about the season.
I grew up in the city in the 1950s, when wood-burning fireplaces were not common. Coal furnaces, on the other hand, were around but disappearing fast. The 11th month brought its own aromatic reminders in the kitchen, too.
November is Baltimore's first true cold month of the fall-winter calendar, and the chefs who kept me happy as a child ratcheted up their menus with enthusiasm.
I think crabs have overtaken oysters in Baltimore's popularity race. But there was no match on a cold Friday after a high school football game. The Guilford Avenue kitchen became an oyster house.
This time of the year, a bushel basket of oysters would appear. They were free to any taker who was handy with a shucking knife. This stash sat in our cold pantry and would slowly diminish. And there were quarts of shucked oysters that stayed in the refrigerator until they had a date with cracker crumbs and a high flame.
The first Friday in November was a night of dazzling grease fires. Fried oysters sputter and put up a good fuss in a flimsy iron pan, the type that heats quickly but also spills, too. As if one seafood cooking smell were not enough, there were home-steamed shrimp and fried fish, too.
My grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Cora, doctored up their own high-test cocktail sauce for seafood - horseradish and a tomato base - indicating that November was a serious food month.
Serious because the meals seemed to grow more complicated as winter came on; we would never, for example, have a standing rib roast in July or August. We had it every other Saturday night in the winter.
On the intervening Saturdays, they cooked spaghetti sauce all day. By 5 o'clock, the house was redolent of simmering tomatoes. Any nonfamily extras who happened to be around soon found a reason not to return to their homes.
My family never put muskrat on the table, but other exotica appeared. There would be game and venison. One year, my mother marinated venison with pickling spices and made a version of sour beef - sour deer. It was tasty. Another scent I associate with November is the kidney stew made for breakfast.
I've often thought of their meat or oyster pies, the ones with the thin, flaky crusts. Lily and Cora considered it an economy meal. Those at the table considered it a trip to culinary heaven. They had probably recycled the Saturday night rib roast into the beef pie. There were also veal, lamb and chicken parts to be reworked. They could extract miracles from carrots, celery and potatoes and some cornstarch.
My family seemed to know everyone - perhaps because there was always an open place at the table. They had a pleasant arrangement with Tommy Thomas, who'd managed the Orioles in their International League days when the team played nearby.
Tommy would drop off a bushel of York Imperial apples on the front porch. I don't think his white Cadillac Coupe DeVille had left the Guilford Avenue curb before Lily Rose had her own Oriole, an Oriole-brand oven, fired up.
Soon the mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, butter and York Imperial wafted throughout the house. There would be baked apples as the last course that night, and maybe, in a day or so, added innings of pies, apple crisp and brown betty.