SEPTEMBER WAS the month when the ice tea disappeared from the table. The canvas porch awnings came down. It seemed as if a crazed wasp or bee got into the house every day. And, after a summer spent alongside the sand dunes and boardwalk, the women who ran the Guilford Avenue house where I grew up were ready and rested for domestic vigilance.
By the second week of the ninth month, the supply of homemade ketchup would have been boiled down and bottled. It was supposed to last through the upcoming spring. It didn't. It was that good.
A change in the Sunday morning routine was a sure signal the days were growing cooler and shorter. During the heat of the summer, the cooks downplayed big, hot breakfasts, the kind with kidney stew on top of everything else.
On a Saturday in September, my mother boarded a No. 8 streetcar and set off for the Belair Market in the Oldtown part of downtown. At some ancient and trusted market vendor, she bought the buckwheat flour that would go into the next day's breakfast. It was a sure sign that summer was considered dead when the cooks started serving sausage again, along with the heavenly buckwheat cakes.
We didn't start fall housecleaning this early. My mother's birthday was the 23rd of the month -- and it was a big deal. She was my grandparents' only daughter and her birthday was a state occasion. It usually fell during a miserable September heat and humidity spell. No matter what the temperature, the menu rarely varied -- a rib roast of beef, macaroni and cheese and small peas.
The ice cream came from Fiske's, the wonderful Park Avenue caterer. The confection came in blocks -- chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and orange ice all molded into a pastel block that looked like a map of the Western states.
My mother was fond of a certain bakery -- Doebereiner's on North Avenue near St. Paul. The place had gone out of business by the early 1950s, but people spoke of it with a reverence normally reserved for a dead pope.
The demise of a venerable Baltimore institution was no impediment to our Guilford Avenue kitchen. Over the years great Aunt Cora had cut a wad of recipes from this newspaper. The feature was called "Aunt Priscilla" and spotlighted Maryland dishes. Cora regarded these yellowing slips of paper with high esteem.
She took the brittle clipping and counterfeited her own Doebereiner's cake. The icing was a killer -- it contained precisely one pound of butter. She then dragged out an iron skillet and toasted two cups of slivered almonds. She tapped the almonds atop the highly piled icing like she was shingling a roof.
Needless to say, the mocha cake -- make-believe Doebereiner -- disappeared by the end of the night. If there happened to be a piece or two left, some hungry hand staged an early morning raid on the cake tin.
The pre-fall parade extended into the seafood category too. The oysters started arriving (it was still too early for oyster stew), as did the last of the summer's crab meat, ironically cheap and ever plentiful now that Baltimoreans were beginning to shed their summertime taste for crab meat.