I grew up in a house where every window stayed open in June, but despite the fresh air, there was no mistaking what would be going on the table that night.
I cannot claim I inherited the cooking ability of my grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, Great-aunt Cora, but every so often I stumble into their kitchen techniques.
I bought a bunch of rhubarb and a quart of overly ripe strawberries last Saturday at the Waverly Farmers' Market. I was scarcely in the house before I began stewing both; the scent of the slightly boiling strawberries filled the house with my own version of Mrs. Smuckers' kitchens. I consumed the rhubarb and strawberries as Lily and Cora did -- over cottage cheese (and not the low-fat variety, either).
These sisters also had a way of making iced tea that sent a wonderful perfume up the staircase and throughout all three floors. They took hot water, added loose tea and plenty of sugar, and thoroughly squeezed three or four lemons. All this sat for four hours in a blue crockery bowl every warm afternoon. The boiling water over the lemons made for another summertime scent I will always associate with the end of the school year. The tea imparted a decided sweetness that seemed to float through the embroidered summer kitchen curtains.
Lily and Cora adhered to kitchen rules I'm sure their mother established -- and her mother before her. This makes sense; they all lived together until they all made that last trip to New Cathedral Cemetery. They never used baking chocolate after Memorial Day, but that did not mean we went without dessert. They would make a one-layer cinnamon cake (of course, no mix allowed) that was pretty amazing. They also lived by their own rules. If they were making cinnamon cake, they also made vegetable soup, which had a delightful beef-broth tang to it.
The vegetable soup's first cousin was a pot of stewed tomatoes, a side dish that is terribly out of favor today. It's also a dish that, if properly made, will fill the house with the scents of celery, the tomato acids and a little trace of simmering onions, cinnamon and cloves. Come September, those scents would intensify for ketchup-making when the Maryland tomato crop was exploding.
There is no mistaking the smell of frying soft crabs, another June dish highly venerated in Maryland. These cooks would have nothing to do with a backyard barbecue; their hamburgers were panfried alongside their hand-cut french fries, which more than once set off a small kitchen fire and shouts of "Douse it out with salt!"
And then there would be the cool, dry June days when you could catch of whiff of the strawberry shortcake, a fabulous, labor-intensive dessert.
Our recipe involved unsweetened biscuit dough formed and baked into a 10-by-10-inch island. Cora then mixed butter with powered sugar for what she called "nun's butter icing," which she spread over the biscuit base. She added a layer of crushed strawberries and topped it off with whipped cream of the highest butterfat content she could find.
It was a heavy dessert -- again, out of favor today, except by those of us who want our foods to smell and taste like a fine June day.
Find archives of Jacques Kelly's column at baltimoresun.com/kelly