The long and arduous task of making homemade ice cream turned into a perilous venture for these three prairie women
On a winter’s night back in the 1940s, there was a party in full swing at my parents’ farmhouse. Fiddles, guitars and a banjo were reeling off western tunes while square dancers in jeans and plaid shirts worked up a sweat that fogged the windows. It was downright cold outside, as only a December night can be on the Canadian prairie.
Most of the merrymakers had arrived by horse and sleigh or walked; the nearby village was but a mile away. And so it was with some surprise that lights indicated a vehicle was slowly making its way through the snow that had drifted across the lane.
Out in the kitchen, my teenage sister, Zelma, and my Aunt Jean took no notice. They were intent on secretly making a two gallon pail of homemade ice cream. Come time for the late night lunch, piles of sandwiches made with homemade bread would be followed by a fresh molasses cake loaded with brown sugar icing and served straight from the big pan as it made the rounds in the front room. And as a rare treat for the revelers, everybody would get their fill of homemade ice cream to go with it.
That afternoon, Zelma had gone down to the nearby river and chipped out enough ice to tamp between the outer shell of the old ice cream freezer’s oak bucket and its inner tin pail.
Aunt Jean stirred up the cream and the sugar and the vanilla, inserted the paddle and nestled the pail down among the ice chips with some salt to hasten the freezing.
As an impatient 10-year-old sworn to secrecy, I was allowed to hang around to watch the procedure, but Zelma and Aunt Jean would be doing all the work.
Just as the strains of the song The Arkansas Traveler began to filter in from the front room, Aunt Jean began to turn the crank of the ice cream freezer. She traded off with Zelma; they checked the contents. No sign of freezing.
“Do-si-do and allemande left….” The square dance caller was going through his repertoire. Turn the crank some more. Check again.
“Circle right and promenade” to the tune of Little Brown Jug. Check the freezer once more. A few crystals were just beginning to form around the edges of the tin pail. Take turns cranking.
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight…” It didn’t help any that the McClary wood stove was still warm from baking the molasses cake.
“Buffalo gals aren’t you coming out tonight….” We bundled up in winter clothes and the ice cream freezer was moved from the kitchen out to the back step. “Darlin’ Nellie Gray, they have taken you away” faded into the background.
Keep on cranking. Check the paddle. The ice cream was beginning to freeze. “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain….” Take turns cranking. Check once more.
It was time. Noting a nearby snow bank, Zelma and Aunt Jean plunged the ice cream freezer into its depths, with just an inch of two of the top sticking out.
Now to get back to those lights coming up the driveway — who was it? Peering through a foggy window, somebody recognized the “deacon’s masterpiece.” Nicknamed after the subject of the famous poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes called The One Hoss Shay, it was a contraption conveying the “general flavour of mild decay.” But instead of being drawn by a “rat-tailed ewe-necked bay,” this was a vintage truck of unknown origin. As Holmes claimed, “nothing keeps its youth, so far as I know, but a tree and truth,” and this pickup had definitely lost its youth.
Locals marvelled that after decades of trundling over bumpy rural roads and local hills and hollows, the vehicle still held together. Rust had eaten holes through most of the chassis, fenders hung on precariously, and headlights wobbled along, shorting out at irregular intervals. It could have been a poster truck for the local scrap metal yard, except for the fact that Uncle Levi needed it to transport his dogs around the community.
That very morning, his two big greyhounds, anticipating a day of illegal hunting, bounded into the makeshift kennel Uncle Levi had patched together in the back of the truck box, or what was left of it. As was his usual custom, Uncle Levi had places to go and people to see, so there were numerous stops along the way. Preoccupied with imbibing the spirits so generously offered by one crony after another, Uncle Levi never once remembered his dogs cooped up in the back of the deacon’s masterpiece.
It was not until he finally reached the party about nine o’clock that night did the barks and whining of the hounds draw his attention to their confinement. Released from their mobile kennel, they sprang out with but one goal in mind — to empty their severely distended bladders at the nearest available spot.
And where was that?
Right on top of the ice cream freezer.
I tagged along as Zelma and Aunt Jean went out to retrieve the fruits of their labours, eagerly anticipating how much the party goers were going to enjoy the surprise treat. I must confess my own mouth watered at the thought as well.
And then their flashlight shone down on yellow snow, coloured by runoff from the top of the ice cream freezer.
Aunt Jean was livid. Her face flushed with anger, she pronounced punishments the likes of which I had never heard, first on Uncle Levi, then his hounds and even the deacon’s masterpiece. Zelma came up with some choice words herself, for a teenager.
Pretending not to hear, I fled to the house. The hounds, fearing threats of imminent annihilation, skulked back to the dubious safety of the deacon’s masterpiece, their tails between their legs.
By now the square dancers, totally unaware of the drama that had just unfolded, were settling into mismatched chairs in preparation for lunch. As keeper of the secret, I never did tell anyone what they were about to miss, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better my piece of molasses cake would have tasted topped off with a scoop of that homemade ice cream.