Lake Erie has caught us all in her grip here. If you ask people around here what is the most beautiful view in the world, the chances are pretty good that they will tell you about the view of the lake from the hill. From the hill the lake stretches north and south. In the distance Buffalo gleams.
Lake Erie is shallow. If you have ever carried around a full saucer of tea you know how easy it sloshes right over. Lake Erie is like that. The wind pushes 1 side up and the level in say Cleveland or Canada drops by the same 20 or 30 feet. In storms the lake crashes over the break walls and eats away at the shale cliffs. Towards Buffalo the summer places with their pillars and tennis courts situate themselves on the cliffs. Out here lots of vineyards enjoy that view. Fishing cabins and cottages cozy up to each other on the other side of the railroad tracks. The beaches and cliffs get the sunset.
In winter the lake entertains herself sending up moisture that turns into the innocent sounding Lake Effect, the heaps of snow that dump just over the ridge. We make records for the inches of snow that fall. Sometimes 200, sometimes 250 inches. People expect the snow. Everybody has boots. Most everybody has a snow blower. My friends on the Hill say casually “I will stop by and drop the plow on my way home.” They put the plow on the pickup truck at the beginning of the year and take it off again at the end.
The secret is, people like the snow. The snow binds us together. It tests us and we pass. It sets us apart. It makes us enjoy the coffee or beer together in a bar or a joint chiefly beautiful only in warmth, not decor. Our weather gets attention. We never wonder what to talk about. All winter our friends send us pictures of a Florida place, or is it a North Carolina place? No snow there. When couples turn into snowbirds, usually one wants to stay back. When we get a long stretch of no snow People don’t dare say out loud what they were thinking. They are thinking “I want it to snow.”
Driving with a Dad in the winter was like being in the back of a race car, accelerating in the skid of a turn, only it was the skid of snow. No brakes for him. Brakes land you in the snow bank. Powerful rear wheel drive cars, with snow tires, is what he drove. I drove Mom’s station wagon. My method then, and it still is: drive like you would guide a toboggan and don’t count on stopping. So far so good.
My friend Tommy lived up on the hill. You take Route 39 south out of town up through the vineyards. They stop 3/4 of the way up the hill where it gets too high for them. The cars shake with the wind. You can’t see too well. The road has little hills and valleys between the big hills and valleys. There are the people driving like me being passed by the people who drive like Dad so you never know if your lane will be empty of oncoming traffic when you top the next rise. You keep your eyes on the road which is a shame because if you looked west you would see the lake below and 52 kinds and colors of clouds.
I would pick up Tommy and we would take our Saturday class in Fredonia and then go to a diner to get coffee with apple pie and cheddar cheese. But one day he had to get to his Uncle’s cabin, a fishing shack right on the lake. It was in Silver Creek by a stretch of the imagination. The place was completely owned by the lake. On the other side of the tracks. A winters worth of driftwood and seaweed blown up against the lake side of the cabin, sprinkled with bird and fish carcasses. Not a women’s space. No curtains on the windows. No dainty nothing. Mismatched everything. An old gas range on an old cracked linoleum floor. A big old steel heater in the middle of the room that wasn’t the kitchen. Den? Bedroom? Living room?
We were hungry. The old fridge, huge on the outside, small on the inside, metal mesh shelves contained mayo and ketchup. On the shelf next to the fridge was salt and pepper, a can of Crisco and some old potatoes. No bread. Some old grape jam. But Tommy was Polish. He had inherited that stone soup talent, where you take a stone and put it in water, bring it to a boil and then add a little of this and that and you have a meal. I used to laugh that if you were Polish you could even make a soup out of pickles till I got a Polish cookbook and discovered recipes for that.
Tommy lit a match and turned the gas on under the old banged up aluminum pot on the stove and lit it with a pop. Tommy peeled the potatoes with an old paring knife while he heated up the Crisco. He pulled the knife toward him through the potatoes and made long fat strips and then sliced them to French fried potato sizes. He put them in the pot of hot Crisco, not real hot, just over water boiling temperature. Then he fished them out with a big old slotted spoon onto a piece of torn off paper bag. Tommy increased the flame under the pot and when a piece of potato jumped around he added the rest of the soon to be fries to the pot where they riled around like driftwood on a flood swollen creek. He would pull one out and examine it and put it back in till in a minute they were done. Off heat and all the fries spread out on more paper bag. He put lots of salt on them and took out the ketchup and we ate. The best French Fries ever!
I am not going to lie to you. I don’t have Crisco in my pantry and I never get around to sacrificing my farmer’s market lard or tallow. I did once but the strainer basket, and and the storage,and the cleanup, and the forgetting about it and discovering it 6 months later when the urge to deep fry is long gone, and the worry of “Is it true about cholesterol? Is this a meal that will kill us?” is upon me, I just get stopped dead in my tracks.
And I know this, that I can never have better French Fries than the ones I ate that spring thaw day in a fishing cabin between the railroad tracks and the lake. I don’t even think we sat down.