The pungent smell of chicken being grilled on skewers caught my attention as I walked out of my Manhattan apartment building last Sunday. That and the sound of 50’s big-band music blaring from a speaker.
The Second Avenue Street Fair was in full swing. The event is held every year on the second Sunday in June. It promises tasty food, free entertainment, and unparalleled people watching.
I wandered to the end of the block. Amid all the milling people, my eyes were drawn to a couple with three young children. The smallest rode on his father’s shoulders. The tallest girl held her mother’s hand. But the middle child, a boy, was impatient and kept dashing ahead. In the short time that I stood there watching them, the mother called to him three times, “Come back, you must stay near us!”
The children’s excitement, the cooking odors, the sun beating down—welcome after a dreary winter—took me back to my childhood in South Dakota.
Each year the Farmers’ Club picnic was held near the river in a field not far from our house. The event was always planned on a Sunday in late June, after the fields had been planted and before the big push to harvest had begun. The hour was selected so the women could attend church services, but still have enough time to put finishing touches on the dishes they’d bring to the picnic.
My mother was able to relax and listen intently to the priest’s sermon knowing that four pies were cooling on the kitchen counter and a pot of baked beans was reaching perfection in the oven of our wood-burning range. On Saturday she’d chased, slaughtered, and plucked eight chickens. Early that Sunday morning she baked them in batches, two at a time. One of my brothers pulled potatoes from the garden, and one of us girls cleaned and peeled them. While the potatoes cooked, my mother made mayonnaise by blending her special mix of ingredients into egg yolks.
Chickens, beans, potato salad, pies, dinner rolls, the card table with an oil cloth covering, serving and eating utensils, glasses and cups were loaded into our car. With our mother seated beside him, Dad drove down the driveway, past the cottonwood and the old oak, and continued eastward along a rough hilly road. He parked the car at the edge of a large untilled field.
Other families also pulled up and parked. Everyone unloaded their goods and then, while the women set up the tables and the men heated up the grill, boys and girls grabbed cane poles and small tin buckets of bait and rushed to the river bank. As the youngsters caught fish, the men cleaned and grilled them. Everyone served themselves from the bounty, taking seconds and thirds until they thought they could eat no more.
But dessert was still to come! Scoops of the best-ever ice cream (made by the local creamery) topped off slices of pie. Later slivers of icy watermelon cooled everyone down.
The women huddled in the shade catching up on the town news, while the men, after kicking large stones aside, drove stakes into the ground in preparation for rambunctious rounds of horseshoe.
Young boys waded in the river and laughed when schools of small fish tickled their feet. Girls made mud pies decorated with twigs and red berries. The older kids ran around with abandon—playing hide and seek and tag amongst the old oaks and in the thickets.
The impatient voice of the Upper East Side mom broke through my memory and returned my attention to the present.
“Stay where I can see you!”
I watched as the little boy reluctantly made his way back through the crowded street and felt sorry for him.
On those splendid afternoons of the Farmers’ Club picnics, we children had been entirely free to wander and explore. No parent would call upon us to do a chore. There’d be no order to go feed the chickens, pull weeds, or check on newborn animals. On those splendid afternoons we had been simply kids.
© Barbara Scoblic 2019