Story type: Literature
The Plainfield boys always had the name of being smart, and I guess Lute Baker was just about the smartest boy the old town ever turned out. Well, he came by it naturally; Judge Baker was known all over western Massachusetts as the sage of Plainfield, and Lute’s mother–she was a Kellogg before the judge married her–she had more faculty than a dozen of your girls nowadays, and her cooking was talked about everywhere–never was another woman, as folks said, could cook like Miss Baker. The boys–Lute’s friends–used to hang around the back porch of noonings just to get some of her doughnuts; she was always considerate and liberal to growing boys. May be Lute would n’t have been so popular if it had n’t been for those doughnuts, and may be he would n’t have been so smart if it had n’t been for all the good things his mother fed into him. Always did believe there was piety and wisdom in New England victuals.
Lute went to Amherst College and did well; was valedictorian; then he taught school a winter, for Judge Baker said that nobody could amount to much in the world unless he taught school a spell. Lute was set on being a lawyer, and so presently he went down to Springfield and read and studied in Judge Morris’ office, and Judge Morris wrote a letter home to the Bakers once testifying to Lute’s “probity” and “acumen”–things that are never heard tell of except high up in the legal profession.
How Lute came to get the western fever I can’t say, but get it he did, and one winter he up and piked off to Chicago, and there he hung out his shingle and joined a literary social and proceeded to get rich and famous. The next spring Judge Baker fell off the woodshed while he was shingling it, and it jarred him so he kind of drooped and pined round a spell and then one day up and died. Lute had to come back home and settle up the estate.
When he went west again he took a wife with him–Emma Cowles that was (everybody called her Em for short), pretty as a picture and as likely a girl as there was in the township. Lute had always had a hankering for Em, and Em thought there never was another such a young fellow as Lute; she understood him perfectly, having sung in the choir with him two years. The young couple went west well provided.
Lute and Em went to housekeeping in Chicago. Em wanted to do her own work, but Lute would n’t hear to it; so they hired a German girl that was just over from the vineyards of the Rhine country.
“Lute,” says Em, “Hulda does n’t know much about cooking.”
“So I see,” says Lute, feelingly. “She’s green as grass; you’ll have to teach her.”
Hulda could swing a hoe and wield a spade deftly, but of the cuisine she knew somewhat less than nothing. Em had lots of patience and pluck, but she found teaching Hulda how to cook a precious hard job. Lute was amiable enough at first; used to laugh it off with a cordial bet that by and by Em would make a famous cook of the obtuse but willing immigrant. This moral backing buoyed Em up considerable, until one evening in an unguarded moment Lute expressed a pining for some doughnuts “like those mother makes,” and that casual remark made Em unhappy. But next evening when Lute came home there were doughnuts on the table–beautiful, big, plethoric doughnuts that fairly reeked with the homely, delicious sentiment of New England. Lute ate one. Em felt hurt.
“I guess it’s because I ‘ve eaten so much else,” explained Lute, “but somehow or other they don’t taste like mother’s.”
Next day Em fed the rest of the doughnuts to a poor man who came and said he was starving. “Thank you, marm,” said he, with his heart full of gratitude and his mouth full of doughnuts; “I ha’ n’t had anything as good as this since I left Connecticut twenty years ago.”
That little subtlety consoled Em, but still she found it hard to bear up under her apparent inability to do her duty by Lute’s critical palate. Once when Lute brought Col. Hi Thomas home to dinner they had chicken pie. The colonel praised it and passed his plate a third time.
“Oh, but you ought to eat some of mother’s chicken pie,” said Lute. “Mother never puts an under crust in her chicken pies, and that makes ’em juicier.”
Same way when they had fried pork and potatoes; Lute could not understand why the flesh of the wallowing, carnivorous western hog should n’t be as white and firm and sweet as the meat of the swill-fed Yankee pig. And why were the Hubbard squashes so tasteless and why was maple syrup so very different? Yes, amid all his professional duties Lute found time to note and remark upon this and other similar things, and of course Em was–by implication, at least–held responsible for them all.
And Em did try so hard, so very hard, to correct the evils and to answer the hypercritical demands of Lute’s foolishly petted and spoiled appetite. She warred valorously with butchers, grocers, and hucksters; she sent down east to Mother Baker for all the famous family recipes; she wrestled in speech and in practice with that awful Hulda; she experimented long and patiently; she blistered her pretty face and burned her little hands over that kitchen range–yes, a slow, constant martyrdom that conscientious wife willingly endured for years in her enthusiastic determination to do her duty by Lute. Doughnuts, chicken-pies, boiled dinners, layer-cakes, soda biscuits, flapjacks, fish balls, baked beans, squash pies, corned-beef hash, dried-apple sauce, currant wine, succotash, brown bread–how valorously Em toiled over them, only to be rewarded with some cruel reminder of how “mother” used to do these things! It was terrible; a tedious martyrdom.
Lute–mind you–Lute was not wilfully cruel; no, he was simply and irremediably a heedless idiot of a man, just as every married man is, for a spell, at least. But it broke Em’s heart, all the same.
Lute’s mother came to visit them when their first child was born, and she lifted a great deal of trouble off the patient wife. Old Miss Baker always liked Em; had told the minister three years ago that she knew Em would make Lute a good Christian wife. They named the boy Moses, after the old judge who was dead, and old Miss Baker said he should have his gran’pa’s watch when he got to be twenty-one.
Old Miss Baker always stuck by Em; may be she remembered how the old judge had talked once on a time about his mother’s cooking. For all married men are, as I have said, idiotically cruel about that sort of thing. Yes, old Miss Baker braced Em up wonderful; brought a lot of dried catnip out west with her for the baby; taught Em how to make salt-rising bread; told her all about stewing things and broiling things and roasting things; showed her how to tell the real Yankee codfish from the counterfeit–oh, she just did Em lots of good, did old Miss Baker!
The rewards of virtue may be slow in coming, but they are sure to come. Em’s three boys–the three bouncing boys that came to Em and Lute–those three boys waxed fat and grew up boisterous, blatant appreciators of their mother’s cooking. The way those boys did eat mother’s doughnuts! And mother’s pies–wow! Other boys–the neighbors’ boys–came round regularly in troops, battalions, armies, and like a consuming fire licked up the wholesome viands which Em’s skill and liberality provided for her own boys’ enthusiastic playmates. And all those boys–there must have been millions of ’em–were living, breathing, vociferous testimonials to the unapproachable excellence of Em’s cooking.
Lute got into politics, and they elected him to the legislature. After the campaign, needing rest, he took it into his head to run down east to see his mother; he had not been back home for eight years. He took little Moses with him. They were gone about three weeks. Gran’ma Baker had made great preparations for them; had cooked up enough pies to last all winter, and four plump, beheaded, well-plucked, yellow-legged pullets hung stiff and solemn-like in the chill pantry off the kitchen, awaiting the last succulent scene of all.
Lute and the little boy got there late of an evening. The dear old lady was so glad to see them; the love that beamed from her kindly eyes well nigh melted the glass in her silver-bowed specks. The table was spread in the dining-room; the sheet-iron stove sighed till it seemed like to crack with the heat of that hardwood fire.
“Why, Lute, you ain’t eatin’ enough to keep a fly alive,” remonstrated old Miss Baker, when her son declined a second doughnut; “and what ails the child?” she continued; “ha’ n’t he got no appetite? Why, when you wuz his age, Lute, seemed as if I could n’t cook doughnuts fast enough for you!”
Lute explained that both he and his little boy had eaten pretty heartily on the train that day. But all the time of their visit there poor old Gran’ma Baker wondered and worried because they did n’t eat enough–seemed to her as if western folks had n’t the right kind of appetite. Even the plump pullets, served in a style that had made Miss Baker famed throughout those discriminating parts–even those pullets failed to awaken the expected and proper enthusiasm in the visitors.
Home again in Chicago, Lute drew his chair up to the table with an eloquent sigh of relief. As for little Moses, he clamored his delight.
“Chicken pie!” he cried, gleefully; and then he added a soulful “wow!” as his eager eyes fell upon a plateful of hot, exuberant, voluptuous doughnuts.
“Yes, we are both glad to get back,” said Lute.
“But I am afraid,” suggested Em, timidly, “that gran’ma’s cooking has spoiled you.”
Little Moses (bless him) howled an indignant, a wrathful remonstrance. “Gran’ma can’t cook worth a cent!” said he.
Em expected Lute to be dreadfully shocked, but he was n’t.
“I would n’t let her know it for all the world,” remarked Lute, confidentially, “but mother has lost her grip on cooking. At any rate, her cooking is n’t what it used to be; it has changed.”
Then Em came bravely to the rescue. “No, Lute,” says she, and she meant it, “your mother’s cooking has n’t changed, but you have. The man has grown away from the boy, and the tastes, the ways, and the delights of boyhood have no longer any fascination for the man.”
“May be you ‘re right,” said Lute. “At any rate, I ‘m free to say that your cooking beats the world.”
Good for Lute! Virtue triumphs and my true story ends. But first an explanation to concinnate my narrative.
I should never have known this true story if Lute himself had n’t told it to me at the last dinner of the Sons of New England–told it to me right before Em, that dear, patient little martyred wife of his. And I knew by the love light in Em’s eyes that she was glad that she had endured that martyrdom for Lute’s sake.