As a child of baby boomers, I was born several years after the hostilities of World War II were over, but I remember well my family’s stories of Aunt Dorothy’s Victory Garden.
Dorothy and her husband, Jack, weren’t actual relatives, but it was a mark of the respect my family felt for theirs that we referred to them as if they were another aunt and uncle to us. Aunt Dorothy was “to the manor born,” as my mother liked to say of her wealthy and cultured friend, while Uncle Jack, a decorated World War I veteran, seemed like just a big old teddy bear to me.
When everyone was urged to do their part in the war effort, Aunt Dorothy decided a Victory Garden would be her patriotic contribution. Never mind that their full-time servants had been called up to serve in the armed forces or work in the factories. She didn’t trouble herself with worry that she had never gardened before. Aunt Dorothy would have a Victory Garden.
Uncle Jack was too old to serve in the Second World War, but he did his part by running the state police force. He transformed that agency with the discipline and professionalism he was famous for, but he was unavailable to help Aunt Dorothy with her Victory Garden. She preferred it that way.
If I ever saw Aunt Dorothy dressed in anything but crisp tailored suits, matching veiled hats, pearl chokers and white gloves, I can’t recall. She might have donned a garden party hat and work gloves when she went out to spade up a section of her lawn for her Victory Garden, but I doubt she had any other type of clothing to wear.
As luck would have it, Aunt Dorothy’s first attempt at gardening produced a bumper crop of green beans. Thrilled by her success, she decided to can as many as she could. She had read that improperly canned green beans can be toxic, so she decided she would use her cook’s enormous pressure canner to do the job right.
She spent the better part of a hot day in late June harvesting, washing, cutting and packing green beans into jars. She filled the canner full, placed it on high heat, and went into the dining room with an iced tea to cool off from her labors.
When the canner exploded, the neighbors must have thought the sound was either a premature salvo in the upcoming Fourth of July celebration, or a round the Germans had fired from a destroyer offshore into our coastal village.
The lid from the canner blew a hole in the ceiling almost clear through to the bedroom upstairs, and the walls of the kitchen were covered with a thick film of green bean ooze. No dangerous glass shards remained, because every canning jar had been blown to powder.
Help was scarce in those war years, but Uncle Jack found someone to repair and wallpaper the kitchen, and Aunt Dorothy returned her attention to her Victory Garden. Tomatoes were coming on.
“Tomatoes love new ground,” experienced gardeners will tell you, and so Aunt Dorothy was soon flush with another success. She read that tomatoes, as an acid fruit, wouldn’t harbor that awful botulism bacterium, so she set about transforming bushels of tomatoes into tomato sauce.
She left so many huge pots of tomatoes simmering on the stove at once, every bit of the new wallpaper peeled off the kitchen walls.
Uncle Jack found someone to paint the kitchen, and he asked Aunt Dorothy to be more careful with her Victory Garden efforts. He might, by then, have harbored suspicions she was in league with the Axis powers.
That fall a huge crop of grapes appeared on their arbor by the garage. All Aunt Dorothy had to do was harvest and preserve them. She found several dozen quart ginger ale bottles in the basement and determined she would make grape juice from Nature’s bounty.
Carefully covering her grapes to prevent excess steam in the kitchen, Aunt Dorothy washed, cooked, mashed and strained grape juice. She bottled up 32 quarts of grape juice.
It promptly gelled.
When Aunt Dorothy went to pour her first glass of grape juice a day or two later, she discovered she had 32 quarts of grape jelly in quart bottles with openings the size of a dime.
My father suggested Aunt Dorothy might be able to salvage the crop by serving jelly at her table with the help of a decorative bicycle pump.
Uncle Jack forbade Aunt Dorothy to contribute any more to the war effort with her Victory Garden. He feared the Allies couldn’t take any more such assistance.
Josh Young is the author of Missouri Curiosities, which will soon be out in a second edition, published by The Globe Pequot Press.