When I was a little kid growing up in Hayward before we moved out of town, we lived just a couple of blocks from Grandma and Grandpa Weingarten. Until I was grown up I didn’t know that their names were Frieda and Otto. They were just Grandma and
Grandpa. They weren’t actually my grandparents, but that’s how I thought of them.
Otto died when I was just a boy, but I still remember his “soup strainer” mustache. That might have been because my father told me he always tried to take communion from the common cup before Grandpa Weingarten with his big mustache. Grandma Weingarten spent her last years in a nursing home at Hayward, where Jerri and I visited her a few times. She always seemed like a grandmother to me.
One reason why she seemed grandmotherly is that she treated my mother like a daughter. Mostly, she listened to Mom’s problems as a young wife and gave what I assume turned out to be good advice, since she and my father lived to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. However, Grandma Weingarten was indirectly responsible for the first really big fight that my parents had. I was too young to remember it, but Mom told all of us kids the story many times, and Dad confirmed her account: “She was really mad,” he would say, and grin. After a few years, even Mom thought it was a little funny.
On a duck hunting expedition with his younger brother, my father shot a merganser. A merganser is a large duck that looks a little like an extremely large mallard. Their luck had been bad that day, and when the merganser appeared in front of him, Dad decided to play a practical joke on his young wife. My mother’s knowledge of wild game was very limited, though she was soon going to learn the difference between a tasty mallard and an inedible merganser.
Like any free range duck or chicken (and most humans), mallard ducks are omnivores. They eat almost anything that tastes good which includes seeds, vegetables and a variety of insects, crayfish, and even the occasional small frog. If you watch a mallard hen teaching her ducklings to forage, you will see that she puts great emphasis on lots of fresh green vegetables like clover and watercress.
Merganser ducks, on the other hand, eat mainly fish. Their diet includes a few green plants along with some insects, but mergansers are piscavores. They love fish, whether it be a lowly sucker or a tender trout. One would think that a bird eating trout dinners day after day would be delicious. According to my mother, one would be wrong.
As she told the story, Dad brought home a beautiful big duck on a late Sunday afternoon and asked her to clean and roast the huge mallard he had shot. Having grown up on a farm, Mom knew how to kill, gut, pluck and clean chickens and ducks, so she promised him a mallard dinner for Monday night’s supper.
After picking out “millions of pinfeathers,” she stuffed the duck with homemade sage dressing, rubbed it with butter and put it in the oven after lunch to have dinner ready for Dad when he got home.
In a half hour or so, she began noticing an unpleasant odor that reminded her of dead fish. The smell was beginning to make her feel a bit queasy. She said, “I thought that I was going to throw up, when Frieda knocked on the back door and came in.”
Grandma Weingarten reared back on her haunches, wrinkled her nose, and said, “Ach, what are you cooking?”
“I’m roasting a nice big mallard that Harry shot for supper tonight,” said Mom.
Without taking off her coat, Grandma Weingarten marched over to the stove, opened the oven and looked at the enormous carcass from which emanated the miasma. “That’s not a mallard,” she announced, “That’s a fish duck, and it will taste worse than it smells. Harry’s playing a trick on you.”
Mom said that she threw the duck out the back door by the steps so Dad would see it and know that he was going to encounter what we now call a “situation.” When she told the story of that evening, she always started off by saying that she had me in a snowsuit because she had opened all the windows and doors “to get rid of the stink,” that she had let the fire go out in the stove because she didn’t feel like cooking, and that she was maddest of all at all the pinfeathers she had had to pull out.
“I was so mad I was crying, and that made me even madder. And your dad came in the door smiling, and that made it worse. He’s lucky I didn’t kill him with a frying pan.”
Somehow they got through the crisis. I doubt that Dad built a fire and cooked anything, so he probably bribed Mom with a hamburger and a beer at the Twin Gables, which was just a couple of blocks from our house. In the course of the evening, Mom told Dad not to bother bringing any ducks home again. It was ten years before she roasted any wild ducks, and when that happened, they were dressed and cleaned bluebills from Gus, the old farmer who lived down the road from us in the country.
After educating my mother about how to tell a fish duck from a mallard, Grandma Weingarten continued to mentor her and other young women in the neighborhood and our church with a sympathetic ear, good advice and recipes. Here is her recipe for icebox cookies that I found in one of Mom’s recipe boxes.
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
Cream the shortening with the sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat the eggs until they are lemon colored and stir them into the sugar mixture. Sift the flour, salt, soda and cream of tartar by half cupfuls into the sugar and egg mixture and stir until everything is well blended. You need a stiff dough, so add a tablespoon of flour or so if necessary.
Turn the dough out on to a sheet of wax paper dusted with flour and form a log about three inches in diameter. Try to square the ends of the log. Refrigerate it for at least eight hours until the dough becomes firm.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Cut the chilled dough into rounds a quarter to half an inch thick and bake on parchment paper or a lightly greased cookie sheet until they begin to brown on the edges, eleven to thirteen minutes. Space the rounds by an inch and a half.
NOTE: Grandma Weingarten’s recipe doesn’t say anything about toppings, but I sprinkle a little white sugar over the cookies before putting them in the oven.