Growing Up on Muddy Creek:

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Fish that still haunts several people

Fish stories come and go, but this is one that still haunts several people, I’m sorry to say. It all began with Uncle Walter (who wasn’t really our uncle, but MaMa always taught us to call our elders by mister, aunt or uncle, but never their first names). Uncle Walter had drifted onto the Piper homestead, and made himself indispensible, so he kind of just stayed on.

Anyway, Uncle Walter and a couple of his cronies went up north to fish in Wisconsin. He came home in the Model T with a big wash tub of iced down Northern Pike.

There was little refrigeration in those days, so he gave one of them to the neighbor of my grandmother in town, Mrs. Barnes, whose husband owned a big department store down beyond the railroad on Christy Avenue. Mrs. Barnes had a reputation of being a gracious hostess and a great fish fancier.

Grandma asked Aunt Esther, who worked for my mother, if she would be willing to come over and give her a hand with the meal. Aunt Esther was a good cook, but leaned more toward soul food and stick-to-the-ribs type of fare. She was anxious to help Mrs. Barnes so she could see some ‘high society’ cooking for herself. Mrs. Barnes was glad to have Aunt Esther’s help, since Mrs. Barnes had a reputation to live up to, and she had invited a whole passel of neighbors over to feast on her gastronomic creations. She soon put Aunt Esther to work making the garnish for the main course. Mrs. Barnes had read in the December Delineator about a fancy chilled fish plate, and she planned to prepare it according to the directions.

Now I must tell you that Mrs. Barnes owned a huge cat named Spiffy. He was a beauty, and she treated him like one of the family. In fact, Grandma Piper often said that Spiffy got better treatment than did Mr. Barnes.

When Mrs. Barnes got the fish cooked, she chilled it. Aunt Esther finished garnishing it with hand-cut circles of cucumber, boiled eggs, onions, olives, lemon slices and all those things that ladies know how to seduce a man with. They then set it out on the table in the screened-in back porch, and went about preparing the rest of the repast. This took some time, as you can imagine.

Both Aunt Esther and Mrs. Barnes checked the fish from time to time, as they cheerfully went about the kitchen putting out the fancy china, and the candle holders that had come down from cousin Annie’s great aunt Lucy. The cut glass wine goblets were polished again, and the white linen napkins folded and tucked into the silver holders with the big ‘B’ on them.

Aunt Esther later said that she had never seen such fancy trays like the half-moon bone trays or the fancy fish-shaped dishes that Mrs. Barnes brought out. She filled the master salts, and placed the individual salt cellars by each plate. Oh, it was going to be a real gala.

At 6:30, the guests started to arrive and Mrs. Barnes went out to make her last inspection of the main fish course. Disaster had stuck. You guessed it: Spiffy had gotten into the fish to check it out – just testing it, you know, to see if it was fit for humans. There, right in the middle, was a fist-sized hole where he had eaten the fish.

Well, it was too late to change the menu, and there was still plenty of fish left, so they did what you or I would have done. They trimmed out the damaged section and rearranged the lemon slices, olives and sprigs of lettuce. It looked very nice. Mrs. Barnes breathed a sigh of relief.

The dinner was a huge success. All of the guests complimented Mrs. Barnes on her culinary skills, and she, of course, shared the praise with Aunt Esther, who promptly disavowed any credit.

The men went down into the library for coffee and cigars, and the ladies gathered in the parlor for tea and gossip. Aunt Esther went about cleaning up and carried the remains of the dinner out onto the back porch. To her horror, there on an empty potato sack, lay Spiffy, very dead.

She rushed back into the parlor and called Mrs. Barnes to come quick. Several of the ladies followed the near-hysterical woman to the back porch, where Spiffy lay.

Well, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. There was nothing to do, but tell the truth. Mrs. Barnes got Dr. Dean out of bed, called Dr. Dale at the drug store, and they all went down to Dr. Dean’s office to have their stomachs pumped. That took some doing, believe me. Them that weren’t feeling bad soon were, and those that thought they were sick soon got sicker. It was well past five in the morning when the Barnes’ finally drove back home.

As they entered their driveway, the Barnes’ saw Frank Caldwell, who lived just across the street, getting ready for work. He came across the street when he saw them.

‘I didn’t want to bother you when you were having a house full of company, and I didn’t want to spoil your party, but I had a bit of an accident last night,’ he said. ‘When I came home from the store, I backed over poor Spiffy. Not wanting to disturb you, I laid him gently on a potato sack on your back porch. Did you find him okay?’

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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