A Strickler’s Dairy truck pulled into the parking lot of Miller’s Diner every Monday morning at 7 a.m. Ethel was sure to be up and dressed by 6:00. In her old age, it was hard to get around. It took her well over a half hour just to get out of her housecoat and into one of her floral print dresses. Her legs did not bend well and due to her heavy weight, time had taken its toll on her mobility. She didn’t want to do anything to ruin the business relationship she had established with the only reputable dairy still in operation in Huntingdon County. Although nearby Kauffman Farms sold dairy products at wholesale, they were often cited by county inspectors for poor sanitary conditions and it was rumored that due to the lack of modern machinery, that the milk from that diary was not safe to drink. A cup of sour milk could ruin all that Ethel had worked so hard to create. One lawsuit from a customer with an upset stomach would have milked her dry.
Ethel went through thirty pounds of butter and seventeen gallons of milk every week. She purchased most of her ingredients directly from nearby farms, including pork, beef, lamb and eggs. Country folks live in their kitchens and refrigerators. In order for her restaurant to stay in business and thrive in a small farming community where every woman’s a housewife, it took more than just good cooking to stay profitable. Fresh ingredients are the key to keeping customers loyal and stomachs growling. Life in Three Springs is like what family reunions once were. Big bowls of macaroni salad, and cranberry relishes stuffed with miniature marshmallows and walnuts are mere appetizers to people who live there. Ethel gave her patrons the best that money can buy and only the freshest of ingredients.
At the far end her property, near the end of a large, gravel covered parking lot, down where rowdy teenagers with driver’s permits did doughnuts at night, there were several apple and peach trees and a vegetable garden where the restaurateur grew corn, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins and summer squash.
It was still summer and months before fall when Ethel could serve the fresh fruits and vegetables that she grew. However, due to her knowledge of preserves and canning, she kept hundreds of mason jars in the cellar, packed full of the fruits and vegetables she grew. The produce was boiled under high pressure in a special cooker until metal lids self-sealed with a loud popping sound. Her ‘stewed tomatoes’ were a favorite menu item to most patrons. Slightly blanched tomatoes were de-skinned and seeded before being sliced into chunks and placed carefully inside thick, pint-size jars. Months later, on cold Sunday afternoons during the winter, when summer fruit was out of season and church goers with fancy clothes stepped into her restaurant, Ethel would open at least six jars of the tomatoes, sprinkle in some sugar and chucks of almost stale bread to create a succulent, saucy vegetable side dish that even the kids liked to eat.
“You got more of those stewed tomatoes today?” Her customers begged.
“Of course we do. It’s the Lord’s day,” Ethel said while smiling, sitting behind a big cash register that made a loud ‘ding’ every time a check was paid.
It was Monday and it was her day off. Her grandson Chris was supposed to stop by around 11 a.m. to weed the garden. She paid him $8.00 an hour even though he picked very few weeds. She oftlinewas happy that she would see him again. It was her day of rest. All she had to do was to let the milk man in and then she could take a much need break from her cooking. The weather was supposed to be nice all day. She looked forward to sitting outside in her lawn chair and reading the most recent copy of the ‘Daily News’. She loved to read it from cover to cover. She rarely missed a thing. She always turned to the obituaries first, and then she read the front page.
She reached into her housecoat and squeezed a Kleenex as she held onto a wooden rail and slowly made her way down the stairs. The arthritis in her hands was getting more painful by the day and the aching seemed to be spreading into her legs like water seeping through coffee grinds. She turned on a hallway light by pushing a black button at the top of a brass light switch. For most of their forty-year marriage, she pestered her husband and begged that he change that old switch to one of the modern devices where turning on and off the light was simple—either up or down. He was dead now. Her handyman was gone.
She had to get downstairs to greet the milkman. A restaurant owner’s work is never done. She did not want to keep the man waiting and risk destroying the business relationship that she had established with Strickler’s Dairy.
Jason North drove a red and white refrigerated truck for Strickler’s. Soon after milk stopped being sold in heavy glass carafes from door to door, Jason got the job as the county’s only milk man. Ethel missed the old times when milk was so fresh and when there was a sweet cream at the top. She didn’t like the man who drove the icebox truck. He rarely spoke to her. It was all business when he came inside with his dolly stacked with the rich, creamy dairy products. She didn’t trust him. He had a mysterious look in his eyes and it always seemed to Ethel like he may try to steal something from her restaurant if she did not pay close attention. There wouldn’t be much she could do to stop him, she realized. She made it downstairs and waited near to the door for him to arrive. It had taken her a long time to get on Jason’s delivery route. It wasn’t easy for her to beg the owner of the big dairy to take on her business, even though it was so far out of the way and off the beaten path.
“We are sorry, Mrs. Miller, but it is just not profitable for us to send our driver all the way to Three Springs to deliver your butter and milk.”
“What do you mean it is not profitable? I knew your mother, Mike,” she said to Mr. Strickler. “We were very good friends and we went to the same church,” she pleaded to him on the phone, upset when she first learned that if she needed milk for her restaurant, she would have to pick it up herself. Ethel didn’t drive and she needed her son Jimmy on the grill. It was too inconvenient for her to travel all the way to Huntingdon, just for fresh dairy products.
“Why don’t you and your wife come down to Three Springs and I’ll make you a good, home cooked meal, Mr. Strickler? I’m willing to pay extra to supplement the expense of the driver and gas, but please bring me my butter,” she begged. “I have something that belonged to your mother that I want to give to you anyway,” Ethel tempted…
Mike Strickler took her up on the offer and came to Sunday dinner at Miller’s Diner.
To Be Continued…