Thursday, August 11, 2011

Everybody needs a Berthy

Bettina at age 5
(not normally this neat and clean)

Two doors down from my childhood home lived a large family with two working parents. Day Care Centers weren’t thought of back then, so the parents found themselves looking for a housekeeper. What they got was a “Berthy,” fetched all the way from Toccoa, Georgia to join their household in the Atlanta suburbs. Maybe her given name was Bertha, and some little child mispronounced it as Berthy. I don’t know, but the unusual name was perfectly matched to the strong-minded little woman. She made it clear from the get-go that she was not hired-help. She was a member of that family and her word was the law, for their chilluns and the neighbor’s too.   
After breakfast, our mothers sent us out to play so they could do their housework. Unfortunately for Berthy, we all went to interfere with hers. It was exciting just waiting for her to unhook the screened door, to get a look at her spiky hair and wrinkled skin. She dipped snuff, and every part of Berthy was the exact same shade of nut-brown, including her teeth. She never minced words and shot them quick from lips that barely moved: “G’MORNIN’!” Almost always, she raised a skinny arm to let us come inside.
In colder months, we played in the basement. Our usual choices were Monopoly, school, or house, and this took place just a few feet from Berthy as she did her ironing. In nicer weather, we jumped off the roof of their garage onto the grass below, testing the wind resistance of various umbrellas and makeshift capes. She was certain we’d break an arm bone but nobody did. It may have been the only time Berthy was ever wrong about anything. The little boy who lived there broke his ankle.
In the summertime, the fenced back yard was divided with several clothes lines running parallel with the house. We played between the lines of sheets, towels, clothes, and blankets. (Berthy pinned the ladies’ unmentionables inside pillow slips so we couldn’t see them, but the boys giggled and pointed at the braziers’ shadows). In wintertime, she moved the whole apparatus indoors. Naturally it was damp and dusty, as basements go. This made the clothes dry musty. She spent hours ironing everything fresh again, with starch out of a sprinkle bottle. These days, if I walk into a Dry Cleaner’s, the smell reminds me of Monopoly and the tiny flatiron playing piece I used to be like Berthy.
We were expected to go home for dinner, so whatever wonderful-smelling thing Berthy was making was never sampled by the unfortunates who didn’t live with her. We’d sit reverently at the kitchen table, watching her stir. Sometimes she remembered we were there, and poured some Kool-Aid for us into tiny plastic cups. If it wasn’t too close to suppertime, we got an orange pop-up ice cream. It wasn’t much food, and our tummies grumbled for whatever it was she had bubbling away in that big pot on the stove.
One of her specialties was what she called “homemade helper.” Berthy wrinkled her nut-brown nose at “store-bought,” and cooked strictly from scratch. It was tough to walk home with the delicious garlicky oniony fragrance in my clothes and hair, knowing I would never get a taste. Here is my best guess for what Berthy was making on those bright afternoons:

“Berthy’s Homemade Helper”

Cook 1 lb. of wide egg noodles according to package directions. Drain and toss with a generous pat of real butter. Set aside. Sauté’ 2 lbs. of ground beef (or turkey) with the chopped white and green parts of one bunch of spring onions. Drain off fat and return to pan. Add the noodles, and 32 ounces of Hunt’s Italian canned diced tomatoes, with the can-juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. In a bowl, mix together 16 oz. of Philadelphia cream cheese, softened, with one tub of nonfat cottage cheese.

*To serve from the stove top, stir cheeses into the meat mixture and heat through. Enjoy with crusty bread and a salad, and an orange pop-up ice cream for dessert.

Alternative: For a make-ahead casserole, layer half the noodle-meat mixture, then all of the cheese mixture, followed by the other half of the noodle mixture into a well buttered 13 x 9 x 2 oven-safe pan.  Cover with heavy duty foil and refrigerate for 2 hours, or overnight. Bake covered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake ten to fifteen minutes more, until bubbly.