The Pleasures of Willa Cather and Staying Warm

By D. Silverman

Recently, great winter winds, propelled by a polar vortex, surveyed the plains of Nebraska, then, cascading a thousand miles eastward — trembled across the Alleghenies, slid over the Hudson, and careened up Bank Street, whipping a few dry leaves with a smidgeon of prairie dust horizontally along the frosty windows.

I sat, somewhat warmer, in the fading light of 4 p.m., cradling a hot mug of tea in one hand and a novel in the other. The tea, being Earl Grey, the novel, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. (Per Willa, pronounced ANN-ton-ee-ah.)

In chapter five, I paused on an unfamiliar expression — ‘batching’ — which appeared to refer to two “bachelors” who lived together:

“After he had shown us his garden, Peter trundled a load of watermelons up the hill in his wheelbarrow. Pavel was not at home. He was off somewhere helping to dig a well. The house I thought very comfortable for two men who were ‘batching.’ Besides the kitchen, there was a living-room, with a wide double bed built against the wall, properly made up with blue gingham sheets and pillows.”

Ten chapters on, we read of two other ‘batched’ men:

“That was the first time I ever saw Anton Jelinek. He was a strapping young fellow in the early twenties then, handsome, warm-hearted, and full of life.… Jelinek put on his long wolfskin coat, and when we admired it, he told us that he had shot and skinned the coyotes, and the young man who ‘batched’ with him, Jan Bouska, who had been a fur-worker in Vienna, made the coat.”

A bit of internet searching confirmed that “batching,” or “batching it,” a century ago could refer to two unmarried men (or women) who lived together. (Well, live and learn!)

While blue gingham sheets and coyote coats proved a tantalizing morsel, I thought food might offer further elucidation, as Cather describes it in mouth-watering detail.

For Anton, the spread was recognizable to any good New Yorker: “Jelinek kept rye bread on hand and smoked fish and strong imported cheeses to please the foreign palate.” (The main question being: Murray’s, Citarella or Russ & Daughters?)

But those Russian batchers, Peter and Pavel, offered up this conundrum: “Before we left, Peter put ripe cucumbers into a sack…and gave us a lard-pail full of milk to cook them in. I had never heard of cooking cucumbers, but Ántonia assured me they were very good.”

Now, I am familiar with many variations on chilled cucumbers with dairy (usually cultured), often with dill; and even with warm cucumbers cooked in various forms — but, like the narrator, I had never heard of cooking them in milk. However, a bit of sleuthing uncovered this period-appropriate recipe from Good Housekeeping, August, 1916:

Russian Cucumbers

  • 3 medium cucumbers
  • 1 1/2 cups light cream
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • salt & pepper

Peel and slice or quarter the cucumbers, arrange in a casserole, cover with cream, add seasonings and butter, cover, and bake gently for thirty minutes; then remove lid and cook till tender.

I’ll likely hold off until the long tables of the summer farmer’s market are groaning under mounds of massive $1 cukes, but feel free to try the above and see if the winds of Nebraska, or the whispers of Willa, don’t waft from the oven.

And, speaking of Willa, as most every reader surely knows, from 1913-27, Cather lived on the second floor of 5 Bank Street (a five-story brick house long since overlaid by One Bank Street at Greenwich Ave). An informative bronze plaque lists her works from this period, including My Antonia.

This historic marker nonetheless neglects to note that Willa did not live alone on Bank Street—she was batching it with Edith Lewis.

Willa and Edith rest, side by side still, in the Old Burial Ground, Jaffrey, NH.