The small keg had stood for years in the corner on the concrete cellar floor in Whiting, Indiana — in front of the shelves that held Mom’s canning jars. She filled them during the summer with pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables. Canning day had never been a happy one for her or anyone standing in the same room with her. Bottles had to be washed. Fruits and veggies had to be peeled, cooked and spooned into the jars, which were then put in a hot water bath.
But I wasn’t down in the cellar with Mom the day I was looking at the small keg. My grandmother Gizella — Hungarian for Giselle — Kristoff was down there with me. She wanted to show me something, she had said earlier. She wanted to check on something she thought I might find interesting. At the age of 10, I was still curious about anything Grandma wanted to show me.
She put the keg on a small chair in one corner of the cellar (so she wouldn’t have to bend all the way to the floor), took a small glass out of the pocket of her apron and pulled the large cork from a hole near the bottom of the barrel. I watched, intrigued, while Grandma filled the glass with a dark liquid, chuckling while the red stuff trickled out of the keg and into the glass. “Huh,” she said gleefully more to herself than to me, “there’s still some in it.”
“Some of what?” I asked innocently, as the liquid slowly ceased to flow from the quarter-size hole in the barrel.
“Some wine. Made when I was younger than your mama. Back in the days of Prohibition!” She practically spat out the words referring to the Volstead Act, which went into effect 99 years ago this month. (It would be repealed in 1933.)
“When we couldn’t buy the stuff — legally,” she added. “Back then you either had to make your own whiskey and wine or find someone else who made it. Don’t know what the government was thinking about back then. All Prohibition did was cause a lot of bootlegging, shooting, robbing, and all sorts of trouble.
“So I made my own. A lot of people did. Made some beer, too. But that stuff didn’t always turn out as well as the wine did,” she continued.
Grandma was on a roll. When she talked about the old days, she could get really excited. Though not as excited and ready to tear up the place as when she’d get going about Franklin Roosevelt closing the banks and causing her to lose money. She got really hot under the collar when she recalled those days, but the winemaking business left her with a happy glow.
She took a sip of the red stuff in the glass and chuckled again. “Not bad. It still tastes good after all these years. Here. Try some. See what you think.”
I looked at her and then at the glass she held up in front of my nose. I noticed bits of something or other floating around in it. She kept pushing the glass in my face.
What could possibly go wrong, I thought. Grandma wouldn’t try to poison me, would she? Or make me sick?, I thought at the time. So I swallowed a bit of the sour-tasting magenta-tinged liquid and wiped the grit off my lips.
To tell the truth, I didn’t know what she found so good about the wine. I’d rather have had some root beer or a lemonade. At least that was what I thought back on a hot summer day in 1948.
It would take a couple of years in college for me to become more intimate with a variety of beverages before I could look back with fond memories on that little barrel and a treasured liquid liberally laced with a sandy residue.