A Parsnip Stew

Mary E. Wilkins

From Young Lucretia and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1892)

Ruth stood by with a dish and spoon, while her mother stirred the stew carefully to be sure that it was not burning on the bottom of the kettle. Her sister Serena was paring apples and playing with the cat, and her father and her uncles Caleb and Silas sat before the fire smoking, sniffing the stew, and watching solemnly. The uncles had just come in, and proposed staying to dinner.

Mrs. Whitman squinted anxiously at the stew as she stirred it. She feared that there was not enough for dinner, now there were two more to eat.

“I'm dreadful afraid there ain't enough of that stew to go round,” she whispered to Ruth in the pantry.

“Oh, I guess it 'll do,” said Ruth.

“Well, I dun know about it. Your father an' Caleb an' Silas are dreadful fond of parsnip stew, an' I do hate to have 'em stinted.”

“Well, I won't take any,” said Ruth. “I don't care much about it.”

“Well, I don't want a mouthful,” rejoined her mother. “Mebbe we can make it do. Caleb an' Silas don't have a good hot dinner very often, an' I do want them to have enough, anyway.”

Caleb and Silas Whitman were old bachelors, living by themselves in the old Whitman homestead about a mile away, and their fare was understood to be forlorn and desultory. To-day they watched with grave complacency while their sister-in-law cooked the stew.

Over on the other side of the kitchen the table was set out with the pewter plates and the blue dishes. The stew was almost done, Mrs. Whitman was just about to dip out the slices of pork into the dish that Ruth held, when there was a roll of wheels out in the yard, and a great shadow passed over the kitchen floor.

“Mother, it's the Wigginses!” said Ruth, in a terrified whisper.

“Good gracious!” sighed her mother; “they've come to dinner.”

Everybody stared for a second; then Mrs. Whitman recovered herself. “Father, you go out an' help them put the horse up. Don't sit there any longer.”

Then she threw open the door, and thrust her large handsome face out into the rain. “Why, how do you do, Mis' Wiggins?” said she, and she smiled beamingly.

The wagon looked full of faces. On the front seat were a large man and two little boys; out of the gloom in the rear peered two women and a little girl. They were Mr. Wiggins, his wife and three children, and his mother. They were distant relatives of Mrs. Whitman's; they often came over to spend the day, and always unannounced.

Mr. Whitman came out clumsily and opened the barn doors, and Mr. Wiggins led the horse into the barn. “I hope you 'ain't got wet,” Mrs. Whitman said. Nothing could have exceeded her cordiality; but all the time she was thinking of the parsnip stew, and how it surely would not go around now.

Ruth had not followed the others out to greet the guests. She stayed by the kettle and stirred the stew, and scowled. “I think it's downright mean for folks to come in this way, just dinner-time,” said she to the uncles, who had not left their chairs. And they gave short grunts which expressed their assent, for neither of them liked company.

They watched soberly as Ruth stirred the stew, but they did not dream that there was not enough to go around.

When her mother and the guests entered, Ruth turned around and bobbed her head stiffly, and said, “Pretty well, thank you,” and then stirred again. Serena helped the Wigginses take off their things. She untied old Mrs. Wiggin's pumpkin hood, and got her cap out of her cap basket and put it on for her. She also took off little Mary Wiggins's coat, and set her in a little child's arm-chair and gave her a kiss. Little Mary Wiggins, with her sober, chubby face and her rows of shiny brown curls, in her best red frock and her scalloped pantalets, was noticed admiringly by everybody but Ruth.

As soon as she could Ruth cornered her mother in the pantry. “Mother, what are you going to do?” said she.

“I'm goin' to do jest the best I can,” she whispered, severely. “I'm goin' to tell father an' Caleb an' Silas they mustn't take none of that stew; they can have some bread an' apple-sauce. I guess they'll git along.”

“Well, I don't care,” said Ruth, in a loud voice. “I think it's mean and a downright imposition on folks, coming in this way, just dinner-time.”

“Ruth Whitman, if you care anything about me, you'll keep still. Now you get the salt-cup an' go out there, an' put some more salt in that stew. It tasted dreadful flat, I thought. I jest tasted of it when they drove in. I've got to get out the other knives.”

Ruth caught up a cup with a jerk. “Well, how much shall I put in?” she inquired, sulkily.

“Oh, quite a lot. You can tell. It was dreadful flat. Taste of it.”

But Ruth did not taste of it. She scattered the contents of the cup liberally into the stew, gave it a stir, returned to the pantry, and set the cup down hard. “Well,” said she, “I've put it in, and now I'm goin'.”

“Ruth Whitman, you ain't goin' off to school without any dinner.”

“I don't see as there is anything for dinner but bread and apple-sauce, and I'm sure I don't want any.”

“I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself, actin' so.”

“I think there are other folks that ought to be ashamed of themselves. Before I'd go into folk's houses that way —”

“Ruth Whitman, they'll hear you!”

“I don't care if they do. I've got to go, anyway. It's late. I couldn't stop for dinner now if I wanted to.”

She went through the kitchen, where Serena now tended the stew, only stopping to take her shawl off the peg.

“Why, you going?” Serena called after her.

“I've got to; it's late,” replied Ruth, shortly. She faced about for a second and gave a stiff nod, which seemed directed at the stew-kettle rather than at the Wigginses. “Good-bye,” said she. Then she went out.

It was raining with a hard, steady drizzle. Ruth had no rubbers nor water-proof — they were not yet invented. She sped along through the rain and mist. She had to walk half a mile to the little house where she taught the district school, and before she got there she felt calmer.

“I suppose I was silly to act so mad,” she said to herself. “I know it plagued mother.”

It was early in the spring; the trees were turning green in the rain. Over in the field she could see one peach-tree in blossom, showing pink through the mist. “I suppose Mr. Wiggins couldn't work out to-day, and that's how they happened to come. They could have the horse. But they ought to have come earlier,” reflected Ruth. “There are a good many of 'em for Mrs. Wiggins to get ready,” mused Ruth. “There's old Mrs. Wiggins and Johnny and Sammy and Mary and Mr. Wiggins.”

By the time Ruth was seated at her table in the school-room, and the scholars were wriggling and twisting before her on their wooden benches, she saw the matter quite plainly from the Wiggins side. She made up her mind that she would behave just as well as she knew how to the Wigginses when she got home. She planned how she would swing little Mary out in the barn and play with the boys, and how she would help her mother get tea.

When school was done and Ruth started for home the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. The rain-pools in the road glittered, and she noticed a cherry-tree in blossom. When she reached home Serena met her at the door.

“Oh, Ruth Whitman!” she cried, we have had such a time!”

Ruth stared. “What do you mean?” said she. “Where are the Wigginses?”

“They've gone. Mrs. Wiggins and old Mrs. Wiggins were dreadful mad. Oh, Ruth, you didn't do it on purpose, did you?”

“Do what on purpose?” said Ruth, pushing into the house, and looking around the empty kitchen in a bewildered way. “I don't know what you mean.”

“Don't you know what you put into that parsnip stew?”

“No; I don't know of anything I put in but some salt, just before I went to school; mother told me to. Why?”

“Oh, Ruth, you put in — saleratus!”

“I don't believe it.”

Ruth flew into the pantry, and came out with a cracked blue cup. “Here,” said she — “here's the salt-cup, and this is the one I got it out of, I know.”

“Taste of it,” said Serena, solemnly.

Ruth tasted. “It is saleratus,” said she, looking at her sister in horror. “Did it spoil the stew?”

“It was — dreadful.”

“I don't see how it happened,” Ruth said, slowly, puckering her forehead, “unless mother dipped out some saleratus in the salt-cup to bring out in the kitchen when she mixed the sour-milk cakes for breakfast. I don't know anything about it, true 's I live and breathe. I hope they didn't think I did such a mean thing as that on purpose.”

“Well, I don't know as they really thought you did, but you know you did kind of jerk round, Ruth, and the Wigginses saw it.”

“What did they say?”

“Well,” said Serena, “we all sat down to the table, and mother had put on the bread and apple-sauce for the rest of us, and she helped the Wigginses to the stew. There wasn't more'n enough to go around, but she kept the cover over the dish so they shouldn't suspect, and all the rest of us said we wouldn't take any.

“Well, Mrs. Wiggins she tasted, and old Mrs. Wiggins she tasted. Then they looked at mother. Mother she didn't know what it meant, and she kept getting redder and redder. Finally she spoke up. ‘Is there anything the matter with the stew?’ says she.

“Then Mrs. Wiggins she pushed over her plate for mother to taste of the stew, and the first thing we knew they were all talking at once. Old Mrs. Wiggins said she'd noticed how we acted kind of stiff, and as if we wasn't glad to see them, the minute she come, and Mrs. Wiggins said she had, too, and she'd seen you put the saleratus into the stew, and she thought from the way you switched around you were up to something. Mother she tried to excuse it off, but they wouldn't hear a word. They said it didn't look very likely that it was an accident, and they noticed none of us took any of it, and mother wouldn't tell them the reason for that. So they just got up and put on their things, and Mr. Wiggins backed out the horse, and they went home. Mother asked them to come again, and she'd try and have a better dinner, but they said they'd never set foot in the house again if they knew it.”

“Didn't anybody eat the stew?”

“Nobody but Sammy Wiggins; he ate his whole plateful, saleratus and all, before anybody spoke.”

“Oh dear!” said Ruth; “I suppose mother feels dreadfully. Where is she?”

“She's gone over to Lucy Ann's to help her take care of the baby; he was real sick last night. I don't believe she'll come home till after supper. She felt dreadful.”

“The Wigginses are dreadful touchy folks, anyhow.”

“Course they are. It don't seem as if anybody with any sense would get mad at such a thing. But they're always suspecting folks of meaning something.”

Ruth looked sternly reflective. She took off her thick dingy shawl, and got from its peg a bright red and green plaid one that she wore in pleasant weather.

“Where are you going?” asked Serena.

“I'm going over to the Wigginses'.”

“What for?”

“I'm going to ask them to come over here to-morrow and spend the day.”

“Why, Ruth Whitman, ain't you afraid to?”

“No, I ain't afraid. I'm going to carry over a jar of the honey — mother 'll be willing — and I'm going to tell Mrs. Wiggins just how it was.”

“She won't hear a word you say.”

“I'll make her hear.”

“They won't come a step.”

“You see.”

The Whitmans kept bees, and their honey was the celebrated luxury of the neighborhood. Ruth got a jar of clear white honey out of the closet, put it under her shawl, and was off. First, though, she instructed Serena to go out in the garden and dig a good supply of parsnips and clean them for the next day's dinner.

It was a mile to the Wigginses', and it took Ruth over an hour to accomplish her errand and return. When she got home she found Serena getting supper, and her father was washing his hands out in the shed; her mother had not returned. On the kitchen sink lay a tin pan with four or five muddy parsnips. Serena looked up eagerly when her sister entered. “They coming?” said she.

“Yes, they are,” replied Ruth, with a triumphant smile.

But Serena walked over to the sink and extended her arm with a tragical gesture towards the parsnips. “Well, you've gone and done it now, Ruth Whitman,” said she. “There's every single parsnip that's fit to eat that I could find in the garden.”

“H'm! I guess I can find some.”

“No, you can't; they've rotted. I heard mother say to-day she was afraid they had. More'n half those father brought in this morning weren't good for anything. When mother finds out that all the Wigginses are coming, and there's just five parsnips for dinner, I don't know what she will do; I don't know but it will kill her. And she's asked Uncle Caleb and Uncle Silas over, too.”

Ruth gave a desperate glance at the parsnips. “I said we were going to have parsnip stew,” said she. “Mrs. Wiggins had been crying; she looked dreadful tired out; and Sammy had just bumped his head, and there was a great lump over one eye. She took the honey, and said she'd be real happy to come if they could have the horse, and old Mrs. Wiggins acted dreadful tickled.”

“The Wigginses have got parsnips,” said Serena. “I heard Mrs. Wiggins say they'd got a splendid lot, she expected, but they hadn't dug any yet.”

Ruth looked at her sister. “Serena!”

“What?”

“I'm going to send over and buy some of the Wigginses' parsnips.”

“Ruth!” But it seemed to Serena as if there was a flash of red and green light through the room, and Ruth had gone. Serena gave a little gasp, and stood looking.

“What's the matter?” asked her father, coming in — an old man in checkered shirt sleeves, yet with a certain rustic stateliness about him.

“Oh, nothing,” said Serena; and she fell to slicing the bread for supper.

While her father had gone to the well to draw a pail of water Ruth came in, breathless, but rosy with daring and triumph. Ben White, Mrs. White's grown-up son, was going to drive over to the Wigginses and buy some parsnips; his mother was to have some, and Ruth a noble portion for the next day's stew.

Serena dropped into a chair and giggled feebly; the humor of it was so forcible that it seemed to fairly rebound in her face. “Ask the Wigginses to dinner to have a parsnip stew, and then — buy their own parsnips for it!” she gasped.

Ruth did not laugh at all; she saw nothing but the seriousness of the situation. “Mind you don't tell mother till after it's all over,” said she. “I don't want her to know where those parsnips came from till after the Wigginses have gone, she'll be so upset. I'm just going to tell her how I carried the honey over there, and how they're coming. I do hope Ben will bring the parsnips before mother gets home.”

“Suppose Ben should bring 'em in when mother was here,” chuckled Serena.

“I told him to shy into the shed with 'em,” replied Ruth, severely. “Hush! father's coming, and we'd better not say anything to him till afterwards.”

Mrs. Whitman did not return until quite late; her married daughter Lucy Ann and her teething baby did not generally release her in very good season. When she came into the kitchen she found a great pan of parsnips all washed and scraped, and heard the news how the Wigginses were over their ill-tempers and were coming the next day. Mrs. Whitman dropped into a chair, her large mild face beamed, and tears stood in her eyes. “Well, I'm dreadful glad if we can patch it up,” said she; “I never had any fuss with any of my folks before in the world, and I hate to begin now. I've always thought a good deal of the Wigginses.” And her mouth quivered.

The next morning a parsnip stew of noble proportions was prepared. At eleven o'clock the great kettle, full to the rim, hung over the fire, and the room was cloudy with savory steam. The Wigginses were expected every minute. Uncles Silas and Caleb Whitman could be seen from the kitchen window out in the field with their brother bending over the plough furrows, and they kept righting themselves and looking at their old silver watches. At half-past eleven Mrs. Whitman and Serena began to think it was strange that the Wigginses did not come. At quarter of twelve there was a little stir out in the yard, and they ran to the windows. There was Mr. Wiggins with a wheelbarrow and an empty grain sack and a half-bushel basket of russet apples in it.

Mrs. Whitman and Serena stood wonderingly in the door. “Where's the folks?” asked Mrs. Whitman.

Then Mr. Wiggins, standing by the wheelbarrow, explained how Hiram Green had had to use the horse for ploughing up in the six-acre lot, how he had promised to hire it to him, and his wife hadn't known it, and how he had had to go to the store for grain with the wheelbarrow, and his wife had got him to stop and tell Mis' Whitman she was dreadfully sorry it happened so, but she didn't see how they could walk, and they would come over the first day they could have the horse; and she didn't know but what Mis' Whitman's apples had give out, so she sent her over a few of their russets; they had 'most two barrels left, and they were spoiling fast, and they wanted to get rid of them.

When Ruth came home from school she found an immense kettle of parsnip stew, her father and her uncles Silas and Caleb again forming a pleasant expectant semicircle before the fire, but no Wigginses. To-day the stew was seasoned daintily, and salt had taken the place of saleratus. There was no stint as to quantity, but there were not enough partakers. Mrs. Whitman filled a great bowl for Lucy Ann; she sent a dish over to the Whites; father and Caleb and Silas ate manfully, and passed their plates again and again; Serena and Ruth and their mother ate all they could, and the cat had her fill; but the Whitmans, with all their allies, could not eat their own share and that of the Wigginses. But the stew was delicious, and as the family ate, their simple homely little feud was healed, and the parsnip stew smoked in their midst like a pipe of peace.


p. 183 changed [ “Oh, Ruth Whitman!” she cried, we have had such a time!” ] to [ she cried, “we have had such a time!” ]