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As historic snows stirred, comfort foods hit the spot

One thing Western New Yorkers pride themselves on is hardiness, the ability to endure climate extremes as if all in a day’s work. Areas of Chautauqua County average 220 inches of snow a year and with the climate crisis’ perversity, it only seems to be getting worse.

There’s an explanation. Usually Lake Erie, the second-smallest and the shallowest of the Great Lakes, would be the first to freeze, ironically as Lake Superior was much further north. But Chautauqua foothill country is situated in a way that it funnels the storms brewed up on Hudson Bay, 600 miles to the north. Hudson Bay, despite being an extension of the deep Arctic, often, not always, freezes up a few weeks later because of its salinity and winds.

As every school kid knows, freshwater freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, while salt water doesn’t lock up in a lattice of ice crystals until it reaches 29 or 28 degrees. Which doesn’t sound significant, but for an enormous body of water — Lake Erie almost 10,000 square miles in size and Hudson Bay nearly 475,000 square miles — those degrees make a big difference.

That means those Arctic storms that brew up in late November, early December pick up the tremendous rivers of moisture that swirl them southward, gathering momentum as they herd the moisture in the air before them like a frozen stampede, cyclones of cold and snow, across the flat, nearly featureless expanse of the Laurentian Shield, until they hit the shelf of the Alleghany Mountains.

Many have heard of the notorious lake effect storms. Fewer have heard of this peculiar and thankfully rare phenomenon of Arctic snow effect storms. During the winter of 1976-77 it came all too close to home.

Cheese soup with croutons, herbs and spices

By the end of December 1976 we were already on track for a record 300 inches of snow.

As good an explanation as any can be found than this Wikipedia entry, from which I will quote liberally: Late on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 1978, surface maps revealed a moisture-laden Gulf Low developing over the southern United States, while a separate and unrelated low-pressure system was present over the Upper Midwest. In about 24 hours, the merger of the subtropical jet stream (containing a wind max of 130 knots) and the polar jet stream (containing a wind max of 110 knots) led the low-pressure system to undergo explosive cyclogenesis as it moved rapidly northward during the evening of January 25 (record low pressures were logged across parts of the South and Mid-Atlantic).

To be classified as undergoing explosive cyclogenesis, a storm’s central pressure must drop at least 24 millibars, or an average of 1 millibar per hour, over a 24-hour period; the Great Blizzard dropped by a remarkable 40 millibars in that span of time.

That was the chatter in our household. Explosive Cyclogenesis? That doesn’t sound good. The radio, tuned as always to 1410 WDOE in Dunkirk, New York, chattered noisily about the approaching storm system. We knew it was serious because Dave, the station manager and my mom’s boss, went on the air himself to warn people of the impending chaos.

My mailman dad, though, took his creed seriously.“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That became life-threatening for both of us in the Great Blizzard — in truth a relentless pounding of several blizzards lined up one after another like a dark march of stormy infantry assaults.

The first half of the route that Wednesday was uneventful. Scanning the skies to the north across the lake in Ontario we could see the gathering clouds, piled high with an angry energy. But the sky was only emitting the occasional flurry and it wasn’t that cold — having warmed up from its dense den of subzero cold to a balmy 14 or 15 degrees. That should have been the first sign.

That Arctic front had merged with a Gulf front to create that cyclogenesis, which I’d never heard before. But it did mean no school.

While I hated school with a vengeance, a snow day meant that I would be clambering all over snow banks on my dad’s mail route while my academic colleagues frolicked with their sleds and toboggans.

I’ll save the excruciating ordeal of a snow day for another chapter, but suffice it to say that the constant freezing and thawing led to a cruel and unusual misery.

My father stopped in to the post office halfway through his route to pick up the second half of his load for his burnished leather mail bags. He’d sort the first class from second class and the dreaded third class of supermarket mailers and newspaper total market coverage mailers that went to every single house. I don’t remember if there was any of the loathed third class, but there was a constant pressure on the postmaster, a genial man named Mr. Van Rensselaer with one arm (the other lost in a sawmill accident) to deliver the goods as the post office depended on the commercial revenue. I do know that no day was more dreaded than the day the Pennysaver dropped.

What discussion took place I was not privy to, but it was whispered and urgent. So we set out on the second half of the route, up the other hill that framed our little Walnut Creek valley to start on the farms of the east side of Route 39. We had barely crested the hill to the first turnoff on the street where the maple syrup barons, the Degoliers, lived. The leading edge of the storm front was white, a swirling but surprisingly soft flurry, but then the black wall slammed us with a fury of a frozen sun, lifting our Ford Rambler and spinning the car around and dropping us in the ditch. We hunkered down as best we could. I pushed and dad eased on the gas, half-in and half-out of the car with his foot on the gas and shoulder to the door frame, hoping against hope for some traction.

It was the one small saving grace of the day that we were able to fight off the wind enough to get in the trunk, grab the snow shovel and heave enough of the prior snowfall in the ditch to get that lifesaving traction. As I shoveled my dad eased on the gas, hoping for some bite for those spinning wheels. The car inched out of the ditch and back on to the pavement, which was quickly being buried beneath the accumulating drifts.

We were able to get turned around and lit out for home, inching through the whiteout conditions, the windshield wipers beating their fastest tattoo as we piled into the house, exhausted and relieved. Ready to hunker down. It was weeks before anything again resembled normalcy. More than 100 inches of snow in 24 hours will disrupt your routines. The effects were long-lasting — to get in our requisite 180 days of classroom instruction, school was extended deep into June, right up against the Fourth of July holiday. Independence Day, indeed.

HUNKERING DOWN RECIPES — SOUPS AND FRESH BREAD

There’s nothing like a fragrant soup and a chunk of fresh bread on a cold day. It warms the soul. I remember we ate a lot of soups during the Blizzard of ’77-’78 — mom experimented with the flavors and ingredients. I don’t remember any being anything less than delicious.

Soup is surprisingly simple for all the complexities of flavors it contains. One favorite was potato soup, naturally, as in our cellar we had a duck boat on sawhorses full of those versatile starch lumps.

At this time there were only four of us in the house — Bruce and Bob were out of the service and married with their own households to tend to, sister Barbara was off in Jamestown, and sister Betsy was doing her tour of duty in Germany. So this recipe will suffice for about six – in those days I had a prodigious appetite.

¯ Four or five medium potatoes, peeled and diced small.

¯ One cup broth (we usually had a stockpot simmering with all the carrot tops, potato peels, cabbage ends, broccoli stems, beef bones — whatever was left over from food preparation)

¯ A chopped yellow onion.

¯ Three or four celery stalks, finely chopped

¯ Half a stick of butter (four tablespoons)

¯ Four tablespoons all-purpose flour

¯ A quart of whole milk (or you can mix proportion with cream – more broth and less cream or the other way around)

¯ A teaspoon of salt

¯ Half a teaspoon of garlic powder

¯ A couple good shakes of freshly ground pepper

¯ A good shake of paprika (about a half teaspoon as well)

¯ Boil potatoes in a saucepan until tender (if chopped small enough should be no more than 8-10 minutes. In the same pan, saute onion in butter until tender. Stir in flour until blended, constantly stirring to get a proper roux. Gradually pour in milk until it thickens, then add broth to taste.

¯ Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of dried parsley (fresh is better, it was hard to get fresh anything mid-winter in the 1970s. You can add bacon for an extra layer of smoky flavor. Croutons are nice, too.

Serve with a slice of fresh-baked bread, generously buttered. Hunker down and repeat as necessary until Spring.

Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”

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