If you missed Part I, you can find it here.
When I would visit my my mother’s mother, my grandmother, things were different from my home life. This is where I first really learned about farm to table, although it wasn’t exactly “farm” to table, it was more like “garden and hen-house in the back” to table.
When the bank’s collapsed during the Great Depression, many people all over America lost all of their savings. As a result, there simply wasn’t a lot of money to go around, and out of necessity people quickly learned how to become as self-sufficient as possible. What was harvested from the back yard is what showed up on the dinner table, and what you didn’t have in the pantry, was bartered for.
Shoes were repaired since money was not available for a new pair. Tires had to be patched and re-patched, so services and goods were traded/bartered. The cobbler traded his services for bushels of corn. Your tire was patched by the service station man in trade for a week’s supply of eggs. You had this and your neighbor had that, so you trade. It all happened locally, probably within a mile or two as the crow flies.
What little money was available went for staples like salt, pepper, sugar, cooking oil and similar items. Grocery stores sold a lot on credit, praying that one-day the economy would return and the banks would again reopen. Later, during WWII, backyard gardens became “Victory Gardens,” supplying families with as much as possible so farm goods could go to the war effort. By the time I came along, my grandmother could still be found in her garden with her rows of corn, beans, lettuces, tomatoes, squash, carrots, beets, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, potatoes plus various herbs. She would go out in the morning after breakfast and walk up and down the rows either talking to what was growing or just checking everything out. Maybe she was doing a bit of both.
After morning chores, she would return to the garden and begin harvesting for lunch. A glorious salad would soon appear with a simply oil and vinegar dressing. My assignment was to wash the lettuce and tomatoes and then dry them. Lunch might be sandwiches with cold cuts (luncheon meats) with cheese from the market down the street. Or, it could be cold left overs from the night before. Lunch tended to be non-stove use time to keep the heat level down in the house. After lunch and dishes were washed, dried and put away (I was the dish drier), my grandmother would do more chores and would disappear for a while, probably to take a short nap.
Around 4 o’clock she’d call out my name, summoning me from wherever I was hiding from the sweltering afternoon heat and humidity. Walking behind her with a basket under my arm, we’d move down the rows again. Corn would be selected, but only after she peeled back the tassels on an ear to make sure the corn’s ripeness suited her. If a vegetable wasn’t ripe enough for her, she’d often let go with her most powerful expletive. “Land of Goshen!” It was as if the vegetable hadn’t performed to her expectation. Strangely, it was usually ready (and ripe) the next day. A squash or two would be picked and added to the growing weight of my basket. About this time she’d turn to me and say, “Here honey, let me take that.” Pulling her hand hoe from somewhere under her apron, potatoes would be unearthed. Finally, we’d move to the radishes or beans. There were string beans and yellow beans and lima beans, all climbing on polls way beyond my reach.
A galvanize tub was filled with cold water and I was instructed to begin washing the vegetable with a brush by the kitchen door. A black hose was put in the tub to provide an ongoing flow of fresh water. While I was going this, sitting on this old creaky old wooden stool, she would go in the kitchen and begin boiling water. About the time I was tackling the potatoes, she would emerge and walk towards the hen-house. A chop or two later, we were one step closer to a fried chicken dinner.
The chickens would be held upside down and then brought over to where I was sitting. Another galvanized tub was brought from the basement. Walking to and from the kitchen, the tub was filled with hot water. The chickens were dipped in the water and she began pulling the feathers out. After she was done with most of the feathers, my next job was to get the hard to get ones. Apparently she thought my smaller and more nimble fingers were best for this job.
After I was done, I’d wrap the chickens in a clean towel and bring them to the kitchen where she’d clean and then cut them up before drying the pieces off. Next, the potatoes would be peeled and cut up and put in boiling water. I returned to the outside and my creaky stool where I shucked the corn. These would go in another pot of boiling water. By quarter to six the chicken pieces had been dredged in flour, salt and pepper and were in the cast iron skillets frying happily away. Soon the potatoes would be drained and mashed followed by the corn. A salad of cut vegetables covered with apple cider vinegar, salt, paper and sprinkled with sugar appeared on the table. At 5 minutes before the hour I’d be handed a big bowl of mashed potatoes with a small lake a melted butter on top. Next a big bowl with the ears of corn would be handed to me followed by a small bowel of the radishes in ice-cold water. Finally, a small mountain of fried chicken stacked on a platter would be put down on the table.
Exactly at 6 o’clock, my grandfather would walk through the kitchen door. “Dinner ready Eve,” he asked, using his name of endearment for her. Right after my grandfather entered, my parents and brother and sister would appear. After grace, we’d dig in. Oh, the time she was gone, it turns out she made a strawberry pie, now cooling off on the far counter mostly out of my eyesight (she knew me all too well). And there was whipped cream in the refrigerator too.
This is how I learned farm and garden, to table. And boy, was the food ever delicious. A big hug to you Grandma for giving me this gift– wherever you are.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin