“I have shared recipes and practices to describe how we put food on the table during the Great Depression. Domestic Science and Home Economics have long since vanished from the school curriculum, and it is no longer practical to cure and smoke your own hams or make your own butter or headcheese, much less your own marshmallows.
However, I do feel that the knowledge of how to fry potatoes, make a pie crust, and dress a chicken encourages self-sufficiency and creates a sense of confidence in one’s ability to cope with life. Indeed, I want my own family to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills, and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplies were limited.”
— Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Isn’t it funny how a sight or a scent can take you back in time? Not long ago, I was in a gift shop and walked past a cranberry-scented candle, and I was instantly taken back to the kitchen of my childhood, standing at the old table with the food grinder attached, dropping tiny deep-red cranberries in to the top of the grinder while one of my older sisters cranked it slowly.
Remember the tartness of that scent as the berries popped while working their way through the hand-cranked press? There was just nothing else quite like it.
All hands on deck
That kitchen of my childhood seemed to often be an orchestration of stirring, measuring, pouring, peeling, chopping, whipping, shredding, boiling. Even before I was old enough to tell time, I had been taught to watch the second hand for various steps in a cooking or baking prep step. There was a time I knew basic substitutions for lots of various baking ingredients.
The anticipation of what was to come was made even greater if given the chance to be a mid-step taste tester.
We always ate well, no matter what the season. We would often picnic in the spring and summer and even in to the fall, often taking a basket to the field where Dad was working. Not only was the main course always tasty, but there were always desserts and great side dishes.
Because farm chores were never really done, we worked it off and came in from the fields and barns ready for another round of good food.
Nothing was wasted
Older folks recall butchering day as a time of scrumptious abundance, a time when neighbors and friends came together to make light of a heavy job.
Side dishes and desserts, prepared in the day ahead of the community gathering, were carried in and organized by the women in the hosts’ kitchen. Everyone had a task, and everyone would benefit.
Dad would mention such things as pickled tongue as a delicacy in the weeks following butchering day, making the children within earshot let out a collective groan.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, went to waste. Even the lard gathered that day was fairly shared, assuring great pie crusts and dumplings in the months to come.
An older gentleman told me not long ago that food no longer holds any appeal for him. I asked if he was fighting an illness, and he replied with a grin, “No, no, nothing like that. I just miss the good old-style cooking my mama and my aunts used to prepare.”
He explained that no matter what he eats or where he eats it, food seems bland or smacks of manufactured replication of what it is said to be. He added that he often eats now just because he knows he is supposed to, not because he enjoys the meal.
The real joy of cooking
Joy was, most definitely, a part of the process. I remember my mouth watering at the sight of biscuits opened on to a plate, steaming hot, so incredibly fresh and fragrant. Homemade gravy over those biscuits was so incredibly tasty that I can still remember the savoring of every last crumb.
If great-grandpa Charlie was sitting beside me, I could count on hearing him ask for the slice of fat off of the beef roast, saying that was the best part.
The kinship of sitting down together, knowing each one of us played at least a small part in bringing that meal to the table, was indeed an unnamed, immeasurable ingredient that made everything taste better.