On the southern Illinois farm of my youth, the beginning of summer marked the kick-off of a season of great food.
Like Roman soldiers of yore, we, the small legion of family farmworkers – my Uncle Honey, father, mother, four brothers, sister and I – worked at eating so we could eat into the never-ending work on the farm’s 800 acres and 100 Holsteins.
Kitchen crew. That meant the kitchen crew, my mother, sister and we boys still too short to reach a tractor’s clutch pedal, worked harder than the field crew.
Five meals a day, six days a week, was always on the menu: breakfast, a mid-morning lunch for the morning milkers, dinner at noon, a mid-afternoon snack for the evening milkers, then supper.
Actually, it was six; the evening milk crew, usually my father and one of us boys, ate by ourselves after the cows were tended. That was hours after the rest of the family had shared supper and evening devotions.
The only break from the dawn-until-after-dark regime came on Sunday.
Breakfast that day was coffeecake or cinnamon rolls made during an endless Saturday, noon dinner at one of the grandparents’ and supper was “get it yourself” back home.
First fruits. The season began with the same, late-spring meal each year. The key was garden-fresh bib lettuce.
The lettuce, picked when it was half the size of a child’s hand, then tossed with a vinegar dressing, was the perfect complement to meals of potato pancakes, applesauce and fried ham.
It was a once-a-year event because, I always figured, grating a peck of potatoes to make enough pancakes to fill nine people took hours. (The saddest phone call home now is when, usually by chance, I telephone my parents to chat and my father happily relates, “Just finished a big meal of potato pancakes, fried ham and fresh lettuce. You’d have loved it.”)
Those noon dinners featured equal parts of love, flavor and sweat.
The anchor was some cut of beef or pork. Usually it was a nicely baked beef roast or a well-peppered, heavily-salted pork roast.
Variations included pork sausage, salted pork, pork chops, liver, meatloaf or 100 other meat dishes my mother, with no recipe other than memory, magically delivered.
Vegetables. Then came the vegetables, as in plural, because all Germans are born with an unshakable belief they will not make it to heaven if they don’t eat at least two – three is even better insurance – vegetables every meal: green beans, sweet corn, radishes, onions, asparagus, leaf lettuce, red beets, creamed spinach, creamed Swiss chard, cole slaw, sauerkraut, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts (yuck), peas and the queen mother of summer gardens, tomatoes.
And, of course, potatoes: Boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, creamed potatoes, sweet potatoes. And all afloat in a sea of gravy or butter or both.
Rare was the dinner that didn’t finish with either cake, fruit or pudding pies (another German Lutheran rule: if you’re making pie, you’re making two kinds of pie), fresh fruit, cookies, and other sweet treats my mother knew we’d die for.
My noon meal always ended with a slice of buttered bread topped with a massive load of homemade peach, apple, strawberry, grape or blackberry jelly. Always.
Nap time. Then, surprise, the adults napped until 1 p.m. My father and mother always went to their bedroom; Uncle Honey to a webbed chaise lounge on the porch where the sports section of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat slowly drifted lower until it covered his closed eyelids and open mouth.
Now, as summer again seeps back into farm country, I’d give nearly anything to sneak back to that farm and that table for a week’s worth of that homegrown pleasure.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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