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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Gray Matters: Tradition in the kitchen

Friday, May 2, 2008

(Photo)
Most recent discussions of area historical centers have been about facilities and artifacts. But I feel there's another area of our heritage we're letting slip away, without affording it as much attention as we should.

I'm not quite sure I totally understand it, but don't you think that in this era of pre-cooked edibles, take-outs, and the like, some of the culinary arts seem to be disappearing? I have a piece here which I'd written many years ago about the daughters of early settlers, Harry and Mary Alice Neir. It starts like this -- "A huge garden provided the fruits and vegetables. Cows were milked so cream and butter were always plentiful, as were eggs and poultry. Their mother raised geese, ducks, and chickens, while their father shot wild ducks, prairie chickens and pigeons, all of which graced the family table."

There follows a description of preparing meals from these spectacular offerings completely from scratch. On Saturday mornings things moved at a crisp pace. All of the cream which hadn't been used or sold during the week was turned into butter in the hand-cranked churn. Mother presided over the bread-making while one of the girls whipped up a couple of angel food cakes. The daughter mixed the batter for the cakes but it was Mother who baked them.

Today, only a few of us have ever done anything but pre-heat the oven to "x" degrees and set the timer. Can you imagine feeding the range with cobs and wood, judiciously adding fuel and adjusting drafts, etc. until, almost by instinct, one knew when it was just right? Not "just right," period, but "just right" for the bread or angel food cake, or whatever else was being baked.

Each Saturday there would be nine loaves of bread and a big batch of biscuits. The biscuits were done first, so the noon meal consisted of those fresh delicacies and plain boiled navy beans. The rest of the beans, dressed up with molasses and other ingredients, were baked to be served for supper with more fresh bread. Also on Saturdays, they would bake at least one other cake, several pies, and, always, cookies. Mother's sugar cookies, often featuring date or raisin fillings, were favorites, along with dark molasses cookies with pink icing.

It was pointed out that the weekly cleaning had to be done on Saturday, too. One of the girls did the upstairs while another cleaned downstairs. It occurred to me that, along with being a fine cook, their mother had to have been quite a management expert, as well.

One task, not just for Saturday but for every day after school, was bringing in cobs for the fires. Hauling in a nice clean basketful from the cob pile was one thing, but bringing them from the hog lot was another matter. Father scooped ear corn out on the ground.

The hungry animals would chew off the kernels, leaving the cobs, admittedly dirtier, but bigger, slower-burning and much more energy-efficient than the others. The ugly, menacing hogs were terrifying in the youngsters' eyes. I could well relate to that frightening experience because my sister and I were often assigned that hateful task.

Life is physically easier now in the 21st Century, but there seems to me to be a bit of a trade-off as I reflect on some of those sensory pleasures of days gone by.

Now, only words can keep them alive, and that isn't always a totally satisfactory substitute.