Farming is not a romantic occupation. In spite of pastoral memoirs like Tim Stark’s Heirloom and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, the reality of farming means backbreaking work and early mornings, poor harvests and lots of worry as Mother Nature hurls hail at a field of ripe corn.
But it’s not hard to feel a bit of nostalgia for the food, especially at harvest time.
Carrie Young, in her book, Prairie Cooks: Glorified Rice, Three-Day Buns, and Other Recipes and Reminiscences, devotes an entire chapter to stories about how her Norwegian-born mother cooked for threshers in North Dakota during the harvest. Cooking all day for three or four dozen men challenged cooks like Carrie’s mother, who cooked breakfast, forenoon or mid-morning lunch, dinner at noon, afternoon lunch, and supper at the end of the work day. Pies, bread, stews, cookies, cakes, pancakes-the list of food seemed endless. Later, as more women came to the Dakotas, farmwives took over the job of cooking for the harvest crews.
And in Wisconsin, in the 1930s through the 1950s, farmwives also provided vast quantities of food for the neighbors who shared the tasks of harvesting each others’ crops in the summer and fall. Girls stayed home from school during those days to help their mother prepare and serve the food. Apple pies disappeared like magic from the tables as the men wrapped extra pieces and pocketed them to eat later.
Fourteen farmers on the average came every summer to help with the harvest on my father-in-law’s farm. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law cooked all day, baking bread, pies, and cakes. Making sandwiches with cheese and meat for morning lunch took most of the morning after gargantuan breakfasts of oatmeal and pancakes. After morning lunch—with sandwiches, cake, and cookies—and a quick wash of the dishes, it was time to stir the stew or pop meatballs into the gravy or check the beef or pork roast and mash the potatoes for the noon dinner. Saying “What’ll you have?,” my mother-in-law pushed her relish tray toward each man, the gleaming glaze on the sweet pickles sparkling like diamonds. And to the hungry men, those pickles indeed shone like gems. Salads didn’t show up very often on the table or in the lunch bucket, but always plenty of corn or green beans made up for the lack of fresh greens. Besides, not a man among them would eat that rabbit food anyway.
No, salad wouldn’t last long in stomachs of men who ran the winnowing machines and loaded corn into the silos. Hot, dusty, backbreaking work called for food that used to be comfort food for most American children. Mashed potatoes, gravy, roast beef, bread and butter, strawberry jam, and pie. Good, solid food; this food built America. English food, yes.
After noon dinner, it was time to make more sandwiches and frost more cakes for the afternoon lunch. Only then could the women relax for a few hours, because all the men returned to their own farms for supper. In the morning, the cycle began again, and lasted for how ever many days it took to get the harvest in. Usually, it took one or two days, with all fourteen men working.
Once the crops were in on one farm, it was time for each farmer to move on to the next farm. And it was then up to other farmwives and daughters to feed the hungry hordes. Everyone work together for the good of the whole. Evan Jones, in his book, American Food: The Gastronomic Story, says “Cooking for so many on a regular basis, cooking for even larger appetites when the harvest season brought in helpful neighbors and hired hands to be fed as part of the cost of bringing in the crops—these occasions were not only challenges in terms of logistics, but times of rivalry when good cooks showed how really good they were.”
Today complex machinery makes quick work of the harvest, but farmwives still rely on fried chicken and those old standbys, pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy.
No, farming sure isn’t romantic, but eating can be.
3 T. vegetable oil
4 lbs. beef chuck roast
Salt and pepper
Flour for dredging
1 large onion, peeled and sliced into about ½-inch thick slices
5 cups water
1 large bay leaf
1/2 t. dried thyme leaves
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
Turn oven on to 350 F. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or pot with a tight-fitting lid. Salt and pepper the meat, dredge in the flour. Brown the meat on both sides until crispy and golden. Remove meat from pan, add onions and brown until just golden. Return meat to pot, add water and herbs. Cover pot tightly and place in oven. Cook until meat is fork tender, about 2 hours or so.
Remove meat and onions (as much as possible) from pan. Put 1 cup of COLD water in a bowl. Stir flour into water, making sure to get all the lumps out. Add flour mixture to the pot and stir in well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and stir constantly. Season gravy to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with mashed potatoes, buttered cooked carrots, and green peas.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen