At what point did Americans come to depend on pre-chopped, pre-cooked, fat-laden processed food and lose the basic skills our forebears instinctively knew? Other nations aren’t squeamish about butchering poultry or farm animals and consider doing so a part of everyday fare, while the fair American will shudder at the notion of plucking and dressing a chicken while gobbling down processed chicken “nuggets”.
My grandparents planted vegetables, raised chickens for eggs and meat, fattened pigs for butchering, and were adept at making something out of nothing. My grandfather devoutly believed in planting by the signs and witching for water. Call that hogwash if you please, but during the Depression he fed a family of six on what he made from digging wells by hand and never was cursed with a dry hole.
That piney rock-laden ground sustained and nurtured us and kept us firmly rooted in reality, the same as it had for generations before us.
Muscadines grew wild just begging to be made into jelly to slather onto a hot buttered biscuit. Knotty apples were dried for fried pies, more wormhole and core than real apple, but treasured just the same because come winter those delicately browned pies fit perfectly into our child-sized hands. Christmas trees were cut from the back lot and the only question in choosing one was, “pine or cedar?”. Bushels of peas were shelled by hand and put away to be seasoned with a generous portion of fat back and eaten with hot cornbread and fried potatoes. A watermelon, warm from the garden, was a treat to be savored while expertly spitting the seeds just a tad farther into the yard than the cousins. We neither expected nor received hand-outs and prided ourselves on making do with what God gave us.
I am the last generation of our family to have hoed and picked cotton by hand. I know what it is to drag a ticking bag along and pick into it, feeling it get heavier and heavier across my shoulder as the end of the row slowly drew nearer. I know how sharp the burs are as one quickly plucks the snowy cotton from them. I know what blisters on my hands felt like from hoeing weeds out of that cotton all day. In short, I know the value of a real day’s work and the satisfaction of providing for myself and my family. My grandfather saw to that.
I remember the sheer joy of sitting on the front porch after a day’s work in the cotton field with my cousins, eating fried chicken and cornbread while my grandfather played hymns on his harmonica, fireflies fluttering about in the darkness. If we were lucky, there was peach or blackberry cobbler before spreading Grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts on the porch in the cool night air. Air conditioning wasn’t a luxury we possessed yet and sitting in the cool night air was much preferable to the oppressive heat inside.
I treasure those memories as my grandparents and some of the aunts and uncles have gone to their reward, never again to share in our joys or our sorrows while on this Earth. Even some of the cousins have passed on and as I recall their smiling faces from my youth I’m saddened to think of the glory days we missed together as we grew into adulthood and each got caught up in the business of living, of raising families of our own.
The old home place is long gone, no longer a tangible reminder of those long ago evenings when crickets chirped in unison along with the plaintive melodies floating through the night air from a harmonica lovingly cradled in the hands of my grandfather. The ones of us remaining are scattered across several states, and rarely see each other, but I bet if you asked, we all have the same memories of that old cotton patch, the rocky ground from which our grandfather took peas, corn, okra, and tomatoes, pallets on the front porch, and watermelon juice dripping off our elbows as we giggled away the afternoon.
As we part, gentle reader, let’s look at a brief turn-of-the-century account found in the “Farm Journal” [Jan. 1915] which may give an idea of when and how the self-sufficient lifestyle of my youth began to disappear.
“Betty was neat, trim and comely withal. She was one of the best dairy maids in the whole country round about, and her butter and cheese always found the readiest market. She never wanted a little more sleep and a little more slumber in the morning; but no sooner did the lark and robin begin their caroling, than bounce came Betty out of bed! The cows were milked, the pigs were fed, and breakfast a-doing all before sunrise, and it was said on all hands that Betty would make a noble wife for a farmer; but she turned off each rustic clown and bumpkin that approached her, with the song, ‘O prithee, no more come to woo.’ Betty had laid up a little money, and thought best to go to Boston and spend it; and so she did; but when she returned, alack, it was all over with poor Betty! Her head was brimful of Boston notions. She dared not milk, because she was afraid of a cow. As to hogs, they were odious creatures! And as to getting up early, it was dreadful vulgar. Market Street and Leghorn flats were all her theme—Alas! Poor Betty was ruined!”