Whence cometh the food and how was it cooked?

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Fourth-grader Tyler asked, "How did you cook all that good food?" He was referring to the food we ate while my parents, grandparents and sisters lived on a farm in the second decade of the last century. Ooowee, that sounds like a long time ago.

Tyler and his classmates had followed the serialization of my book, "Wide Meadows," in the Southeast Missourian.

Perhaps Tyler meant, "Where did you get that food?" If he really meant how did we cook it, the answer is, on a big, black, cast-iron range, the likes of which he probably has never seen.

Split wood, put into the firebox of the stove, furnished the heat to cook things on the top of the stove, bake things in the oven and keep water warm in a deep attached container known as a reservoir. The firebox had to be constantly restoked to maintain the heat necessary for cooking. Of course, there were ashes which fell through grates into a lower box and soot, which was collected in another compartment. These places had to be cleaned out regularly.

In the winter, this fire in the firebox was maintained whether anything was cooking or baking. The heat it furnished helped keep the big kitchen warm. If there was nothing baking or roasting in the oven, it was a handy place to open the oven door and place one's freezing feet upon it.

In addition, we had a fireplace to help warm the kitchen in the wintertime. Foods that were improved by long, slow cooking, such as dried beans and soup, were placed in an iron pot and hung in the fireplace. With the coffee kept hot, the teakettle singing and soup cooking, the country kitchen was a comfortable place to be.

If Tyler meant how did we get the food, the short answer is "from the good earth."

Our fields and pastures all sloped down on both sides of the St. Francis River, which ran through our farm. At least twice a year the river flooded, leaving rich deposits of topsoil on our bottomland fields.

In these fields we raised corn, wheat and oats. Sometimes we made adventures into some other crop such as barley or broomcorn.

Our main crop was corn, which fed our livestock, chickens, hogs and was the source of those delicious roasting ears, lavishly buttered. One small field was reserved for popcorn. Popcorn was our evening treat as we read books or did school-assigned homework.

A big garden supplied all manner of vegetables to eat, fresh-picked or canned for the winter months. We let some of the vegetable plants mature and saved the seeds that were formed for the next year's garden.

Chickens supplied eggs as well as meat, such as those wonderful fried chicken Sunday dinners. We butchered at least two hogs a year, which kept us supplied with all manner of pork dishes -- sausage, bacon and cured ham. Occasionally we had a mess of fish, caught from the river.

In addition to the above sources of food, there were the gifts of nature: dewberry and blackberry patches, wild grapes, walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, persimmons, pawpaws, mushrooms.

In the springtime there was an abundance of plants to make servings of what were called, simply, greens. Children were taught early to recognize these plants -- poke, dock, purslane, wild lettuce, lamb's quarters, dandelions, etc. Cooked as one would cook spinach or mustard greens, it was a welcome dish after the wintertime menus.

The above description of food sources and how the food was cooked reads like a chapter from some early pioneer history. In light of the explosion of knowledge after the second decade of the 20th century, we were in pioneer days, although we had experienced World War I and the flu epidemic.

The end of the self-sustaining family farm looms on the horizon. For me it was a delightful time of family love and togetherness.


Jean Bell Mosley is an author and longtime resident of Cape Girardeau.

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