My maternal grandmother is an active and healthy 91 year old. Her secret? Eating as naturally as possible. She attributes her longevity and good health to the natural, home-grown, and locally-sourced foods of her childhood.
“We were eating organic food before anyone really knew what ‘organic’ meant,” she says.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting with her extensively about her family’s lifestyle during her childhood years, which were spent on a small farm in the 1920s. We talked for an hour about her mother’s garden, how she preserved food to last through the winter, and how she foraged for food.
The Food That Started Grandma's Day
Even back then, a few processed foods like Post cereals had made their appearance, but Grandma's day started with homemade cereal featuring walnuts from their own walnut tree. Her mother gathered the nuts, chopped them, combined them with oatmeal and raisins, and then served her homemade cereal with raw, unpasteurized milk delivered that morning from the cream wagon.
Grandma recalls, “The cream rose to the top of the milk. Mother and dad would always skim off a teaspoon full for their coffee. When the milk was finished, mother would wash the bottles with money and a handwritten order for the next day tucked inside. This was set out on the front porch for the driver to pick up the following morning. The cream wagon was a horse-drawn buggy, and one day the driver said to me ‘You be ready, and in the morning, I will give you a ride’. The next day he picked me up and sat me on the front seat to help him make his deliveries. It was the first time I ever rode behind a horse.”
In addition to milk, the cream wagon would also provided butter and eggs. Grandma’s eggs, however, came from the chickens her mother raised. Compared with today's incubators, hers was much simpler.
“Mother hatched her chicks using a cardboard box and a light bulb as an incubator. She set the box on a shelf out in our barn. The chicks were so tiny when they hatched. I thought they looked like silk.”
Eggs from the chickens were eaten frequently and used for baking. Grandma recalls a special dessert that her father liked featuring their eggs. “Mother liked to make dad angel food cake. She saved up and set aside a dozen eggs, and made it completely from scratch. There were no boxed cake mixes then.”
The Rooster Got Out of Hand
The chickens were also a source of meat, sometimes providing an impromptu supper if one or two of them happened to get out of hand.
Grandma recalls one such time: “We had a rooster, and one day he was out stirring up the chickens. Mother came out to the front porch holding my little sister and set her down in order to deal with the rooster. Well, that rooster jumped up on top of my sister’s head and began to dig into her hair. The chopping block and the axe were well within reach so mother grabbed that rooster and chopped off his head. We ate him for dinner that night.”
Fish from a nearby stream was another source of meat. Grandma and her siblings tagged along while their mother fished for dinner, catching and cleaning all of it herself.
Everyone Had a Garden
Since I am an active gardener, I was especially interested to know if Grandma's family had a garden and what they grew.
“I think everyone had a garden.” While Grandma didn't remember many cole crops (like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale) until later, she did remember pretty much everything else. Lima beans, tomatoes, Swiss chard, carrots, celery…the list went on!
All summer long her mother preserved the food they would eat during the winter. She had a special basement kitchen just for the purpose of canning. It included a gas stove, a kitchen sink, a solid oak table, and a cupboard just for canned goods. It had a brick floor and brick walls, and was fitted with solid oak shelves for storage. My great-grandma canned everything from cling peaches with whole spices, apples, applesauce, to tiny whole potatoes and corn (which was canned with additional salt for better preservation and then rinsed under cold water before cooking).
Extended Family Cooking
Grandma also talked quite a bit about how the extended family would come together to make apple butter.
“It was an all-day affair that involved everyone in the family. Mother and her sisters gathered together and spent the better part of the day peeling, slicing, and coring the apples which would then go in a large copper kettle. The kettle was heated outside over an open fire and stirred constantly with a wooden paddle. Once it was ready, it was canned, and then of course everything had to be cleaned up.”
The apple butter was enjoyed at dinner with homemade bread.
“A typical meal was at 5:00 to 5:30,” she says. “It always began with a blessing. We’d have some meat and a lot of vegetables from the garden and my mother’s bread. Mother liked everything to be fresh so she would bake twice a week. Often times she would include dinner rolls, a coffee cake, or cinnamon rolls. She was especially noted for her pies. She would layer the fruit as thick and as high as she could and then stretch the top crust over it. It barely reached.”
Treats On Occasion
Additional treats were offered only on occasion. A few favorites were homemade popcorn and homemade fudge. Every so often Grandma and her siblings received small candies when her dad returned home from a trip to the store.
She remembers, “He came home to three eager faces waiting for him at the window. He always went to the living room, and we’d run after him to ask ‘Where’s the candy? Where’s the candy?’ Of course, that's exactly what he wanted. He gave it to us then. We really didn’t know what junk food was since this happened on such rare occasions.”
Ice cream was a real treat but very rare. It wasn’t possible to keep it solid in an icebox, and Grandma said they did not have a modern refrigerator until much later.
“To commemorate the arrival of our refrigerator, my mother decided to make potato salad. It was a labor of love since all of the ingredients, including the mayonnaise, had to be started from scratch. She mixed it all together and put it in a special glass bowl, setting it to chill on a special shelf in the fridge.”
Advice For Today's Cooks
Toward the end of our visit, I asked Grandma if she had any advice for the present day cook.
“Just feed your children as healthfully as you can,” she said. “Look at how my mother fed me… now I’m 91 years old!”
Even though things like sucanat and ancient grains weren't available to her like they are to us today. All of her food was made from scratch and sourced locally. Even without spelt flour, if you make your own food, you are miles ahead in preparing healthy food for your family.
What conversations have you had with beloved elders in your family about how they grew up? What did they share? What was life like?
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