Those who were interested in my post on the cost effectiveness of home grown should be sure to read the substantial comment that Granny Miller kindly took the time to add. Lots of good stuff in favor of doing it yourself.
This talk of home grown reminded me of Chapter 9 in Janice Holt Giles’s book 40 Acres and No Mule, where she describes cooking and eating on the ridge. Here’s the opening section:
Speaking of cooking (I wasn’t, but I’m going to), I must confess that I do not always cook the ridge way for Henry and myself. I make biscuits, for instance, much shorter than is common on the ridge. We like very crisp, very short, golden brown biscuits. And I accomplish them better with sweet milk and baking powder. But we are alone in our liking for this kind of biscuits. Ridge biscuits are made with buttermilk and soda, and as a rule they are rathe rflat and what I call “pully” for want of a better word. A ridge cook would apologize for my short, browned biscuits. She would say she had had a heavy hand with her biscuits that day.
Of course I always use butter for shortening. Of course. We do not have a cow, but we have an arrangement with Henry’s folks to help feed their cows in return for milk and butter. Miss Bessie is so afraid we won’t have enough that she keeps us supplied with much more than we can use on the table. I shall never forget the look on my sister’s face when I baked a cake one day while she and her family were visiting us. Nearly a pound of butter went into the cake proper, and then another quarter pound went into the icing. Her eyes widened. “Do you always use that much butter in your cakes?”
I had forgotten how extravagant it must look. “Of course.”
She shook her head. “I’ve got to get my menfolks away from here, she said, “before they become so spoiled by all this good food they aren’t satisfied at home any more. Why, we’d go broke in no time if I cooked the way you do!”
I remembered then. You can’t cook the way I do in the city. Take creamed cauliflower, for instance. I make the sauce with pure thick, yellow cream, and even add a generous dab of butter to that. And for new little creamed potatoes, or chipped beef, or tuna fish. I wouldn’t think of making a cream sauce out of milk. All puddings and custards are made of cream—and, naturally, ice cream. All pastries, dumplings, breads, cakes, are made with butter. There hasn’t been a can of shortening in my kitchen since we moved to the ridge.
Isn’t it sad how so many simple, healthy, pleasurable foods were once seen as abundant staples but are now viewed as costly luxuries to be indulged in sparingly? The real luxury, of course, is not fresh clean food but living in an urban setting, where obtaining any sort of food at all becomes difficult and expensive.
When we moved to the farm we decided to begin living like farmers as best we could, not letting old habits or lack of farming skills or expense keep us from it. We set out deliberately to eat as we would eventually be able to do naturally. We bought the vegetables that we would eventually grow. We bought the raw milk we would eventually have from the cows we planned to buy. We bought the cows and pigs from neighbors and had them slaughtered for the meat we would eventually raise ourselves. We bought lots of butter. And we didn’t use these foods sparingly, but as we liked.
Slowly the bought foods were replaced by our own food. But more important, our eating changed, not so much intentionally but in response to the changing ingredients. We drink lots of fresh milk, and eat lots of butter. Lots. We savor the fat on the meat we eat. We eat lots of raw and fresh vegetables, but also vegetables cooked southern style (i.e. to death, with some meat and grease for flavoring) and canned vegetables. We eat as much home-baked bread made from home-ground wheat as Maggie is willing and able to make, which is increasingly much, often spread with butter and homemade jam as thick as one likes. We eat ice cream better than any I’ve ever had. The recipes have become fewer, and simpler as well, counting on the flavor and quality of the ingredients to carry the dish.
At the same time, our eating has moderated. Where once we would have kept on eating a favorite dish until our bellies began to ache, now what stops us eating is satisfaction—we eat a plateful, and that is enough. We eat as much as we want, and yet nobody is fat but me, and even I am slowly dropping pounds. We all seem to be healthier, and—I promise I’m not making this up—teeth are straightening up and spacing out in the mouths of the four youngest. Best of all, food has become a major source of pleasure for us; we like what we eat, we like spending time together eating it, and we like the fact that we grew it ourselves.
Mrs. Giles continues on describing the glories of home cooked, home grown food on the ridge, but she also hints at something darker:
Unfortunately, I am alone in the practice of using so much cream and butter in my cooking. For some reason people who have to take care of cows and milk and butter frequently do not like them. I know few families on the ridge who will touch butter. The cream is sold to the cream truck and most of the milk is poured out to the hogs. Some buttermilk is saved out to make bread with, and that’s about all. And ridge women like to bake with lard better than with butter.
She doesn’t say, but I suspect that the cream truck is the culprit. For a long time cream, butter, and eggs were a significant source of cash in Appalachia. I expect that the “dislike” for these things developed out of an increasing preference for the cash they could be turned into. Having been such a fundamental part of country life for so long, I suppose they were just taken for granted, along with their intangible benefits (health, pleasure), and folks weren’t able to count the cost properly when they gave them up. This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that cash has a corrosive effect on subsistence living.