Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bread for Thanksgiving Day

It's hard to imagine how Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in 1621, the traditional first Thanksgiving, or 150 years ago when President Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving and Praise.  Today, the day before Thanksgiving Day, thoughts of past Thanksgivings come to mind.  In particular, the thoughts come as I pull down the big wooden butter or bread bowl of my grandparents and maybe their grandparents to make bread.  Certainly this was one task common to many years back.

The recipe would be similar to that of our ancestors a century ago; yeast, water, flour, oil, a sweetener and a bit of salt, maybe some special flavorings.  The yeast, probably Fleischmann's, a newly formed New York company trying to create a dependable yeast, would be similar to the yeast by the same name that we use today. Today's flour is probably more refined than that of a century ago although at times we grind our own flour which is no more refined than any time in the past.  Bee's honey and milk from the cow would be similar now and then.  Oil may have been lard rendered from the fat of a pig in the past.

The process is different although both doughs ended up in the same wooden bowl to rest and rise.  The bowl is stained and scratched after decades of use; the edges soft and pitted with age. The larger and perhaps older sister bowl still hanging on the wall has a metal strap holding a crack from splitting further.

The next stage of the bread making is as old and universal as time and space itself, kneading on a board with our bare hands, folding and pushing down, and folding and pushing again and again.  Finally the shaping, placing in pans and baking.  Fortunately for us today's oven is regulated by a thermostat and starts by merely turning a knob or pushing a button, which allows the baker to move to another task instead of stoking the fire with coal or wood and trying to maintain a uniform heat.

I would have loved to share the next moment with our ancestors as they cut a slice of fresh bread or tear off a piece, placing it in their mouths and savoring the taste.  Perhaps they too reflected on their ancestors of a century earlier.  For now the bowl is back on the top pantry shelf and the bread is ready for the celebration of thanks tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fall Canning

Tucked in a far corner of the basement is a little room lined on opposite sides with shelves reaching to the ceiling.  On the shelves sat rows of jars, some full, some empty, some quarts and pints, some smaller with jellies and jams, some larger with pickles.  In our farmhouse there was an additional root cellar dug  out beyond the regular basement which was cool, dark and had a dirt floor.  Against one wall a crib held the potatoes for the year.  In another corner was a box of carrots covered with straw.

Root cellars were standard equipment in early North Dakota homes, and fall was the season for canning.  Actually everything revolved around winter; spring, summer and fall were for planting, growing, gathering and preserving food for the winter.  Most of the food was grown in family gardens but some foods that didn't grow locally were ordered and purchased in large boxes from the local grocer.  Fruits like peaches, pears and plums were examples.

Now we are 1500 miles from North Dakota and a half century later but still canning food for the winter.  We picked the peaches from a local farm; the pears and apples from our trees; beans from the local fruit stand and tomatoes from the garden.  Most garden products typically are blanched and frozen these days and spices and herbs are dried for storage.

Water boils on the stove.  Peaches or tomatoes are heated so that they peel easily and then sliced into wedges.  The jars are washed in hot soapy water, rinsed and filled with the wedges which were waiting in a bath of cool water.  Rims are wiped clean for a good seal, boiling water, maybe with a little bit of sugar is poured to fill the jar.  A new cover is dipped in boiling water and secured on the jars with bands.  These then bathe in boiling water for 15 minutes after which they rest and cool down before they are labeled and join the rows of jars in the root cellar.

This may be a far cry from what happens in most contemporary homes and a poor facsimile of what happened more than a half century ago, but it is here.  It's a connection to the past, a family event and way of securing good food with no preservatives.  It's part of who we are and what we consider valuable.  Good eating.

Did I mention the sightings of mice and the evidence that mice were in the root cellar tucked away in the corner?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Threshing Day

Typically the day had the potential of being a hot one, in the nineties or possibly the hundreds.  Even during the morning chores there was a sense of excitement looking to the south and watching between tasks.  It was thrashing day and Uncle Karl, actually Dad's uncle, was going to come from his place a mile south of our farm through the pastures with his low-slung metal codded tires Minneapolis Moline and this thrashing machine.

Once he was in the yard he would walk around the thrasher, checking each gear and chain making certain that everything was probably greased and oiled.  The slow running exposed chain spit the oil that came from the long-nosed oilcan as they quickly turned over the gears.  Each bearing in which the staffs turned was lubricated with grease forced down a small pipe by the tightening of a grease-cap.  After the cap hit it limit, the cap was removed, refilled and replaced on its home ready to force more grease into the bearings.

I was quite young and there was no task for me other than to bring water and sandwiches to the workers so I wasn't on site to be fully involved.  Dad scooped up the bundles of oats, typically, and dumped them into the wagon from which someone pitch-forked them into the throat of the thrasher.  Uncle Karl's tractor sat in front of the thrasher with a very long belt to run the thrasher.  The straw blew out the back through a large pipe which could be manually adjusted to carefully create a stack of straw. The grain itself came out another pipe on the side of the thrasher into awaiting pickups.  Oats was not fun to stand in so I seldom would climb into the pickup to play in the grain.

Besides the work of thrashing, many stories are told about the meals that the farmer wives put together for the thrashing crews.  I can't say that I remember any significant events surrounding those meals which in our case only included Karl, Dad, grandpa and my uncle Heinie.  While the same crew worked all three farms I was allowed only to visit the fields when they thrashed on our farm.