Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Country Cookin'

To many, the term country cookin’ conjures up visions of barbequed squirrel, home-baked pie, and deep-fried whatnot. This was certainly not in our case in our house. Dad had a full-time job, plus the farm, plus a side job land-surveying. Mom had us four kids, a herd of cows, several horses, four dogs, a cat or two, a few hundred chickens, the land-surveying business, a snoopy mother-in-law, a house the size of a small European country, and my dad. When in the world was there time to bake pie?

On The Andy Griffith Show, Aunt Bee was constantly scuttling about the kitchen baking, roasting, or frying something. She was always dressed just so, everything ironed and in its place, even her double chin. That needy voice of hers bothered me, and Andy’s awkward bachelor lifestyle seemed suspicious, but that’s another story. I love home-made pie just as much as the next person, but no pie, no matter how tasty, is worth that amount of dysfunctional whining. Hand them each a bottle of Jack Daniels and just let them rip at each other once and for all. I’d watch that episode twice.

I’m sure somewhere there’s a country matriarch bustling about the stove daily, fussing over seven-course meals, but she’s either got an Easybake Oven, plastic teacups, and a teddy bear, or she’s baking fluffy cloud cakes for her roommates in the local psychiatric hospital. On a realistic, working farm, they would’ve hauled her outside, slapped a baseball cap on her, and had her stack hay bales in the barn for three hours. If she felt like stirring and spicing after that, go for it. Bye-bye, double-chin. Bye-bye, whine.

While Aunt Bee didn’t live on a farm, television watchers (aka city dwellers) were given the impression that all country folk do is sit around and bake peach cobbler. On our farm, Aunt Bee would have serious biceps, wear coveralls, and tell Opie to “cowboy up.”

Because of shows like The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, the lifestyle of the rural gourmet has been grossly misconstrued. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences:
  • There’s no one person dedicated to cooking. In fact, the person who made dinner was most likely just lifting bales next to you in the hayfield. In other words, do not expect homemade pie for dessert.

  • You will be expected to help. Yes, you just stacked two hundred and fifty bales of hay. Wash your hands and set the table.

  • No sparkling clean kitchen here, unless you’re eating outside and it just rained. Table scraps roll downhill, and the dogs keep the floor relatively clean. Good enough until winter comes and we have time for some deep cleaning. (The coziest work in the winter is near the wood stove in the kitchen.)

  • The pet you scratched behind the ear last week might now be on your plate. And he might taste pretty good. Horrible thought, right? I had trouble with that one, too. Until I tasted the chicken. It was really good.
This marked my introduction to what some call feminism. It was more like country common sense equality. If you could do it, then do it. If you couldn’t, you’d learn. The tractor didn’t care whether you were packing a trouser snake. Get it in gear and get the hay in, please.

On the flip side, the boys were expected to clean up and help with food and laundry. They didn’t care for it too much. So that was fun to watch.

In high school, girls took Home Economics and boys took Shop. I questioned that logic, mentioning it in passing to the principal one day. Sure enough, the next year everyone took Home Economics and Shop. While I made a few enemies that year, it was quite by accident - I never expected the principal to actually listen. I couldn’t wait to get to the real world and make some real changes. Just lasso a few flying pigs and make the world a better place. Piece of cake. Or pie.

The pizza run –
One of my favorite splurges was every Sunday night when we’d order pizza. Since we were far beyond the delivery area, we had to go fetch it. I enjoyed bringing it home, trying to get back quickly so the pizza was still nice and hot. Since there was no direct route between our house and the pizza joint, I was, for the sake of hot pizza, compelled to barrel down twisting country roads. This was as close to running moonshine as I would ever get, so I took full advantage of it. There were no police cars watching for speeding pizza runners, however, deer liked to jump out of nowhere. Swerving to avoid a deer does very bad things to pizza cheese. I’d race home in record time, only to open the pizza box to discover that the lateral g forces had had a severe, negative impact on the mozzarella. In the middle of the box, there’d be a tomatoed circle of dough. A large, frightened pile of cheese would be plastered to one side of the box. Still hot, of course.

Daddy tried -
Beyond the basic hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza we consumed, my dad did have some interesting culinary experiments. Most dads take pride in their barbeque skills. This was BBBQ – beyond barbeque. Every once in a while he’d find an irregular recipe for cooking up homemade oddities. They always started with tremendous potential and somehow took a wrong turn. For instance:

· One year we had an over abundance of tomatoes, so he decided to make tomato sauce. Or maybe it was ketchup. Not sure which one it was supposed to be. I only knew that it was inedible. Later we discovered that our ‘Big Boy’ tomatoes weren’t the right type for canning or pickling or torturing or whatever Dad was doing to them. All I remember is staring at row upon row of mason jars full of tomato seeds, skin, pulp, and vinegar, worrying about when I’d be forced to consume their contents. Or whether the tortured tomatoes would evolve, escape, and consume me.

· Apple sauce takes lots of cooking in a big pressure cooker. If the pressure isn’t monitored and goes too high, pressure cooker parts fly in all directions, and boiling hot apple sauce follows the parts. We learned that.

· Homemade root beer was his next attempt. Absolutely flat. Not much is sadder than getting a whiff of the sweet scent of real root beer, only to be repulsed by a lack of bubbles. I wanted to find out who was giving my dad such a nutty do-it-yourself idea and knock him flat.

· The home-brewed apple cider never went flat. It did, however, distill a bit too long, eventually turning into rather potent applejack. We had to carefully remove it from the crawlspace under the house, first venting the area to release the methanol that had built up down there. I was hoping we could at least feed it to the livestock and watch them stumble around. Not much is funnier than a drunken cow slurring her words. I would be reminded of this again much later when I attended my first sorority party.

1 comment:

wickedwitch said...

I grew up on a farm in Central PA and much like you, I had to work when not in school. Luckily, I was in charge of the horses and cows. Easy job, no back talk. What I remember most is the long run to the outhouse during the winter and having to haul coal and wood for the morning fires. My family was one of the last to 'get cityfied' and get electricity and plumbing. I learned how to 'hold it' for twelve to sixteen hours straight. However, I do remember my Grandmother always cooking, baking, canning and all the other things that Aunt Bee did, only much better.