This post comes to us via brand ambassador Laura Parker Roerden. She writes, consults, and speaks about kids’ connection to themselves, each other, and the earth. She directs Ocean Matters, a nonprofit that brings young people ages 15+ to perform service projects on scuba to help save threatened marine resources.
My grandmother’s recipe box is organized by season. At first, this registers as a slight annoyance to me as I thumb through looking for my Nana Parker’s legendary brownie recipe, the one she made with rendered chicken fat and always served with a glass of homemade Concord grape juice. My mother used to say those brownies clinched the deal on her marrying my dad. I think the fact that my mom could balance both grape juice and brownies on her lap while also making polite conversation had something to do with sealing the deal on the other end myself.
I’m smiling as bits of family history flash across my imagination looking at the contents of the box. Then it hits me: my grandmother’s life here on the farm was so tied to the seasons that everything the family ate and did was also. Even as I live in the same farmhouse and cook in the same kitchen as she did, even as we continue with this fifth generation family farm, it’s hard to ignore this little piece of evidence of just how far we’ve come from living tied to the rhythms of the earth.
In just two generations we have stopped making our own window cleaners with white vinegar mixed in reusable bottles (filed under spring for spring cleaning). We have stopped putting up strawberry jam in late June (filed under summer) followed by strawberry rhubarb crisp made from the ripened rhubarb that still grows behind our garage. Today we think of brownies (filed under winter) as the perfect year-round treat, but they were only made in my grandmother’s kitchen in the winter when there is less farm work to do; when rendered lard is plentiful from the older hens that are fit for only stew; and turning on a stove to bake made sense because it also heated the bedrooms above the kitchen. Our summer treats do not include pickling left-behinds like watermelon rinds.
Substitution lists for ingredients as common as cinnamon still line my kitchen cabinets, stark reminders of a time when it would have been unheard of to jump in a car and zip to the grocery store because you were out of buttermilk for morning pancakes. Lists of how to preserve vegetables likewise line the pantry doors, quantities needed per person to survive a winter included.
I still preserve the contents of my vegetable garden and some of our fruit, but mostly to satisfy my own sense of home. A hot night spent over a lobster pot of boiling water is a labor of love for me; a gift I give my family, not a necessity. I do it because it feels like I have bottled the very sunshine of summer when I pop open the tops of the mason jars in the dead of winter. I do it because I like the way the mason jars looked lined up on a shelf. But when I run out of my homemade tomato sauce, we do not stop eating spaghetti and meatballs. It goes on the grocery list until the next round of tomatoes spills out of the garden in quantities that necessitate action.
It isn’t difficult to mentally tick up the resources saved by these simple acts of Yankee frugality in my grandmother’s day. But what else might we have wasted in no longer being tied to the rhythms of our earth’s seasons? What else might we have lost?
Every spring we increase our laying hen’s capacity by purchasing baby chicks from our local feed store. This year, I also bought meat birds or “spring chickens” as we used to call them. Laying hens in my grandmother’s day were brooded on our farm in small houses that required a steady stream of coal to keep them warm. A good laying hen would be productive for up to three years, so the return justified the investment. But meat birds grow plump so quickly that they are impractical to keep in small brooders; and the energy costs would be too expensive to invest in meat that is quickly harvested a mere eight weeks later.
Farmers instead waited until it was warm enough to brood the chickens naturally. They waited until late spring, when pastures had greened and insects and worms were plentiful, saving grain costs and leaving pastures picked clean of detrimental insects, as well as naturally fertilized. We know more now about the health benefits to us of pasturing chickens, but only because we have tampered with these processes that honored the earth’s natural rhythms. It has taken us fifty years of inferior food to teach us some of what might be at stake when we disconnect our food from the rhythms of the earth. It seems likely to me that there is more than just nutrition in the equation.
In tribute to my grandmother’s recipe box I think this year we’ll offer “spring chickens” at Jo-Erl Farm and see what else my grandmother’s recipe box has to teach us. (I’m guessing I can find her fried chicken recipe filed under summer, when the birds are processed. I think I might be getting the hang of this.)
What might you learn from your grandmother’s recipe box?