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Tales from the old country

March 9, 2009

Much of my love for country and farm cooking and life comes directly from my mother’s parents, Grandma Ruby & Grandpa Gaylord, and tales of their childhoods on very poor farms in east central North Dakota.

I’m only a fourth-generation Scandinavian immigrant (Danish and Norwegian) on that side of the family. My great-grandparents emigrated as children and young adults. Grandma Ruby & Grandpa Gaylord are both on the older side of their huge families (Grandpa is 3rd oldest of 12 kids, Grandma Ruby is 5th or 6th oldest of 11), so I not only have literally dozens of great-aunts and -uncles, but also tons and tons of cousins, many of whom I see at least once every year or so.

My Great-grandmother Ladora Dalbol (Grandma Ruby’s mom), a pastor’s daughter, managed a farm for many years, but moved just outside of Tuttle, ND after her kids were all out of the house and her husband Sigurd died (before I was even born). Though Grandma Dalbol died in 1997, her little four-room house with dirt cellar has stayed in the family and serves as the focal point of many a family reunion, which seems to happen every summer or so around the 4th of July, or in the fall around hunting season.

Grandma Ruby likes to tell tales from time to time about how Grandma Dalbol’s household management skills kept a family of 13 people fed before and during the Great Depression. I’ve heard many stories from Grandma Ruby via my own mother, and here are a few disparate tales all connected by one thing: food.

Grandma Dalbol always kept a huge vegetable garden. As a small child spending time each summer in Tuttle, I remember eating fresh garden peas, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other garden veggies with white-haired Grandma Dalbol in her floral print blouses bent over the soil. When she was growing up, Grandma Ruby tells of being sent into the root cellar with a galvanized steel washtub (the giant ones, not a dishpan) to fill the bottom with potatoes, grab two quarts of canned vegetables, and a quart of “sauce” (cooked sweetened fruit canned without pectin, mostly rhubarb and apple). With fresh baked bread and a little meat or fish, this was the average supper meal on the farm.

Mom also tells of Grandma Tilda Nelson (Grandpa Gaylord’s mom) sending her oldest sons with a truck up to Canada to buy frozen and dried fish from the Icelandic fishermen on the banks of Lake Winnipeg. It was cheap up there and Grandpa Gaylord and his brothers trucked it across the border (before border patrols and customs got anal) and sold it to fellow farmers for a small profit. It’s an interesting revelation to learn that my relatives probably ate more fish (kept frozen outside in the winter) than they did beef or pork, and especially more than chicken (hens were worth a lot more laying eggs than in the oven).

Both my great-grandmothers made extra money for the farm selling eggs, and especially cream. In those days, you could sell both fresh or “sweet” cream, and “sour” cream (unrefridgerated) and both were used to make butter. The old Nelson farm was once littered with old cream cans (some of which have since been turned into stools topped with metal tractor seats). They’d be taken into town and put onto trains to be shipped to dairies, or, like in Tuttle, sold to local cheesemaking factories (the old cheese building still stands, abandoned, next to an old church on the edge of town). The “cream check” was often what went to buy essentials that couldn’t be made at home, like household items and shoes. All money made from the farm went right back into the farm, not the family.

As the oldest grandchild on my mom’s side, I remember my great-grandmothers best of all my first cousins. I particularly remember one summer visiting the Nelson farm and Grandma Nelson making a big dinner. I don’t think she ever got used to cooking for fewer than 15 people, even after all her kids (except her oldest, Uncle Norman, still a confirmed bachelor, who stayed on the farm after his father died) left to start families of their own, she loved to feed people. She would simply glow if you asked for more food or praised how good it was and would often try to force seconds and sometimes thirds on people, especially men. My dad, not a small eater, tells of being almost guilt-tripped into taking more food. “What’s the matter? Are you not hungry? You don’t like my cooking?” Grandma Nelson sometimes seemed to take it as a personal affront that you couldn’t eat as much as her hardworking farming sons once did. And, perhaps with good reason, because literally everything she put on the table was homemade from scratch (with the exception of cool whip to top desserts), and much of it was grown in her garden, foraged by, and/or canned by her personally.

Grandma Dalbol was another one for canning. Her root cellar is still full of canned jams, jellies, sauces, and vegetables. She would even can chicken and other meats to last through the long, cold winters. Grandma Ruby always says that without Grandma Dalbol’s big garden and inexaustable energy for canning and “putting food by,” her family of 12 would have gone hungry a lot more often than not.

My great-grandmothers and grandparents did not have easy lives. Not by any means. But they survived by ingenuity and knowledge and hard work. My only regret is that I never really got to talk to these women (they both died in 1997, when I was 13, both over 90 years old, having lived for decades without husbands and by themselves until the last few months of their lives) and learn about their lives, to learn how to bake bread or can from them or how to stretch a meal to feed 15 instead of 10.

Last fall my mom, little sister, and I went to Tuttle to visit my great-uncles and Grandpa Gaylord, who were staying at Grandma Dalbol’s house during the hunting season. Grandma Ruby was back in Ohio (where they live), and no other women were there. We had brought enough food with us to cook a dinner for about 8. We ended up having 12 people for dinner, so in addition to the baked chicken alfredo casserole my mother brought, my sister Rachel and I decided to forage and found some homemade deer sausage from the hunters, a sack of potatoes and sweet potatoes, and homegrown carrots from Great-Uncle John’s garden. So we roasted the root veggies in oil with garlic powder and pepper and boiled the deer sausage and cooked up some apples with cinnamon (but no sugar, there wasn’t any) for dessert. It was an experiment  in cooking and improvisation, with me at the helm of the “new” foods (Mom cooked up the casserole and made a salad) and Rachel serving as my sous chef of sorts, helping me peel veggies and watching over the apple sauce.

It turned out to be just enough food for everyone, with no leftovers. Everyone got a taste of everything. The potatoes were a little underdone because I had cut them larger than the carrots and sweet potatoes, but other than that everything turned out just fine. When we were done and Rachel and I had done the dishes, Grandpa Gaylord came up behind me and Rachel and patted us on the shoulders and said, “Grandma would be very proud of you girls.”

At first, I thought he meant my Grandma Ruby (his wife), and asked Mom why he would say that, and she replied, “He meant Grandma Dalbol, I’m sure.”

It gave me a kind of glow to think that my great-grandma would be proud of my feeble attempts at cooking, but I think she would have appreciated the creativity made necessary by having to feed that many extra people. It also gave me a sense of pride that someone would appreciate the effort put into a meal. There’s just something nice about making good food and feeding people and making them happy. It’s very satisfying. Perhaps more satisfying than eating a good meal.

So while I think my great-grandmothers led very hard lives, they got a certain level of enjoyment  and fulfillment out of cooking food well, being creative with limited ingredients, and nourishing their appreciative families.

That’s a good goal to aspire to, don’t you think?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. e.m.smith permalink
    March 31, 2009 3:33 AM

    You did great!

    That is exactly how it’s done ‘old school’. No cookbooks, no 1 cup of potato… it’s the whole spud (as less would be waste).

    The classic ‘stretch’ is turning meat into stew, then stew into soup… Or adding a 2nd or 3rd vegetable (kind of like what you did).

    My folks were from the depression generation. They too had the ability to turn old potato peels and a can of spam into a meal for 12 somehow. I learned a little of it. It becomes very satisfying. Some of the most classic dishes come from this heritage. Take “French Onion Soup”: Made from a crust of bread, an onion, a rind of cheese, and a bit of soup stock. Classic.

    FWIW, canning is easy. Get the “Ball Blue Book of Canning” or even just read the canning chapter of “The Joy of Cooking”. It’s mostly about putting cut stuff into jars and heating it long enough and hot enough. The only thing I could add is this:

    I had some failures to seal and some jar breakage. Turned out to be that I was trying to be too scientific about it and get it done exactly as specified (so if it said hold 15 psi for 40 minutes I wanted it done AT 40 minutes). This lead me to using just a little water in the pot so it would heat / cool faster. Mistake. Fill the pot with enough water that it is almost to the jar threads (at the ‘shoulder’). While it takes longer to cool down, that is a feature.

    The jar pressure inside doesn’t end up higher than the pressure outside (which causes boiling and spatter making seals fail). Also the jar breakage was because I was tightening the lids too tight (trying for a perfect seal). Just barely touching / slight snug lets the air out better and seals fine. A bit too tight and the air can’t always escape and breaks the jar. Turn till the top seal just starts to touch then about 1/16 more and never tight!

    Start with jams and fruits (that can done in a big pot of boiling water with a trivet or piece of window screen on the bottom to prevent steam bubbles under the bottles rattling them) and work your way up to pressure canning. After a while it’s natural. Now when I see, oh, pears on sale dirt cheap mid season, I buy a big bag and can them.

    It is a real pleasure to open a cupboard and see all the jars of your stuff that you canned, instead of a bunch of commercial labels of mystery contents…

    Oh, and if you get ‘freezer jars’ they make a lot of leftovers easy. Put stuff in the jar and set it in the freezer. Done. Start with pints. If you find that with only 2 of you, you want some cups, get the cup sized freezer / jam jars.

    If you want some large sizes for bulk fruits, get quarts. I use a lot of quarts for dry goods canisters. Open the cupboard full of quarts of rice, beans, noodles, sugar, salt, flour. It just feels right. (Though I use 1/2 gallon for the sugar and flour… baking can clean out a quart jar too fast!)

    If you end up doing a lot of canning, the small mouth lids cost less, so small mouth pints and quarts are good for large production.

    A final point: An easy way to get started is to buy Classico pasta sauce. It comes in Atlas / Mason jars that are fine for canning (as do some others). Just hot soak / wash the label off when done with the sauce. Whole Foods also has jam in Atlas / Mason jar pints. Free jars! I’ve done hundreds of cycles of these with never a break. They make great canisters too. Just the kind of thing folks did 80 years ago in ‘getting by’ with nothing…

    So you can try a couple and see what you think at almost no cost. You can even do a test run canning water with the old jam or sauce lid at zero cost. When you are ready to do a real batch, buy a box of lids / bands at the grocery store for a couple of bucks, clean an old jam jar or two, and put up some of your own fruit. Easy as that.

  2. Linda Lyngdorf permalink
    January 1, 2010 6:03 PM

    I am from Denmark and Sigurd was my grandmothers brother. Funny to read your story. Sigurd was born here in 1893 sept. 3rd. You are welcome to write me.

    • vintagejenta permalink*
      January 2, 2010 6:40 PM

      Hei paa deg, Linda! It is always fun to find relatives across the pond. Would you give me your e-mail address? I know my mom and grandma would be interested to know more about our family connection!

  3. Linda Lyngdorf permalink
    February 7, 2010 9:36 AM

    Hi, Cannot reach you in another way..

    Hello again – City Girl?
    You wrote swedish, very good.
    My e-mail –
    What is your name and where do you live overthere? Do you also have a lot of snow?
    I would like to hear from uyour mother or grandma very much.
    From Linda

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