Tales from the old country
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?