Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rural America - A Simpler Time

As a kid growing up on a farm, fireflies, bright stars at night and homegrown vegetables and fruit were just a given. For many generations, farming figured large in our family.

My dad grew up on an Ohio dairy farm. As a small boy, he perched on a stool in a darkened barn, keeping my grandfather company each morning as he milked the cows.

My Aunt Nettie, 87, still mows the paths between fruit trees in orchards that have supplied fruit for Gerber's apple sauce for half a century.

After dad went into business for himself at age 50, he found and bought a farm for the three of us when I was 10. The first thing he did was clear a space between the house and barn for a big garden, one that proved productive with its well-drained sandy soil.

At harvest time (Ohio growing seasons are, of course, much shorter than those here in California), mom and I would pick and put up the produce.

She made jams, jellies, tomato sauce and juice, dried corn and frozen vegetables from scratch. Many a late summer/early fall day would find mom, my Aunt Mabel, gramma and me sitting around the gatelegged kitchen table – shelling peas, peeling peaches, snapping beans – and just "visiting."

The sugar content in just-picked corn means a taste treat it's impossible to duplicate. As little as two hours between picking and putting it on the table can make a difference. Homegrown tomatoes have a sweetness and texture all their own as well.

Other crops, like potatoes, aren't quite as touchy, but one of the season's treasures are the tiny new potatoes hidden amongst the big ones. Harvesting potatoes, a root crop maturing under the plant in a mound of dirt, is fun. A potato fork is placed carefully just at the edge of the mound so as not to spear any as they're uprooted. Mom used to braise the marble-to-golf-ball sized baby potatoes in butter, sprinkle them with parsley and dole them out democratically at dinner. They were coveted by all.

I still have the last lidded glass Ball jar of dried corn mom put up in 1988 (she died in 1989). I keep it as a memento of my childhood. Drying corn dates back to the days before refrigeration. With sharp paring knives, Gramma, mom and I would slice the kernels off the slightly cooked ears of cooling corn, careful to scrape the ears so as not to waste any of the sweet core of the kernels or milky liquid.

On the stove, placed across the burners, were mom's ancient tin corn driers. Water boiled in the hollow space in the bottom of the driers. The kernels were spread across their wide flat tops. Long after gramma had gone home and I'd gone to bed, mom was up throughout the night, checking on the dehydrating corn, turning it every two hours or so to make sure it didn't scorch.

The result was a carmelized corn that, when rehydrated with milk, salt and butter, has a unique, nutty taste – one prized by three generations of Bogarts. I expect my gramma learned how to dry corn from her mother, who may have learned it from my great-great-gramma Fell – who may have learned it as a girl in Scotland.

These idyllic memories are a reminder that not so long ago, food wasn't bought in stores. We sowed and reaped and lived off the land.

Carol Bogart is a freelance writer/editor. Read her columns at Contact her at

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