Grit Blogs > Letters From Alabama

Farm Life As It Used To Be

The Historic FoodieMost of us, “of a certain age” had grandparents or parents who were farm people and who believed in the “waste not, want not” approach to daily life. They taught us self-discipline and respect for others. We may have strayed from the farm in search of work or romance, but as baby-boomers approach retirement and perhaps, as in my case, find new romance, many of us are heading back to the farm, back to the good life we remember. 

By planting seeds we witnessed the miracle of life, by raising farm animals we grew to respect the farm-to-table approach to food that is thankfully beginning a resurgence in popularity today, and we were proud of our ability to provide for ourselves and our families.

My grandparents planted vegetables, raised chickens for eggs and meat, fattened pigs for butchering, and were adept at making something out of nothing. My grandfather devoutly believed in planting by the signs and witching for water. Call that hogwash if you must, but during the Depression, he fed a family of six on what he made from digging wells by hand and was never cursed with a dry hole.

That piney rock-laden ground sustained and nurtured us and kept us firmly rooted in reality, the same as it had for generations before us. From it, we took poke “sallet” and other edibles, and medicinal herbs such as ginseng, goldenseal, etc. The land provided for our needs and we knew how to use her bounty.

Muscadines grew wild just begging to be made into jelly to slather on a hot buttered biscuit. Knotty apples were dried for fried pies, more wormhole and core than real apple, but treasured just the same because come winter those delicately browned pies fit perfectly into our small hands. Christmas trees were cut from the back lot and the only question in choosing one was, “pine or cedar?” Bushels of peas were shelled by hand, some put away for winter, and the rest seasoned with a generous portion of fat back and eaten with sliced tomatoes, hot buttered cornbread, and fried or mashed potatoes. A watermelon, still warm from the garden, was a treat to be savored while expertly spitting the seeds just a tad farther into the yard than the cousins. We neither expected nor received hand-outs and prided ourselves on making do with what God gave us.

I am the last generation of our family to have hoed and picked cotton by hand. I know what it is to drag a ticking bag along and pick into it, feeling it grow heavier and heavier across my shoulder as the end of the row slowly draws nearer. I know how sharp the burs are as one quickly plucks the snowy cotton from them. I know what blisters on my hands felt like from hoeing weeds out of that cotton all day. In short, I know the value of a real day’s work and the satisfaction of providing for myself and my family. My grandfather saw to that.

I remember the sheer joy of sitting on the front porch after a day’s work in the cotton field with my cousins, eating fried chicken and cornbread while my grandfather played hymns on his harmonica. The setting included fireflies as they began to flutter about in the darkness delighting us with their simple show of twinkling lights.

If we were lucky, there was peach or blackberry cobbler before spreading Grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts on the porch in the cool night air. Without air conditioning, the porch was preferable to the stifling air inside.

I treasure those memories as my grandparents and some of the aunts and uncles have gone to their reward, never again to share in our joys or our sorrows while on this Earth. Even some of the cousins have passed on, and, as I recall their smiling faces from my youth, I’m saddened to think of the glory days we missed together as we grew into adulthood and each got caught up in the business of living, of raising families of our own.

The old homeplace is long gone, no longer a tangible reminder of those long ago evenings when crickets chirped in unison and plaintive melodies floated through the night air from a harmonica lovingly cradled in the callused working hands of my grandfather. The ones of us remaining are scattered across several states and rarely see each other, but I bet if you asked, we all have the same memories of that old cotton patch, the rocky ground from which our grandfather took nutritious vegetables, pallets on the front porch, and watermelon juice dripping from our elbows as we giggled away a Sunday afternoon.

Picking Cotton
Picking cotton
courtesy Library of Congress/Lewis W. Hine, 1916