• Evelyn Burns

Missouri Farm Food 1930s-1950s


“It's pretty hard to starve a farmer” was a saying that surfaced occasionally when finances seemed lean.


Most of what we ate, we grew. My mother took a lot of pride in her garden. Dad would hitch one or two horses to a single bottom plow and till the garden each spring. This was followed by harrowing to prepare the soil. Most of the planting was done by my mother and whoever was available to help. Once the soil was prepared I don't remember my father doing much in the garden.


First to go in was peas, lettuce, radishes, and green onions. These were the first to the table. Carrots, green beans, sweet corn and potatoes followed. When the danger of frost was past, tomatoes and green pepper plants were set. There was always a strawberry patch. They were best eaten fresh with sugar, but made really good preserves.


Spring was planting time. July and August was canning time. Sometimes a fall garden provided more fresh greens. Shelves of canned food from the garden and fruit trees lined one wall of the basement.


The garden also held a grape arbor. When grapes ripened in the fall, we often stood by it after school or at odd moments to eat the grapes right off the vine, popping them in the mouth and spitting out the skins.


At the height of summer wild blackberries and gooseberries would ripen along ditches and land not tilled nearby. Mother would don overalls over her dress and long sleeves to deal with briers, topped off by a bonnet as sun protection. Gallon buckets and pots with bales would be gathered. If berrying was on an adjoining farm's fairly undeveloped area, a team of horses and wagon were used for our transportation. This usually meant blackberry pies showed up on our table and some would be canned or made into jam.


An old apple orchard was located just west of the farm yard. Aged trees had rather low branching limbs that were perfect for young climbers. We were always warned that green apples would cause a tummy ache if we ate them which we usually tested. Gradually the trees aged and died. They were not replaced so the apple orchard eventually disappeared.


Mother planted a good size peach orchard near the chicken house. She canned numerous quarts of peaches which we ate all winter. For the county fair she entered and won blue ribbons for her canned peaches. My task, with smaller hands, was to arrange the peach halves face down to make a uniform and attractive jar of fruit.


For a time a couple of rows of sorghum cane would be planted along an edge of a corn field. This would be cut in the fall and hauled to a neighbor's sorghum mill where its juices would be extracted and boiled down to the desired consistency. Our family could put away a gallon or two of sorghum molasses a year. It was especially good on hot biscuits. Mixing molasses and home churned butter made a mixture called lick dob. It was always a little tricky to get the molasses and biscuits to come out even—no leftover molasses, no leftover biscuits. In my mother's family, the story goes that if you had leftover lick dob, it was placed in the cupboard for you to finish at the next meal. Waste was to be avoided.


When the garden was in full bloom platters of corn-on-the-cob, bowls of sliced tomatoes, and green beans hit the table. A favorite combination was sliced tomatoes topped with clabber cheese, our name for cottage cheese.


One canning failure that seemed to recur was my mother's canned corn. Whether for lack of a good seal or other causes, they seemed to spoil frequently. Its odor was rank enough to earn a quick exit from basement food shelves. Freezing corn was a most welcome solution.


All meat was homegrown. Each year when it had turned cold, a fat pig and a yearling calf were butchered. The calf was usually the milk cow's calf as it was not purebred and thus less valuable on the market. For a while we feasted on liver and fresh meat. Brains in scrambled eggs were not my favorite meal especially if they were identified. Slabs of meat were placed on newspapers on the enclosed back porch until they could be processed. Cold weather was our refrigerant. Big iron kettles over a fire rendered the lard. The remainder was cracklings, not yet a popular snack. Hams were salt cured and sausage fried up in patties and packed in a 5 gallon crock covered with lard and stored in the unheated basement. Beef was cooked up and canned. Tender chunks of canned beef in its own gravy with cooked potatoes was a long way toward a quick meal on wash day. Later frozen food lockers could be rented in town and the meat delivered to be cut up, wrapped, and labeled. This was before home freezers. In those days grilling steaks had not been introduced. They were dredged in flour and fried in a cast iron skillet.


There was a bit of us vs. them in reference to farm folk and town residents. One story that was considered hugely amusing was about rocky mountain oysters. Every year young pigs were castrated and their testes were referred to as rocky mountain oysters. They were served, breaded, fried, and referred

to as such to unsuspecting visitors. Their reaction was eagerly awaited when their true origin was revealed---always after they had been ingested.


Mother was a good farm cook who turned out multiple loaves of bread weekly. This included a pan or two of cinnamon rolls that never lasted long enough to make it to the table.


A special treat in the summer was ice cream from a hand cranked freezer. A block of ice was purchased, pounded into pieces and packed around a container of homemade ice cream mixture. One part salt to 9 parts ice created colder temperatures. When the handle became difficult to turn, that meant the ice cream was beginning to freeze. If you wanted really firm ice cream, someone would be recruited to sit on top of the freezer to hold it steady while cranking. A school fundraiser for band uniforms was ice cream socials on Saturday nights on a lawn amidst downtown stores. Each band family would bring a freezer of homemade ice cream to be frozen or a cake to be served.


Before refrigeration was mechanized an ice box was used to keep milk and other foods cool. A 25 pound block of ice was purchased in town, wrapped in a burlap bag, brought home and placed in an insulated oak box until it melted. Another method for keeping milk cool and free from spoilage was placing it in a baled stainless steel 3-5 gallon bucket and hanging it by a rope into a well until it touched the water. Before each meal it would be retrieved from the well, then returned at the end. An old saying was thunder hastened the milk turning sour. Whole milk from the cow was separated into cream and skim milk. The cream was churned into butter, often a task given to the child old enough to do so.


The farm had several productive hickory nut trees. Nuts were gathered in the fall, cracked on the shop vise and shelled for apple salad, fudge, and divinity. There was never enough. Usually a very successful cook, my mother's fudge often had to be spooned or was hard and grainy. In cooking fudge to measure its readiness to be poured into a cooling pan, a spoonful of fudge was dropped into a glass of cold water. If it formed a soft ball that held together, it was ready. If it dispersed in the water, it needed to be cooked a bit longer.


Besides the vegetable garden, mother liked to plant a row of gladiola flowers. These she arranged in a vase and took to church on Sundays. They made a showy bouquet. At the end of each season she dug up the bulbs to plant another year. To her dismay the second year plantings often reverted to a salmon color.


Cool drinking water was always available from a cistern outside the back door. A battered dipper hung on its side which everyone drank from, including visitors.


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