This is a blog post that I started months ago but never got around to finishing. As you will see, I was going through a mental rough patch. It’s the reason I stopped blogging, because for a while I felt like I didn’t have anything positive to say. And then life got in the way and I got busy (more on why I’m so busy soon) and I just didn’t think about blogging. Hopefully I’m back in the habit.
I haven’t blogged in quite a while. Things have been… kind of crazy and weird lately and I’ve not been able to get my thoughts in order to put anything down. Hopefully I’ll make some sense of a couple of things so I can talk about them but for right now I just want to be a little nostalgic.
Over on one of the forums I read, someone started a thread asking people to post pictures of themselves from their childhoods. It’s a great thread and people are having a lot of fun remembering and sharing. A lot of us realize that our desire to be self-sufficient and close to our food and the land can be traced to our childhood interactions with older people, usually grandparents and great-grandparents, who still embraced older ways of doing things.
This was certainly my experience and I wanted to share it. Mostly, I wanted to commit some of those memories to print so that if I ever start to forget why I’m doing some of these things I have something I can look to. So, this is basically a chronicle of my life on the land.
I was born on a farm in western Tennessee. Well, not ON the farm, but you know what I mean. The farm was owned by my great-grandparents and is where my father’s father had grown up. My parents had grown up in eastern Tennessee, where most of their family lived, but moved to west Tennessee when they got married (at 19) so my dad could run the place. This meant that the only family members I really spent time with when I was growing up were my great-grandparents and my farmer parents.
My great-grandparents, Ladd and Allie May, had been subsistence share-croppers their whole lives. They struggled a lot but they always managed to make do. When my grandfather made it big as a lawyer, his first order of business was to buy the land his parents had been renting (and as much surrounding land as he could) and set them up for an easier life. But, for them, an easier life didn’t mean grocery stores and modern conveniences (although my grandmother became obsessed with collecting china dolls), it just meant that they didn’t have to worry whether there would be enough or they would lose the farm- there was always enough now.
Growing up, I spent a part of most days with them. Mornings found me, and later my little sister, dodging angry hens while Grandmother collected eggs. She was a serious woman, but not stern, and the most excitable and funny we ever saw her was when she would find a hole in the chicken fence and evidence of a fox intruder. She would scream into the woods and threaten “that damn, infernal fox” with all kinds of horrible deaths if he didn’t leave her chickens alone. After putting the fear of God and an angry Southern woman into all foxes in the neighborhood, we would head into the house to start baking. This is my most indelible memory of Grandmother: the taste of flour in the air, the smell of biscuits rising in the oven, and the whirring arm of an 80-something little granny whipping egg whites and sugar at the speed of light to make the very best meringue I’ve ever eaten. She made those biscuits fresh every day. She made a pie from scratch most days of the week. She bought raw milk from a guy up the street and churned her own butter. She spent hours and hours “putting by” (canning and preserving). And she always took the time to show me how to do what she was doing.
Granddaddy worked a 2 acre garden, growing almost everything we ate, including lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, zucchini, peppers, strawberries, grapes, watermelons, cantaloupe, and MUCH more. The back yard was full of tart apple trees, peach trees, pear trees, and fence rows full of wild blackberries. Even when money wasn’t a concern and he was getting on in age, he still gardened his whole plot. It was just in his genes. But his real passion was fishing. He’d take off on his four-wheeler (we’re talking a man in his 80s) with his poles and fish basket and disappear into the trees to his favorite fishing spot. He’d always be home just in time for Grandmother to pop those fish in the skillet and for all of us to sit down to dinner.
My dad was in charge of all the big things going on around the farm. We raised beef cattle and pigs and grew corn and wheat. I was a serious daddy’s girl. During harvests, he spent so much time on the combine that I started going with him so we could spend time together. He kept a pillow and blanket in the little spot behind his seat and I would curl up back there and go to sleep. Dad was always bringing animals home for me to see. He brought home every dead poisonous snake he found so that I would know how to identify them. He even brought home fawns that he found in the fields.
The most exciting part of the year for me was hog killing time. I know that sounds like a gruesome thing for a little kid to love, but believe me, it was fantastic. It’s a community event with family and friends participating and, later, enjoy the fresh pork. When you kill a hog, it’s all hands on deck. There is a lot to do and time is of the essence. My dad and some of the other men would dispatch the hogs, which can be quite dangerous, and the rest of us would be at our battle stations. First, you have to gut it, but you can’t just go in there and start yanking things about. You want the entire contents of the body cavity to come out mostly intact. This keeps nasty things in the intestines, etc, from tainting the meat. Plus, there are lots of useful organs you don’t want to damage, such as the heart and livers and kidneys, which are yummy, and the intestines which are extremely handy later. Once gutted, the hog is parted up. Most of the cuts are then frozen for cooking throughout the year, but bacon and hams are immediately started in a brine (very salty water) or dry-packed in salt.
The part that I loved was making sausage. Basically, you take all the little bits that don’t really add up to anything (the trimmings from steaks and bits from the shoulders and flanks) and run them through a grinder. We had a hand-cranked grinder, so it was safe for me to operate. This, for a 5-year-old, is possibly the coolest thing in the entire world. Once the meat is ground, you throw it in a big bowl or tub and mix in your flavorings: salt and pepper, herbs and spices, peppers, onions, or whatever sounds good. You mix this up really good and cool for a while. By this time, someone has cleaned and scraped the intestines- a delicate job definitely not suited to young hands. The minced meat mix is then stuffed into the intestines, twisting at even intervals, to create links. These usually go into the smoker. And end up delicious.
Mostly, I spent my childhood outside, growing things and playing with animals. I spent a lot of time around cowboys and bullfighters (commonly referred to as rodeo clowns) because my dad rode the rodeo circuit. I went to fairs and attended the World’s Biggest Fish Fry every year. I had an idyllic childhood. It was wonderful.