Always put in a recipe and other tips for living from IOWA'S BEST-KNOWN HOMEMAKER
By Evelyn Birkby
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Evelyn Birkby
All right reserved.
Chapter One My First Column, November 24, 1949
LIFE ON THE FARM has certainly stopped being a seasonal type of activity. I'm beginning to suspect that it has always been an ugly rumor that farmers tucked away the last bushel of corn and then settled down to the life of Riley until the spring planting started. Unless the man is nearing retirement age or has inherited a fine fortune from his father, I know of no farmers in this vicinity who are fortunate enough to take a long breather come winter. Now that our last ear of corn is safely sheltered, the man of the house (and farm lot) is busily occupied in fixing the fences, buildings, and various pieces of equipment that were so woefully neglected during the furiously busy days of the past few months. Wintering livestock is a task in itself ... and even the hour before bedtime is crammed full of study into the various nutritive values of different feeds and feed mixtures.
The most interesting person I met all week was a lovely elderly lady in the yard goods section of a big department store in the city. I was buying some colorful print material, just made for tea aprons, when she remarked that she was also interested in making bazaar items. It seems that every woman's church group in the country is up to its collective ears getting ready for the big annual money-making event which precedes Christmas. We exchanged all sorts of interesting ideas on bazaar booths while the rush of modern business continued to bustle around us. I'm sure she enjoyed as much as I the feeling of friendliness and working together which two strangers feel, all because of a yard of red gingham.
I spent the most enjoyable Sunday evening I've had for a long time last night reading Bess Streeter Aldrich's Collection of stories compiled under the title Journey into Christmas. It is the kind of book every family should read and reread each Christmas. She has really captured the secret of our midwestern Christmas spirit from the early pioneer days, of which Miss Aldrich writes so convincingly, up to the problems and situations which make our own Christmas sometimes involved and usually so wonderful. It is a book aptly named, for I truly took a journey into Christmas along with the folks who walked through the pages of this fine collection.
This week has been a busy one. Our "country club" met with its usual relaxed good humor. I have often felt that its greatest value was to give the farm wives a chance to just sit for two afternoons a month. "Just sitting" is almost a luxury to me anymore. Perhaps chasing after a two-and-one-half-year-old has made more difference in my sitting time than any other piece of activity in a crowded day. But getting back to our country club, we found ourselves far too imbued with the Christmas spirit to be content to do nothing creative toward sharing our own good fortune. So to the thread and the needle we flew and soon had the beginning of a Christmas prepared for a needy family in the neighborhood. Doing something for those near at hand is a good exercise in the Christian spirit. Sometimes it is far easier to send a box to the poor in India than to the family just down the road. It will be interesting to see how our basket of clothing gifts will grow during the coming weeks.
One of the good old country customs I hope will never be abandoned is that of sharing recipes. If I can listen hard enough and long enough, I'm sure the secrets of the fine cooks in our neighborhood will some day make a good cook out of me. Baking mixes are fine for busy days and new brides, but the fun of going into the kitchen and getting my hands (literally) into some new recipe will always transcend the value of the time saved in the "open-the-box-dump-in-the-bowl" method. The following drop cookie recipe is one that has been handed down for several generations in the Raymond family and is by far the best recipe I have found for this type of cookie. This is the way they gave the recipe to me.
Raymond's Chocolate Drop Cookie
1 cup brown sugar &fra12; cup butter (or part shortening) 1 beaten egg 3 tablespoons cocoa 3 tablespoons hot water 2 cups all-purpose flour &fra14; teaspoon baking powder &fra12; cup nutmeats
Cream brown sugar and butter. Add egg. Dissolve cocoa in hot water (this amount may be increased if your family likes lots of chocolate flavor, or 1 to 2 squares of melted chocolate may be used instead). Add cocoa to the above mixture. Measure flour into the sifter (do not sift before measuring). Add baking powder.
Sift together and add to mixture alternately with nutmeats. Chill and drop by teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven.
These are good frosted with any kind of frosting. The Raymonds use the following easy frosting.
&fra12; cup cream or half-and-half 1 heaping tablespoon cocoa &fra12; cup brown sugar, packed
Mix together: cream or half-and-half, cocoa, and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the stove and sift in confectioner's sugar until it is of the right consistency to spread. Flavoring may be added if desired.
My fresh batch of Raymond's Cookies just came out of the oven, so I'll finish frosting them in time for a hungry farmer and a famished little girl to see that the number is rapidly diminished before suppertime.
Chapter Two A Tune from a Music Box
THE TINY MUSIC BOX in the jewelry store was delicately fashioned with inlaid bits of wood intricately placed in a geometric design. Gold braid glittered along the edge and down the side as bright as a bit of sunlight. When the lid was opened the tinkling sound added note upon note until the melody came through clear and bright. I gasped as I recognized the tune: "Listen to the Mockingbird." Suddenly I was no longer mentally in a jewelry store but deep inside a feather bed listening to this same melody on a full-sized music box.
That feather bed and the music box belonged to my maternal grandmother, Mary Dragoo. When I was a child, many of our summer vacations were spent in the small Illinois town of Murdock where Grandma Dragoo made her home. The large guest bedroom in Grandma's house was my favorite place to play. Here stood a great bed with a high carved walnut headboard. On the bed rested a tremendous feather bed, thick and fluffy. I was not allowed to run and jump onto the bed, but I could manage, without fear of a scolding, to give a little hop and push myself into its depths enough to be completely submerged in soft down. Here, far away from the world of ordinary people, I could dream of being a princess in a great castle or a courageous explorer on a desert island.
The music box was my companion on such excursions. It stood on top of a marble-topped table, carefully protected by one of Grandma's hand embroidered doilies. The musical disks were huge rounds of shiny gold-colored metal with tiny holes punched at irregular intervals. After cranking the machine carefully, I would place a disk on the spindle, and clamp the arm down to keep it in place. I'd push a small lever to start it in motion. Around and around the disk went catching tiny prongs of metal in the holes to produce what I thought was the most ethereal music in all creation.
Since "Listen to the Mockingbird" was my favorite, I played it repeatedly. Teenagers of today did not originate the habit of playing special records over and over; this has been done for generations.
Fortunately for me, Grandma Dragoo was an extremely patient person. All one had to do was look into her deep blue eyes to see their kindness and quiet wisdom and, most of all, patience. She was a very tiny woman, not much over five feet tall. Her gray hair was pulled up on top of her head in a bun. Her face was small and wrinkled and reflected the strenuous work of caring for a large family and facing trials and tragedies.
I cannot remember Grandma in anything except a long, full dress. The top was plain with buttons down the front. A tiny white collar framed her neck and white cuffs at the bottom of the long sleeves encircled her wrists. The skirt was gathered in soft folds around her waist and fell almost to the floor.
I can see Grandma in my mind's eye as she bustled about in her kitchen with quick, decisive motions. She was the queen of her domain in spite of her small stature. Her pantry was the place where she put together flaky pie crusts, light biscuits, and delicate cakes. As I think of it now, that pantry was a most inconvenient work area, but it was filled with a variety of interesting pots and pans and the delightful smells of spices and flavorings.
The kitchen was large. A huge black coal range stood at one side of the roomjust next to the pantry door. On the other wall was the sink— low, oblong, and lined with tin. A hand pump provided the water.
Next to the kitchen was the dining room, which held a large rectangular table covered, always, with a white linen cloth. This table had the great virtue of always holding food of some kind. Fresh butter churned in the kitchen and molded in pretty smooth mounds, thick cream skimmed from the top of milk in a crock, crispy fried chicken, thick gravy, and loaf after loaf of fine textured homemade bread were among the delicious array of foods Grandma produced for our enjoyment.
My sister and I always had to help redd up the table following a meal. (Redd is an old-fashioned term that means "to put in order.") The cream, butter, and milk went down into the cool cellar, but I can remember most of the leftovers staying on the table covered by a clean white cloth. This was definitely a timesaver, but I do wonder now how we ever survived leaving fried chicken and other perishable foods uncooled through a long afternoon.
The living room was my least favorite place in the house. I can only remember it as a rather colorless room with a few bright pillows, a flower or two blooming in a pot placed on a white doily, and a stereopticon viewer to give it interest. The wedding picture of Grandma and Grandpa Dragoo hung on the wall and seemed to dominate the room. Grandma had been such a pretty girl when she married. Grandpa, called "General" because of his military bearing and direct manner, looked stern. That picture always made me feel a bit uncomfortable, as though Grandpa, who had died when I was too young to remember him, was really seeing me with those sharp eyes of his and had spotted all the imperfections in my young soul!
The last time I saw Grandma, she was in bed in the small side bedroom which had been hers for the years she lived after Grandpa's death. She looked frail and tiny under the patchwork coverlet, but her eyes were patient and kind as always, and she looked calm and serene. When we said goodbye and started on our trip back to Iowa, we all knew we would not see Grandma alive again. But somehow, I knew that all the really important parts of the life we had shared with her would go with us. So it was that when I heard the tune on the little music box in the jewelry store, I knew my feelings had been correct. Grandma and her home and the joy we shared are still very much a part of my life.
Chapter Three Grandma Dragoo's Attic
WHEN THE FOOD STORAGE area was built behind Grandma Dragoo's house, it became far more than just a hole dug in the ground and rounded over the top with a cool earth roof like many caves of that day. It was more like a basement with square brick sides and a flat ceiling, which in turn became the floor for a large storage room overhead. Goodness knows the upstairs would have been big enough to convert into a fine one-room apartment. Only the tiny town of Murdock, Illinois, where my maternal grandparents lived, was blessed with old houses and no one was interested in apartments of any kind. Constructing such a fruit cellar and storage attic in a separate building today would be an expensive process, but Grandma luxuriated in her fine storage space and the grandchildren shared her joy.
Part of the fun I had as a child when we visited Grandma was playing in that attic. The very fact that it was separated from the house made it private and mysterious. From the boxes of old clothes, I resurrected the styles of glorious days long gone. What fine ladies my sister and I and our friends became with the long full-skirted dresses, the ruffled blouses, and the sweeping plume-trimmed hats. With such regalia we became Presidents' wives, actresses, world travelers, and rich mamas who were forever leaving the children with nursemaids and going off to fancy social affairs.
Our "children" were increased, and greatly enhanced, by the addition of some of Grandma's old-fashioned dolls. The hand-sewn rag dolls were as precious as the china-headed ones of which we had to be extra careful. Our own familiar children were somewhat neglected in the care of these old "newcomers."
Discarded furniture abounded in the attic and provided the set ting for any and all of our imaginative hours. When we were small we just played house, or hospital, or church. As we grew older, our imagery broadened, the room became the setting for original plays, and the furniture adapted perfectly to any situation we demanded from it. It was hard to understand why Grandma had put such precious items in the storage room. Of course, the table had a crooked leg, but it made a perfect pulpit. The couch was lumpy and sagged in the middle, but we could not be annoyed by such trifles. The value of such treasures increased with use.
Perhaps the most fun in Grandma's attic came from the big boxes of books, magazines, and discarded papers. We found hour upon hour of fun in just one box of old catalogues. Cutting out the pictures of dresses of long ago, along with the furniture and accessories to make paper doll families, could fill days with happy activity.
The magazines were fun to look through, as were the books, but here we usually stopped the quiet pursuit of sedentary pleasure and proceeded to lug them to the shelves of the wobbly bookcase to create a bookstore. Our only limit in items for the shop was the bottom of the book boxes. It never dawned on us that putting back the books would not be nearly as much fun as taking them out. That time was a long way off, like the day before we needed to get ready to return to our own home.
Old-fashioned as they may be now, just as it was when I was young, a well-stocked attic can be a joyous place for happy hours of childhood play.
Chapter Four AuntLena and Uncle Lute
A PART OF MY CHILDHOOD slipped away last week. It was a portion that was all tied up with apple orchards and bee hives, Persian cats and a weather-beaten barn, erector sets and fried chicken, and a tiny white country church and bicycle rides down a country road.
The setting for these childhood memories was the tiny town of Murdock in east central Illinois, population less than one hundred. My mother. Mae Dragoo, was raised on a farm near this community. Later, my Grandpa and Grandma Dragoo moved into town, and we visited there almost every summer of my childhood.
The most exciting part of those summer trips was going out to Uncle Lute and Aunt Lena (Dragoo) Clay's farm home just two miles south of Murdock. (Aunt Lena was my mother's youngest sister.) The youngest of the Clays' three children was a son, Lloyd Wayne, just one year older than I. Many were the hours the two of us spent climbing in the fruit orchard and in the barn, riding on the patient horses, watching entranced as Uncle Lute removed honey from the bee hives, and arguing wildly over Lloyd's precious erector set. He didn't like to have anyone else play with the intricate pieces, so naturally, I wanted to.
My memory is sharp when I see again in my mind the meals Aunt Lena prepared. On her glowing black coal range she cooked chicken and noodles, thick gravies, home-cured hams, tasty pies, and light burnt sugar cake (one of her specialties). Thick yellow cream, pats of hand-churned butter, golden biscuits, and Uncle Lute's delicious honey were laid out on the table. The Lord may provide, but Aunt Lena and Uncle Lute added a magic touch of love to every bite of food they put on the table. They shared generously with all who came through their door: relatives, neighbors, and friends.
When our boys were old enough to appreciate the farm, we took them back to see the people and places that meant so much to my childhood. I thought the high point of our stay would be sitting at the table and sharing the Clays' hospitality and wonderful food as I had done so many times, but another experience proved equally rewarding.
It happened the last evening of our visit. "Play your violin for us, please," I urged Uncle Lute. Finally he brought out his beautiful instrument that shone with use and his gentle care. Aunt Lena accompanied him on the piano as he played, and we listened to the well-loved hymns and familiar songs. Some we sang together. Even though the kerosene lamps had been replaced by electric ones, and even though a television set had taken the place of the old phonograph, the night was touched with the magic of memories of my own childhood when we sang the same songs in the same room.
Excerpted from Always put in a recipe and other tips for living from IOWA'S BEST-KNOWN HOMEMAKER by Evelyn Birkby Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Birkby. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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