My grandmother, Betty Springfield, didn’t teach me how to can (my mom did). And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, I preferred Vlassic pickles to her home-canned ones. (What can I say? Six-year olds think whatever they are familiar with is the One Right Way for things to taste.)
What Grandma did teach me, though, was that food mattered, and that growing your own food was a form of security and self-sufficiency. Grandma grew up poor. Dirt poor, you might say, on a hardscrabble farm in the hills of Tennessee. I saw a picture once of a building I thought was maybe a corn crib – a small log cabin, essentially, smaller than my living room. That was the house she’d spent the first eight or ten years of her life in, with her mother and two siblings. Father, too, until he up and left one morning and never came back. Her mother was often confined to bed, so Grandma started raising her younger siblings when she was about eight. Eventually, they moved in with their grandparents, which was better – but still very tough. Cash was always tight – but they always ate. Cornmeal and sorghum – processed when the traveling mills came to down – and garden vegetables. Hamburgers. (“Only my grandparents would let me eat a hamburger like a sandwich. My mother made us use a knife and fork.”) And, memorably, raw potatoes – snuck from the bin in the barn for a mid-afternoon snack when a growing girl, tired from schoolwork and farm chores, needed a bite of something – anything – to tide her over to dinner.
Fast forward forty years or so, to me sitting at Grandma’s big kitchen table, eating a carrot, while Grandma cooked dinner. Grandpa always grew a huge garden, and Grandma put up all that produce. I think she froze more than she canned, but grow-your-own was standard. And I always got the first carrot of the year out of the garden, to eat with the greens still attached, like Bugs Bunny. (At this late date, I realize I had no idea when carrots were in season, and no way of knowing how long the carrot row had been before I got my “first” carrot of the year!) I’d eat my carrot, and watch grandma peel the vegetables into a container destined for “the mulch pile,” which Grandpa would turn and eventually spread on the garden to help it grow. No chemicals in this garden, thank you very much!
As Grandpa’s knees got worse, the garden shrank. Grandma started buying produce at the grocery store, complaining bitterly that zucchini cost $X and came wrapped in plastic, two to a Styrofoam tray. In her later years, she rejoiced that their food stamps were redeemable at the farmer’s market, and she could now get produce that was back up to her standards. Oh, and about those food stamps – did I mention that Grandpa started a very profitable business (look for a Delfield fridge next time you’re in a commercial kitchen or salad bar) and sold it for a very tidy sum before retiring, but due to health care and inflation, they absolutely required those food stamps for the last decade or two of their lives? So from poverty to prosperity and back, in one lifetime. But they always lived like kings, in my eyes – Grandma’s long-practiced skills in the kitchen meant they ate well no matter what.
So this is a long way of saying, an intimate knowledge of food provenance and cooking was my “normal” growing up. I read Laura Ingalls, and I looked at my grandma, and the only difference I saw was that Grandma could drive a car. As I got older and understood more about Grandma’s difficult life, I realized that food was her security net: as long as there was a nutritious meal on the table, you could get through anything.
It’s that desire to keep people fed that led to me founding Preserving Traditions in 2008. I want to see Grandma’s level of food skills – preservation, cooking, and even production – to become normal again. I want people to understand the fragility of our current food distribution system, and to have solid skills to fall back on should that become necessary. And I think it will be necessary, very soon – if only because any of us could lose our jobs at any time, and gas prices could jump enough to double the price of many foodstuffs, and suddenly you realize your cheap, processed dinner is unaffordable, at best, and perhaps even entirely unavailable.
I also want people to see that though that kind of self-reliance may be scary, and is definitely a lot of work, it’s also entirely achievable and incredibly satisfying. When you first prepare a meal that you thought “only a trained chef could cook” or to create a jam or pickle or cheese that you thought “is so complicated, it’s only reasonable to buy from a professional” – well, your heart swells with pride, and you start to realize, “I’m not helpless. This is no longer a mystery.” And I see that as Grandma’s greatest legacy: the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, some part of your fate is in your own hands – and the food on your table is a tangible, vital, wonderful place to start.
Grandma died Sunday, October 9th. I was able to get to Boston and hold her hand before she died, but because of the stroke, I’m not sure she knew I was there. In previous years, I’d tried to explain to her how she inspired me to step up my own food skills, and to teach others, but I’m not sure she understood, even then. You see, Grandma always thought she’d been a nobody – just a poor girl from the hills, not one of the “important” people, like a doctor or lawyer. She thought she was a doormat, never really understanding that she inspired me (and many others) as a paragon of self-sufficiency, of doing the best you could with what you had. And her best was very, very good.
Thank you, Grandma, for everything. You meant more to me – and to hundreds of other people – than you ever realized.