By Alexander W. Delk
This entry will deal with my memories of food supplies in the years before and during the Great Depression.
My memories of the years prior to 1929 are somewhat sketchy, inasmuch as I was born in 1922 and was a small child during those years so long ago.
As stated in some other entries, I was reared in the home of my maternal grandparents. My father had died prior to my birth and my mother had remarried when I was 6. From that point on I was reared by my grandparents, although having close contact with my mother and her big family.
Let me reminisce about our food supply of those days. One must keep in mind that farm people did not rely on the grocery store then. There would be in most small towns a sort of general store that carried a fairly wide variety of items — the staple food items, some hardware, and some farm supplies. The supermarket was yet to come.
First, let us look at the typical meat supply of those years. Farm people relied on what they could raise, along with some wild game, for their meat supply.
Chickens provided a considerable amount of the food supply, both with fresh eggs and meat. Almost all farm families raised their own chickens. The baby chicks were either hatched by the hens or were ordered through the mail. I still remember the thrill of a box coming in the mail containing small baby chicks.
The chicks were either fed by the adults of the household or were taken care of by the mother hen. The hen could be very protective of her brood, which usually consisted of a dozen or so baby chicks. If a rainstorm came up she would hover them under her wings for protection.
The chicks would, of course, grow into either roosters or hens, depending on their sex. Roosters served two purposes — a few for procreation and the rest for family meat supply. The pullets (as young hens were called) were kept to become hens and provide the egg supply. However, when they “quit laying” and were no longer useful for eggs they, too, might become food supply. The same was true of the rooster, who when no longer needed for procreation, would become food supply.
Now, for the process of preparing a chicken (be it a young or an old one) for cooking. The unfortunate chicken would be caught, held down, and decapitated with an axe or hatchet. The body would be held down for the blood to drain out. Then it would be dipped into very hot water. The feathers would be removed (plucking), the entrails removed, and the chicken cut up or cooked whole. Of the entrails, usually the liver, the gizzard, and the heart would often be saved, the rest discarded or fed to the animals.
It was common task for a teenage boy to catch the chicken, which in some cases was not easy. The killing of it and all the rest was often done by an adult, though I killed and dressed many chickens as a teen.
Another source of meat was wild game. Squirrels were the most popular. Occasionally rabbits would also be taken and provide good meat.
Fish were frequently used if there was a pond or larger stream nearby. Deer were uncommon in those days, though they are quite prolific in modern times in most rural areas. Possums (actually “opossums”) were also eaten, though I never remember eating them.
Most farm people raised both cattle and hogs. Some killed their calves as they became older and they provided meat, though without refrigeration it was difficult to keep beef for very long. Hogs were a different story.
Late fall was usually “hog killing time” on the farm. When the weather became cold enough, usually about Thanksgiving, the two or three hogs raised for that purpose were killed.
Several men would gather. The hog would be slaughtered and the meat prepared outside the house. The meat would be brought inside for further preparation — cutting it up into hams, shoulders, sides, and other parts. There was a device called a “meat grinder” that ground the smaller parts into sausage, which would usually be stuffed into long cloth tubes made for that purpose.
The main meat would be placed in a building called the “smoke house” some distance from the house itself. It would there be smoked over an open fire for a few days or so.
Eventually it would be stored in a salt bin or box, the salt being the preservative that would keep it from spoiling. The briny taste was common when it was taken inside and cooked.
Smoked hams still are considered a great delicacy and sell for high prices. The bacon would be used for breakfast food, though often the briny taste made it not as good.
Sheep and goats also provided some of the meat supply. Young sheep, known as lambs, were sometimes killed and cooked. Young goats, called kids, were also sometimes eaten.
Farm people often canned their meat, either pork or beef. When canned and sealed, it would last indefinitely and could be used as needed later on.
Most farm people raised their own vegetables, usually in a vegetable garden such as is common today.
While I do remember sweet corn being common then, it was common for regular field corn to be eaten. It was cut off the cob when in the tender stage and fried. The term for it was “roas-nears,” a country contraction of “roasting ears.” We looked forward to the time when the “roas-ners” were ready every summer.
Green beans were usually raised and home canned. I well remember how my grandmother would can her beans each summer. Not in a pressure cooker, for we had no such device, though those were to follow in later years.
Her system of canning was in a large black kettle with an open fire underneath it, boiling them in water for two or three hours.
Other vegetables would be canned — lima beans (we called them “butter beans”), peas, okra, squash, and others.
Almost every farm wife knew how to “can” and usually did a lot of it during the summer months. By fall there would be rows of jars containing vegetables, and maybe meat ready for later use.
Wheat was grown on many small farms. After it was harvested (or threshed), it would be taken to a “mill” and ground into flour, thus providing the flour for biscuits and other breads.
It was quite an occasion when the “threshing machine” would come to a farm and harvest wheat.
Fruits provided another food supply. My grandfather raised cherries for the market as a supply of income, so June was a busy time for picking and marketing them.
Apples were very common in those days, both for winter and for summer cooking. Almost all farmyards had an apple tree, sometimes several of them. The summer apples would be either eaten raw or cooked, making quite a delicacy when fried. The winter apples would be stored in a cool place and kept for later eating.
Peaches were also a summer delicacy and were also frequently canned.
Strawberries and raspberries also provided a source of income and also good eating. We raised long rows of raspberries, mostly black. Wild blackberries were another good source of food.
One problem with the raspberries and wild blackberries was ever present. For almost every berry one picked one would also get a chigger. Chiggers are tiny insects that one gets from berry vines and from other vegetation. They bite the skin and create small bite marks where they burrow into a person.
In those days children picked most of the berries — and were usually bitten “all over” by the chiggers. To do our best to avoid the chiggers, we often would take kerosene and rub our arms and legs with it before going to the berry patch.
Another remedy was to go to the creek for a cold bath after picking berries. That usually did the trick, getting rid of most of the chiggers before they started biting.
Relatively little of our food came from the store.
I do remember my grandmother telling my grandfather to “stop at the store and bring home a nickel loaf of bread.”
Sugar, salt, pepper, coffee, and some other items came from the local country grocery store. The store owner would get the items from the shelves for you — no carts and self-service as we know it today.
The most common staple foods of the time were beans and potatoes. Most people grew their own potatoes, both white potatoes and sweet potatoes. These were cooked in a variety of ways, as is true today.
White beans and pinto beans did come from the store. We ate many kinds, though I still prefer the white ones, called “soup beans.” I have often said facetiously that during the Depression we varied our menu from potatoes and beans one day to beans and potatoes the next day.
Did we go hungry during the Depression days? While some did, particularly in the cities, most farm people did not.
We always had enough to eat, though not the wide variety of food that people enjoy today.
Eating in restaurants was very uncommon for country folks back then. So, we ate at home and were very happy with what we had.
I never remember eating a meal as a child without my grandfather first saying “the blessing,” briefly thanking God for the food.
Washing dishes was done by hand, of course. There was no such thing as a dishwasher, so that’s where the women and girls came in. I cannot remember washing dishes myself while growing up. Many boys of that time did, though I was not one of them.
Soap was either made at home from lard after a hog-killing or was bought at the store. The “octagon” soap bar was used to wash the dishes — a poor substitute for today’s liquid soap.
So much for discussing the food supply of yesteryear. We had little compared to the fancy foods of today, but we were thankful for what we did have.