How Making Food Together Can Help Mend Fences
Part 2 of two posts on Dr. Peggy Ann Shifflett’s book, Mom’s Family Pie. Part 1 here.
Eating locally and in season is nothing new. Barbara Kingsolver, the novelist and author of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, did not invent it; she and many others like her may have rediscovered and made it popular but folks have been eating what was available seasonally from the beginning of time–UNTIL the discovery of electricity and invention of refrigerators, freezers, and plastics for packaging.
Sociology professor and folklorist Peggy Ann Shifflett reminds us of this truth in her book on the food traditions of families in her part of Appalachia, and recalls the era when her family moved from keep foods cool in the “spring house” and with ice, to real refrigerators.
She points out further that “The bounty of each season brought the family and community together to forage for the ingredients and to help prepare the recipes. Seasonal food connected family and community members to each other because at least three generations were usually helping with or watching the work being done.”
She talks about apple butter boiling, butchering, and making sauerkraut as some of the labor intensive activities where a couple generations gather, bring out specialized equipment used only once a year, and pitch in.
This past Labor Day, I thought of how we and my brother-in-law’s family used to load up our kids and all the five-gallon buckets, bushel baskets, milk crates and tubs we owned and drove to their homeplace for potato digging. Someone would run the tractor down the rows with a potato plow, and out would flow Yukon gold. Truly, the kids loved diving on those potatoes as they rolled out as much as they loved hunting Easter eggs. When they were really young, we would pump their enthusiasm by oohing and ahhing loudly at the great fountain of potatoes spinning out. But by the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and cranky from finding and lugging the equivalent of 30 bushels (thousands of potatoes, conservative estimate) out of the garden and into grandpa’s garage and our trucks to haul home.
Funny, but I don’t think I have one photo of digging potatoes at my father-in-law’s. That evening I’d cook fresh French fried potatoes and grill hot dogs and we’d chill out around food. Digging potatoes together will be our kid’s main memory of working together as a family to harvest food we would use all winter. The potatoes did usually last all winter, until a new crop was ready for early digging the following summer. I am personally happy that the other family tradition of butchering each year around Thanksgiving fell by the wayside (for reasons I wrote briefly about here) a few years after I joined the family.
In Mom’s Family Pie, families did much more massive food harvest/preparation together. Their social life revolved around family getting together, at least weekly for Sunday dinner. But the term “family pie” was a new one for me, and I loved Shifflett’s description of “family pie” as something that brought her family together and oiled spots where friction was causing hurt and pain. Food provided a place and time for healing and bonding. I wondered how that worked.
Knowing some background on Shifflett’s family from her other book, The Red Flannel Rag, where she speaks of family fights—verbal and some throwing of objects or fists especially when their homemade whiskey was involved—I knew that sometimes her kinfolk didn’t talk for weeks at a time. So “often just the smell of family pie drifting around the house and out the windows and doors might be enough to tempt them all to the table again. Differences were resolved while the meal was consumed.” (p. 20).
A family pie is not round and fancy with curly edges and markings like most of us are accustomed to on a standard pie. Instead, it was thrown together in an oblong pan, a quick crust layer in the bottom, some apples or canned cherries added from the pantry, and then a top crust just kind of lopped over the edges and was quickly pinched together. Hilda, Shifflett’s sister-in-law from an early age, would start making a meal by putting this pie together and letting it bake while she made the rest of the meal. Hilda said the smell of freshly baked family pie coming out her door on an ordinary busy work day was enough to call her husband in for supper.
On the cover of this book, Mom’s Family Pie, there’s a photo of pie making. By luck Shifflett happened on to it one day when she went to her Aunt Ethel’s house. Aunt Ethel was in the middle of a pie baking session with the help of a great granddaughter, and Shifflett knew it was the perfect cover photo for her book. As a book editor who works on a team of folks to come up with book covers and images (a colleague wrote about that just yesterday, here), I can understand how elated Shifflett was to stumble onto that scene.
I have often thought of how a family or community’s particular food customs—that takes a group to prepare—functions as family/community tradition and glue. Here in the Shenandoah Valley we have countless groups preparing barbecue chicken at a church, community, or civic group pit: getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. to start the charcoal fire and then put the chicken on so that it is ready to sell by 8 or 9 a.m. The Lions club we belong to does BBQ chicken and also hosts a Pancake breakfast, lunch and dinner (coming up locally Oct. 17-18 in Broadway, Va.). There’s also a huge Mennonite Relief Sale in the Shenandoah Valley each year (this year Oct.3-4), also held across the U.S. and Canada, raising money for world wide relief and development programs.
Working together provides a way to get to know others so much better than just attending church, club or civic group meetings. Of course even that is not friction-free as too many cooks “in the broth” have differing opinions on how to determine when a piece of chicken is done, how to make the best BBQ sauce, or the pancake is ready to flip.
This second book, Mom’s Family Pie, provides numerous recipes, some which are interesting only for the food history that most cooks are not going to bother with today: pinto beans with rivels, Creasy greens, peach whirligigs, pig feet and hocks. But if you are looking for a particular old-timey recipe or basic procedure for doing apple butter, fried squirrel and gravy, or venison steak that has been lost to your family or tradition over the years, it might be a place to look. But I liked the narrative–the stories and tales–more than the recipes.
I also enjoyed comparing notes between my husband’s family and Shifflett’s traditions, and feeling very happy that my husband—who loves my cooking—never developed a custom which was a “have to” for her father at least once a day, every day: fried ‘taters, as he called them. When I make fried potatoes it is simply an occasional way of using up left over boiled or baked potatoes, for an easy starch with a meal. But for Shifflett’s mother, it meant a pan of fresh potatoes, peeled and fried in a cast iron skillet on a wood stove—all of which took not a little effort. Peggy’s mother would ask her husband what he wanted for supper on Saturday and Sunday nights and he would invariably say “just cook me some fried ‘taters” and her mother’s weariness couldn’t help raising its head as she went to the basement with a loud curse saying “I fry potatoes every day of the week for you. Couldn’t you at least give me a rest from peeling potatoes on Saturday and Sunday?” (p. 247)
Overall Shifflett’s love for both her parents, and fond memories and admiration especially for the hard, unceasing daily work of the women in her family preparing food shines through with only occasional critique. With young girls taking on adult responsibilities as 8 to 10-year-old girls and definitely by the time they were teenagers, these women (her mother and her aunt famous for cooking) usually said they could not remember how they learned to cook something when first pumped for specific recipes. Shifflett says she finally understood their frequent response (and I can just hear one of my husband’s aunts who would have said this very thing): “I ought to know how to cook. I’ve been doin’ it all my life.”
You and your family may not have grown up in Appalachia, but I think each and every family and community has their particular food and family customs that are worth remembering and preserving. Thankfully, some are relearning the art of cooking without so much pre-packaged and prepared foods.
What is a community food preparation event where you enjoy working with others for a common purpose?
Does your family have certain foods or customs that bring the family together–such as around a bowl of popcorn on Sunday evening?