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How Making Food Together Can Help Mend Fences

September 9, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What is a community food preparation event where you enjoy working with others for a common purpose?

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Does your family have certain foods or customs that bring the family together–such as around a bowl of popcorn on Sunday evening?

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In Whatever Happened to Dinner, I include stories on the value and tradition of community cooking. See more in the Table of Contents or purchase the book here.

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From → Faith, Family Life, Food

9 Comments
  1. Beautifully written post, Melodie. I remember potato harvesting on my Uncle Landis’ farm, so your description brought back those images: “Someone would run the tractor down the rows with a potato plow, and out would flow Yukon gold.”

    Foods that bring the family together? Pretzels and ice cream at the Longenecker house on Saturday nights. When our kids were still at home: Breaking open a watermelon on a hot day. Now? My husband and I sharing popcorn on TV night or at the movies. Oh, need I mention the whole clan together around Grandma’s oak table when I bring ham-loaf down from PA?

    • Likely most of us who grew up in the 50s harvested potatoes, I’m glad it brought back memories at your uncle’s farm. Watermelon, popcorn, ice cream, pretzels: I see a theme here: very simple snacks.

      Then there’s your ham loaf. I’ve never made that. My daughter’s mother in law does. I can imagine how that brings folks around the table though! I love it, but doesn’t it take a lot of time?

      • I never make it. I buy it in a 5-pound tube from Wenger’s Meats in Elizabethtown, derived from his special recipe. Some have made their own version from scratch. What makes his different is the types and portions of spices used. Unwrapping it and popping it into the oven takes about 2 1/2 – 3 hrs.

    • Athanasia permalink

      Mmm, ham loaf. We have the Fall Harvest dinner at church in October and that is ham loaf. It is delicious.

      Dessert brings everyone together…we traditionally have it in the evening, not right after dinner but later (shortly before bed when the children were younger). We would have it before our evening devotions. I like to freeze unbaked apple pies…then I can pop one in the oven any night while I am making dinner. Otherwise it could be a fruit crisp, or a cobbler, or just ice cream or cookies. Sometimes pudding. Cupcakes are popular, more so than cake, and lots of pies.

  2. Athanasia permalink

    I have to say something first, right off, because is struck me so strongly…WHY did she ask her husband what he wants for Saturday and Sunday night?? She’s the cook, she probably planted, weeded, harvested that food mostly by herself, put it up…she should, any woman should, have the say in what is cooked for meals. I can remember back to my great grandmother sitting at the head of the table, though my grandma and aunts and mother and whomever else had done the cooking, saying (in German ) to someone whining , “you will eat what we cook you”.

    Sure, requests can be made for favorite foods especially for birthdays and other occasions, but if she didn’t want to hear fried taters for the millionth time she should not have asked. She should have just cooked. She shouldn’t feel bad making him something else especially since he had already had them for breakfast. After all, the cook in the family should be familiar with the likes and dislikes of the family members, so most of the time she/he is cooking what they like to begin with.

    Just my feelings. Nowadays, with microwaves, she could have just cooked up a weeks worth of fried taters and heated them us as needed and saved lots of work!

    • Actually, her husband raised the potatoes, and she pretty much raised the rest of the garden, an interesting division of labor. I don’t know either why she bothered to ask him. The author does tell in another illustration how her mother jumped at the chance to try some recipes she had collected out of magazines when her dad went away for some work training for a week. Her mother tried serving the broccoli cheese casserole the rest of the family all loved, when he came home, and he called it “crap” and refused to eat it. He had some issues! Some folks are just really stuck in their ways, especially in that day and time. That they had to be from scratch is kind of what blew me away.

  3. Athanasia permalink

    My sister and her husband’s extended family get together to make popcorn balls late fall every year and have done this for 50 some years. They grow popcorn as one of their crops. I was visiting her last year during that weekend and there were about 45 relatives. They cook the syrup from an old Karo syrup recipe, pop the corn and then tumble it in a mesh device they made to get rid of any old maids. They end up with 80 dozen by the time they are done.

    My mother’s family gets together at an uncle’s house and they make cider every fall. Whomever has apple trees brings along bushels of apples…every one helps…there’s long troughs for cleaning, sorting, an old antique press along with a newer version someone made. We take our many gallons home in clean saved milk cartons…I put about 8 in the freezer and the rest I can in 1/2 gallon jars for use in making hot spiced cider.

    This is just two examples.

  4. My family made caramel popcorn too which we called Cracker Jack, almost forgot about that! I like the idea of the mesh device to get rid of the “old maids.” That was always a struggle! I would love to participate in cider making although it sounds like a lot of hard work. It has gotten so expensive to buy!

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