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I just finished reading the most delightful book; a New York Times Best Book of the Year that my mother just happened to suggest in passing. It wasn’t anything I was set on reading, but it was what was available when I had the time and I’m so glad it was.
The book is titled, Little Heathens: Hard Times And High Spirits On An Iowa Farm During The Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Kalish, who grew up on an Iowa farm during the Depression, simply writes about her childhood. The book is reminiscent of the Little House books in that Kalish records exactly how things were done during a significant time in the history of our country. Except this book is non-fiction, written in a friendly narrative manner. The first sentence reads, “This is the story of a time, and a place, and a family.” Kalish begins by telling us about her great, great grandparents who were among the first pioneers to settle in Iowa. The family maintained a legacy in Iowa for several generations, operating several family farms where they lived, ate, and worked together. From there Kalish describes the many ways the children built character through chores, home medicine, farm food, and living without modern conveniences like electricity and running water. Then she covers each season of the year and the distinct events that stand out in her mind; from nut gathering at the family cemetery to box socials at the local schoolhouse. The book is full of details of rural life during the Depression, from chores to cooking to home remedies. There are many recipes for farm foods, natural cures, and natural cleaning. The phrase, “Little Heathens,” was what her grandmother called the children when they got into trouble on the farm (and there are many fun tales of such trouble in this book!). Kalish has a gift for describing a way of life that totally absorbs the reader into the nostalgia of the time, back when America was still much more rural than urban, and the family was a bigger influence on the children than entertainment. One word of caution: when Kalish says she is going to describe the way of life on a farm during the Depression, she describes everything, including “coming of age”, language, and other sensitive issues. Nothing is left out!
I always love reading about how people lived in earlier times. I know I probably way over-romanticize it, because back then it was truly tough and scary living. On the other hand, there’s so much to be said for that way of life before people totally left the land, and eventually their families, to live in sterile homes and work in closed up offices behind computers, only to return home to the tv and a lack of reality. I really think that in so many ways we’ve lost our way. And this book helps remind us of what is really important. As she discusses how intensely difficult life was for her family, and how very strict her grandparents were on the children, she is sure to point out, “…I have come to view that time as a gift. Austere and challenging as it was, it built character, fed the intellect, and stirred the imagination.” Imagine that – living in near poverty, without modern conveniences, without special after-school programs, and even without yearly well-checkups, these children managed to grow up with strong character, intellect, and imagination! They were full of life, well-adjusted, and healthy.
So why am I giving a book report about this book? Because this book is all about the simple living and unadulterated food that I am so passionate about. First, there is an entire chapter devoted to “thrift.” Kalish begins by quoting the old sayings, “ Use it up; wear it out; make it do; do without” and “ “Willful waste makes woeful want.” This family didn’t have curbside garbage service; they didn’t need it because they literally used everything until it was just no more. This thriftiness pervaded their entire beings. The outcome was a very earth-friendly family before, of course, it was cool to be green.
I once knew a girl who thriftily bought a whole chicken because it was cheaper than buying the boneless breasts. She cooked the entire thing, cut off the breast meat, and threw out the rest of the chicken! Think of the animal whose sole created purpose was to feed her family; discarded and thrown away simply out of sheer ignorance. Chapter 28 is devoted to the animals on Kalish’s family farm. She describes how the family lived in “intimate contact” with a wide variety of farm animals, how they loved each one, and delighted in them. She says, “The domestic animals were almost like people to us, and we treated them with respect. Their welfare was always our prime concern.” This is drastically different from today. We are raised to think nothing of these animals who give their lives to our service. To us, they have become nothing more than a cut of meat wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam tray. All we care about is which cut is cheaper. But this is a new phenomenon. Since the beginning of time, man has lived closely with the animals that nourish and serve him. This relationship develops a healthy respect and conscientiousness that quickly goes missing when we leave the farm. I remember volunteering at the farmer’s market where a customer was irritated by the high cost of a package of chicken livers. When he complained to the farmer, she responded by pointing out, “Each one of those livers represents one whole chicken, and a huge investment!” I wonder what Kalish’s grandparents would think of today’s confinement operations and feedlots where animals are treated without any care?
Farm living during the Depression was hard living of course. Kalish makes this very clear as she details the amount of work that was required by every soul, from the youngest to the oldest. Everyone had a job and was expected to participate. The result was a sense of pride and ownership in every last detail of life. Through the hard work, the family spent their days interacting with each other, teaching and learning while helping and serving. This was true whether they worked in the barn, the garden, or the fields. And in the end, everything and everyone wound up in the kitchen. Kalish says, “It should be obvious by now that the center of all activity in those days was the kitchen. It was where we gathered for companionship and for a variety of work and leisure-time pursuits, where we ate all our meals, and where people entered the house most of the time.” She goes on to describe their farmhouse kitchen in detail, pointing out that the kitchen “took up half of the first floor of the house.” The kitchen description takes several pages! She ends her description with this: “There were many good reasons for being in the kitchen – light, warmth, food, drink….All in all, the kitchen had just about everything to make one comfortable.”
I love how she describes her memories of the farmhouse kitchen. It is the smell of food that swallows her up and takes her back to her childhood. Not pre-packaged microwaved fake food, but real food loaded with real animal fats and fresh goodies from the garden:
The smell of bacon is what brings back a flood of memories to me…I conjure up the taste of a sandwich made of homemade bread spread with smoked bacon drippings, topped with the thinnest slices of crisp red radishes freshly harvested from the garden, and sprinkled over with coarse salt.
Consider the modern family of today. We have so many extra-curricular activities that we are strung out from one end of town to the other. Instead of working together toward a common goal (the welfare of the family), most American children spend their free time playing the Wii, texting friends, or hanging out at the mall. Family Night usually centers around “Dancing With The Stars” or “American Idol” and a delivery pizza. When our children grow up, their nostalgic scents will revolve more around the smell of microwave popcorn or the rancid oils and fake fats from delivery pizza. Hmmm. It seems to be lacking something, doesn’t it?
One of the things I loved about this book was the continuing theme of family working together. But there was another, even stronger theme woven throughout this book: how loving and working the land leads one to an intimate relationship with the land, that then brings about valuable knowledge and skills, which bring health, life, and vitality to each person. When you know valuable skills, you then have a confidence in your ability to cope with life. You have become empowered, no longer helpless and dependent.
Here’s a great quote that gives some insight into why Kalish wrote this book. She wants her family to know what it took to survive during difficult times so different from those we live in now, but, she says, “…most of all I want them to enjoy the kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in the kitchen to prepare a meal together. Although cooking today is vastly easier, there is still nothing like putting a good meal on the table to make people feel they have done something meaningful.” I totally agree.
There is so much more about this fun book than what I have shared here. Check it out, and consider how you can take your family “back to the land.” You will never regret it.