Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
by Diana Foreman
As the long hot days of the Ozark summer began to ripen the grain in the fields, the entire family would begin to anticipate the harvest. Five or six families in a neighborhood would begin to discuss it. The men decided which crop would be ready first and arranged for enough hands to do the work. The women began contacting a couple of sisters and a close friend or two to help them with the meals as they would need four or five women to help them. The children always became quite excited at the prospect of harvest. To them it was one big game. Those not old enough to help would have plenty of playmates while their mothers and fathers were working. The older children enjoyed the responsibilities of being water boy or helping mother in the kitchen.
The harvest season began in early July with the wheat threshing. Several men in the community would all work at one farm until the crop was in and then the men all moved to the next farm until everyone's crop was harvested. Swapping work this way meant that each family was involved about three weeks at threshing time and often another few weeks for silo filling in late August or early September.
The meals served at these hot exhausting gatherings were not fancy but huge. The women had to fix enough to feed twenty to thirty hungry men, plus the children and themselves. Since having that many to cook for made it difficult to please everyone's special tastes, they prepared every dish imaginable to please as many as possible, and most important, to have enough to fill them up. The amount of food prepared in one day was almost unbelievable, and equally unbelievable was that nearly every bit was eaten, no matter how much was prepared.
Each woman would fix what she was good at. If one made exceptionally good pie, then she made the pies, and if one made a special dish no other made, she fixed her speciality. Her reputation as a cook was at stake.
The little girls, always anxious to help, though they were in the way for most jobs, could always help out by churning a fresh sweet batch of butter each morning. This was a necessary job because the butter would separate and become oily in the heat if not fresh.
Very few dishes could be prepared in advance because of the lack of refrigeration. Cakes and fruit pies could be made the night before if they were not perishable. The four or five women doing the cooking began very early in the morning and in most cases the night before. The woman of the house gathered all the tables she had and what she could borrow from close neighbors and set them up. Sometimes she made makeshift tables from sawhorses and boards covered with pretty table cloths. She used the yard to serve the meal if the weather permitted, if not, then the largest room in the house. Some of the more fortunate homes had special screened in porches for summer dining.
There was no menu. The woman at whose house they were going to eat prepared and put on the table everything she had--meats, potatoes, vegetables, salads, desserts and drinks all at once.
The main dish of every meal, of course, was meat. In mid-summer having a variety of meat was a problem since butchering time had to wait for cold weather. By this time the left over cured pork was strong. Some might have some canned pork or beef, which they had saved especially for the threshing meals. The main fresh meat was chicken. At threshing time there would be some young fryers left, but the fryers would be gone by silo filling time. Occasionally someone would butcher a beef and peddle it to several families. In this case roast or boiled beef added a welcome change from chicken. The cooks made dressing or stuffing too, a tasty, but easy way to fill up the hungry men. They usually made it from the broth of an old hen. The dressing was made of a base of biscuits, cornbread and homemade light bread mixed with onions, eggs, broth and seasonings. There was enough broth from one fat hen to make the dressing, gravy and noodles or dumplings. The most common meat dish the women made was chicken and noodles or dumplings. (for recipes see Winter, 1976, page 31) Sometimes after several weeks of threshing dinners the men would become so tired of chicken they would complain, "I think I'll start crowing if I have to eat anymore chicken and dumplings."
Since the Ozark women cooked potatoes for every meal, the harvest dinner was no exception. They peeled the potatoes early in the morning, placing them in a pan of cold water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to keep them from turning dark. About an hour before time to eat they drained them and added fresh water before boiling. They were usually served mashed or creamed and quite frequently fried.
Most of the vegetables were picked fresh from the garden. What wasn't fresh was home canned, for nothing in the meal was "store bought." The women and children would gather the fresh garden vegetables the evening before and wash them. They broke the beans and shucked the corn which they had picked from the fields the evening before, too. This would cut about an hour off the work the next day. Lettuce was one vegetable that the women left in the garden until almost time to serve so it would not wilt.
The women prepared as many vegetables as they had access to--cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots, corn, green beans, dried beans, peas, turnips, beets and cucumbers to name a few. They fixed them as many different ways as anyone knew how. Corn was a popular vegetable that could be served in many different dishes such as scalloped corn, baked corn, cut off corn, corn on the cob, corn relish and hominy. Corn, dried and ground into meal was even their main bread. Tomatoes were another favorite vegetable. Up to a bushel might be eaten at one meal, sliced fresh or stewed.
Salads provided another dish from some of the same vegetables. The women prepared salads of every kind with the exception of gelatin salads because of the lack of refrigeration. A few of the common salads were cole slaw, potato salad, wilted lettuce and tossed salads. Even the salad dressings and mayonnaises were made from scratch. The most common were vinegar and oil dressing and a mayonnaise made from egg yolks.
Just as every meal needed potatoes, no meal was complete without bread. Cornbread was always on the table, but at special meals most women baked several loaves of light bread. Some even fixed biscuits if there was some man who preferred them to other breads. Usually all three kinds of bread were served.
The dessert was the women's pride as it still is, and they took great pains to make a special pie, cobbler or cake that the men would enjoy. Their husbands were proud of them when they made a dish that all the men enjoyed. Some old standbys the women usually put on the table were canned fruits--blackberries, strawberries, apples, cherries, pears and peaches. To make them even better they often made a fruit salad by mixing several different kinds of canned fruit together in a big serving bowl and adding bananas, which were always available at the country stores. This juicy dish with chocolate cake would make a satisfying finish to any meal, or follow that with a couple pieces of pie, because the cooks prepared every dessert they could--pies, cakes and puddings. And not just one of each, but four or five of each.
Beverages served were coffee, iced tea and water. Everyone drank water and lots of it. The men would come in from the fields hot and thirsty and could drink four or five tall glasses of water before ever beginning the meal. One young girl was kept busy filling and refilling the the men's glasses during the meal. With their meal most men drank coffee; however some preferred iced tea. Sometimes the woman would send into town for a fifty pound chunk of ice to cool the drinks, wrapping it in paper and storing in the cellar to keep from melting. Some families were more fortunate than others, having an ice house of their own.
Dinner was always ready at noon when the men came to the house ready for it. They, like the women, had been up since before dawn working and were quite hungry.
Before they ate, the men washed up outside. Some women placed a galvanized wash tub of water in the sun to warm that morning. Just before the men came in, they would put out several wash pans, soap and sack towels for the men to use.
As there were usually more men than table space, they ate in shifts so that everyone could sit around the tables. The first shift would be the men running the machinery, followed by the neighbors swapping work and the hired men. The men in the family usually waited. No women or girls ate with them no matter how much extra room there was. They ate last after all the men had finished.
When the tables were set up outside, one of the girls would wave a tree branch or a stick with paper strips attached over the table to keep the files off the food while the men ate. Even inside with lack of screen wire and with all the traffic through the doors flies were a problem.
While the men ate, women kept busy filling and refilling the platters, bowls, glasses and cups on the table, as the men could empty them nearly as fast as they could be filled.
After each shift of men, the women washed the dirty plates, silver and glasses, reset the tables, refilled all the bowls and served the next group while the first shift relaxed under one of the shade trees. When all the men were fed, the women finally sat down to eat a quiet, but much deserved dinner. They were in no real hurry to finish and start the long hot job of cleaning up after the meal, but took about an hour to relax and visit as they had been too busy all morning to really talk.
When the dishes were cleaned up, the women were finished with their part of harvest for the day. Most Ozark fields were so small one day would be enough to harvest it, but those having larger farms might have the men for several days. After the meal the neighbor women went home. However, sometimes the man of the house would send word to his wife that the men would not be finished until after dark, which meant that they would be there for supper. There was hopefully something left over that could be reheated, and then a few other things were prepared to make a filling meal. Though not nearly as large as the dinner had been, the supper still required a lot of food for so many people. The dishes that they fixed were similar to the dinner but usually were not as elaborate.
There was a general sigh of relief when a harvest season was over. Everyone's crop were safely in and both men and women could slow down and relax for a while until the next planting season.
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