Volume X, No. 2, Winter 1982
A FAMILY DINNER WITH LOIS BEARD
by Sheila Jones
Photography by Allen Gage and James Heck
"Oh, this food tastes so good!" Deidra Morgan exclaimed as she helped herself to another spoonful of vegetables smothered in gravy from fresh pork ribs. Allen Gage especially liked the blackberry dumplings while James Heck tasted sassafras tea for the first time. Seated in the light, airy kitchen filled with odors of sassafras and baked pork pie, I enjoyed every bit of the colorful meal which Lois Roper Beard had prepared to show the kinds of food and cooking methods her mother used to use.
Back in Lois's childhood, a meal like we were enjoying was nothing special for her mother, who cooked three meals a day for her family of six and any neighbors who might be swapping work or hired hands her father might have had helping on the farm. She would put the meal together day after day, right along with her other work, using foods she had on hand. The noon dinner was the big meal of the day because she, as most other people, believed that was the best way to eat. "A heavy meal at night could turn on you," Lois said. "It isn't good." Though the meal seemed special to us, Lois assured us it was an ordinary typical meal for wintertime in the Ozarks about 1914.
The main course was rib pie, a one-dish meal containing meat, vegetables, gravy and bread. Other foods on the table were sweet and dill cucumber pickles, beets, butter and apple jelly. For drink there was sassafras tea and for dessert blackberry dumplings.
In Lois's childhood, farm families produced almost all their food at home. They butchered their own meat, grew their own vegetables and fruits, had their own dairy and poultry products and even raised their own soft winter wheat for the biscuits and pie dough. They took full advantage of any wild produce, picking wild blackberries and digging sassafras roots.
Every family butchered their own meat. "We butchered mostly pork," Leis said. "We had some beef, but only a very small amount because if a person butchered a beef, there was too much of it to use all at once, and we didn't have freezers then to preserve it. We had to have meats that were cured. So our main meat was pork and, of course, chicken. We would run out and kill a chicken when we needed it. I've done that a million times myself. I would have that chicken dressed and in the pot for cooking and on the table before you could say scat three times. We had a cellar full of vegetables and fruits. So we could go there and get our cans of berries for the dumplings. We went down to the cellar and got the carrots, which we had put away in sand, and the potatoes from the potato bin. The onions were in the smokehouse. You know if an onion freezes, it doesn't bother it. It'll just thaw out and still be good. Of course, we had green onion tops if we wanted them out of the cellar. And to cook a meal for six people, we would just start with one main dish."
The Roper family raised and milled their own flour, as did most every other family. "My husband had 500 pounds of Orla flour piled up upstairs at our house for me to cook with when I married him. Oh, mercy, that flour was soft, and hard to make a biscuit with when I'd never made biscuits anyhow!"
Blackberry bushes and sassafras trees grew wild and were there for the taking. Lois, her mother and sisters would pick the berries and dig the tree roots in season and can and store them for year round enjoyment.
The only foods not home-produced for this meal, or almost any meal, were sugar, salt, baking powder, coffee and tea.
This particular meal had a special meaning for Lois. She remembered one Christmas when the weather was so bad they could not even go outside and kill a turkey. But just before the snowstorm had come, her father had butchered. So Lois's mother decided to make a pork rib pie. The ribs were in the house fresh from butchering and all of the vegetables she needed were in the cellar. "It was different from anything us kids knew, because Mother had not made rib pie since we were old enough to remember. That day she did have a very delicious dinner, and we didn't have to get out in the snowstorm to get it. We made do."
So Lois re-created the meal, cooking it just as her mother would have done, including using the wood side of her combination wood and electric stove.
|2 pounds of pork ribs||2 cups flour|
|3 potatoes||3 tsp. baking flour|
|3 carrots||1 scant cup milk|
|2 onions||1/2 tsp. salt|
|1 jar canned peas||2 Tbsp. butter|
Cook the ribs in water until the meat comes off the bones. Remove the bones and save the broth.
Peel the potatoes, carrots and onions. Cut up all of the vegetables into a pan. Add a small amount of water and cook until the potatoes and carrots are cooked partially through. Take off the heat and drain. Keep warm.
Sift together dry ingredients. Add butter and mix in with the hands. Add a little of the milk while mixing. Continue to add milk until the dough sticks together. It should be doughy.
Sprinkle flour on the board and kneed the dough by folding it 6 to 8 times. Pat it out to 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a glass. To keep dough from sticking to the glass, dip it in flour.
Put the cooked ribs in a baking dish in a single layer. Pour the vegetables on top of the ribs. Arrange the biscuits on top of the vegetables. Now make the gravy.
|1/4 to 1/2 cup flour||water|
|big pinch of salt||broth from meat|
Put the flour in a cup and add salt to keep the flour from lumping. Add enough water a little at a time to make a runny paste. Mix well. Heat broth to boiling. Add the flour mixture. Stir until it thickens.
Pour the gravy over the biscuits, vegetables and meat. Place in a moderate oven (350°) and bake 30 to 40 minutes or until the biscuits are done. You can tell when they are done by raising up one of the biscuits. If the underneath is not doughy, it is done.
Even with a one dish meal, no respectable farm wife would have a family dinner like this without having other dishes on the table. While the pie was baking, Lois went to her cellar for some sweet pickles, dill pickles, canned beets and some apple jelly. All these colorful dishes made the table look as good as the food tasted.
We had asked Lois to fix some sassafras tea since most of us had never tasted it. Lois's mother would use it mainly in the spring as a spring tonic, but the roots kept all year around. People especially fond of sassafras tea dug them in the spring, dried them and stored them for any time.
|Sassafras roots||1 gallon of water|
Scrub the roots clean. Set them out in the sun to dry well to help them break or cut easier. Break or cut into pieces to fit the pan. Bring the water to a boil in a granite pan or any old pan since the tea will stain the cookware. Place 5 or 6 pieces of roots in the water and simmer over very low heat for 15 or 20 minutes or until desired strength is reached. Sassafras tea is brewed, not boiled. It can be served hot or iced and with rich cream which will give it a delicate pink color. This recipe will make 12 to 16 servings.
Helping Lois make the blackberry dumplings was the highlight of my day. Though the aroma as they were cooking was tantalizing the best part came at the end when we finally got to eat some.
|1 can blackberries||2 cups flour|
|1 egg||1/4 scant cup sugar|
|1 cup milk||pinch of salt|
|butter the size of a walnut|
Run a quart of already sweetened blackberries through a ricer or strainer to get out as many seeds as possible. Heat to boiling.
Heat milk and butter in a small pan. Break the egg into a bowl and beat. Pour milk and butter into the same bowl with the egg.
Sift the dry ingredients into the liquid a little at a time, stirring them in. If the dough is not thick
enough, add more flour. You will know if it is the right consistency by dropping a spoonful of it
into the blackberry juice. If it forms a ball, it is the right consistency.
To do this, put some dough on one spoon and push it off into the juice using the other spoon. Continue to do this until all of the dough is in the juice. Cook about 10 minutes or until the dumplings are cooked through. They will be tender.
As Allen cleaned up the last of his tangy blackberry dumplings he reached for the bowl but realized that it was already empty. Deidra had just finished sopping up the gravy in her plate with her biscuit. James asked for another cup of sassafras tea, while I reached for just one more dill pickle. We all ate too much, but we would have gladly done it again.
After the meal as we were helping clean up the kitchen, Lois said, "The cooking was never a big chore. I've always enjoyed it and I still do. We didn't think anything about it being a job. We didn't have a big variety but we always just had plenty of what we had."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.