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Going to Town

May 3, 2011
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This past week shaped up to be a flourish of activity as we prepared to open the gates and welcome visitors to Living History Farms on Saturday.  The last minute preparations include putting final touches on maintenance projects and stocking the cellars for our foodways programming.  In order to show everyone what life was like on a 1900 farm we prepare some sort of meal in the mornings during the season.  It provides us a way to connect visitors with the reality that while what we eat may not have changed dramatically, the way in which food is acquired and prepared has seen some considerable shifts in 100 years.  Many factors contributed to the process of a change in food consumption and preparation since the turn of the century.  These factors continue to shape our choices about what and how much we eat.  In further blog articles we may consider more of these factors but the one I want to talk about today: geography.

Geographically, food grows better some places than it does others.  I don’t forsee anyone farming mangos in the Yukon anytime soon.  What that translated to in 1900 was food consumption based on geography.  Oranges and bananas were not as common on the farm as they are in Iowa now.  The advent of modern modes of transportation changed what type of things we eat.  Today, if you live in Anchorage, you can go to your local supermarket and pick up the rice and coconut milk you would need to make a nice curry for supper, probably even in February (though having never been to Anchorage I can’t be sure).

I often ask the kids that come out if their supermarket grows the milk they get out of the cooler or the cookies they pick up off the shelf.  Most kids know that their milk comes from cows, but kids and adults alike get lost in the processes of how their food comes to be in supermarkets.  The short answer to that query: the farmers put it there.  That was the case in 1900 as well.   Sure, some families will get meat from theirs or a grandparent’s farm, perhaps some tomatoes or peppers from the backyard garden or strawberry jam from the farmers’ market.  But for the most basic of staples, they go to the supermarket.  Though 1900 farmers were growing and putting up as much as they could from their farm, they still relied on the supermarket to provide them with some things, just like we do today.

Some Iowa farmers were producing wheat in 1900, most people (farmers included) would purchase their flour at a market or general store.  Things like sugar, coffee, and chocolate, staples for the decadent desserts on the farm, would definitely be purchased.

The Living History Farms Resource Center contains the diary of Maranda J. Cline of Hills, Iowa.  On April 5th, 1897, Ms. Cline recorded in her diary that she purchased 100 (pounds, presumably) of sugar from Ely Founten for $4.90.   It would be great to pay just under a nickel per pound of sugar but today it is more like $1.15 per pound.  That means that Ms. Cline’s 1oo would be equal to $115, quite a bit to spend on sugar!  Still, she did not grow the sugar on her farm and used it not only for baking, but also for food preservation.

In reading Ms. Cline’s diary you come to know that she grew quite large gardens, canned berries and jams (requiring sugar!), and raised various amounts of poultry in addition to pigs on her farm.  She, like other turn of the century farmers, pioneered what we know today as the “eat local” movement.  Yet still, she went to the store to pick up sugar and other dietary supplements.

Because of the railroad that crossed through Iowa, Ms. Cline and her contemporaries had access to things like sugar, coffee, and chocolate in a way that the early settlers to Iowa did not.  Transportation changed the role geography played into diet at the turn of the century.  Geographical eating started to fade and 1900 farmers might purchase rice and spices to mix with a farm-bred rooster for a nice  Chicken Gumbo.

Today, we are lucky to have a mix of both.  We can get fresh tomatoes from the supermarket in January and fresh asparagus out of the back garden in April.  We had the first cutting this afternoon at the 1900 farm, and it was delicious.  (Look for that recipe soon).

Chicken Gumbo (The Boston Cooking School Cookbook)

Dress, clean, and cut up a chicken.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, dredge with flour, and saute’ in pork fat.  Fry one-half finely chopped onion in fat remaining in frying-pan.  Add four cups sliced okra, sprig of parsley, and one-fourth red pepper finely chopped, and cook slowly fifteen minutes.  Add to chicken, with one and one-half cups tomato, three cups boiling water and one and one-half teaspoons salt.  Cook slowly until chicken is tender, then add one cup boiled rice.

Try it out and be thankful that you have access to things that grow outside your geographic region!  Now that we are open for the season, we look forward to welcoming you to the farm soon!

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