Friday, November 02, 2007

Peas, Porridge & Pie: Food on an Early 20th Century Farm


Phyllis Johnson (left) and Doris Johnson (middle), shelling pease on the kitchen stoop with their grandmoterh, Malla Larson Johnson.  The family dogs are Cubby and Teddy.  Leonard, Clearwater County, Minnesota, 1938.


What better way to prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday than to think about food? For family historians, that means the food of days gone by: slow food... real food... the sustenance that our ancestors spent most waking hours growing, preparing, and preserving. The following excerpts deal with day-to-day life on a Norwegian-American farm belonging to my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, three miles outside of Leonard in Clearwater County, northern Minnesota.  The information for this piece was gathered during a 2002 oral interview with their granddaughter, Doris Johnson Wheeler (my mother). Doris and her older sister, Phyllis, lived on their grandparents' farm from 1922-1945, after the girls' mother died from tuberculosis and left their father a young widower.



Each year, the Johnson women canned meat, pickles, string beans, peas, and other vegetables. The girls gathered blueberries and raspberries, and they sometimes walked many miles in order to find enough, though continually plagued by flies, mosquitoes, and ticks along the way. There were wild plums to be plucked, and gooseberries that grew in the pasture, as well as wild strawberries, currants, choke cherries, and pin cherries that would be made into wonderful jams and jellies. Malla Johnson raised ground cherries in her garden, little yellow berries with lots of seeds, from which she made sauce. Her husband added to the summer bounty by buying one or two lugs each of peaches and pears. Ole Johnson never forgot to include a basketful of dark blue grapes, because he loved grape jelly so much...

To feed her perpetually hungry family and hired hands, Malla Johnson liked to make traditional Norwegian porridge (groet), lefse, Johnnie cake, and feather cake, always without frosting. Breads, cakes, cookies, pies, and puddings were produced regularly. Mabel Johnson, the youngest daughter, seemed to be allergic to yeast, since she always got a tremendous headache whenever she baked bread. She had to do it anyway, because there was no such thing as skipping out on a chore.

When Phyllis Johnson was old enough, she began to help Mabel with the baking. One time, Malla asked her granddaughter to make a batch of lemon pies for the threshing crew. Phyllis had never made a pie before in her life, and she was nervous about presenting her novice efforts to an insatiable and highly expectant work crew. Much to her relief, the pies turned out fine, and no one complained...

Like many men from Norway of his generation and earlier, Ole Johnson drank hot coffee from a saucer in order to cool it quickly. He also ate peas with a knife, which was a custom of uncertain origin. The habit of lining up peas on a blade may date back to the Stone Age when there were only knives and bowls. Or, it may have started as a sporting challenge between men in Viking society. However it began, the custom was passed on through many generations as sort of a cultural icon in Norwegian-American society. Years later, at least a few of Johnson's sons were observed still struggling to mind their "peas and q's" in a similar fashion.

Ole Johnson was not a big coffee drinker, but he did enjoy a glass of milk, especially with a slice of warm apple pie. To his disappointment, warm apple pie was difficult to come by. One reason was that apples were not grown locally, and they were bought only during the holiday season. Another reason was that freshly made pie was always cold by the time he came in from work on baking days, and it was not easily reheated. So, whenever the family was in nearby Bagley and had the opportunity to drop in at Mogster's Hotel for a bite to eat, the most important thing on Johnson's agenda was warm apple pie...

A typical holiday meal with the Johnsons included: lutefisk, mashed potatoes, vegetables, lefse, butter, milk, coffee, and a dessert--like the apple pie that Ole Johnson never quite caught up to while it was still warm...

Before Christmas, Johnson would hitch two horses to a sleigh and ride into town to buy the annual Yule treats for his family. Everyone looked forward to their Christmas goodies, as simple as they were: a couple of boxes of apples, and a big bag each of peanuts, mixed nuts, and hard candy. Baking cocoa was available, but chocolate candy was not a regular treat, even though Ernest Johnson did bring some to his daughters, Phyllis and Doris, upon occasion. A shortage of chocolate would be a nearly unimaginable hardship to many of us now, and even Doris later became quite fond of a morning cup of Swiss Mocha coffee...

The Johnsons enjoyed eating traditional Norwegian food, like the primost (cheese) they sometimes bought. Ole Johnson especially liked fish, and he often went fishing in Clearwater Lake where he kept a cedar-strip boat. Many years later, the lake became so polluted from sewage that fishing was no longer possible. Doris said it was no wonder that her grandfather moved way from the homestead in Chippewa County, because the area had so few lakes and he loved to fish so much...

All excerpts are from "Clearwater Days," Chapter 7 in "A Long Way Downstream: the Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer," by Chery Kinnick.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.





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