My Summer in a Garden, 1870–Week 1

The last frost date is upon us here in southern Wisconsin, and I have officially begun another garden season. Every spring I can’t wait to get out in the garden and by August, I’m wondering what I did with all that spare time I had all winter.

A few months ago, I discovered a book called My Summer in a Garden. It was written in 1870 and unlike many books from that period, it was funny. The author had me laughing over his frustrations and perspectives regarding a vegetable garden, which 150 years later, still resonates with modern gardeners. Here is how he introduces the subject of gardening.

“The principal value of a private garden is not understood.  It is not to give the possessor vegetables or fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy and the higher virtues, hope deferred and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.”

I can’t disagree with him completely. I have to argue that my garden does give me produce and if not better, it’s definitely cheaper than market gardeners (or farmer’s markets) nowadays. However, along with fruits and vegetables, it definitely provides a healthy dose of character testing and building experiences…

Like last year when I harvested a whopping one sweet potato per plant, only to have them all freeze in my root cellar before I could use any.

Or when Japanese beetles covered my plum tree, threatening my first harvest. I went out three times a day to pick off those nasty things and drown them into a container of soapy water. (But the work paid off, because I got this harvest. And if you’ve never had canned plums, you’ve missed out!)

Or when the spinach that I hadn’t even started harvesting yet bolted and went to seed overnight.

Or when I planted hot summer crops, like okra, melons, and peanuts, only to have a record cold, rainy summer. (And you know what happened the years I focused on cool weather crops…)

But there are the surprises that somehow, make up for (most) of the frustrations…

Like one of my first gardens when I apparently sowed carrot seed with a heavy hand and every single one of them grew (this was not the entire harvest)–

Or the year when one potato fed several people–

Or finally, the year my tomato grew a terrific schnoz and a dimple. It was really hard to eat this fellow, let me tell you.

And so it begins, garden season 2018…deferred hopes, tests of character, blighted expectations, here we come!

Consider the Garden Huckleberry

 The problem with growing your own fruit is that you often have to wait years after planting the trees and bushes to get a decent-sized harvest.  Enter the garden huckleberry.  Garden huckleberries are unique because they are annual plants. The berries are firm, shiny, black, and grow in clusters on bushes approximately the size of a tomato plant.  (For my “way up north” readers in Alaska and Canada, think of big crowberries.)  This isn’t the sweet wild berry popular in the Pacific Northwest that resembles a blueberry, but a completely different berry.
Growing them couldn’t be any easier. It’s not even necessary to start the seeds indoors, just plant the seeds right into the ground. It will begin producing mid-summer and yield an abundance of berries until frost.
You may have read (as I did) that this berry is a great substitute for blueberries and can be used the same way.  Not even close.  Make sure that the recipes are meant specifically for garden huckleberries.  Tossing a handful of these into a batch of pancakes would result in mutiny at the breakfast table and you’d find yourself leading the charge.
It is absolutely essential that they be cooked–boiled, actually–and they need some added acidity, like lemon juice.  When properly prepared, however, you may use huckleberry sauce as an ice cream topping, a layer of filling in a coffee cake, as well as the filling in a beautifully dark purple pie.  Some say that a second round of cooking (baked into a coffee cake or pie, for example) makes the taste milder. It has a unique “wild” taste that may not be liked by everyone.  We have mixed reviews on them around here. But if you’re adventurous, want to try something different, and have a little space in your garden, you should give them a try.
Here’s the recipe that I use.
 
Print Recipe
Garden Huckleberry Pie Filling
Servings
pints
Servings
pints
Instructions
  1. In a large saucepan, cover huckleberries with water and boil under tender. Drain water, and mash berries using a potato masher.
  2. In another large saucepan, combine sugar and Clear Jel. Whisk in 2 c. water. Bring to a boil and stir until mixture thickens and starts to bubble. Stir in zest, if using, and lemon juice and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Fold in the berries.
  3. Ladle into hot jars, leaving a 1" headspace. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 30 minutes. Yields approximately 4 pints.
Want to order some garden huckleberries for this summer’s garden?  Seed Savers carries the seeds that I use. (I’m not promoting, just sharing info!) You can find them here.

Working without a Plan- 1915

I found out that trying to do too much without planning how best to accomplish it was like borrowing from a loan shark–it meant physical bankruptcy sooner or later. Nature may honor an overdraft for a time, but she extorts pay in the shape of wrecked health, discomfort to the family, and doctors’ bills. -Iowa Farm Woman, 1915

Does anyone in business (including the manager) enjoy working without a clear plan of work that needs to be done, where basic supplies are missing or in disarray, and every day is hit or miss? Would you work for a company that managed the same way that you run your house?

 

Many of a housewife’s tasks don’t have clear deadlines so it’s easy to become casual about our work and not hold ourselves to schedules. It’s also the beauty of the work, that things are not run on a hard and fast schedule. After all, nothing tragic will happen if the curtains aren’t washed on Tuesday, However, if Junior’s bath keeps getting postponed and the cucumbers aren’t picked regularly, everyone will be sorry. There has to be a plan of sorts to keep things moving at a steady lope, so we’re not overwhelmed but also not living in oblivious denial of a disorganized life

Modern-day research backs up Mrs. Iowa Farm Woman’s opinion that stress is responsible for a majority of cases of “wrecked health” and “doctor’s bills.” Even if we assumed the statistics are exaggerated, it’s still a staggering number. Stress manages to find us in plenty of ways and we don’t need our homes to be another source of it.

The Iowa Farm Woman continues:

I realized that rather than feel sorry for myself when the work pushed me, I should be ashamed of my bad management. Anyone can putter around all day with little to show for it, but it takes a smart woman so to manage her work by labor-saving methods that she can do all that is required and have leisure for the development of her better self and for acquaintance with her family.

Did it ever occur to you that an excessive workload is due to mismanagement?

Some days I have a clear plan and actually take the time to look at what I’ve written in my planner. On those days I amaze myself. I get all my errands done, cook an extra meal for the freezer, return emails, and weed the herb garden.

On days when I don’t have a plan and approach the day willy-nilly, my list of accomplishments looks a lot different. It consists of making a dessert recipe that caught my eye on Pinterest (but don’t need), stalking a friend of a friend on Facebook, watching a tv show that really didn’t interest me but I couldn’t turn off, and sorting through half-done craft projects without working on any of them. I can putter with nothing to show for it like the best of them. Even on days that I have plans, but can’t get them done because other things came up, I still feel successful because I didn’t waste my time.

The article mentioned that not every woman could afford “an electric iron, a power washing machine, or a vacuum sweeper.” We have infinitely more ways of saving time and effort than the women of 1915. But using them to our advantage so they truly save us time that doesn’t immediately get filled up by more work and responsibilities involves skill, planning, and of course, relentlessly refusing other time-absorbing options.

Housewifery done poorly is one of the most difficult, unfulfilling jobs there is. But a systematic plan that works for our own lifestyle will bring a measure of peace into our homes. More importantly, it will enable us to participate in one of the most sacred, well-known rituals in all housewife-dom, sitting around eating bon-bons. That’s what we’re known for, after all. It’s high time we found a way to live up to the stereotype.

Cuisine a la Can

In my perusal of mid-20th century cookbooks, I’ve noticed the recipes contain a stunning array of canned foods.  It’s my guess that when the modern convenience craze began rolling in a big way and homes were being filled with “labor-saving devices,” food manufacturers jumped at the occasion with a little too much enthusiasm.  (The very fact that food could be considered “manufactured” should have given someone a glaring clue…)

I suppose housewives, enthralled by the idea of spending an extra hour or two at Mildred’s bridge party, thought they could come home, open a few cans, gussy them up, and ta-da!  Dinner!  This sort of cuisine delighted no one, ever, and thankfully, many of these tinned wonders disappeared along the way as manufacturers stopped canning everything they could squeeze into a cylinder.

If you had been cooking in the 1950s, take a look at these oh, so convenient canned wonders you could have chosen for your main dish (and all these are really found in the “Jiffy Cooking” section of the 1958 Mary Margaret McBride Encyclopedia of Cooking):

  • beef and kidneys
  • tongue and tongue loaf
  • chicken fricassee
  • chicken a la king
  • codfish cakes
  • Welsh rabbit

And for side dishes,

  • canned cooked rice
  • canned tomato aspic
  • canned dandelion greens

And for dessert, how about some canned fig pudding, complete with that tinny taste?

And don’t forget potted meat, the particular delicacy still easily found in stores and, I confess, my cupboard. Not everyone has a thoughtful sister-in-law who cleans out the potted meat shelf at the local scratch-n-dent store and gives it to you for your birthday.

As I walked past the freezer section at the grocery store today, I saw frozen pre-made single-serve tubs of oatmeal. (What better way to entice you out of bed in the morning?)  A few shelves away were packages of frozen mashed potatoes.  And then there’s the pre-cooked, vacuum-packed bacon, milk in a cardboard box, frosting and cheese in tubs–shelf-stable for years, and a vast number of other foods preserved and packaged for maximum storage time at the expense of nutritional quality and most notably, taste.

Hmm. The cans may not be as popular these days but maybe some things haven’t changed after all.

As we re-learn the old ways of preparing and storing food, I hope that these technological wonders we have accepted as food will one day be as unappetizing as the early canned experiments.

photo source