Self-reliance is an admirable goal and, having been raised in a family of ten children on a small farm where cash-income was minimal and self-reliance and sufficiency were not just admirable but a necessity, I sometimes feel ashamed of myself for my current dependence on others, not just for the material trappings of life—the house, the car, and other large things few individuals could make—but for the literal food of life.
When I enter the dining room of my home in Jakarta and sit down at the batik-covered table, I see a selection of foods on the table I neither produced nor prepared. Who grew the corn that went into that perkedel? Who fed the chicken now fried with a shredded coconut crust? Who slopped the pigs whose meat is that plate of rica-rica? Who picked the green beans in that bowl of gado-gado? These are questions I ask myself.
Glynnspring, the farm in the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin where I was raised, was 160 acres in size with 40+ acres of woods and streams and 50+ acres of tillable fields. The remaining area is where the buildings were located—the family home, barn, chicken house, granary, and woodshed—and, of course, the gardens as well. The gardens! These included large patches for strawberries, potatoes, cucumbers, sweet- and pop-corn, as well as a huge plot devoted to greens and vegetables.
The planting of these gardens usually began after Easter—in late April or early May—when the soil was still moist from the spent snows of the previous winter months. With holy water given to us by Father Bornbach following Easter services at Saint Anthony’s church, we sprinkled the blessed water on each of the newly-plowed and disked plots and said a prayer to God for a bountiful crop.
Whether it was because of the holy water, our prayers, or, just possibly, the exceptionally fertile black loam soil on our farm was, we often had bumper crops and more than enough to eat. But more than that, it seems, my parents seemed to have a magic formula for knowing just how much bounty would be needed to keep food on the table through the fall, winter, and spring months before the next round of cultivation began.
The cellar of our four bedroom family home measured approximately 8 x 10 meters and was divided into four quadrants, two large and two small. One of the larger quadrants was devoted to the storage of wood we cut for heating the house; the other was where the large wood-burning furnace sat as well as the Maytag wringer-washer machine and two cement tubs for rinsing laundry, washing vegetables, cleaning chickens, and other tasks. In the one smaller space, two sides were lined with shelves and the other two sides were taken up by an over-sized Coldspot freezer with a seven-hundred pound food capacity.
The other smaller space was subdived into two, the one with a large plank-sided bin for the storage of potatoes and other tubers, the other with floor to ceiling shelves.
By May of each year, at the same time our fields were bare of alfalfa and corn and our gardens had begun to be planted, the woodpile in the basement was nearly depleted, the contents of potato bin was down to a small mound of soft and partially sprouted potatoes, and the shelves were full of now-empty light green Mason jars. This situation did not last for long, however, because within a couple months, after the first crops began to come in, and after the basement had been thoroughly cleaned and its walls given a new coat of whitewash, all the fresh foods that we did not eat immediately would be canned or frozen and the shelves and freezers would begin to refill with the foods that the family would eat in the bleak months ahead.
I regret that we never set up a stop-action camera in the basement as it would now be fascinating to see the shelves, bin, and freezer gradually fill with the preserved foods from our farm. On the shelves were all the home-canned foods, including (but not limited to) tomato juice, whole tomatoes, carrots, string beans, sauerkraut, apple sauce, beets, assorted jams and jellies (rhubarb, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, peach, and apple), and different kinds of pickles as well (beet, gherkin, and watermelon). The bin came to be filled with a ton or more of potatoes, and bushels of cabbages, kohlrabi, pumpkins, and squash. And the freezer was stuffed with bags of frozen corn, peas, sliced apples, berries, and morels. (But not large enough to hold all the meat that we would consume during the cold months of the year, my father also rented commercial freezer space in LaValle, 7 miles down the road, for the 1 or 2 head of cattle, the 2 or 3 pigs, and the 200 chickens we butchered.) Large cardboard boxes near the furnace were stuffed with ears of popcorn for shucking and popping on Sundays in the winter and in the attic, two floors overhead, were fifteen or so bushels of hickory nuts and walnuts for cracking and use in homemade cookies and cakes.
And so, as I eat the meals Mbak Jah has prepared, I do blush and say a silent prayer, this time not for my diminished self-reliance but for the assistance and reliability of others.