I have a diverse and wonderful group of friends on Facebook, and one of them is Anne Schaller Koch from my home state of Wisconsin. She recently posted some interesting photographs about her life on her page, and I asked her if she would mind writing out more detail for my Hope Blog. I love hearing about life as it was years ago. There is much to admire and to learn from in reading and hearing these stories. Thank you so much, Anne, for sharing these memories of your life that is rich in love and faith.
Baking and cooking from scratch appears to be enjoying a revival these days, at least in our family. Our daughter-in-law is working on creating a cookbook for her grown children containing the recipes she used when they were growing up. Here is a mother who grows her own herbs, makes her own pure vanilla from vanilla beans, rolls out the dough to make noodles, and more recently made all the candied citron for her Christmas baking—so it should not be any surprise to find most of her recipes are “from scratch.” Our daughter also follows this pattern, including making her own yogurt on a regular basis. It started me thinking that this is where I came in, the difference being that when I was growing up, cooking from scratch was the only option!
My early years were spent during the Great Depression in our country, and like the free range chickens we favor so much in our day, everyone was scratching for ways to put food on the table. Stores were small and sold only the staples needed to bake bread, create simple meals, and get along with the bare essentials. Even at that, few people had the “scratch” to buy even the basics. We lived in western South Dakota where the drought, dust storms, and armies of grasshoppers kept many a family from harvesting crops for animals or family. Yet the generosity of people was a blessing to experience, and the members of our congregation kept us (the pastor’s family) supplied with milk, eggs, garden vegetables, and whatever meat they could spare.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother making cottage cheese. When someone gave us more milk than we could drink in a day (no refrigeration), mother would put the naturally curdling milk or cream in cheesecloth bags and tie them with string to a stick supported between two chairs. As curds formed, the whey dripped into a pan below. No doubt we were sternly instructed not to mess with this set-up, and the memory stuck in my mind.
Being only five when we moved to our next home, I was not fully aware of the struggles or ingenuity my mother put into keeping us well-fed, but saved family letters tell the story in detail. I do remember that just before we moved, the church ladies came to help mother prepare the chickens to be canned so we could take the meat with us to our next home. I do not know how chickens came to be raised on the church property but am guessing it was another of mother’s attempts to make ends meet.
Our next home was in eastern South Dakota, finally near relatives. My mother’s sister and family lived in a small town within visiting distance, and now there were cousins to play with from time to time. Here we are making mud pies (really scratching it) and washing up the dishes outside our playhouse. Note the broom to sweep the dirt floor. Our circumstances were now better since we had a garden and there were lakes where my Dad could fish. I can still remember my mother preparing frog legs for dinner, and being alarmed to see how they jumped in the frying pan. Mother needed to assure me that they were not alive and did not feel any pain. Mother was a stay-at-home Mom, and I was a very curious child, so as she cooked and baked, she explained “why” she was doing what she did. At Christmas time she was very particular about her Christmas Stollen and Lebkuchen. Ground cardamom from the store would not do; it must be whole cardamom seed that we would bring home and turn into powder by mother’s own method. I helped take the soft shells off the seeds, and then Mother would put about a tablespoon of seed into the corner of a dishtowel, and with a hammer she would pound those seeds until they were reduced to a fine powder. The aroma was pungent, and she had her freshly ground cardamom! I followed her directions for a few years after I was married but kept ruining my dishtowels, so I just decided I did not need to be so particular.
Food was as special as it gets at Christmas time. My grandmother from Minnesota would put a packet of dressed duck or goose on the train in the morning, and after its long trip, we would receive it in time to bake the bird for supper. With an orange in my Christmas stocking and an apple in each of my three Christmas Eve sacks (my father was pastor of three congregations), we enjoyed the only fresh fruit I recall eating during the winter months. The only convenience food I remember having in my childhood home was Jello, sometimes with bananas, and it was a real treat.
Our next move was to Minnesota, and compared to South Dakota it was like the promised land of Canaan. We had fruit trees, gardens of both flowers and vegetables galore. We moved once again after two years, still in Minnesota but closer to New Ulm, where I would be attending high school and college. In this home I grew to adulthood, learning to cook, bake a pie, can vegetables and fruit, make jelly, pickles, and help with most all the household duties. By this time Mother had a large class of piano pupils coming to our home, and though I was away at boarding school a good share of the time, I came home weekends and summers to help at home. After three years of teaching school (and boarding at the homes of others), I was eager to be the homemaker I always wanted to become.
When I married Paul, we also moved to the Dakotas (this time not far from the Montana border), and armed with recipes dating back to Grandmother’s kitchen, I was all set. Some recipes required math to figure out measurements. One particular favorite had all ingredients listed in pounds (whether liquid or dry) and the shortening was specified as so many “egg lumps” of lard. One ingredient was “a glass of wine” and I never did figure out whether that meant four ounces, eight ounces, or more. Seems it didn’t matter, since the additional flour called for was equally unknown, written simply as “add needed flour to form dough into a roll.” I have made these cookies for sixty-two years now, and they always taste just fine!
In our retirement years we continue to cook from scratch whenever possible, though convenience foods are good to keep on hand. I say “we” because Paul has gradually taken over the cooking, as I gradually rely more on my walker to get around. I serve as arm-chair consultant now and help as I am able. Paul still has a generous garden, so we eat well, freezing our vegetables for the winter months. Paul is a good cook, and I like his fried chicken the best, made from those free-range chickens! We can’t compete with the young cooks in the family but we still bake our own bread and eat simple but healthy meals. We give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good!
~ Anne Schaller Koch