Monday, October 25th, 2010...5:14 am

Little Heathens: Growing Up on a Farm and Appreciating Tomatoes

TheGardenLady just finished reading Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. I decided to read this book not only because the cover said it was voted One Of The Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review but because TheGardenLady wanted to learn what life was like on an Iowa Farm during the Great Depression. This Garden Lady grew up on a farm, but fortunately it was after that Depression. Still I felt certain that some of the things the author remembered would be similar to the way I had grown up. So here was the opportunity to be nostalgic as I read someone else’s nostalgia.

And there were many similarities. For example, the frugality of life on Mildred’s family farms was just like my family’s. We never wasted anything- just like Mildred’s family, my parents could not afford waste. We never threw out anything. For example, when we had accumulated a pile of ruined or old rags my mother cut them up and crocheted them into floor rugs (see here).  We had linoleum on the floors that was easier to clean than carpeting, but when company came, we could put down these hand made rugs to have the house look more decorative. Mildred did not mention anyone in her family making these rag rugs.

Like Mildred’s family almost everything we ate came off the farm. My mother canned every vegetable and fruit we had on our farm and even canned the slaughtered ducks. I had never heard of anyone else preserving fowl this way. Even though we had electricity in the house my mother preferred to do the baking and canning on our old cast iron stove that had been converted from wood burning to kerosene burning. I loved that old stove and dreamed one day of building a kitchen around it. But it was not to be because my mother, not knowing I coveted it, sold it to an antiques dealer. Some lucky person must have it to this day.

We had electricity in the house but I remember when electric lights came to the main street of the farm town where I grew up – the row of lights ending across from our house. Before these lamps were installed, at night it had been what we called “pitch black” outdoors; yet the stars in the night sky were magical. A favorite pastime I had as a child was lying on the ground in the summer looking for and counting “falling stars” or “shooting stars” (which are really meteoroids) or trying to locate the constellations. The wonderful night sky is one of the things that I miss most in these modern times. Now with so much electricity lighting up our skies, I don’t know where one can see the stars so clearly. I know a favorite site for astronomers is the observatory in the mountains of Chile but I doubt that I will ever get there in my lifetime.

Even though our farm was a really small farm, unlike the farms that Mildred Kalish’s family owned in Iowa, we still had a small dairy which my mother took charge of – milking the cows and making her own cottage (called pot or farmer’s) cheese, sour cream, butter and buttermilk. I still have the butter churn. My mother’s dairy produced such wonderful products that friends wanted to buy them. They brought in some much needed revenue. Mildred’s family seemed to use a lot more heavy cream than we did, I guess because my mother made a lot of sour cream that could last a longer time for us. As much as I enjoy yogurt, I much prefer sour cream on my baked potato or with strawberries or blueberries. We did not make yogurt on the farm and I didn’t like it until I tasted it in the Middle East where it seems be be more sour than the stuff they call yogurt in the supermarkets in the US.

Enough about my personal nostalgia. You can read the book if you want to learn something about what it was like growing up on a farm- and to know some of what I experienced as a child.

However, the reason I mention the book is because Mildred Kalish mentions her favorite tomato. These days, the tomatoes one buys in the stores are so dreadful that most people are trying to find that elusive delicious tomato in farmers’ markets or trying to raise them in their garden.

And that is also why tomato breeders have been trying to breed some of the old tomatoes. That was why everyone was so excited when Rutgers came out with the Ramapo tomato.

Though tomatoes were one of the cash crops my parents raised, I did not know which tomatoes my parents planted. We never spoke about Heirloom tomatoes. We raised whatever tomatoes were available to the farmers and those tomatoes we grew, we thought were ambrosial. In fact, I am sure my husband married me only because of these wonderful tomatoes. By getting the tomato farmer’s daughter, he thought he would ensure a lifetime supply of his favorite fruit. But alas and alack, that was not to be. I did not remember the names of the tomatoes my parents had raised or they were no longer bred and since my parents had not saved any seeds, they were lost to me.  So I found it interesting that Mildred Kalish writes about the Abraham Lincoln tomato that her grandfather loved. She said that is the tomato she still plants. Abraham Lincoln tomatoes are indeterminate tomatoes which means they grow and produce tomatoes all summer long, up until the frost. These plants can grow as tall as 12 ft. so they have to have substantial staking.  See here.

I googled up this Heirloom tomato and found that you could get it from numerous sites, but one site that captured TheGardenLady’s fancy was Swallowtail Garden Seeds.  I liked the name of the company. I liked that they had the Abraham Lincoln tomato, plus many other heirloom tomatoes, which I plan on trying next summer. And I liked that they had seeds for some wonderful perennials and some flowering vines. TheGardenLady now has an arbor that has one clematis growing on it. Swallowtail Garden Seeds has seeds for a red passion vine that I would like to plant with the fragrant white morning glory that they sell.

Check out the Swallowtail Garden Seeds site if you are looking for some interesting seeds and let TheGardenLady readers know what you think of this site.

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