The food’s the thing, no matter what season it is

The phenomenon of working mothers seems considered by many to be a relatively new one, but anyone who grew up on a farm lived with a working mother, whether she left the farm to work part- or full-time in an office or factory or whether she raised chickens to sell eggs, gardened, and did the other things farm wives and mothers do.

My wife and I are, I understand from stories that pop up from time to time, unusual in that both of us grew up in 1950s households where our mothers held full-time jobs outside the home—both working as small business bookkeepers.

I got to thinking about the subject because of food. My wife suggests this is the usual motivation for my thought process on virtually any subject. Take Delaware: crab boil. The Chesapeake Bay area: crab cakes. Columbus, Ohio: Schmidt’s German Restaurant. Missouri: barbecue. Kansas City: Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue (Bryant’s is to barbecue as Tiffany is to diamond watches—only more so). Iowa: Maid-Rites; Ottumwa, IA: Canteens (which are to Maid-Rites as Bryant’s BBQ is to a McRib). California: don’t go there; they can’t even make decent pizza.

Our farm out in Wheatland Township a few years before we moved.

So anyway, I was thinking about food. My wife, during her working years as an elementary school learning center director, perfected cooking supper in no more than 20 minutes, and even better, making things we both really liked.

After my family moved off the farm to town back in 1954, my mother, on the other hand, prepared food that was virtually identical to the things we ate when we lived on the farm, despite working a full 40-hour week. No one ever accused my wife of being a sluggard, but my mother was a sort of human dynamo who took her housework duties very seriously indeed and who loved cooking, eating and get this—washing dishes!

Somehow, every morning before I left for school, she cooked a full breakfast: cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, juice…the works. That, of course, was left over from our days on the farm. Back in those days, my folks got up early, dad off to feeding livestock and milking our cow (when we had one) and my mom down to the kitchen where she baked a pie and started preparing breakfast for my dad, my two sisters and me, so that my sisters could catch the bus for school. By the time my dad came in to eat, he’d already been up for a couple hours doing hard work, and he was hungry. A full breakfast always included pie for dessert. Because we always had dessert.

Somehow, somebody got my mom to stop for a moment for this photo taken at my folks’ 25th anniversary celebration after we moved into town. Those are my two sisters and my dad, with me in the middle looking for some cake.

At noon, there was no lunch on the farm—dinner was at noon. After we moved to town, I was surprised to find that city folks called their evening meal dinner. It was supposed to be called supper, of course. Dinner was at noon. After all, “Dinner Bell Time,” the popular farm radio show on WLS radio out of Chicago, wasn’t called “Lunch Bell Time,” was it? And the “Suppertime Frolic” that my sisters listened to on WJJD every evening as they were doing dishes was at night and it certainly wasn’t called “Dinnertime Frolic.”

Supper was often left-overs from dinner. A lunch was something you had after school or before you went to bed to stave off starvation until it was time to get up and start doing chores again.

After we moved to town, mom still cooked those full breakfasts, so I went to school well filled with good food like all the experts say you’re supposed to. When I left the house every morning, all the dishes were done, and the kitchen nicely tidied up as mom left for her office job and dad headed off to sell livestock feed to farmers. Mother cooked dinner at night after we moved to town, although the number of full course meals was cut down. But she liked to eat, as did my father, although he lived with serious health problems most of his life. With all the pain and discomfort, eating was one thing he could still enjoy without reservation.

We moved off the farm into this house, built in 1908 by my great-grandparents.

So in the late 1950s, those non-working mothers on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” were not what I experienced. Instead, my mother worked outside the home, and then came home to work much the same way she had on the farm. She still canned fruit and vegetables in summer, cleaned house, washed the family’s clothes, and cooked, all at top speed.

Modern moms work hard too, and have even more going on because there is so much more for their kids to be involved in. Just go to the grocery store on a Friday night and watch the working moms trudge in and out, leaning forward as if struggling against a stiff wind, slowed by a week’s worth of hard work and the prospect of a weekend trying to catch up.


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