I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.
In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?
What was going on was everyday life at that time.
The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.
One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.
Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.
Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.
The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.
Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.
In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.
Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.
Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.
Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.
Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.
Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.
As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.