When I was growing up in California, I had the advantage, though I didn’t think so at the time, of having a father who was born in 1897 in the hills of West Virginia. Very much a survivor of many a calamity, he was the chief cook in my house from 1950- 1973 when he died at the age of 76. My mother was a busy US government career woman having a college education and no intention of rearing children while my father was able to do it just fine as he was already retired. This was some advanced thinking in the 50’s I can tell you.
For a long time I thought we must be the poorest family in the neighbourhood. My father would sit on the front porch, shucking fresh peas or snapping garden fresh green beans in two while he either smoked a pipe or chewed a wad of tobacco for his pleasure. He used to spit the chewing tobacco onto a corner of the lawn where the grass never did grow.
Suddenly, he would jump up and head toward a random crop of dandelion weeds that were growing in the front lawn. Here and there, he would collect the greens until he had a meal’s worth in a small bundle tucked into his shirt pocket. I thought at the time, “Wow, we really must be poor. We have to eat the grass!” Truth be known, he was just frugal. He hated wasting money and would never spend a penny on restaurant food when he could cook well enough at home.
I remember once in the 70’s that we had won a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken as a consolation prize. Even though it was free, we had to hide the empty bucket in the bin or he would erupt. But he found the cardboard remains and demanded an explanation. “But it was free!” we exclaimed and he replied, index finger in the air, “There is no better fried chicken than right here at 1833 Key Blvd, El Cerrito, California!” We had fried chicken for a week until we understood.
As my father was a great cook, we grew up on black-eyed peas, hominy grits, fried corn meal mush (polenta nowadays), ham hocks and greens of all kinds – Swiss chard, collard greens, kale, cabbage – you name it, we ate it. None of my friends were growing up on such a diet in the 60’s and I was always embarrassed when I would bring a friend home after school. My dad would be cooking up a storm at 3:30 in the afternoon and wouldn’t we just all like a mess of grits with red eye gravy as an afternoon treat! Oh the humiliation. No snacks, white bread, Velveeta cheese or soda pop to be found in our kitchen, no sir.
My Dad got his culinary training from his grandparents at the turn of the century when they lived in a four-room log house with a kitchen about thirty feet away from the house. This old farm produced everything that a family needed for living at that time. They had sugar trees and they hued troughs out of logs to catch the sap to make their own sugar. The woods gave them most of their meat. And there was plenty of wild turkey, squirrel, opossum, raccoon, groundhog and the occasional bear and deer.
Berries of all kinds grew in abundance but fruit jars were little known in those days, so much of the fruit had to be dried to preserve for the winter months. They had an abundance of chestnuts, black walnuts, white walnuts and hazel nuts which were gathered and stored in the fall for winter use. Apples and pears were dried in the sunshine and some apples were buried in the ground as well as turnips, potatoes and other vegetables for the winter diet.
They had their own smoked pork and the very well-to-do had dried beef. Running water ran down off the hill through a trough hued out of a small tree called a ‘saplin’ which carried the water from the branch (a small creek) to the place where you could place a bucket under the stream to catch the water. Their refrigerator was a place hued out of a solid rock about 4 inches deep and they would run the water from the branch through this place which had a small log cabin over it, called the milk house. They needed it in the summer time but in the winter most of the milk was kept in the kitchen in crocks on a shelf.
Of course, they made their own butter and always had plenty of milk, butter and cottage cheese but sometimes bread was quite a short item. I can still remember the taste of the farm style homemade butter and cottage cheese made by my still active 90 year old grandmother and it was nothing like the store bought version.
When it comes to greens, we did develop a taste for them even as children. Well, we had to or we would be going hungry. Grits are still a favourite. But I will share one of my Dad’s best recipes for greens which was a common dish in my house. To this day it remains one of my favourite comfort dishes.
Greens with bacon, onion and lemon
Fry off a few slices of streaky bacon (you will need the fat) with ½ a chopped up onion in a frying pan. I always use a large cast iron pan for this dish but an enamelled casserole pot on the stove top will do just fine too.
When onions and bacon are browned, pile in the well rinsed and chopped chard or kale (or a mixture of both) into the pan with the onions and bacon. It will look like a great mound but will soon reduce into the pan. The stems will need to be cut fine enough to cook quickly. Don’t leave them out!
Toss with the bacon and onion until reduced but still bright in colour. Add a bit of olive oil or small amount of stock if it is sticking to the pan. No sense in over cooking the greens they only need a few minutes over medium heat. Add salt and pepper to taste and squeeze ½ of a lemon (a must) over the top at the very end.
You can add some shredded cheese on top, an egg or two if it is for breakfast and top off with a stream of Sriracha hot sauce to bring it into this hemisphere and the 21st century. This is a handy recipe for a pie or quiche filling too. Just leave the bacon out if you are from the vegetarian camp. Now that’s real comfort food.