My grandmother would have been bewildered if someone had suggested she was a homesteader, radical homemaker, or foodie. She certainly didn’t know she was living the Lehman’s lifestyle. This Mennonite farmer’s wife was just living the way she always had. Yet her life centered around food in a way that is utterly alien to most modern cooks.
Grandma’s way of life was evident the moment you set foot in her home. A boxy, olive-green food dehydrator perched just inside the entryway, source of the much-anticipated pear leather that arrived at our doorstep each Christmas in neat, plastic-wrapped bundles.
Next to that was the marble slab where Grandma ladled out steaming sugar syrup that hardened into cinnamon-flavored hardtack candy.
A small metal grain mill was clamped to the end of the counter near a plastic yogurt maker, and beyond that was the pantry, lined with jars of sweet yellow cherries, stewed beef, giant butter beans and tomatoes from her bountiful garden.
Grandma always welcomed us with a hug, her wrinkled face beaming as she led us into the living room to visit. She usually stopped along the way to fish a few homemade molasses cookies out of the cookie jar for us. My brothers and I nibbled our cookies and fidgeted on the couch for a few minutes before asking if we could go collect the eggs. We tiptoed through the chicken pen, hunting for the brown and blue-tinted treasures. After delivering our finds to Grandma, we ran off to play, stopping occasionally to pluck a few blueberries, grapes or Cascade berries, investigate a dripping bundle of cottage cheese curds hanging from the clothesline or sniff a crock of fermenting sauerkraut.
Sometimes we’d watch or even help as Grandma butchered a few roosters for a chicken dinner, deftly defeathering them and removing the innards. If we were lucky, that dinner might be followed by hand-cranked chocolate ice cream made with farm-fresh milk. But the best meal of all, and the slowest in the making, was breakfast the morning after a fishing trip. We’d haul our buckets of bluegill back and clean them. The next morning we’d devour the crispy fish hot out of the frying pan, trying not to burn our fingers as we picked out the bones. There is not, in my opinion, a better breakfast in the world.
Grandma’s kitchen continues to inspire my culinary efforts to this day. While my thumbs are considerably less green than hers–or at least considerably lazier–I learned this from Grandma Nona: there is value in taking the time to procure and prepare good food and to savor it with family and friends. Grandma knew that real food is a way of living, relationship, entertainment and nourishment all rolled into one. This is part of her legacy and I hope I can pass it on to the next generation as well.
Sidebar: After Grandma passed away, I inherited her well-worn copy of Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living. This timeless book is still giving great advice today!