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A Gift of Kentucky (Food) History

Snowy BranchI  ran into a favorite anthropology professor, John van Willigen, at a recent Slow Food Bluegrass event, and realized I had last seen him at a different Kentucky food event, so I asked about his interest in Kentucky food. John told me he and his daughter, Anne van Willigen, a regional consultant for Kentucky's Department of Libraries and Archives, had written a book, Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920 - 1950, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2002. (For this and many other wise decisions, I thank the UPK.) John and Anne's frame for the book is as straight and clear as a Shaker barn. They fill the framework with the voices of Kentuckians, drawn from hundreds of oral interviews, most of them part of the Kentucky Family Farm Oral History Project.  I want to share a few bracing-as-red-eye-gravy paragraphs from this book, in case you need a mid-winter anti-nostalgia remedy. (If I could vote one emotion off the Island of Everyday Life, it would be nostalgia - totally worthless!)

In the van Willigens' Chapter 4, "Farmwork," we can listen as Kentuckians describe their cycle of work from January through December each year. Here are the January entries, pages 71 -72:

"You lambed in January [to the] last of February. See you want to get that spring lamb. That's when the top price of the lamb is, and the age, or get 'em around that 100 pounds or a little better for the spring lamb. That was the ideal time." (Eugene M. Kiser, Bourbon County).

"And so it [was] usually after January they'd start looking at the seed catalogs to buy the seed that they wanted to buy. And then very soon after they came they would plant some indoors. But mostly they would plant it outdoors." (Mary Eleanor Isgrig, Bourgon County).

"They started it really early. My grandmother would plant her lettuce on January 6th." (Mary Creech, Harlan County).

"Course back in those days, you burnt tobacco beds, you know. Then you'd get the wood up whenever, in the early part of the spring, or February or January if you got pretty days and so forth, why you'd get a bunch of tobacco wood up." (Kiser).

"January and February if the weather was considered favorable for outside, we cut wood, 'cause we cut wood with a crosscut saw." (Ralph Lobb, Hart County).

I have no longing to be outside tonight, helping lambs (or colts, or calves) into this world -- but I am glad other people are doing that in Kentucky tonight, heirs to the knowledge and commitment of the ones who have gone before us. I've already had a look or two at seeds for this year. I wouldn't be much use on either end of a crosscut saw, but I value the idea of energy self-sufficiency and hope to move in that direction myself this year.

My point, if I can sharpen it a bit, is appreciation for our ancestors and their lives, and an interest in bringing forward their wisdom where possible, without wishing for a return of those times or all those ways. We can cherish, learn, and move forward, and I believe we are. We move forward more wisely when we have the benefit of authentic voices that paint a rich picture of the challenges and pleasures, both, in their lives. That is the gift John van Willigen and Anne van Willigen offer in this book, and in their contributions to the oral histories on which it is based.

Photo Credit: dra_schwartz. Thank you!

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