Guest Essay: Season-extension guru/baby ginger whisperer/sustainability advocate/superb baker Alison Wiediger tells how she learned to cook
Note: Today we publish the last of six finalists' essays from our 2012 writing competition, “How did you learn to cook?” Au Naturel Farm owner Alison Wiediger of Smith's Grove, Kentucky cannot comfortably fit inside just one sentence. Her knowledge and experience with food spans soil to sauté pan to speech-making. Alison bakes wondrous artisanal bread, sold at the producer-only SKY Market in Bowling Green during the growing season, or delivered to your house the rest of the year. From November to April each year, Alison and her husband, Paul Wiediger, grow, sell, and deliver winter lettuces, greens, and other vegetables, plus spectacular, tender baby ginger in high tunnels—unheated, plastic-sided shelters that Au Naturel Farm began using earlier than anyone else I know.
One way I identify Alison Wiediger is "generous educator." She and Paul wrote a book years ago that explained high tunnel construction and production in practical detail. They teach and encourage high tunnel production in workshops at the Farm, at conferences, and through their website. Alison once came early to the weekly Cornbread Supper to talk with people interested in high tunnel vegetable production. The Au Naturel website offers useful information for growers on every page. What Alison and Paul learn, they share. Which brings us all the way back to her essay on learning to cook from being around her grandparents, who grew their own food and cooked it beautifully. Enjoy Alison's essay, and take her experiences to heart by inviting some young people into your kitchen and garden as often as you can.
How I Learned to Cook
By Alison Wiediger
How did I learn to cook? Hmmm, thinking that far back…
When it comes to being a good cook, I am very fortunate to have been born in the South, and during a time when cooking was still an accomplishment of which to be very proud. I was also most fortunate to have had a set of grandparents who still farmed, in a diversified way that has almost disappeared. My father’s parents were tenant grain farmers in Daviess County, KY, and we lived in Bowling Green. Close enough for the farm to be an important part of my childhood.
My grandfather not only raised grain, but also had a small beef herd and a few pigs. My grandmother had her laying hens and in the summer, raised meat chickens as well. They also collaborated on a large garden each year, and had some wild places for blackberries, persimmons and such. All was shared with us. Spring was for coolers full of strawberries, bursting with flavor, for jams and preserves. Summer brought corn for our freezer. Not sweet corn, but “roasin’ears” – field corn in those two or three days of milk stage. I was an adult before I realized we were saying “roasting ears”. Whatever, it was delicious! Late summer, as a family, we had a day when we butchered chickens. I was about two or three the first time I participated. My job was to catch the fryers. And, in the fall, pork and beef. My grandfather cured the hams and shoulders himself…then smoked them. Wow, what food I ate as a child! And, what a disappointment when I grew and had to buy from supermarkets!
And, from my grandmother, I learned to cook. At that time, in the early sixties, she was still a “scratch” cook. Every morning, she made biscuits for breakfast while my grandfather did morning chores. I remember her putting flour into a bowl, getting lard from a drawer in the refrigerator, and adding enough liquid for a dough. She rolled them out with an old glass soda bottle, and cut them with a tin can. I still cut my biscuits – which by the way, are very very good – with a tin can with one end cut out.
After breakfast, she cooked a huge noon meal for the men. It always included one or more meats, vegetables from the garden, and cornbread. The vegetables were whatever was ready to harvest, and she picked into her apron (I never saw her in pants, always a dress). The cornbread was simple, corn, egg, salt, baking powder and liquid, and fried in a cast iron skillet. I still have her skillets and they are prized possessions. And, for dessert, often, a blackberry cobbler. Also simple, so simple the recipe stayed with me: one cup flour (she used self-rising), one cup of water stirred in, pour into a hot pan with melted butter, fruit scattered on top, bake until brown and crusty.
I watched and learned and was inspired. She used very few recipes. Very few ingredients except what they grew. Simple preparations that let the fruits and vegetables stand on their own and shine. I still cook that way. Oh yeah, I try some fancy recipes occasionally. When I bake bread for sale, I weigh each ingredient for consistency. I have added whole grains and vegetables my grandparents probably never even saw. But, when I make biscuits, cornbread, cobbler and the like, I can still see my grandmother just “throwing it together”. And my favorite meals are still the ones where I carry a basket to the fields, harvest what is ready, and prepare it in the simplest fashion – letting the food “shine”.