When we were growing up around Laytonville in the 1900s, Papa used to say that folks in California need never go hungry if they have piece of ground and are willing and able to work. But there were some kinds of food we didn't have to work very hard to get, like the deer and squirrels the men folks brought in from the range. Unless you call hunting work, which they didn't.
Fish was another kind of food that we didn't work hard to get. Papa said the men who went salmon fishing down on Outlet Creek didn’t call fishing work either, even though the trip took the whole night long. The Outlet was a stream that poured down from the mountains into the Eel River and then into the Pacific ocean. At a certain time every year great big salmon worked their way several miles up out of the ocean to lay their eggs in fresh water. It was during that season that Papa and some of the neighbors went fishing.
They fished at night. They left our place in late afternoon in wagons loaded with their rubber boots, harpoons, torch lights, gunny sacks, a change of clothes, and lots of food. The torch lights were sort of boxes made of chicken wire mounted on long poles and filled with pine knots that had lots of resin in them to make a bright flame.
As soon as the fishermen reached the river they set up their torches along the bank and built a big fire to help light the water so they could see the fish. Then wearing their hip boots and carrying harpoons they waded out into the icy water to wait. When the big silver fish came swimming up toward them everybody went crazy trying to get his harpoon into one of them. Harpooning the fish was one thing, Poppa said. But holding onto the harpoon and bringing the fish to shore was the hard part. That 35 or 40 pounds of muscle was fighting you every inch of the way and splashing enough water to float a battleship.
When everyone made his catch or gave up trying they put the fish into gunnysacks and themselves into dry clothes, loaded their gear, drank coffee and ate everything in site and started the long drive home. One fish made a lot of salmon steaks which we ate as fast as Mama could fry them. I think we smoked some salmon also but didn't salt any down.
The third kind of food we didn't have to work hard to get was honey. Papa cleaned and repaired two beehives he had found out beyond the granary and somebody gave us a colony of honey bees to put into one of them. The bees went right to work making honeycombs and honey to put in them. When Papa thought they had made enough for us and them too he took one full comb out of the hive. After Mama drained out the honey he put the comb back in the hive. That made sense because then the bees could spend their time making money instead of combs to store it in.
When a new queen was born about half of the colony followed her out of the hive looking for a new home. We heard the buzzing just as we set down to dinner.
"Bees swarming!" Papa yelled. "Get your pots and pans out there and start banging or we'll lose them!" In no time Mama had draped mosquito netting over Papa’s hat and face and tied string around his sleeves and pant legs and the cuffs of his heavy work gloves to keep the bees out of his clothes.
When we first spotted the bees they were a loose swarm high in the air down by the orchard. We set up such a banging on milk cans and skillets you couldn’t hear yourself think. Right away they settled on a dead limb, a brown, buzzing, breathing bunch bigger than a chamber pot just out of Papa’s reach. While Ralph ran to open up the empty hive, Carl brought the ladder, Papa climbed it, and with both hands lifted the swarm off the limb. He carried it down the ladder and up around the house, and finally set it down gently into the hive or in front of the hive.
Papa said folks learned long ago that pounding pots and pans fools bees into thinking a storm is coming and they will swarm during a storm. That's why they settled on the limb almost as soon as we started banging. He said we didn't get many bee stings because the bees filled up there honey bags to go swarming, and with those bags full they had a hard time using their stingers. With two colonies of bees working we had all the honey we could eat, sometimes even honey in the comb which we especially liked. Mama canned strained honey to take to the store for trade.
Other kind of food didn't come so easily. Vegetables for example. Every spring and fall the boys hauled manure from the stable and cow barn to spread on the great big vegetable garden on the slope below the house. From planting time till harvest we all took turns working in that garden.
From the first mess of early peas and potatoes until pumpkin time we ate out of that garden and orchard nearby. All summer long we stored and canned and pickled and dried and made fruit butter and jelly until we had enough food put away to feed two or three families. Mama liked a good tart apple for jelly. Sometimes she used a leaf of Martha Washington geranium or nasturium to add to the flavor. She said her mother strained her jelly through flannel to make it real clear. But Mama didn't and we thought her jellies were beautiful.
Another source of food the year-round was chickens and turkeys. At night we penned in the chickens for fear of varmints like coons, skunks, coyotes and foxes. We didn't pen up the turkeys: they were safe in the trees nearby where they preferred to roost. Day times they all had the run of the place, finding food around the barns and in the fields.
Mama put choice eggs under brood hens and raise lots of chickens. If chicks were hatching out one by one during a rainy spell momma brought them cheeping into the warm kitchen and kept them in a basket lined with an old gray wooden shawl until the whole brood was hatched out and the mother hen could look after them. We ate most of the young roosters, sparing only a few to trade for young roosters from neighbor flocks. To improve the flock of laying hens we always saved the best of the young hens and culled out and ate the poor layers among the older hens. Mama raised turkeys the same way only not nearly as many. Baby turkeys were even more delicate than chicks.
We didn't care much for the big strong-tasting turkey eggs which were almost as freckled, the boys said teasingly, as I was. But we did like the chicken eggs, so during the summer when hens were laying well Mama put dozens of eggs into big crockery jars and poured waterglass over them. Waterglass formed a coating over the eggs which kept the air out of the shells so they wouldn't rot. They did not rot. But along about March they didn't taste exactly new-laid either. My sister Ethel fussed because the egg whites wouldn't beat up nice and stiff for cake-making like fresh eggs did. You would never know the difference though when they were fried in bacon fat or scrambled with cornmeal mush.
Our milk cows provided us with all the milk, cream, butter and cheese we could use and more. But not without a lot of work. Mama molded butter for sale or trade at the store into one-pound packages using an oblong wooden press with a hinged back. She made great big round cheeses too which she put into frames and set to cure at the head of the stairs. I don't remember how she made that cheese except that she used rennet tablets to curdle the milk.
Another kind of cheese Mama and everybody else made was called smear case. To make smear case, Mama heated sour milk until it clabbered. Then she poured it into a cloth bag and hung it up over a bucket to drain. When the whey (the watery part of the milk) had drained out, Mama poured it into a crock and added salt and cream. And the calves and pigs got the whey. One time a German ranch hand at our table said the right name for that cheese was "Schmier Kase," not smear case. Papa snorted and said that smear case was good enough for him, and “Pass it please!” We'd have felt silly calling it by that outlandish name.
I think getting pork on the table took more work than any other kind of food. You had to raise the pig and feed him until he got to be a big hog then you had to butcher him. There was an awful lot going on when we butchered so I didn't see all of it. But this is what I remember. We always butchered on a cold day in November. The whole family plus a neighbor or two pitched in to help because all the outdoor part of the work had to be done in one day.
One year about butchering time Mama told us about a pet pig named Joe that somebody gave her for a wedding present. Pigs are smarter than most animals, Papa said. Joe was smarter than most pigs, Mama said. He was so smart and cute and playful that Mama forgot that he was the big fat hog they’d counted on to provide meat and lard enough to see them through the winter. Then one awful day Papa reminded her.
Papa said butchering Joe was like murder. "Broke your Mama’s heart," he said. "She never swallowed a bite of that meat.” Taught him never to get too friendly with a hog if you’re planning to eat it. "Like right here," he said, "we're going to have to go down there and shoot that hog we been feeding and talking to everyday, drag his carcass up onto a sled, haul it around to the kitchen yard, dunk it in a barrel of boiling water, pull it out onto a table, scrape the hike clean of hair, then cut it up."
The men did all of that and trimmed, ready for smoking, the hams and shoulders and part of the belly that would be bacon. I don't remember when Papa added salt to that meat. We put the other part of the belly down in strong brine and called that salt pork or sow belly. Mama always seasoned her baked beans with salt pork. The chops and roasts that we couldn't eat right away we gave to the neighbors. They paid us back with the same cuts when they butchered.
To smoke the meat we hung it from the ceiling of the little smokehouse above a hickory fire which Papa and the boys took turns keeping going night and day. I don't remember how many nights and days.
During the butching we had a slow fire under the big iron kettle and tossed all the fat trimmings into it to melt out the fat. (“Trying out the fat,” Mama called it.) Somebody had to keep stirring the mess until it was ready to be strained into buckets. The liquid part that went through the strainer was our lard. The leftover part we called crackings. Sometimes Mama cooked cracklings with cornmeal mush, but I think the dogs liked crackling to better than we did.
The leaner trimmings we carried into the kitchen where Mama set us to turning the handle on the grinder to make sausage meat. After she had worked salt, pepper and sage into the meat with her hands, she let us help make meat patties which she fried just enough to heat them through. Then we cooled them and laid them by the dozens into great deep jars and poured hot grease over them. When cooled the grease formed a coating over the patties to keep them fresh.
Mama held back some of the sausage meat to make mincemeat. If she had any venison she would add that to the ground pork and seasoned the mixture with raisins, apples, spices, suet, sugar and I don't know what else. What a lovely smell it had, simmering on the back of the stove before Mama sealed it up in fruit jars for mince pies.
Mama said some folks thought pigs knuckles were the best part of the hog. And they were good the way she pickled of them. The liver was good too, fried in bacon fat with onions. The heart, stuffed with turkey dressing and baked or floured and smothered in a covered frying pan was good too. The tongue was boiled with bay leaves, skinned and served cold. Mama made head cheese out of what was left of the head. She called it cheese but it was more like a jelly. I don't remember how she prepared it.
The boys cleaned off the hog’s bladder real well then tied it at one and, blew it up, tied it at the other end and had a football or balloon while it lasted. We saved every part of the hog except the squeal, Papa said. And next year he’d try to think up some way to save that.