Midwest Today, March 1994
As a wife, mother, homemaker, newspaper columnist, author and former radio personality on KMA in Shenandoah, IA., Evelyn Birkby has, for many years, enchanted a wide audience with her honest chatty ways, warm stories and wonderful recipes from Mill Creek Valley in southwestern Iowa,
In her new tome, "Up a Country Lane Cookbook" (University of Iowa Press), Mrs. Birkby recalls the noble simplicity of farm life in the 1940s and '50s - a life that has all but vanished.
For those readers who lived through that era, or younger people with only a vague knowledge of the period, Mrs. Birkby's book of reminiscence covers such experiences as:
Evelyn Birkby also recalls groceries and frozen-food lockers, raising chickens, milking cows, gardening, haying, social clubs, holidays, rural churches, country schools and farm auctions.
Birkby's sentimentality is relieved by her realistic perspective on those times.
"As we look back from the present, farm life in the 1940s and 1950s often appears idyllic," she notes. "But underneath the pastoral exterior were threats of storms, droughts, ruined crops, low prices, sickness and accidents.
"A family on a small farm could have more than its share of isolation, loneliness and constant need for hard, physical labor," Birkby concedes. "So the memories of simple, happy events and celebrations must realistically be tempered by the struggles endured."
The country lane in the title of the book refers to the unpaved road leading to Cottonwood Farm, a 120-acre homestead that Mrs. Birkby and her husband, Bob, rented from 1948 to 1954.
Of course, her book is also packed with scores of tempting recipes, and she tells, for instance, how to cook a meal of Plum-Glazed Baked Chicken, Elegant Peas, Creamed Cabbage and Seven-Grain Bread, then finish it off with Frosted Ginger Creams with Fluffy Frosting.
Mrs. Birkby explains that "like the soil, the varied heritage's of our neighbors gave the area a culture and a cuisine all its own. Farm women prepared the Old Country recipes their mothers and grandmothers had taught them. Shared at church potlucks, social gatherings, and neighborhood holiday dinners, those recipes evolved over the years, flowing and changing through the generations to become a distinctly Midwestern way of preparing food. In rural Middle America, the melting pot had become a cooking kettle."
Evelyn has a chapter in which she talks about the reasons for gardening and describes her first unsuccessful attempts at doing it.
"The garden grown by a farm family was not a modest hobby enjoyed during leisure hours," Mrs. Birkby writes. "Rather, it was a vital part of farm production, saving the family money on their food budget and sustaining them through times when income from crops and livestock was low."
Life was not easy then, that's for sure. "Farm women worked so many long hours at home that they ordinarily did not have time to drive back and forth to visit their neighbors for morning coffee, afternoon tea, or casual encounters," Evelyn remembers. "Their social contacts focused on Saturday evening trips to town, working on church projects, Sundays spent with relatives, and attending an occasional auction sale. Among the most enjoyable opportunities to visit, however, were the meetings of the country social clubs, which the members took turns holding in their homes."
Recalling the days of party-line telephones, Evelyn Birkby writes affectionately about a woman who was "the unofficial communications center of our neighborhood party line. No matter whom a call was intended for, when the phone rang everyone knew that Myrtle would be listening, She was an important source of information about local activities," Mrs. Birkby writes, and was "more up-to-date than the newspaper, more accurate than the radio newscasters, and more aware of the concerns and joys of the people on her telephone line than any other resident of the area."
Farming methods in the '40s and '50s were of course somewhat different than they are today. For example, "Tractors in the 1940s were not equipped with cabs to protect the farmers from the weather, so [they] had to tolerate Spring showers, Summer heat, and early Winter sleet and cold," Mrs. Birkby explains. "They had no radios on their tractors, but the meadowlarks sang to them. The family dogs ran alongside to keep them company. Most farmers developed a kinship with wild creatures on their land, with the wide blue skies, the brilliant sunshine, the refreshing breezes, and the sweeping view of far horizons. Their pride increased as they rode back and forth across their fields. Whether they owned the land or just tilled it as a renter...they felt as if it all belonged to them."
One of the most intriguing chapters includes recollections of haying:
"The hottest part of the work for us was going up into the [barn] loft to make order out of the randomly dropped bales," she writes.
"As we pushed and stacked the bales in neat rows, the temperature under the caves of the barn was often above 100 degrees. Perspiration ran over our bodies, and the prickly bits of hay drifted down our shirts, into our socks, and around our waists. It was a relief to get the job done and hurry to the house to drop our sticky clothes on the back porch and head for a wash under the windmill in the tubs filled with sun-warmed water."
Undoubtedly the most poignant part of the book, which is interspersed with photos of her family and neighbors, is a chapter that assesses the hardships they all endured:
"Ill-timed rains spoiled a hay crop. Drought robbed us of a corn harvest. High winds stripped the heads from the ripening grain," Birkby writes. There were also the storms of life - the loss of friends and loved ones, including, tragically, the death of their precious five-year-old little girl, Dulcie Jean. She was abruptly stricken with a fatal heart infection.
On a brighter note, "Up A Country Lane Cookbook" is jam-packed with too many good recipes to list here. Among them are Anchor Inn Liver and Onions, Barbershop Gooseberry Pie, Applesauce Doughnuts, Country Fried Catfish, Easter Ham with Cherries, Fondant, Crystallized Popcorn, Ruth Bricker's Banana Bread, Bronzed French Toast, Stormy Weather Chili, Stuffed Zucchini, Creamed Cabbage, Marilyn's Cranberry Ice, Watermelon Pickles and Carrots with Apricots.
"At mid-century, a hard-working farm family could make a living on a hundred acres of land," Birkby notes. "Today, a farmer needs 600 to 1,000 acres to stay in business. As the costs of machinery, seeds and fertilizer increased and the prices farmers received for their crops stayed low, most small landowners and renters gave up and saw their land absorbed into larger farm operations.
"So much has changed on the land, and so many people are gone," she writes pensively. "And yet it is easy for me to close my eyes and remember those days when we were young and full of dreams. I can still see picnics in the churchyard on warm summer nights and how we all pitched in to repair the building or celebrate important events in our lives. I can still feel the joy of swaying high atop a wagon load of June hay on the way from the alfalfa field to the barn and can hear the corn pickers clanking through the fields in the golden days of Autumn."
She concludes, "In my mind I can be close again to that little girl in pigtails as she chases kittens down a hill and that little boy as he helps his daddy carry buckets of milk in from the barn."
It is this tender-hearted reverence for the golden times past that so charms and moves us now.
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