Revisiting the Traditional

photos of farmers cerca 1920

Written By

Ginger Nickerson

Written on

June 01 , 2007

Imagine a place where 98% of households keep vegetable gardens, 97% have cows and poultry, 93% grow potatoes, 58% raise pigs and 54% have apple trees – all to provide food for the home.

Imagine a place where maple syrup from the backyard provides sweetener for households, where hard cider from fresh apples provides continual refreshment, and where most local produce, berries and meat can be enjoyed year-round thanks to canning, pickling, and cellar storage.

This place is closer to home than you might think. Only, it was central Vermont in 1923, not 2007. A study of the Randolph and Royalton area conducted that year by the UVM Agricultural Experiment Station came up with this data, and it demonstrates that rural Vermont families of just a few generations ago had no difficulty finding “local food” – it was all around them.

These days, concerns about our diminishing oil supply are causing many Vermonters to revisit the idea of community self-sufficiency. Groups of “Localvores” – people who choose to eat as much food as possible from within 100 miles of their home – are sprouting up around the state. Can knowledge about the diets of our recent ancestors provide us with some inspiration and ideas?

Two foods central to the New England diet in the early 20th century (and back to pre-colonial times) were beans and corn. New England housewives frequently engaged in the ritual of cooking dried beans to make baked beans.  The beans would be soaked and left to simmer for one night, often on a Friday, then baked all day in the oven on the following day.  The staple food in many Vermont homes on Saturday night was baked soldier, Jacob’s cattle, or yellow-eye beans. Many families still have their grandmothers’ special ceramic bean pots. 

Corn appeared frequently in the forms of cornmeal mush, cornbread (“Johnnycake”), or succotash.  Vermonters cultivated two types of corn: sweet corns, such as Golden Bantam, that were eaten fresh off of the cob or stripped from the cob and either cooked in succotash or canned, and flint corns. Flint corns have hard kernels that must be dried and ground for cornmeal. People would use flint corn for human consumption as cornmeal and as a grain for their livestock.

Other products, such as potatoes, eggs, dried beans and parsnips, were often traded for goods at the local store. In fact, many seniors in Vermont today still refer to doing their grocery shopping as doing their “trading.” In those days, rural families purchased only foods they could not produce on their own, such as flour, salt, spices, and dried cod. As one older Vermonter stated: “If you went to a store, you bought stuff you couldn’t make.”

Providing food for the family also dictated how rural residents spent their time.  Household activities were often organized around planting, weeding, berrying, harvesting, threshing and canning.  In the fall, dried beans were threshed and sorted, apples were cored and dried, sweet corn was canned, and flint corn was husked and hung from rafters, or taken to the gristmill to be ground for meal. Much time was devoted to “putting up” or processing food for the winter.  Almost all produce, berries and even meats could be canned or pickled.  Storable vegetables such as winter squashes, leeks and onions, cabbage, potatoes and other root crops were sequestered in the root cellar. 

During the winter people were limited to eating salt pork, dried cod from New England waters, foods that had been canned or dried, and potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.  Farmwomen would boil a large kettle of potatoes one day, then serve fried potatoes with breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.  Families would also boil root crops with corned beef for a New England boiled dinner.  The next day they would use the leftovers to make red flannel hash – the red color coming from the beets they added to the dish.

By the time spring arrived, people were looking forward to eating something green. The first foods to come out of the ground were parsnips that had sweetened over the winter, dandelion greens, wild nettles and fiddleheads. Because of their high winter intake of fatty foods such as salt pork and chipped beef, people looked to spring foods as cleansers. Dandelion and grated horseradish root were among the foods considered great “spring tonics.”

The advantage we have over Vermonters in the 1920’s is that we don’t have to grind our own flint corn or eat a winter diet restricted to potatoes and corned beef.  While growing our own food can be a soul-satisfying experience, we can also find fresh local food by shopping at area farmers’ markets, joining CSA’s, or enjoying a quiet evening picking berries at a local U-pick farm. In the process, we may discover new recipes, meet interesting new people, or feel more deeply rooted in the local landscape that sustained our ancestors so well – and that can sustain us into the future.

Photo from the Library of Congress, photographer unknown, circa 1916

About the Author

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson gardens in the cold pocket of Worcester, where she dreams of someday cultivating tropical plants. Green Mountain bananas, anyone?

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Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.