By Elise Brenner
You’ve probably heard about the farm to table experience. From hip food trucks to trendy restaurants, people participating in local food movements all across the country are bringing real food grown by real farmers to hungry people everywhere.
But what was it like when eating from farm to table was a lifestyle rather than an experience?
A Plate of Many Colors
On February 22, 2012 I interviewed Janet Williams at the Fluvanna Historical Society. Mrs. Williams grew up in Columbia, Virginia in Fluvanna County. While Mrs. Williams was growing up, Columbia was a town of about 100 people where “everybody knew everybody.”
It’s also safe to say that everybody fed everybody.
Homegrown food was central to everyday life in Columbia. As Mrs. Williams remembers, each family had a garden. Although her family’s garden was not too large, Mrs. Williams and her siblings were allowed to pick and eat anything they wanted from a neighbor’s garden.
A variety of foods were grown in Columbia’s home gardens. Families would plant butter beans, corn, tomatoes, string beans, beets, carrots, and lots of “funny squash.” The grocery store carried canned produce items but frozen foods were not yet on the market.
Mrs. Williams noted, “Lunch was really the big meal of the day. We called it dinner because it was usually vegetables. The middle of the day was when most people had a big meal. Then, at night, it was usually a smaller meal [which included] a meat, a salad and homemade bread of course!” Mrs. Williams’ mother made delicious hot rolls and would often send a plate out to a neighbor. On other nights, a plate full of rolls or vegetables would come in return.
Even though Mrs. Williams was a very small child during the Great Depression, she remembers, “We always had plenty of food. People grew their food. I know
Mom canned a lot and that’s what she used during the winter. It [the Depression] didn’t seem to change a whole lot.“
From Cow to Cup
Milk was delivered almost every morning to Mrs. Williams’ front door. A neighbor from the next county brought milk, made butter, and delivered chickens. The milk came in glass jars. Cream was skimmed off the top, collected, and made in to whipped cream for special treats.
Mrs. Williams reminisced about an unpleasant surprise she associated with the springtime. When the cows grazed in the meadows during the spring months they would eat onions. “It would get in the milk and it would get in the butter. Every spring, the first time I would taste it I would just have a fit because it was awful.”
The next time the milk came [my mother would say] I don’t think there are any onions in it this time. And I would take a great big gulp of the milk and there were still onions in it!”
A Bonded Community
As Mrs. Williams makes clear, being connected to the food you ate was just a way of life in Columbia. Food was treated as a communal good: it was to be grown, picked, shared, and eaten with family and friends.
When asked what is so different about how we eat today, Mrs. Williams explained that families are just too busy. As she sees it, “The culture has changed.” Attributing her fondness for eating with friends back to childhood memories, sharing meals with those she loves is the best thing she can think of.
Special thanks to Janet Williams, Judy Mickelson, and the Fluvanna Historical Society.
Written By: Elise Brenner, May 2012