If you’re not from a farm, you might not know “harvest meals.” But let me take you back to what was a century ago with real-life memories of harvest meals from my 111 year-old great-aunt Iris. Through the pictures I’ve shared below you will see modern-day agriculture where farms are still run by families who need to eat when they are harvesting all day and night in this hectic season. It’s my mom, a cook in her farm kitchen, making the best food I know, sharing it with a harvest crew. Harvest meals are a big part of agriculture heritage and culture.
While small grain harvest was underway, I took a recent Saturday morning to visit Iris, the oldest living North Dakotan. She was featured last week in this television interview and newspaper article for her 111th birthday. Iris was born in 1905 on her family farm near Aneta, N.D., where my parents still farm today. She’s beautiful and brilliant. I take our kids to visit her as often as possible. Iris still knows everyone, remembers everything and has a sharper memory than me.
This particular visit we had a short window to chat before we promised to be back to deliver my mom’s home-cooked harvest dinners to the wheat field. My girls, ages 7 and 8, sat near Iris in her recliner in the corner of her quiet nursing home room. I pulled up a chair across from her. Iris’ eye sight and hearing are limited but when we walked into her room she was listening to a book on tape. The librarian in her lives on even as a centurion. She is a 1928 graduate of the University of North Dakota and spent her career teaching and then as a school librarian.
I asked Iris to tell me about harvest meals when she was a child and growing up on the farm. My girls leaned in to listen as she told us she wasn’t ever much for cooking the meals but she washed a lot of dishes. Her mother would fill empty cream cans with white sugar cookies and ginger cookies. There was always a hot roast beef or pork sandwich served on a homemade bun. They would wrap the sandwiches in paper napkins if they had them, and if not, newspaper. She said, “Newspaper wasn’t elegant but it worked.”
After my great-grandpa Odin, her brother, married my great-grandma Esther she said Esther had the idea to add small sweet sandwiches to the harvest crew meals. Grandma Esther (or as I fondly called her Grandma-Grandma, thinking she was my double grandma being my grandmother’s mother) baked sweet breads using date or pumpkin and then buttered slices of it and added a piece of cheese. Harvest meals also included pickles, preserves, coffee and ice water.
Iris said when she was younger they had cook cars. I hadn’t heard the cook cars story before, so she continued: “My dad was the first in the area with a threshing machine. He actually had two threshers operated by a crew of locals. A cook car would travel around to anyone threshing in the area.” It was a refurbished train car, with a stove and kitchen area and benches along the sides for the crews to eat and rest at mealtimes.
“My dad thought two cooks worked best, but we had one cook who didn’t like to work with anyone else,” she said. Some things never change, I thought to myself—the best farm cooks tend to know their kitchens and meals so well trying to lend a hand creates more commotion and chaos than help. The owner of the land to be threshed provided food for the cook car, and the closest farm delivered cookies, water and coffee.
While some might think of it as the good ol’ days, Iris’ stories remind me of how far we’ve come. I can’t imagine how hot it was preparing meals in the cook car. I’m certain no one was concerned about food labels because there weren’t such a thing.
My daughters and I returned back to my mom’s air-conditioned kitchen with running water and electricity. She had 11 harvest meals ready for us to deliver to two fields, one being the home quarter of land Iris was raised on, where her parents, my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my uncle and parents all have farmed. My cousin was standing waiting to share the bounty of my mom’s harvest cooking with the crew driving two combines, grain carts and trucks.
I thought of the cook car, the cream cans of cookies, the threshing machines and how far technology and manufacturing has brought seeds, inputs and machinery from Iris’s childhood on the same land today.
I had misty eyes and a tight throat as I drove out of the field and headed further west to where my dad and brother were combining.
Some things haven’t changed, though. Families still farm together, with the help of locals, and we still need to eat. Harvest meals are important, regardless of how they are made.
No matter your role, it’s vital to keep an industry going that feeds you and me and our communities, counties, states, country and world.
I don’t think going back to Iris’s childhood would be the good ol’ days, but I wouldn’t mind deliveries of cream cans of cookies to my house. Anytime, feel free to deliver homemade cookies to me on the prairie.
Most of this originally appeared in Agweek. And every time I write about harvest meals I get floods of questions about recipes and what to make. I am not a food blogger at this stage of my life. But the Food Network could visit my mom and do an entire show on harvest meals! The photos I shared are of her harvesting cooking and baking. I’ve never seen anyone with more tasty, better than a restaurant, on the go cooking ideas than my mom and yes I am biased.
There are a few people sharing field meal ideas on their blogs and the best real-life, practical recipes and ideas I’ve seen are from Illinois Farm Girl’s Field Meals. Any family living a hurried life will benefit from these classic and family friendly recipes!