A Historical Perspective on Food and Family

Do you ever drive back roads on the Mid Shore and wonder what the landscape looked like 40 years ago? If you grew up here and are pushing 50, you can probably remember. I do. There were fewer houses, fewer stores, and less manicured roadsides.

Do you ever drive around and wonder what the landscape looked like 80 years ago? I do, all the time. For this time period I can only piece together snippets of stories from my family and friends, but my imagination brings them to full color. Most recently I have had the pleasure of enhancing my historical visual through conversations with people who lived here 80 plus years ago. As food is always omnipresent on my mind, I’ve asked these few true locals what they ate as children living here in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr. Donald Brown grew up on Judith’s Garden, a farm off Oxford Road in Talbot County. “We really didn’t buy much food from a store,” he reminisced with me one day. “There were nine of us, but we ate well.”

His father was a farmer and their family raised a few hogs, chickens, geese and guinea hens. Although he never cared much for killing the chickens, often enough, that was dinner. They hunted for pigeons, rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats. Deer were rare on Delmarva at that time. They also raised turkeys for the farm and saved a few for Christmastime. The river provided oysters, crabs and plenty of fish. They milked their own cows, and grew all their own vegetables and canned them, including cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peppers, onions, beets, beans, tomatoes, spinach, corn and carrots. Foraging provided wild wintercress, asparagus, and blackberries. Trees and shrubs from the woods on their property provided gooseberries, mulberries, cherries, peaches, apples and pears. His mother spent her days cooking and canning for winter. Canned goods enjoyed the most were pickled watermelon rind, beets, and every kind of preserve you could imagine.

On a rare trip to a store the only items they purchased were flour, cornmeal, molasses and an occasional soda pop. Sometimes, he and his siblings would trade empty soda bottle deposits for Mary Janes candies. In his mid-80s, Mr. Brown enjoys an active healthy life, and helps feed the hungry in Talbot. He is a man on the move, and I marvel at his energy. I think about his good health and wonder if his childhood diet has had much to do with it. What did the micronutrients found in wild asparagus, fresh caught fish and homegrown spinach do for his body? Were these foods only available if you lived on a farm at that time? What did the townspeople eat?

My questions about diet turned to Mrs. Peggy Litchert who, as a young child, spent her summers just up the road from Mr. Brown in Oxford and her school year in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, her father was a huckster of fresh vegetables and fish. Early in the morning he would go to the Philadelphia docks with his truck and purchase vegetables to sell in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. At the end of the day, whatever remained would be consumed by the family. Fridays provided a particularly good dinner for her family as the Catholics liked to eat shad on Fridays. At the fish docks, they would pick out the roe and place it in a bucket to be discarded – roe apparently wasn’t vogue then. Her father would bring a bucket of shad roe home and they would fry it up in a frying pan for dinner.

When World War II came along, food rations were thin and so, in the summers, Miss Peggy was sent to live with her grandparents in Oxford because they knew she would be well fed, and she was. Her grandmother had a garden in which she grew sweet potatoes, white potatoes, carrots, lettuce, kale, corn, beets, green beans, onions and, of course, tomatoes. At the end of the summer, the canned vegetables from the garden were taken back to Philadelphia for winter where her grandfather’s homemade pickles were a favorite in Peggy’s school lunch. The river provided them with crabs, fish, and eels (she didn’t care for the eels). They bought live chickens off a truck that came through town and her mother killed them for dinner. Milk was delivered daily, and they baked their own bread. The family purchased very little from the store, mostly flour and sugar. If she was lucky, a nickel would find its way into her pocket and she would buy an ice cream cone from Mr. Johnny Thompson’s store next to the old school lot, which is now the Oxford Park. Miss Peggy, who is now pushing 90, has enjoyed good health and has a sparkly smile. Although she grew up in a city and town, her food experience was very similar to Mr. Brown’s in that most items were freshly picked/caught/canned in season and very little was purchased from a store.

Miss Peggy was born in 1929 when the life expectancy for females was 58 years. She has surpassed her life expectancy by over 30 years. Mr. Brown was born in 1934 when the male life expectancy was 59 years. He has surpassed his life expectancy by 25 years. What was in those Oxford vegetables? What made Judith’s Garden so special? At the start of WWII, pesticides were just beginning to get traction and were not yet widely used and so there’s a good chance all the food was organic. It was also as fresh and wild as it could get. But what if their long healthy lives aren’t attributed to diet at all? Commonly, both speak of a fondness for their families, close friends, neighbors and their sense of community. They both have a deep respect for their grandparents. They both shared the most colorful stories about their youth and the people that surrounded them, and when they shared these stories with me their eyes lit up.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his New York Times best seller Outliers, tells a story of a community of Italian immigrants who lived in Roseto, Pennsylvania that shared good health. Diet didn’t tell the whole story. “…the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location. It had to be Roseto itself. They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underly the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof…”

When we think about diet and health, maybe we are forgetting a very, very important factor, a catalyst element if you will. Maybe, it not only matters what you eat, but with whom you share your food. Eating freshly prepared organic, healthy food with family, friends and neighbors must be better than eating a fast food burger in the car alone. I don’t believe you have to be a scientist to step back and realize this is a completely valid assumption. There is an old saying that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, implying all history is littered with mistakes. However, if we hand pick our good history, some of it may be well worth repeating. Perhaps culture and food and health are more connected than we can comprehend and maybe our health is not just what we eat, but also the company we keep.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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