By T/Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson
Hunger was a real problem in the depression and summer offered the opportunity to plant, harvest and preserve food for winter days. More food was available in the summer months, but we never fattened up because we were so active. Dad farmed our large backyard garden and rented several nearby vacant lots by giving the homeowner a share of his harvest. He spaded the small plots with his long handled shovel and hired Old Pete to plow the bigger ones. Pete cleaned outhouses, but was always ready to bring over his horse and plow to make a few bucks plowing gardens. Dad planted lot of potatoes, yams and dry beans for the winter months. Canned corn, green beans, tomatoes, beets and potatoes for the cellar was our main goal and I got in on most of the planting, hoeing and weeding those gardens all summer. Weeding the gardens wasn't too bad, I became pretty good wielding a hoe and had calluses on my hands to prove it. The one job I hated most, was killing bean and ‘tater bugs’. Dad couldn’t afford to put out money for ‘bug dust’ (insecticides) so we did it the old fashioned way. Kenny, Jean, and I spent a lot of hours crawling up one row and down the other with a tin can half full of ‘coal oil’ (kerosene). Our job was the same, whether the prey was bean beetles or tater bugs; pick off the little devils and baptize them in the can! They were eating leaves off our food and had to die! Dad said it was us or them, so thousands of bugs bit the dust every summer. I could never understand why Noah let those garden pests board the Ark!
Canning fruits and vegetables was a necessary summer task to preserve Dad’s garden harvest. We ate well from the garden all summer, but Mom washed up the Mason or Ball glass jars, bought new lids and canned as much as possible. It was food we needed for the long winter months and storing a food supply was essential. She stored a large supply and every jar we emptied in the winter was washed and put away for the next summer
Canning was a family project with chores for everyone and on many summer mornings, our kitchen became a food preservation laboratory. Me, my little sister Jean and brother Kenny helped out with washing vegetables, shucking corn, stringing and snapping the green beans. One of my favorite tasks was peeling peaches, because I could eat a piece once in a while. One canning processes involved the hot kitchen stove covered by a large copper boiler full of sealed Mason glass jars of green beans cooking in the jar (cold packed.) Stewed tomatoes went into tin cans with a lid which had to be sealed with hot red wax! Needless to say, we had our own sauna during the canning season. Families could sometimes get a five dollar food certificate for groceries from the Township Trustee, we called them ‘bean orders’. That aid and the federal surplus food distribution program were ‘iffy’ and those sources of help sometimes dried up when they were most needed! Tax funds were limited and it was best to imitate the ants and squirrels and stock up for winter. We cleaned our plates at every meal and the flies didn’t find many leftovers at our house.
The federal government set up programs to provide surplus foods for needy families. People across the nation stood in long lines to receive rations of food based on family size. Dried beans, rice, flour, canned beef, peanut butter, and grapefruit were among food items distributed to help families survive. The program was a great benefit to our family. However, the flour sometimes had weevils in it, so I fed it to my chickens. They loved the extra meat and their eggs never had weevils .There was also a program to allow Bedford Dairy to distribute free milk once a week. Dad was working and Mom was canning in the summer of my fifth grade. We had to bring our own container, so I stood in line one day a week to carry home a gallon Kayro syrup bucket full of free milk. Mom rationed it to make great breakfasts of biscuits and gravy and when we ran out of milk, we had ‘water gravy’ with our meals. Dried beans were a main part of our diet and a low cost item at any grocery. A large pot of Great Northern beans flavored with a chunk of bacon (sow belly) could feed a family of five for lunch and supper.
They were delicious with cornbread and buttermilk and provided our main source of protein. It is still one of my favorite meals. Most families kept a pot of beans warming on the back of the cook-stove all day.
Beans were so common that they were included in our vocabulary. We said a fibber was ‘full of beans,’ a tattler ‘spilled the beans, and a five dollar food stamp issued by the Township Trustee was dubbed a ‘bean order’. If you had a good idea, they said, ‘that’s using the old bean’.