Of snap peas and freezer jam

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The importance of farm chore traditions and food preparation for kids

by Andrew Haman

Including your kids in the process of homesteading, farming and growing food for your family leaves an indelible mark on them.

If you had asked me at age of 7 or 8 my thoughts on the matter, I probably couldn’t be bothered. They were chores and work – often during times when I would rather be doing anything else. However, as an almost 30-year-old man, I am incredibly grateful for the foundation those long hours and the driven emphasis on sustainability and providing for myself.

My grandparents were people of the land – they were a blended family, and although he had worn many hats, they moved back onto his family farm in the early ‘80s, where he would farm part-time to some extent for the rest of his life. My grandmother is a small person, skin weathered by decades of summer sun, with a happy twinkle in her eye that’s contagious. Prior to meeting my grandfather, she had spent most of her adult life as a single parent in a little town in rural Tennessee, doing whatever she had to do, from gardening to making clothes, to provide for herself and her two girls.

In the early years, all of their six children and their families lived on the same span of roadway, stretching north from their sprawling two-story rancher. Those were the days before arthritis took her range of motion, and she was incredibly active throughout the summer months. She planted a large garden – at its peak, around an acre – and we would all come together at her house throughout the summer, picking, prepping, canning, freezing. For several summers, we actually planted two gardens – the main plot and one up the road from the main house. Once we planted the second garden almost exclusively with potatoes, and I got to go along the rows, dig my hands into the warm soil and pull forth the spoils. It was dirty work, and long days, but so much fun!

Some of my earliest memories are in her kitchen or outside on her patio. After picking or procuring whatever we would be putting up (occasionally we would pick up a few bushels of something we might not have grown that year), we would work on prepping.

There were many bushels of beans and sweet corn – as soon as I, my siblings and my cousins were able to safely and responsibly hold a knife, we were right there helping. Even before then, we were handed brushes and helped shuck sweet corn. I didn’t appreciate it enough then (and maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking), but they were great times. We talked the whole time – steady banter came from my mom and her sister, and the occasional silvery laugh from my grandmother, as their experienced hands worked through the baskets in front of them. A breeze would blow through occasionally, taking the edge off the summer heat.

We would work through many things over the season: sweet corn would be cut from the cob and frozen; bushels upon bushels of beans would be capped – some canned and some frozen; copious amounts of tomatoes would be canned and used for various recipes. Relish would be made. Fruit would be preserved in various ways. Freezer jam and applesauce would be made. The list goes on and on.

Once everything was prepped, the real fun began. They would break out the gigantic stainless steel pots, various canning apparatuses and more mason jars than you have ever seen. If we were freezing, the process was a little more simplistic: boxes of Ziploc bags would be filled with the food in question, flattened for storage and signed and dated with a Sharpie.

She had the coolest little hideaway below the house: the basement was finished in cement block and concrete, and off to the side, she had a canning kitchen. As a child, it seemed older than time itself, but it likely dated back to the ‘30s or ‘40s. It was comprised of a simple plywood countertop broken up by a large sink. Behind, on the opposite side, were shelves filled with all manner of canned food, dates ranging from recent memory to a few castoffs from 1990-something.

She, my mom and my aunts would work diligently for days on end every summer, making the magic happen in both kitchens. At the end of summer, we would be left with the bounty of our labor, and it would be split among the houses, where it would help feed us all throughout autumn and winter.

Many years have passed since those days, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been back to the Smoky Mountains for a visit. With one exception, all of the aunts and uncles have moved off the main farm. All of the grandchildren have moved away – many are married and starting homes of their own. My grandfather has since passed, and arthritis and the passage of time have prevented my grandmother from growing a garden.

Though much has changed, those summers of yesteryear taught me so much and laid a strong foundation: you can be independent. You can grow your own food, without being dependent on someone else, and provide for you and your family. You can be self-sufficient and never have to worry about going hungry. You can live sustainably.

That’s an invaluable gift to give your kids, and I look forward to passing that knowledge down to my own kids one day.

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