Perhaps, to some people, they weren’t “arts” at all. To the people who lived and worked in those decades where “conveniences” were far and few in between, things like growing your own herbs or making your own soap simply fell into the vast cauldron of work that had to be done.
In the past year or so, Bob and I embarked on a quest to learn how to do some of those mostly forgotten tasks, such as making our own soap and having our own herb garden. As many of you know, we’ve been doing a lot of canning for more than 15 years—growing and canning (or freezing) our own tomatoes, beans, corn, peaches and other fruits and vegetables. In Arleta, we had a small grape arbor which produced plenty of grapes from which to make unsweetened grape juice or grape jelly. At our new home, there are grape vines but they were apparently neglected for a long time. They’ve been cleaned up and cut back—we have to see what kind of grapes we will have now.
We also had, in our old home, peach, orange, tangerine, lemon, fig, and olive trees. Several times we’ve made our own sauerkraut.
Bob backed the car into my huge crock one day, but cabbage was a really good price last year so I bought a wonderful new crock online that has its own lid to seal out air—we made so much sauerkraut last year (30 quarts) that we won’t be making a new batch until we finish up last year’s crop. As long as you have something to ferment the cabbage in, nothing could be easier to make – you just shred cabbage and layer it in the crock with canning salt; push it all down and cover it up. It needs to ferment in a cool place and I worried last year that our garage wouldn’t be cool enough – but it was.
Mostly, I make a lot of jellies and jams, coming up with some of my own original combinations (like Hunka Hunka berry jam and Grammy’s Christmas Jammy that we give to friends and relatives at Christmas). I also make a lot of chutneys, relishes, conserves, fruit butters—and apple sauce. We planted a young apple tree some years ago, at our old home that produced a tart green apple, like a Granny Smith. (We have planted four fruit trees so far, in our new home. One of them is apple).
More recently, I began experimenting with concocting my own herb/spice mixtures from things like parsley, carrot leaves, celery leaves, tomatoes, chives, cilantro, garlic, and chili peppers, dehydrating and then crushing the mixture so that it could be used it as a seasoning substitute for salt.
Bob has made grape wine a time or two and one of our friends made a special label for us. (I confess, I am not really very impressed with the home brew. I’d rather stick to White Zinfandel).
However, my grandfather had a small grape arbor and made his own wine. I couldn’t ever be in our little arbor, picking grapes, without thinking about my grandfather, tending his grape vines. (My brother tells the story about how, after grandpa died, my father, uncle and aunt found some very old bottles of grandpa’s wine in his wine cellar and proceeded to get blitzed on it). Even though my grandfather passed away when I was only eight years old, when I am in our grape arbor, I feel connected to him.
A lot of people would say “why bother?” Why go to all of that work when you can just go to the local supermarket and buy a jar of applesauce, or jam, or jelly or a bottle of grape juice? Why, indeed? As I sit here at the computer, I am asking myself that very question. Why do we do it?
I think part of the answer to this question has to do with soap making. Yes, soap. But not your ordinary scented body-and-bath soap. The soap I am talking about is a brownish- colored heavy duty soap, sort of like bars of Fels Naptha or LAVA. As far back as I can remember, my mother made this lye-based soap once a year. It was used for many different things—scrubbing floors or our bare feet, after we’d been running barefoot all day during the summertime. During World War II and long after, my mother would shave up bits of this soap to do the wash. She never purchased store-bought laundry detergent. We called it “work soap” and I always thought that just meant it could be used to do a lot of different jobs.
However, a few years ago, I made a curious discovery. Years ago, in Cincinnati, there was a heavy-duty soap similar to this called Werk’s Tag Soap. As a matter of fact, there is even a Werk Road in Cincinnati, where my high school was located. Our “work” soap was actually named after the Werk soap which, I believe, was named after the family that manufactured it.
My mother continued making her work soap even long after she and my father retired at a mobile home park in Largo, Florida. She’d save all bits of grease – bacon grease, chicken fat – until she had enough to make a batch of soap. When my mother passed away in September, 2000, her “recipe” for making soap went with her. I couldn’t find directions written down anywhere in her recipe box. No one else in the family seems to know exactly how it was made. For a time, I thought perhaps she learned how to make soap from her mother, my Grandma Beckman – but recently, one of my cousins set me straight. “Grandma Schmidt made that soap, too” he recalled.
I saved cans of grease in the freezer until I thought I had enough, then one day last winter, we followed the directions for making lye soap that I had found in a cookbook. Everything seemed to be progressing smoothly until it separated – one of the common problems with soap-making (generally caused by stirring it too fast—and the faster we stirred, the more it separated) – but even so, we finally poured the finished product into shallow wax-lined box lids (I am not sure what my mother used for molds), and after it had “set”, we cut it into bars. I left it on the front porch for about two weeks to ‘age’. As a final test, I sent a couple of bars to my brother, Jim—who declared it a close clone to mom’s “work” soap.
Why did I feel obligated to make a batch of this soap? Because, if I didn’t, the art of making “work soap” would have died with my mother. Since then, I discovered (thanks to the Internet) that soap making is far from really being a “lost art”—but it’s comforting to me, and my siblings, to hold a bar of this soap in our hands, and recall how our mother made it, once a year—and how we used it for everything, from scrubbing floors to washing the dog. And, I think I will attempt to make another batch but will follow some of the directions that I found on the Internet, next time.
Incidentally, Bob thinks it’s the best thing in the world for washing really grubby hands after you’ve been working under the car or out in the garden.
Recently, I began experimenting with making my own ‘from scratch’ salad dressings. I’ve made Ranch and Blue Cheese dressings by the quart, for years – but was interested in a red wine vinaigrette that I could season with my dried-veggie-concoction. It took several batches to get the vinaigrette just the way I like it—but more importantly, it tastes so much better than commercial dressings. I feel the same way about Ranch dressing. What you buy in a bottle doesn’t begin to compare with making it with the powdered Hidden Valley Ranch dressing made with buttermilk. Ok, so I’m cheating a little bit by using the powdered mix and I “doctor” the whole thing a bit to suit us.
One day my sister called, saying she was making tacos and didn’t have any taco seasoning mix. Hold on, I told her – I think I have the directions for making that from scratch. I did and I emailed the recipe to her. She says she makes ‘her own’ mix all of the time now.
My grandmother made all of her own noodles—she’d have them drying on the backs of all her wooden kitchen chairs (I haven’t gotten into noodle making just yet – and think I just might have to invest in a pasta machine for this)—but we often make beef jerky, from London Broil when it’s on sale. (A dehydrator is a handy thing to have, and we own two of them—Bob found the second one at a yard sale and bought it for a dollar).
Some of you are undoubtedly too young to remember this, but in the 70s, everyone began making sourdough starter to make their own sourdough bread. We also had yogurt makers to make homemade yogurt. I still have a sourdough starter in my refrigerator.
I discovered a book called “Lost Arts” by Lynn Alley. It’s a guide to making vinegar, curing olives, crafting fresh goat cheese, making simple mustards, baking bread and growing herbs. We had an olive tree and attempted to cure our own olives one year. As for baking bread – well, I’ve been baking bread most of my adult life and I’ve written about it a couple of times in the pages of the Cookbook Collector Exchange. When I was a child, my mother made her own bread, two large loaves, twice weekly. She baked the bread in large turkey roaster pans and we took homemade bread so completely for granted that having a sandwich made with Wonder Bread was something of a novelty. When my sons were small, I began experimenting with making various kinds of bread – my favorite being pumpernickel –and I often put the dough, in a large Tupperware container, inside the car to “raise”.
Lynn Alley’s chapter on bread making is a great deal more creative than even I want to be – she includes information on growing your own grain, milling grains at home, and creating your own leavening (I’ve done the leavening – that’s easy enough and there are a lot of recipes for making sour dough starters) – but if you are just starting out and don’t have a bread machine, try your hand at one of the many recipes for making quick breads – pumpkin, zucchini, banana nut. They’re easy to make and a freshly baked loaf of banana nut bread is so rewarding. Small loaves of homemade fruit breads accompanied by a small jar of homemade jelly make a nice gift, too. When I was in Ohio one year, I made fresh banana nut bread for my nephew and his son – they didn’t even wait for it to cool off and polished off the entire loaf in a few minutes. You’d have thought I’d given them the crown jewels. (My nephew, Russ, was stationed in San Diego when he was in the navy, in the early 1980s. Whenever he had a free weekend, he got on a Greyhound Bus and came to visit us in the San Fernando Valley. I often made banana nut bread for him to take back with him to the ship, to share with his friends. He has the fondest memories of those loaves of bread!)
I’m going to share one more of my “lost arts” with you and I am sure you’ll think I’m one brick short of a full load when I tell you this. I’ve been asking Bob to put up a clothes line for me ever since we moved to the Antelope Valley. I want a clothes line to hang things of mine that shouldn’t go into the dryer – and my little area rugs that have rubber backings. I also wanted to be able to hang sheets and pillowcases on the line. The wonderful smell of air-dried laundry will soon convert you. He just got the posts cemented into the ground – all we have to do now is find clothes line.
A lot has been written in recent years about old-time ways of doing things, forgotten recipes, lost arts. Why the great interest? Obviously, given the number of books dedicated to these subjects, I’m not alone in my interest. And, I don’t have a burning desire to be a child again – our childhood, that of myself and my siblings, friends and cousins, wasn’t always all that easy. (My son Steve likes to roll his eyes and say “yeah, ma, tell us again how you had to walk ten miles to school in the snow, barefoot…”)
I never said we walked ten miles. We did walk—all the time, everywhere. (And, in the summertime, we were barefoot). A couple of years ago, when my youngest brother Scott drove me around my childhood neighborhood of Fairmount, I was shocked and dismayed how much it had shrunk in size, and diminished in grandeur. The distance between our house and the school is probably not more than a mile but it was up hill and down, and seemed a long way for a child’s short legs. We walked to and from school in any kind of weather and I sometimes ran home for lunch, or else we walked to my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue, up the street from St. Leo’s, and had lunch there. There was very little money for anything but you could always get fed at Grandma’s. I think food was her universal remedy for everything that ailed you.
One of the things that kids did around the neighborhood was to go around and collect soda pop bottles which could be redeemed at a corner grocery store for two cents each. Rarely did any of us have any spending money. Allowance? What was that? No one received an allowance. When I became old enough to babysit, most of my spending money came from babysitting the neighbors’ children. And allowance or no, children were always expected to help with household chores. One of my earliest childhood chores was hanging socks on a wooden rack (in bad weather the rack could be propped open over a floor register, where the heat came up from the furnace. You also stood over a register to get warm while you got dressed on cold winter mornings). We were expected to wash and dry and put away dinner dishes, scrub floors, and—for the boys—mow the lawn, shovel snow, and clear the sidewalks in bad weather. My brother Jim had several part time jobs by the time he was about 12. One of these early jobs was “setting pins” at St. Bonaventure’s Bowling Alley in South Fairmount. Before automated pin setters were invented, young boys would have the job of setting up the bowling pins. There was a space between two lanes where a boy could sit, and set up the pins on either side of him. I’m amazed just thinking about it. Can you imagine a young boy being allowed to do something like that today? He could have easily gotten knocked silly by one of those bowling pins. I imagine many boys did get hurt doing this job.
Jim also delivered newspapers and in his early ‘teens, began working as a box boy at a food distribution company where one of our uncles was employed. The neat thing about this was that my brother was allowed to bring home certain foods which had expired dates on them. We got a lot of canned biscuits that often exploded when we opened them—canned biscuits were a new thing in the early 1950s, and we didn’t care if they exploded. We baked them and ate them anyway. There was also a new cookie mix that only required the addition of water and maybe an egg – I loved those cookie mixes.
Perhaps this explains the popularity of books such as Marguerite Patten’s “We’ll Eat Again”, a memoir of rationing in Great Britain during World War II, cookbooks such as “Forgotten Recipes” and “Depression Era Recipes”, and magazines like “Reminisce”. It’s not so much that we long to relive those days as it is that we don’t want them to be forgotten. Who will remember these things when we are gone?
Lynn Alley’s book “Lost Arts” is available on Amazon.com, new or used, starting at $16.38. I was unable to find this particular book on any of my other usual websites. However, if you Google “Lost Arts” you will be amazed how many “lost arts” are out there waiting to be remembered, or discovered.
Happy Cooking – and Happy Cookbook Collecting