Christmas on the Farm, edited by Lela Nargi, is a collection of favorite recipes, stories, gift ideas and decorating tips from The Farmer’s Wife. First published in 2011 by Voyageur Press, it is a beautiful hardbound book to add to your favorite Christmas collection.
In the Introduction, Lela Nargi writes “The Farmer’s Wife (which is enjoying a resurgence of popularity for the past few years—Nargi has been publishing a number of “Farmer’s Wife” cookbooks, all available to check over on Amazon.com)– was originally a monthly magazine published in Minnesota between the years 1893 and 1939. In an era long before the Internet and high-speed travel connected us all, the magazine aimed to offer community among hard-working rural women, to provide a forum for their questions and concerns, and to assist them in the day-to-day goings-on about the farm—everything from raising chickens and slaughtering hogs, to managing scant funds and dressing the children, to keeping house and running the kitchen.”
“Christmas was the be-all, end-all celebration on the farm—more than Easter, New Year’s or even Thanksgiving,” she writes. “This quintessential holiday of giving and togetherness gave rise to pages and pages on the topic in every December issue of the magazine. And these pages weren’t just about food—although recipes for all the various components of dinners and parties and holiday gift baskets certainly abounded. The magazine’s experts expounded on the best and latest ways to decorate home, tree, and parcels. Its monthly columnists devoted themselves to the matters of home-made gifts for family and friends, and games to be played to festively capture the spirit of the season. Its readers wrote in with tales of Christmases in other lands, in times gone by. Its editors rhapsodized in and out of two wars, on the value of peace and compassion.”
“In short,” Lela explains, “The Farmer’s Wife” presented its own opinion—both grand and humble, broad and minute, and always, always bearing in mind the idea of community among its readers—about the ways in which Christmas should be celebrated…”
CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM presents, with nostalgia, a way of life that has to a certain degree disappeared from the American landscape and lifestyle. The book starts off with the Christmas, 1920 issue of the magazine (you’d have to be a mentally alert ninety-three year old citizen to remember that decade);
Lela writes, “To those who live in the land of snow and Christmas trees, the twenty-fifth of December blends all its associations with the gleam of snow on hills and fields and woods, the fragrance of fir and pine, the leaping light of Christmas hearthfires. But Christmas is a world-wide day and the environment determined by climate is but an external.
They tell us, too, that ‘Christmas on the Farm’ is the only ideal Christmas. The Farmer’s Wife carries its Christmas message into all zones, from Florida, to the frozen North and from its own home in the corn belt to the edges of the continent where the oceans roar out their accompaniment to the carols of the good, glad day. It is a message of love, and faith and cheer as befits a Christmas message of love, because love is always the winner of faith, because without that staunch quality, nothing would ever be accomplished, of cheer, because when we have love and faith, the flame of cheer follows as a matter of course—as light follows the burning torch….”
I may have been born in the wrong period of time—as I read and typed the above, it crosses my mind that this message would be “politically incorrect” in the world we live in today. You can’t even say “Merry Christmas” – you have to say “Happy Holidays”—and let me say that I say MERRY CHRISTMAS at every opportunity in December. But I digress.
Curiously, in 2010, I wrote a series of poems for a poetry group I belonged to, under the umbrella heading of “An American Childhood” and I will share one of these poems with you. Mine were written before CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM was published, so I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes.
Christmas Dinner in 1929 presented its readers with an illustration of the proper way to set your table and follows with an assortment of beverages to serve your guests—from Fruit Punch taken from the January 1913 issue of The Farmer’s Wife to a Cranberry Cocktail from the 1934 issue and including a November 1937 recipe for Cranberry Gingerale Cocktail. To go along with the drinks are an assortment of hors d’oeuvres starting with Candied Nuts from the January, 1913 issue of The Farmer’s Wife but includes recipes for a relish plate (November, 1934) to a Cheese and Cracker Tray (also from the November, 1934 issue (in recognition, perhaps, for readers who might not know where to begin with cheese and crackers or preparing a relish plate) but offers as well a recipe for Cheese Puffs ((July, 1922) or pinwheel cheese biscuits (October 1926)—or, to my amusement, a 1919 Pigs in Blankets recipe…a recipe that is updated and still around 94 years later (think: Pillsbury crescent rolls and hot dogs cut into smaller sizes to fit the dough)—it makes me wonder if the Pillsbury Crescent rolls with hot dogs was a Bake-Off recipe way back when! There are also several recipes for oyster hors d’oeuvres which at one time were enormously popular—not so much today.
What follows next is a selection titled Table Talk, which presents inexpensive recipes for Yuletide Dishes; Main Courses featuring roast goose roast duck and turkey recipes, an impressive chart of all the correct dishes to serve with your selection of a holiday bird makes it easy for the cook to plan the entire meal easily. There are recipes for baked spiced ham, crown roast of lamb—even a curried rabbit (not my favorite meat but certainly had to be a familiar sight on the farmland table, especially during hard times. Under a chapter titled Smorgasbord, taken from the December, 1937 issue of the Farmer’s Wife, is a recipe for meat balls for your smorgasbord, followed by many still great side dishes, from a French Dressing for salad (October, 1911 issue of the Farmer’s Wife)—over a hundred years ago—as well as a Sweet Cream dressing for salad published in 1934, and red dressing for head (Iceberg) lettuce from November, 1924—but all of the salad recipes would be doable today, most for a fraction of the cost, considering that most of the recipes in Christmas on the Farm cover decades of the Great Depression plus two world wars. –the exception might be a recipe for Lobster salad—but it might interest you to know that lobster and other shell fish were affordable throughout World War II. And these were items that were not rationed during the war. And, most of the vegetable and salad recipes were made up of items grown on the farm—Glazed Carrots from the January 1931 issue of the Farmer’s Wife, Creamed Spinach from the May, 1911 issue. These are just a sampling of the recipes found in Christmas on the Farm.
The Desserts found in Christmas on the Farm are mostly simple, inexpensive such as January, 1910’s Lemon Floating Island or November, 1926’s Chocolate Blanc Mange I, a Prune Souffle fro October, 1923 or a Prune and Raisin Pudding from November, 1926, Apricot Whip from February, 1919 or a January 1911 Cranberry Pudding. Still under Desserts is an interesting story from 1937 titled “She Sells Fruitcake”, a story that began fifteen years earlier with a young housewife who built a career empire making and selling fruitcakes. There are recipes for fruitcakes and its cousin the Steamed Pudding plus an Eggless Fruit Cake that was made up mostly of spices, raisins and coconut—certainly a welcomed recipe in January of 1913. You’ll also enjoy reading “A Farm Woman’s Christmas Cakes” which appeared in the December, 1925 issue of the Farmer’s Wife. There are also recipes for candy and cookies, too—candy recipes that are still popular today—toffee and fudge, creamed walnuts and maple pralines from December, 1916—plus many more.
For the farmer’s wife with little cash resources, there are oodles of directions for gifts she could make—even directions for building “Dolly a House” that was published in December, 1921. There are also directions for making many other gifts, however.
By the way, you will love the 20s,-30s,40s illustrations throughout the book. It’s really like stepping back in time with CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM. Who among all of us would have kept the monthly magazines published throughout those decades? (Apparently, someone did!)
Christmas on the Farm is a beautiful holiday book with a most attractive red cover and is sure to please anyone who buys a copy. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from my penpal, Betsy, in Michigan—but I checked with Amazon.com; they have several paperback copies starting at $11.98 but listing a new PB copy for $15.27. Alibris.com has copies starting at $11.98. If you can get one of the hardbound copies, go for it – it will hold up to years of thumbing through to find your favorite recipes or new ones for you to try. I’m looking forward to trying some of these recipes this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas, 2013!
–Review by Sandra Lee Smith
As promised, the following is one of my 2010 poems from a collection I called “An American Childhood”.
WHEN IT’S CHRISTMAS ON THE PRAIRIE
By Sandra Lee Smith, 2010
Come winter on the prairie and as far as you can see,
Snow makes a great white blanket across the endless prairie sea,
Pa gets the big sleigh from the barn and greases up the blades,
To make the pulling easier for the horses, on the grades.
Mama takes out the oldest blankets, that help to keep us warm,
Pa checks the sleigh most carefully, to keep us all from harm.
Then snug in mittens, scarves and coats that mama made from wool,
Pa takes us every morning to our little country school.
He stays a while to help our teacher fill the old wood bin,
She thanks him with a curtsy, brings out the gentleman in him.
We students hang our coats and things in the cloak room at the back,
And teacher claps her hands and says, “Since Christmas’s coming that—
Today we’re going to decorate a tree that kind Mr. Mc Clune
Went up north to get for us and will bring it to us soon,
For now we’ll all make popcorn garlands and chains of colored paper,”
And from a box she lifts up a silver star—nothing had escaped her.
No reading, writin’, rithmetic, no studying today!
We’re going to decorate a tree and enjoy a day of play;
On Christmas Eve our families will come to see the tree,
And Santa will come and give us each a bag of candy, free!
“Tain’t no Santa,” One of the big boys in the back row shouted out,
The little girls in front began to shriek and cry and pout;
My younger sis is with the little girls that were in tears.
I knew I had to do something to take away their fears.
“You take that back!” I said with fists clenched, ready for a fight,
When teacher intervened and said “Now, boys, this isn’t right.
On Christmas we all celebrate the birth of Christ the King,
George, you say you’re sorry and we’ll all forget this thing.”
Then teacher told a story, while we cut and pasted rings,
As we made a garland for our tree, she told of many things,
Of the birth of one small baby, in a manger far away,
And how folks far away and near remember Him on this day.
She told about Saint Nicholas who filled the wooden shoes,
Of all the good Dutch boys and girls to remember this Good News,
She said how now, we all remember Jesus in this way,
And all of us remember Him on every Christmas Day.
The big boy, George, he was abashed, and said he didn’t mean it,
But he had no ma or pa and no Santa Claus would visit;
He lived with one old aunt who had no time for foolishness,
No time for trees or holly, for Santa Claus or Christmas.
On Christmas Eve our families came and crowded in the room,
We’d cleaned our desks, the blackboard, and candles chased off gloom,
Then Santa came and brought a sack, and we all lined up to get
A little bag of peppermints, a night we’d not forget.
When all the candy had been passed out, Santa stood upright
And asked, “I wonder if a boy named George is here tonight?”
George came forward and I noticed that his face had turned beet red;
As he said “I’m sorry, Santa, I really didn’t mean to be so bad.”
“Oh, I know that!” Santa laughed, “Why, I know what’s good and true,
There’s just one gift I have to give, and George this one’s for you!”
And from his burlap bag, he reached and handed George a box;
George opened it and all of us heard him gasp with shock;
Inside the box there was a very fine Swiss army knife;
George’s eyes lit up with wonder, “I’ve wanted one all my life,
But,” he said, “I never told this to a single living soul!”
Santa patted him on his shoulder and said “Oh, George, I know!”
We all shed tears and teacher said “Let us sing a song of praise,
That we all remember this night all our living days.”
And so we sang, then hurried home in the cold night with elation,
Before we left, I heard my ma extend a special invitation.
George said he didn’t think his aunt ever would agree,
Ma said “I won’t take no for an answer; dinner is at three.”
And so next day, George and his aunt and our teacher came for dinner,
That all of us told mama was so fine and sure a winner.
In the parlor there were presents for sis and George and me,
Scarves and mittens ma had stitched and it was plain to see
That no one had done this much for George in all his sorry life,
“Scarves and mittens!” George exclaimed, “And a fine Swiss Army knife!”
We all sipped hot tea with cookies ma had baked, just for this day,
And our guests all carried home tins of cookies wrapped so gay,
Before we went to bed that night, I heard my mother whisper,
“You dear old Claus, I do believe, I’d like to kiss your whiskers!”
Years later, when my pa was old frail and could not see,
I ventured then to ask him what had long been bothering me,
“How could you know,” I asked him, “About George and that army knife?”
“Because,” he said, “I wanted one, most of my own life.”
George married my kid sister and they have a bunch of boys;
Their farm is off in Kansas and sis tells me it’s a joy,
For George just loves his rowdy bunch, for them he’d give his life,
And every one of those young boys owns a fine Swiss Army knife.
–Sandra Lee Smith, 2010