Local & Seasonal in the 1930s

A few years ago reader Ernie Kroll sent me this story about eating locally here in America’s upper left corner

I grew up in the Northwest, on the Long Beach Peninsula on a small farm (just above the Columbia River and just north of Megler where the old ferry plied back and forth between it and Astoria). I left home and joined the military in 1946 when I was 17. I didn’t know I had it so good until I left home.

My father was a good hunter and fisherman, a great outdoorsman, and he loved the life. He took what work he could to put food on the table and clothes on his family’s back, working in logging, oysters, clamming, and he even was town constable for a few years during WWII. But he still found time to be a farmer. My mother was a farmer’s housewife, and she, too, loved it and was very good at it. She was a fantastic cook (on her large cast-iron wood-burning stove), baked her own bread and pastries, and canned a lot. She made all kinds of meats including wild game, berries, veggies, and pickles (of course).

We gathered wild berries in the five-gallon tins. Blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries, huckleberries, blueberries, salmon berries, slalom, strawberries, thimble berries…during the season we were literally covered up with berries, and we even grew them in our garden, including gooseberries (I loved gooseberry pie!).

Bothered with constipation? We peeled the bark from cascara trees to sell, and always had some on hand at home to chew on a little as a mild laxative. Some folks harvested foxglove and other wild plants to sell to the pharmaceutical people. We always gathered holly and mistletoe to decorate the house during the Christmas season, and cut down our own Christmas tree in the forest for free. We were taught to respect nature and its bounty.

We never went hungry, and although our clothes were mostly hand-me-downs and patched (Mama was also an accomplished seamstress) they were clean and were presentable. Us kids worked hard on the farm and had our chores to do as soon as we were able and understood responsibility and teamwork. We boys learned to hunt and fish early, and the girls learned how to sew and cook (and to fish also… my older sister was a better fisherman than me!).

Wild game graced our table in season: venison, elk, pheasant, grouse, ducks, geese, fish from the ocean surf, and streams and rivers, clams, oysters and crabs (Dungeness although we didn’t know they were called that at the time). The clams were razor clams from the Pacific surf, and also bay clams from Willapa Bay. The oysters were natives and also from Japanese seed from all the salt water sloughs. We even brought home the big freshwater crayfish from the ice-cold mountain streams on the way home from hunting (Mama could not stand them and left the kitchen when we cleaned and cooked them). Also frog legs from the humongous bull frogs around there. We even had bear meat, but really didn’t care for it. We had to eat bear only during the berry season because the meat would take on the fishy taste and odor when the bears gorged on the spawning salmon.

We ate plenty of salmon, steelhead and shad. I worked on the old haul seining grounds on the sand islands in the Columbia (they are outlawed now) and brought home fish. Sometimes I went by the Astoria fish docks when the tuna boats were unloading and brought home a tuna., carrying the fish in a gunny sack on the bus home. We also dined on young sturgeon from the Columbia, and we dipped smelt when they were running. We had a fairly large smokehouse where Dad smoked hams and bacon and all kinds of fish. Smoked smelt were great, pan-fried shad roe for breakfast, sturgeon was especially liked, but now I think it is endangered. We ate all kinds of fish, fresh, smoked and kippered, even pickled. Fish-head stew was a big favorite.

In the early winter we butchered beef, calves and hogs. We did our own killing, butchering, packaging and labeling, and we rented an ice locker in town to hold the surplus. We also ate deer, elk, and all the game birds. We dined on sweetbreads, stuffed heart, and delicious livers, and we made head cheese from the pig’s heads. My paternal grandparents were from Europe (German-Russian), and so our recipes were geared to that type of ethnic food, including Czech and Polish.

We learned to cook outdoors over campfires and made our own grates for grilling. We boiled coffee by the fire, and strained out the grounds using fine cheesecloth as we poured out a cupful. Cooked fish on sticks and planks next the fire, just like the Indians.

Really good food and eating? You bet! Being young and not knowing any better, we took it for granted. We worked very hard, so we built up appetites and enjoyed the food and Mama’s fine cooking. Dad even took surplus wild game to the widows and orphanages in the area. We ate like gourmets and gourmands. As a young lad, I ate like a horse and worked like a horse.

I traveled quite a bit, in and out of the military, and was able to enjoy lots of different foods across the USA including Hawaii and Alaska. I also visited England, Spain, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Caribbean, Guam, and Morocco. Discovered the different kinds of BBQ depending on the region, enjoyed it all… never met a BBQ I didn’t like. Mexican food is still a huge favorite (my lovely wife is an accomplished cook). Enjoyed the fare in England and Spain, jerk in the Caribbean, oriental foods of the Far East. Hardly any food I’ve encountered that I didn’t like

Copyright 2006 Ernie Kroll