Family Friday: Family Food Roots

Every two years my Grandma’s side of the family puts on the large Foster Family Reunion. We gather together for several large meals, a game or two, and occasionally someone will pull out a guitar and the girls will start yodeling. Though my Grandma passed in 2013, I can still hear her yodeling with her sisters or singing “You are my sunshine,” while her brother plays the guitar. The main highlight of the reunion has always been the Family Auction, put on to raise money for the next reunion. Before my Uncle Don passed, he put his cattle auctioneering skills on display as he teased our family into higher prices. You didn’t want to so much as scratch your nose, for fear that he’d take it as a bid. Now his nephews have taken up his mantel, even taking classes to become auctioneers just for our reunion. My Grandma was number 6 of 13 kids raised on a dairy farm by the creek (pronounced crick) by her parents Winnie and Bill Foster. Winnie attended the first few reunions, but now her grandchildren are looking to each other for who will pick up the slack now that many of the siblings have joined their parents beyond.

The summer of 2007, before my senior year of high school, my Grandma hosted the reunion. For entertainment, she insisted that I perform a monologue I had written the year before for my theatre classes. My Grandpa liked it so well, he invited me to perform for his coffee group– I had finally gotten that much-coveted invite to coffee only ever extended to his sons and grandsons. So yes, after the reunion, I rode with my Grandpa into town and performed loudly for a group of old men in an Arby’s. They insisted he buy me a pie and hot chocolate. Ever since, I have been asked by aunts, uncles, and cousins when and what I will be performing again.

In 2017, they got another performance as I read the introduction I wrote for our family cookbook. I thought I would share that introduction today because my family food roots have been on my mind. Over the 4th, I made a slight modification to my Grandma’s potato salad, using the grease and broth from the freshly cooked brisket instead of the bacon fat she always used. It turned out great. One of her younger sisters, my Aunt Sharon, came by the lake house and shared stories about Winnie’s fried chicken and generosity. Later my Uncle shuddered and shook his head at the traumatic memory of the chicken kills, while he and my Aunt discussed the ways Winnie could dispatch a bird. And it all got me thinking about my roots and the legacy of food that has been handed down to me. Now that I am diagnosed with my food allergy and have been observing more of the Kosher laws, I find myself making modifications to family traditions, with my family willing to support me. When my Grandpa passed in 2012 and all of the family gathered at the lake for his favorite treat of homemade ice cream, my Aunt Sharon brought me to sobbing tears when she pulled out her dairy-free batch. I hope that even with my recipe changes, I can hold on to the ranch-spun wisdom of my family, just a few generations back, who grew and raised their own food.

Dedication for the Foster Family Cookbook

The recipes gathered together in this cookbook honor our memory of Winifred and Willie Foster. Today most of us using this cookbook will follow these recipes using ingredients we purchased in grocery stores, grown and raised by someone else, somewhere else, but that wasn’t what life and eating was like for Winnie and Bill. Together they raised their family while also raising dairy cows, hogs, sheep, chickens and growing tomatoes, radishes, beets, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, peas, corn, green beans, and more. Memories of their home are best served with fried chicken and homemade ice cream.

There was no pre-cut, packaged chicken meat involved in Winnie’s fried chicken either. She could kill a chicken with a couple flicks of her wrist, popping the heads clean off and letting the birds bleed out. The birds were then scalded in a vat of hot water and their feathers plucked, the remaining fine pin-feathers singed off over a burner on the stove. Next, Winnie would gut and clean the bird, saving the heart, liver, gizzard, and even the ovary egg sac for frying. Taking a sharp knife, she broke the bird down to parts and pieces, floured-battered, and fried it. Can you just imagine that day the weather broke and everyone from miles around gathered at the Foster’s for a chicken fry? Winnie set out to make dinner for her own large family when neighbors and friends from town started arriving. As more and more people came down the drive, Winnie nervously told her daughters to go kill another couple more chickens, and then a couple more. When people outnumbered the plates, they resorted to eating out of pie and cake tins, skillets and pans. At the end of the day, Winnie and her daughters washed around 65 dishes people ate off—the only “automatic dishwasher” Winnie had were the hands of her children.

 There was never an idle hand at the Foster place, everyone pitched in. To fry up some bacon or enjoy Christmas ham, Bill first had to slaughter a hog. He, his boys, and his son-in-laws would set up a 2×4 next to the windmill braces then, using a pulley and sometimes the tractor, they’d hoist the hog, gut it, and part it out. Bill gave most of the meat away to the people helping him before he took his share. Bill and Winnie worked hard for the food they put on their table and they never turned anyone away from that table. They took in nieces, nephews, and neighbors, always ready to share the fruits of their labor. They lived off what they grew and raised, shared more than they could with family and friends, and sold the rest.

Most of the peas we eat today come frozen or in sealed tin cans, but the peas Bill dipped his buttered knife into were grown in their own garden then canned and stored in their cellar. Living off their land meant canning and storing away food for when the snow covered the ground, but they never let the weather ruin a happy day. Hailstorms made as good an excuse as any for homemade ice cream. Bill would collect the hail with the children, before setting one of them on top of the hand-cranked ice-cream maker and churning up the creamy, cold treat. The work was hard, but the food was good and the company couldn’t be beat when you ate at the Foster’s home.

If followed just right, a recipe can transform into a time machine. The popping of grease can carry you back to Winnie standing in her kitchen, skinning any small wild game killed by her young children or grandchildren, and then frying up the meat for them to eat. The smell of vinegar can yank you into their backyard, picking the greens that grew between the house and outhouse. Perhaps the taste of sugar and coffee reminds you of Bill pouring cream and coffee onto a sugared piece of bread sitting in his saucer. A sliced tomato on the dinner table, peppered and salted or sugared, can bring back memories of the sunshine soaked garden Winnie tended. Food more than anything else can connect us with our loved ones past and present. When we make the recipes collected here, we honor our memories with each other and give thanks to the hard work and generosity of Winnie and Bill.

My father stands with his sisters and cousins after collecting hail stones with their grandparents to make homemade ice cream

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