I’ve not figured out the magical age at which one is allowed to be opinionated and set in his ways but I must be getting closer every day. Maybe my daughters are already sharing little moments of laughter at my Dad-isms. Yes, I rinse every dish until it is clean BEFORE it goes into the dishwasher. Yes, I leave early and try to arrive 10-15 minutes before every appointment. Yes, there are some foods I will not eat. I became this way in part by watching my Grandpa.
Believe it or not, Homer Miller would not touch Jell-O. He didn’t even want it at his table. Perhaps if Homer had joined Bill Cosby to try some of the pudding style Jell-O, it would have been different. But that wiggly, see-through stuff was of no interest to Homer Miller at all! And Grandpa’s chicken had to be cut a certain way so the pieces were recognizable with a wishbone included in the mix. He was smart enough to know chickens do not have nuggets although that is the chicken cut of choice for many today.
I don’t remember much cooking going on in Grandma’s kitchen during my visits. I think she was all cooked out after bringing up a dozen young people. We usually brought a full picnic in the trunk of our car including fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, and a couple of desserts. It was there in the Miller’s dining room, though, I had my first taste of freshly cooked squirrel, rabbit, and deer meat. The squirrel had a hidden surprise – a piece of buck shot – which I think entitled me to a free wish, like finding the bay leaf in a bowl of stew. I was not sure and did not ask. The kitchen had an electric stove and something Grandma called a “Frigi-Dare”. I don’t think I ever peaked inside to see what was chilling. There were canned good from the general store on the shelves and Grandpa got his milk from a bright red and white can – condensed milk they called it. I do recall seeing a huge box of Corn Flakes in the dining room on nearly every visit so someone liked that cereal.
I take electricity for granted and don’t waste any time calling the power company’s help line if the service flickers and drops. In Grandpa’s location the power could go out during a storm and it might be days before service was restored. It could be a pole had snapped or a tree fell on the line somewhere perhaps on top a hill or down in a valley. Power lines did not always follow defined roads and were strung cross country as the crow flies. Finding and fixing a break in that rugged terrain, especially in ice and snow, was not a trivial matter. The food supply had to survive with no electricity so dry goods and canned goods were staples.
Grandpa grew a lot of his food. Gardening has become a fashionable hobby even among the wealthy today, but for the Millers, gardening was not a hobby. It was a way of life. Most of the Miller kids knew how to work hoes and shovels early in childhood and could explain what that old expression, “I have a tough row to hoe”, meant in terms of weeds and corn. I was never with Grandpa in planting season so I don’t have firsthand experience on his soil preparation methods or what rotation he used for the crops. I know he seemed to be able to grow anything in that dirt of his. And he did the work by hand using a mule and later a roto-tiller for plowing.
Grandpa’s garden was an ideal place to learn which crops would thrive to provide an immediate harvest during the summer months with surplus left for canning and preserving in the fall. There was rhubarb used for home-made pies, a dessert my Dad enjoyed. Rhubarb pie was too bitter for me. I prefer apple pie with a big plop or two of vanilla ice cream on top. Grandpa had rows of corn, choosing Silver Queen, although he did plant some multi-colored Indian corn. Fresh corn on the cob (or off the cob as Grandpa liked it) is always a treat. Some in the Miller family know their beans and are certain the Good Lord only created one type – half runner green beans and Grandpa grew them abundance. Stringing bushels of beans for canning is a great way to pass the time. He also had pole beans which were larger and tougher. Grandpa planted lettuce beds and that piece of ground had to be burned every spring to prepare it for the lettuce. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins. I found this picture tucked away in his album and Homer had every reason to be proud of this giant pumpkin. It might have won a ribbon at a state fair.
On the same hillside where the spring provided water there was a large stand of brambles, thorns, and vines. It did not look like a place I wanted to explore and I wondered why Grandpa had not taken his mowing scythe and leveled that mess. I learned there was treasure hiding there. About midsummer, the adventurous soul who put on a long sleeve shirt, long pants and braved the weeds, thorns, and ticks to enter the bramble would be rewarded with ripe, sweet blackberries. Buckets full. All you could eat and all you could pick! The berries which survived the picking and eating would be preserved as jam. Pick a snowy, cold day in January. Open a jar of blackberry jam made from berries you helped pick in the hot sun the July before and summer time will blossom all around the table. It is a feeling you simply have to experience for yourself.
Grandpa had a secret place under his house and we were not allowed to play in there. Telling young boys not to go somewhere is usually an invitation for them to go but when Dad and Grandpa both warned us that place was off limits, I figured I better obey. Once the two of them were going into the secret place and I saw them so I followed along. Kids, you did not hear this from me, but if you are quiet no one notices you. My father turned around and saw me but by then I knew what was in the secret place. There was a door that creaked and groaned on its hinges as it opened. I was hit with the smell of fresh earth and a coolness I could not explain since it was a hot summer day. This was the entrance to Grandpa’s cellar. His house sat high on a bank at the end of the road and under the house, back into the hillside, Grandpa had dug out the soil to make a room. It even had a light bulb that had to be twisted in to turn on and twisted out to turn off. The temperature in the cellar remained fairly constant year round since the earth insulated the space and it was always dry in there.
I have been in basements, tool sheds and even garages. Some are messy. Some are neat. Some are filled with junk. Some are filled with good stuff. None can compare to what Grandpa had hiding in his cellar. There were shelves built along one wall covered with quart and pint sized Mason jars. This was the Miller food depot. Grandpa had beans, tomatoes, blackberry jam, cucumbers/pickles, and even pickled corn put away for the season. Let me share a warning, since you are kind enough to read my stories. If you have never smelled the aroma of pickled corn as it cooks, just let it go and enjoy life! You are not missing a thing. We took a jar home in the car and one Saturday morning Mom opened it and started to heat it up. My family was overcome by the noxious fumes of that corn and Dad grabbed the pot, took it outside and buried that pickled corn. Even the dog ran away with its tail tucked between his legs.
On the other side of the cellar Grandpa built a raised bed out of rough boards he brought straight from the sawmill. It was filled with the summer’s potato harvest and I had never seen so many potatoes in one place. Potatoes need to be kept cool and dry and Grandpa had constructed the perfect place. The potatoes which were not eaten during the coming months might be used as seed potatoes the next spring. Grandpa had ears of corn laid out to dry and this was his seed corn. He was already planning ahead for the next harvest.
I never knew Homer Miller to sit down to eat without doing something he called “turning thanks”. He acknowledged God as the source of the food he was about to eat. Some think turning thanks is a strange practice. After all Homer worked the soil, planted the seed, tended the plants, harvested the produce, and prepared the meal. Through it all, he held tightly to a faith that taught him it was God who made the food possible. God is the one who created the soil, gave the rain and made the sun shine.
I opened Grandpa’s Bible to the Old Testament book of Psalms, chapter 136. Grandpa placed an “x” and an “o” in the margin beside this Psalm. It was his was of keeping track of progress as he read through the Bible, something he completed multiple times. In that Psalm we read:
[God] gives food to all flesh … O give thanks to the God of heaven, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” Psalm 136:25-26, NASB, paraphrased