I Wonder What the Poor Folks are Having Tonight?

We have grown distant from our food sources. The percentage of the population engaged in farming has dwindled while producing ever more abundance. We have grown too dependent on others to make our diets almost effortless


I Wonder What the Poor Folks are Having Tonight?I was so lucky to grow up in the heartland of America in the 1950s and 1960s. We were a family of five, three brothers plus the folks. We lived some of those years on the edge of one small town in eastern Indiana, the rest of them on the edge of another. The folks had been born in the early 1920s, so they had come through very tough times during the depression of the 1930s, then made it through the war with my mother at home and my dad in the army in Europe.

My mother’s family was very different from my dad’s family. Her side were Democrats since 1932 and stayed that way, but my dad’s side were Republicans since 1860 and stayed that way, too. In the 1930s, my mother’s side suffered and did without many comforts. They were angry at their plight, and hated the people they blamed for it. They were bitter and didn’t laugh much. My father’s side adapted, scrounged, made do, and made real progress toward their economic goals. They valued a sense of humor and loved to tell a joke. They were happy and content, even in the worst of times, directing their energy and love toward their family. They directed much of that love toward me and my brothers. I always wanted to be like them and to be where they were. I take after my dad’s side.

I think it’s a wonderful life, simple, yet loaded with richness and fulfillment that makes every day precious

My dad’s side got through the depression of the 1930s by finding a small plot of land and growing much of their own food. My grandfather always worked a full-time job but farmed a little on the side. Through those terrible years they were never hungry. They milked a cow, raised the calf, fed a hog, and kept rabbits and chickens. They always had a big garden. The interesting side of this is that they came from people who did the same thing way on back. They didn’t start doing it in the ‘30s. They had always done it, and their people had done it before them.

When I awoke to their world in the 1950s,  they were still happy and content in their small world. From those first years until today, I have tried to duplicate their lifestyle, and I’ve come pretty close a few times. I think it’s a wonderful life, simple, yet loaded with richness and fulfillment that makes every day precious.

A few years after the war, my dad built the house we lived in. We gathered around a maple drop leaf table in the late 1950s every evening for the main meal of the day. My dad would lead a prayer, then we would dig into my mother’s hearty cooking. Once in a while, when the talking had stopped and the quiet meant that everyone had begun to eat, he would say, “I wonder what the poor folks are having tonight?” Being the youngest, I didn’t understand at first. We never talked about rich or poor, and I figured everybody was about as poor as we were, but I had little to compare it to. The joke, I later came to realize, was that we were the poor people because we were eating plain fare, but looking at our plates, there was nothing poor about our diet. We had beef, pork, or chicken every day of the week, and it wasn’t just hamburger and boiling beef, although we had those, too. The meat came from our grandparents’ farm, within walking distance, and we worked there and in the big garden to help them provide abundance for all of us. To be really poor, those other folks must be getting all their food from a grocery store. We had tasted enough of other people’s cooking to know that our dinners were way and beyond better than that old canned stuff or the cuts that came from a plant in Chicago. We had heard it moo, oink, and cackle before we ate it. From the start, we knew that an animal had been killed to give us our meal. With depression-era parents and a small farm next door, we understood that food was not to be wasted for any reason. The only time meat could be thrown away was when it had spoiled, and I don’t remember ever seeing that happen. There was always plenty to eat, but none to waste. Eating was serious business, never to be taken lightly. Seeing any kind of waste is still horrifying to me. Why would anyone do that?

No matter our state in life, we can be rich in the things that matter, and be happy doing them

We could see the humor in my dad’s phrase and enjoy the irony of our fortunate circumstances. People better off than we were didn’t eat this well. The poor folks had it pretty good in our house. It didn’t happen by chance or because of a handout. My family put a great effort into enjoying this abundance at every meal. Everyone in our family appreciated the life and the supper our family had made. We still do.

The moral of the story, or the philosophy behind it was this: No matter our state in life, we can be rich in the things that matter, and be happy doing them.

We could feel a little sorry for the ‘poor folks’ as we ate and thought about the lessons of our lives. We were close to our food sources. We saw the cattle and the pigs and the chickens in their own happy circumstances before they came to our table. We saw the long hours of effort that went into every vegetable in the garden. We saw my mother and my grandmother spend long days in the kitchen turning the bounty into yet another meal we can still recall. Before I was in the third grade I had been to a slaughterhouse and to a poultry dressing plant. I had seen my grandfather wring a chicken’s neck before releasing it to the ground to spin crazily as it bled out. I witnessed what happened when the man at the plant put a chicken in the cone and made a cut with his knife. I had seen butchering and the many steps it took to prepare prime cuts for our table and for the freezer. These things stay with you. The truth of the saying, “we take care of them, then they take care of us” is never lost on me. It’s the way the world works. All the participants should have credit for their parts.

It was about 1958 or so before the first supermarket came to our town. From that time on, most of our society has become more and more dependent on the supermarket for our daily needs, and they do a good job of providing what we will buy. We began to drift away from our food sources.


We have grown distant from our food sources

In the 1980s,  a nearby dairy farmer family would host field trips for school kids. I always wanted to have the job of showing them how cows used to be milked. I would sit on the stool, put the bucket in the right spot, put my head against the cow’s flank and begin milking by hand. The farmer, with a mischievous glint in his eye, would encourage the kids to get close to the cow towering above them and one of them would hold out a hand. I would direct a stream of fresh milk onto the little hand and it would be pulled back in shock every time. “It’s warm!” they would say in disbelief. Others would come up to see if could be true, or if it was a joke. Everybody knew that milk was always cold. Then it would begin to dawn on them that they might have been missing something. Reliving that scene makes me smile every time.

I’ve taken a rather long way around the barn to get to the point of this writing. We have grown distant from our food sources. The percentage of the population engaged in farming has dwindled while producing ever more abundance. We have grown too dependent on others to make our diets almost effortless. Doing this has made us more vulnerable to blips in the food system, what we today hear called the ‘supply chain.’ It has also encouraged us to become less aware of what we eat.

If that vulnerability troubles you or even frightens you, there are ways to regain some of our old connections to the sources of food and to a better understanding of the lifestyles of our ancestors. Most of them do not require a selection of pitchforks. I will be writing about some of these in the columns to come. I hope you’ll join me.

Please support Canada Free Press and join me in thanking them for allowing me this opportunity. Your feedback is welcome.

CFP Comments

From: Garrison F.

Wonderful article sir! I grew up in cities my entire life spending nearly all of it right outside downtown Atlanta, GA. I never took to the overwhelmingly amount of people and always wanted to be a farmer someday because I enjoyed watching my Dad work in his various little vegetable gardens. My wife and I were recently restationed to Fort Bragg, NC and while we only were able purchase .3 of an acre the house that we built ourselves is just 216 sq/ft leaving us plenty of room for food. Being completely off the grid, I love my wood stove, oil lamps, well, and four solar panels. I never knew how much I would appreciate electricity until the only thing I powered was a refrigerator. I’ve never done it before, but I can’t wait to get my Buff Orpington chickens and plant my vegetables! I always loved growing green beans just to eat them right off the vine when I was picking them. I’ll probably mess it all up at first, but I am happy to learn and, Lord willing, have plenty of time to. Some day my wife and I hope to have 20+ acres with hardwoods and dairy cows. I hope others wake up and do the same…just not before I manage to buy our real land first!

God Bless

Dr. Bruce Smith — Bio and Archives

Dr. Bruce Smith (Inkwell, Hearth and Plow) is a retired professor of history and a lifelong observer of politics and world events. He holds degrees from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame. In addition to writing, he works as a caretaker and handyman. His non-fiction book The War Comes to Plum Street, about daily life in the 1930s and during World War II,  may be ordered from Indiana University Press.

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