My mother was married and cooking for her family while she was still a teenager in the years of the Great Depression. She made simple, low-cost meals with a minimum of ingredients and fuss. My father wanted mashed potatoes with practically every meal, so her Swiss Steak and Catsup Gravy went perfectly with his mashed potatoes. I personally didn’t like mashed potatoes – except when they were served this way with gravy that was rich and deep flavored from long, slow baking.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting at a table with my mother, father and little sister. We are in a one-room, second-floor flat on Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati in the mid-1930s. All day, Mother has watched over a simmering pot of beans with a pig hock added for flavor. My father has come in from his timekeeper job on the WPA and we are having about the cheapest supper possible in the midst of the Great Depression. I have a plateful of beans and a tiny bit of the small amount of meat that is on a pig hock (my father gets the biggest portion of meat and my mother claims to love chewing around on the bone). The beans are steaming and the teaspoon or so of meat is flavorful – I love it! It was said in my family that you weren’t an Applegate if you didn’t love beans, so I guess I qualified as a full-fledged member of my father’s side of the family.
As time went on and my father moved to better jobs with the City of Cincinnati and then Dayton Acme (a World War II defense plant), there was more money in my mother’s food budget and she stopped using the mostly-fat pig hocks and either threw in a pork chop or two to cook with the beans or had crisp bacon or fried ham on the side. This was the only time my father ate pork … along with his beans topped with chopped onion and a lot of black pepper.
By the time my future husband started coming to the house for meals, Mother had added a big cast iron skillet full of fried potatoes to the menu. It was his favorite supper. After we were married, I continued to have this meal one night a week. Every time I hear the John Denver song, “Back Home Again” and the line about “supper on the stove” and the wife who felt the baby move, I think about my young husband coming home to an expectant wife in our little apartment with the windows all steamed up and a big white and red graniteware pot of beans simmering on the range.
My four children didn’t inherit their parents’ love of a bean supper and I got out of the habit of making it. But now that I’m alone, I crave the beans of my childhood, especially in the fall and winter. I make a healthier, easier version with a slow cooker.
1-1/2 tsp. ham flavored soup base (L. B. Jamison’s)
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the dry beans cold water in the slow cooker. *I use this amount of water to insure that I’ll have enough broth to make dumplings. Cook on low overnight – approximately 8 hours. Add the ham flavoring, then taste before adding salt and pepper.
I was the only one in the family who liked dumplings with my beans and I used to make a one-person serving. This works very well for me now when I want to make a meal just for myself.
DUMPLINGS FOR ONE
1/4 cup of My Biscuit Mix**
1-1/2 Tblsp. (approx.) of cold water
In a small bowl, stir the biscuit mix and water together to make a thick, moist dough.
Heat about 1 cup of bean broth and 1 cup of beans in a small pot to boiling. Drop the dough into the boiling mixture by the tablespoonful, making three dumplings.
Lower the heat to simmering, cover the pot and continue simmering for 10 minutes without lifting the lid. Note: The white and red graniteware lid is from my original 1952 set.
Serve immediately with chopped onion and a grating of black pepper. A small serving of meat is good, but not necessary (to me, at least). Today, I happened to be browning hot sausage to freeze for my Thanksgiving stuffing and kept back enough to make myself a small grilled patty. It tasted wonderful. This is truly my soul food.
Growing up in the years of the Great Depression, we didn’t have milk except from a can. My mother loved buttermilk but there wasn’t any available in those hungry years. When my mother was 73, she made an audio tape of family stories and her personal memories. She said, “It was depression time and we all lived together – one big happy family! And when you went to the table to eat you had better fill your plate up because it was never going to be passed around again – that was the only chance you were going to get. But John (her step-father) would not take any kind of welfare or anything, he insisted on working. And then we moved to Cincinnati where he got a job shoeing mules and the house went with us and the two boys, Frank and my husband, drove John around with blacksmith tools in the back of the car and he would go around and tell the farmers that their horses needed shoeing whether they did or not – even just a re-setting, that was $1.00 a shoe – and he would always come home with some groceries.”
The “house” consisted of the grandparents, my parents and their two children, two teenage boys, two teenage girls and an infant, all living together and trying to survive on the meager earnings of the traveling blacksmith and his two young sons.
In 1935, my father was able to get on the WPA as a laborer and he moved his little family to a one-room flat in downtown Cincinnati. My mother always said the happiest day of her life was the day she moved into that little room and was finally able to have a place of her own.
My little sister and I continued to have our evaporated milk diluted with water and heavily sugared. When I went to the first grade at old Raschig School on Central Parkway, imagine my delight at seeing a table wheeled into the room with apple butter sandwiches and huge metal pitchers of honest-to-goodness milk. My father, remembering the farm-fresh milk of his childhood, straight from the cow, said this was just surplus skim milk provided by the government. No matter, nothing ever tasted so good to me.
I always loved milk and as I grew older, I learned to appreciate my mother’s favorite, buttermilk. Whenever we went to a county fair, Mother and I had the treat of a fish sandwich and ice cold buttermilk. My father was sure we were going to get violently ill from such a combination but we never did. We both loved that little half-pint carton of milk with big flakes of butter floating around in it.
When I have a cup of buttermilk left over, I like to make these yeast rolls – very simple – very quick – and very good.
In a large mixer bowl place 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, soda, and yeast.
Heat the buttermilk and water to 130 degrees F. Add to the flour mixture. Add the oil. Beat with mixer paddle at medium speed for 3 minutes. Insert dough hook and beat for 6:30 minutes longer, adding flour as needed until dough is elastic and no longer sticky.
Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
Punch down dough, form into rolls and place on greased cookie sheets. Cover and let rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake rolls in a preheated oven for approximately 12 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool.