Monday, January 9, 2012

Feeding a Family of Fourteen

I was reading one of my favorite websites last week and I came across a post that made me sit back and think.  This was written by Drakenstead1 and he gave his kind permission for me to re-post it here. 

I'm sure many of you folks are experienced gardeners and preservers of the harvest. What I have to say here is probably "old hat" to you folks. I'm making the effort to post this for those who are just starting out or those with a small garden who "put up" a few things every year. I have no issue nor an axe to grind I'll merely tell you what it was like growing up in rural Minnesota as the eldest of a family of 14. 

When I was 22 I went to the local American Legion with my Father so we could have a quiet glass of beer and a talk. Dad had just been laid off and times in general were tight. Times were always tight but we managed. Dad was fond of the saying that "Love Grows" which he usually followed with "Set another Place at the Table". One of the local wags came up and loudly asked with a mocking tone" How ya gonna feed all them kids now eh?" Dad was the coolest guy I ever knew. He simply smiled and replied "Plow up another acre". We then went back to our conversation and ignored the clown.

Our garden was a wonderful pet monster. It varied in size but was never under 5,000 square feet. That did not include the large area that went to sweet corn or pumpkins & squash which we raised for sale as much as food. Everything one could imagine went into the fertile Minnesota soil from Broccoli to Zucchini. Our spud patch was always there to teach the young bucks in the family what testosterone was really for.  Quite a lot of bad behavior was cured by a session in the spud patch. We could easily and often did put up a ton of the tubers in the wooden racks Dad & I had built from scrap lumber in the cellar. Also into that cellar went onions, garlic, cabbage, carrots and anything else that we could hang or pack in tubs by the hundred weight.

We also had what was called then a "fruit cellar". Mom supervised the canning of fruits and vegetables up to 3 & sometimes 4 thousand jars a year. Along with the fruits and veggies went quart & two quart jars of rendered lard from the pig or pigs we slaughtered each fall. That which was not made into soap became the cooking oil we used producing tasty eats and pie crusts that still make my mouth water at the thought. I remember the canning sessions in the late summer and fall. The long yellow Formica table in the kitchen had benches at each side. One side for the girls and one for the boys. The babies sat on the ends with Mom & Dad respectively. My brothers & I sat on one side with our view of our sisters obscured by a mound of green beans so high that we could not see our them on the other. We would snap, cut and wash well into the night with the sounds of the huge field medical Auto Claves that Dad had scrounged Army Surplus hissing in the heat of the August nights.

Things that tasted better frozen went into the two 29 cubic foot freezers tucked into the basement corners.  This included quarts of frozen peas that I traded labour with a Local Farmer for. Meat of course went in there including the pig, half a cow or sometime a whole and all of the wild game that my brothers and I could take legally. The freezers were packed full each fall and supplemented with game as available through the winter.

Each fall the entrance to our huge old farm house was packed with the Red Wing stoneware crocks that antique collectors now pay a fortune for. Sauerkraut bubbled and smelled along with wine fermenting and mead brewing for a delicious smell that it does not take much effort to remember. Hung from the celing were bunches of herbs that Mom grew in the "special" garden that Dad & his sons worked up and did the heavy work on. The classic parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme filled the air with scents that acted as a counter point to the other wonderful things working there. Things like rosemary were set in pots and carefully nurtured through the winter. They were considered expensive exotics that would not overwinter.

Each fall in wood splitting time Mom would hang the last of the tomato plants by their roots in the basement so at least some of the green fruit would ripen. We often had them until Thanksgiving. That's when we would also harvest the things that needed a touch of frost like squash, spuds, and brussels sprouts. That's also when she would make her "Harvest Soup". Huge kettles of everything that was left went onto the stove to feed the brutal heavy work that this much food required. Along with the soup we ate the fresh bread that she baked 12 or 14 loaves at a time every Saturday. I also remember the 9" x 12" cake pans used to bake rectangular apple pies with the Haroldson's that make Minnesota fall go snap and crunch.

Flour was purchased along with corn meal, oil, salt, sugar and spices. Everything was done in the largest quantity possible. Grandpa had scavenged a stainless steel drum that we built into the kitchen cabinets. It slid out with it's hundred pounds of flour every baking Saturday and filled the house with smells that my Dad told us was the scent of heaven.

We raised chickens for the pot after they had set in the freezer for a while. We would butcher twice a year setting up a production line to process them in the back yard. My wife's first introduction to my family was chicken day. To her credit she pitched right in. That's when I decided that we were meant to be together. It was probably not the most romantic thing but her willingness has kept us together for over 40 years.

I've not gone into the details of a lot of the brutal back breaking work involved with this much production. Every mouth to feed came with a pair of hands which were put to task. That is what all my brothers and sister remember, not fancy vacations, restaurant meals or trips to Disney Land. I remember when my sister's new boyfriend showed up for her first date. He was a handsome young Irishman just out of the Navy.  (My sister) Cheech had been primping all day to get ready. When her young beau showed up and they were ready to leave dad said "Where are you going?" Cheech said "Out to the dance with Pat". "Not until your two bean rows are weeded" said Dad. I saw her face drop to the floor and the screech begin to form deep in her lungs. Two of my other sisters and I stepped up together and said "Don't worry dad we'll take care of her rows" With a silently mouthed "thank you" she left with her young man. They are married now and have four girls and four grandchildren. Pat told me that it was on that day he decided to ask Cheech to marry him. He wanted to be part of a family that backed each other up.

The conclusion is in light of my experience. I know at least in part what it takes to feed 14 people through a Minnesota winter. Now imagine doing it without electricity or gas to run a tiller or tractor or freezer or working a wood stove to cook and can. Don't be discouraged just consider the scale and prepare now. The time is coming again for us to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow and not the keys on a computer keyboard.



  1. Love it! My mother had 9 siblings. 5 boys and 5 girls. They pretty much went through what this person did.

  2. I am still staggered by the 3-4000 jars of home canned food and the immense amount of work involved. It makes me wonder if I would have had what it took to survive while feeding 10 or 12 kids - not to mention giving birth to them all :)


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