Breakfast began when Granny put a big pot of water on the stove to heat. We didn't have a hot-water heater, so we bathed in cold water when I was young. Granny used the hot water for cooking and cleaning the dishes. Breakfast usually consisted of hot buttermilk biscuits, blindfolded fried eggs, butter, and fresh "sweet milk": every morning, one of my brothers or I would take a pail of hot water to the barn to clean the cows' udders after we milked them. There were always several jars of jams and jellies on our table. Pa and Granny canned them from wild fruits that grew in abundance in the Arklatex area. Pa liked to scold us for having too many jars open at once; he said we opened them just to hear the Ball jar lids pop. He may have been right.
Nearly everything we ate came from our land. The eggs came from our chickens, the milk and butter from our cows. Bacon and sausage came from the hogs we raised and butchered. We canned vegetables from our large garden, which spread over about eight acres in three different patches. Cucumbers were turned into jars and jars of sweet, sour, bread-and-butter, and dill pickles. Our pantry shelves were lined with canned tomatoes, peppers, beets, and just about anything else my family grew, including pears, peaches, plums, and grapes, as well as the abundant dewberries and blackberries of the area. Cut-up cabbage, green tomatoes, onions, and peppers were mixed together and canned to make what we called chow-chow, a relish that was a delicious accompaniment to just about anything–especially fish.
In addition to our garden, where we also grew such things as English peas, butter and pole beans, lettuce, turnips, mustard greens, onions, radishes, carrots, Irish and sweet potatoes, cantaloupes,
and watermelons, my family grew several fields of peas, peanuts, and corn. We started many of the vegetables from seeds that were planted in a hotbed (called a cold frame by some) in early February. My brothers and I gathered cow and horse manure, which, as it decomposed, kept the bed warm and enriched the soil. After the plants sprouted and grew big enough, we transferred them to the garden.
One year Pa, figuring he would get a jump on the market for the early watermelons that brought the highest prices, had my brothers and I collect manure from the cow pens to put into two hundred holes. He directed us to dig the holes two feet square and two feet deep. In early February, Jimmy Frank and Harold laboriously filled washtub after washtub with manure and then transported them on a slide pulled by an old mule to the holes that were dug. After depositing the manure into the holes, we mixed the top of it with soil and planted the watermelon seeds.
To be perfectly honest, Tommy and I didn't become too interested in the project until Jimmy Frank and Harold told us we should plant marble–along with the watermelon seeds–in the holes. They promised us we would grow a big crop of marbles. Of course, we were young enough–and thus gullible enough–to believe them. We already had marbles running out our ears from ill-gotten gains at the schoolyard, where we played bull's-eye, cat's-eye, and hotbox for "keeps" (whoever shot best and won the others' marbles got to keep them). We won regularly and often came home with pockets bulging with marbles, which we deposited in a five-gallon bucket just inside the back door. Tommy and I grabbed our bucket and, with high hopes, planted them in the manure just like our older brothers told us to do.
It didn't take Tommy or me too long to realize we had been duped. We ended up sacrificing ammunition for our slingshots for a bumper crop that never came. There were always two things in my pocket when I was young–marbles and a slingshot. We made our slingshots from forked tree limbs and red real-rubber
bands we cut from old inner tubes (the black synthetic inner tubes didn't have the necessary snap to propel a marble or small rock). We used the slingshots to bring down small birds, but Granny and my grandmothers always admonished us not to shoot the mockingbirds or "redbirds," as they called cardinals.
Our watermelons came up beautifully that year. The decaying manure heated the beds enough to sprout the seeds early, and the soil's added richness gave the young watermelon plants a tremendous growth spurt that turned the hillside where they were growing into a couple of acres of lush, verdant green vines. Pa never followed up on selling them, so we wound up giving away what we didn't eat to kinfolk and friends.
My entire family took part in harvesting fruits and vegetables. If we hadn't, we wouldn't have had enough to eat. From the beginning of May, when the mayhaws and dewberries ripened, until the end of fall, with the gathering of muscadines and pears, my family and I could regularly be found in the area's swamps,
fields, forests, and abandoned home sites. With our buckets and tubs, from the youngest to the oldest, we would be stooped over or stretched upward gathering whatever fruit was in season.
Pa, who worked on drilling rigs usually located in the wilds, often discovered fruit trees and berry and grape vines as he moved about with the rigs. He also knew the locations of many old home sites with
abandoned peach orchards, grapevines, and plum and pear trees. There was no shortage of places to harvest. The trick was to get there when the fruit was ripe–and before another family beat you to it!
I remember one particularly cold, wet spring when my family was wading ankle-deep (in our everyday shoes because we didn't have rubber boots) to gather mayhaws in cottonmouth-infested waters near Myrtis, Louisiana, in a swampy area off Black Bayou. Clouds of mosquitoes covered our backs, biting through our thin shirts while we stooped to gather the floating fruit we shook from thickly clustered trees. Mayhaw jelly is still my favorite, and even today my wife, Kay, and I gather the bright reddish-orange berries from the swamps around our home each spring. We make plenty of the tart jelly for our needs, usually with enough left over for our children and other family members and friends. Mayhaw jelly has a unique, delicious flavor.
One year when I was young, the wild grapes were so abundant in the old Ruby Florence field that they filled all of our tubs and buckets with rich, purple-red fruit. We could barely fit our harvest into the car, which was already crowded with adults and children. In fact, the trunk was so crammed full of tubs and buckets of fruit piled on top of each other that the lid wouldn't shut. Several large buckets and pans of grapes were jammed inside the car, on the floorboards, between our legs, and on our laps. The harvest was so great that Granny lit all four burners on the stove and had Pa and Jimmy Frank set an entire number three washtub full of grapes on top of them to render the juice.
As our luck would have it, this was also one of the years when the price of sugar was sky-high (always a consideration in canning as to whether it was worth the cost). After making a smaller amount of jelly than usual, my family simply sealed a number of gallons of surplus grape juice in quart jars without sugar and stored them in the cabinets alongside and beneath the sink–thinking we might make jelly later, after the price of sugar went down. But we eventually found that the stored juice was delicious, so my brothers and I drank a quart or more daily for breakfast and snacks. Before too long, the juice began to ferment. In only a short time, it turned into a very good wine. My parents and older relatives began to drink this, too, but couldn't finish it before it turned into vinegar. Granny used the vinegar in her canning throughout the rest of the year.
Of course, man can't survive on fruits and vegetables alone (at least not a real man), so we also raised and butchered our own beef, usually killing two steer calves annually that weighed about four hundred pounds each. The calves were the offspring of our milk cows, which were bred to my aunt Myrtle's beef-type bull– a runty, mostly Black Angus mix, which still sired nice calves. Pa and my older brothers would kill the calf, gut and skin it, and wrap it in an old bedsheet, which they then put into the trunk of our car. We didn't have a deep-freezer, so the meat was taken to Vivian, Louisiana, about two miles away, where it was hung to cool and age in a local icehouse. After about fourteen days, Pa brought the sides of beef home and cut them up on the dining table. Then Granny and Pa wrapped the meat in freezer paper
and took it to a rental storage locker in town, where it was frozen. Granny periodically retrieved packages of beef when she was in town and transferred them to the small freezing compartment in the refrigerator at home.
Homegrown chickens were another staple at my house when I was a boy. Pa bought two hundred baby chicks by mail order each year at a cost of about five dollars per hundred–one hundred early and another hundred later, so we always had young fryers running around the yard. It was a big day when the baby chicks were brought home from the post office in a ventilated cardboard box. They were immediately moved into a brooder Jimmy Frank built with four-by-eight-foot sheets of tin. The brooder was heated by using an old washtub–with vents on the sides–and a small burner that was fueled by the natural gas well that also heated the stove.
We didn't wait too long to start eating the chickens–even if it took eight of them to make a meal! We usually kept twenty or so hens every year to lay eggs, and we dined on the older ones from previous years during the winter. Of course we cooked and prepared them the old-fashioned way: wringing their necks, plucking the feathers, and singeing them over a stove burner. Our Sunday meals in the spring and summer typically consisted of fried chicken and homemade ice cream, which was made with the rich cream of our Jersey cows. On the way home from church, we'd pick up a twenty-five-pound block of ice, and my brothers and I would make the ice cream outside. Jimmy Frank or Harold cranked the freezer, while Tommy or I sat on it to keep it steady.
The story of the Robertson family is a pretty good picture of an early American family. We didn't have much, but we loved each other and found ways to keep each other entertained. We didn't have cell phones or computers, but somehow we managed to survive. As far as I know, none of my brothers or sisters has ever owned a cell phone, and Jimmy Frank is the only one who owns a computer, because he's a newspaperman and needs one to write his stories. I've never owned a cell phone and don't plan on
ever having one. I've never owned a computer, and I'm still trying to figure out what the fuss over social media is all about. I can promise you one thing: you'll never find me on Twitter or Skype. If anyone needs to talk to me, they know where I live.