Tuesday, August 11, 2009

10 Things I Learned from "Little Heathens"

Picking just ten things to highlight from Mildred Armstrong Kalish's wonderful memoir "Little Heathens" proved to be a challenge. The book is crammed with homespun anecdotes and wisdom that she gleaned from her years growing up on a farm in Iowa during the Great Depression. Although the subtitle of the book proclaims that there were "hard times," we come away with the impression that she lived in the ideal kind of world that we now crave more and more - a resourceful one of less waste, better food, and respect for animals, as well as each other. Despite her mother's "nonconformist lifestyle" and "loose routines," she also conveys a sense of true gratitude and appreciation for the unique way that she was brought up, and a desire to pass this appreciation on to future generations.

A few fun tips from Millie:

1)When making a pie crust:
To keep the bottom of a pie crust from getting soggy, beat one egg white until frothy, then spread a thin layer over the crust with fingers. Put in a 450 degree oven for 10 minutes, fill then return to baking.

2)When you have a splinter:
Break a fresh egg and carefully peel a small portion of the white membrane out of the shell. Place it on the splinter. Usually by the next morning it will be ready to be plucked out.

3)When comtemplating your place in society:
Remember the Protestant hierarchy: A Methodist is a Baptist who learned to read; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who went to college, and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who's made the social register.

4)When you get a bad bug bite:
Apply baking soda, black mud or earwax to a sting. If you get a canker sore, chew green pepper, but don't swallow, to relieve the smarting.

5)When you need wax:
Drain the honey from a comb and set the dry comb on some hardware cloth spread over an empty coffee can and place it in the sun. It might take a whole month to melt, but then you can mold the wax into a ball that can be held in the hand.

6)When you're coughing:
Place a flannel packet of hot, fried yellow onions and goose grease on the chest.

7)When your child has swallowed a bobbypin:
Have them eat sauerkraut. Since very young children do not readily digest it, the pin will become entangled in the undigested sauerkraut and pass safely through.

8)When you have lots of corn:
Make Corn Oysters: stir 2 cups of fresh corn kernals into a quarter cup of heavy cream. Mix in one tsp. baking powder, one tsp salt, and a dash of pepper with 3 tbsp. flour and add to corn mixture. Beat two large eggs and add. Fry, dropping by heaping spoonfuls, in oil or bacon drippings in a cast iron skillet.

9) When your hands are stained from shelling nuts:
Soak each hand in a large green tomato for about an hour.

10)When you only have one ball:
Repair as long as possible with a curved needle threaded with heavy linen cord waxed with beeswax. When it disintegrates take the inner core (which looks like a tightly wrapped ball of rubber bands), wrap in black tape and use it as a golf ball. To make a golf course, dig holes and sink coffee cans into them around the yard.

One of my favorite chapters was the one in which she described the forgotten tradition of making "May Baskets." The baskets were, ideally, made from old wallpaper sample books (having this kind of paper was considered a luxury.) The baskets were filled with treats and flowers and secretly hung on the doorknobs of favorite friends. At the end of the chapter Mildred wonders "Did this custom stop suddenly or did it just ebb away when no one was paying attention? Does anyone, anywhere hang May baskets anymore?" I wouldn't be surprised if Millie has inspired a few new traditions.

Hope you'll share additional "home grown" tips in the comments section if you have them!

Here's a link to a video of Millie talking about how her farm education has helped her throughout life.


Frances said...

Hi Jen, what a delightful book, thanks for sharing those highlights! While all of the tips seemed worthy, the melting bees wax seems especially quaint. To wait a month for anything in this hurry up world seems especially charming. :-) It would smell heavenly too.

tut-tut said...

Hey, I just order Farm City: The Education of an Urban Gardener by Novella Carpenter, about said garden in the wilds of Oakland, CA. I'll let you know how it is, but I believe Pub Weekly gave it a starred review. I'm eager to see what she has to say about farming in the city.

tut-tut said...

ordered, that would be

tina said...

What fun and most useful too! Little heathens indeed...

mayberry said...

I ADORED this book--just recommended it (again) to someone the other day. I loved the tidbit about socks, and how they were mended and passed down to the next smaller child over and over again. Or how they stored pork chops in a big vat of fat in the cellar and just reheated (months later).

Lorilee said...

The book sounds very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Loved this! As I do all your book reviews. I wish we all still lived this way--sharing May baskets and living practically.

Bangchik and Kakdah said...

Interesting way to look at it..., the idea of being ideal is less waste, better food, respect for animals and each other.... Yea, for a better world!