An Evening to Remember

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I know, I know! I’m running over a month late in writing about my visit to the University of Wisconsin post-graduate writing class on April 29. But you don’t want to know the reason why. (Okay, I forgot my camera in River Falls and it took me awhile to go back to retrieve it—and I wanted to post only after I had some pictures.)

But back to my writing class visit. The class meets evenings once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes, and that is a long time to hold the attention of students, even of post-graduate students who are twenty-something in age. No worries, however.

I was very privileged to team with Dr. Geoffrey Scheurman, the University’s Chair of the Department of Teacher Education. His excellent presentation followed mine, and I was so absorbed in his teaching technique and Dust Bowl visuals that I forgot to take his picture. I deeply regret that missed opportunity. But I’m very grateful we could share that enjoyable, spectacular evening!

Listening to a student’s very interesting comments.
Listening to a student’s very interesting comments.
With Deb DeSteno, our gracious host for the evening.
With Deb DeSteno, our gracious host for the evening.
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A Unique Book Club Experience!

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My visit to a Hudson book club last month turned out to be a very unique experience. It began with not-unique sleet and snow driving conditions that

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caused most of the members and me to be late. Subsequently, we were told that our reserved private dining room had been inadvertently double booked and the other group was already in the room. But this book club group had read my book and their pulsating perseverance spurred them to accept a narrow hallway-size room in the back of the restaurant.

So we sat in the windowless hallway facing each other along the two walls so close our knees almost touched. My reward was a wonderful meeting/discussion. What a gracious group of women, and wow, they were set for discussing THE DIRTY DAYS and to learn much more about life in those times! Meanwhile, the bad weather conditions had escalated outside. But my almost two-hour energetic discussion with these very bright women was worth my hazardous twenty-mile drive back to St Paul.

I would do it all again in a minute!

 

Mother’s Depression-Era Vinegar Pie

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Perhaps Mother’s vinegar pie would have been more aptly named if it had been called Sweet ‘n Sour Dumplings, or better yet, Emergency Dessert. For in my book, THE DIRTY DAYS, my brief account of Mother’s vinegar pie surely did give the impression of an emergency situation. As desserts go, Mother’s vinegar pie wasn’t exactly spot on when it came to flavor and texture. I dare say it would have missed the mark considerably for a blue ribbon in the county fair pie contest, had she been naive enough to enter it.
It truly was kind of an emergency when Mother tried to satisfy her family’s sweet tooth when supplies were scarce and the times were tough. Undaunted and without apology, she would boil a mixture of water, sugar, vinegar and vanilla for about two minutes, then set it aside while she made a dough with flour, baking powder, salt, lard, milk, and maybe a beaten egg. She rolled out the dough on a floured surface to piecrust thickness and then cut it into strips, each about one inch by two inches.
She would bring the liquid mixture to a boil again and the strips of dough were dropped into the boiling liquid–one at a time. Mother would swirl the liquid for about three seconds before dropping in each dough strip. After the final strip was dropped in and swirled, she would loosely cover the pan and simmer the “dumplings” for about ten minutes.
I have to admit the end result of the depression-era dessert wasn’t as bad as it might sound. Its flavor actually fell short of terrible. The liquids and sugar mixture were cooked to an appealing, somewhat thick and pale caramel color, which compensated for the dumplings that were fairly rubberized due to the skimpy amount of shortening used in making them.
But with a drizzle of whole milk on the warm dumplings and thick juice, Mother’s efforts were not wasted. Most important, both then and in retrospect, her efforts were and are viewed as an act of love worthy of the highest award.
Pictured below is my version of Mother’s Vinegar Pie, which my husband Bob nicknamed, Fruitless Pie. I must admit that I bastardized my mother’s vinegar pie recipe. I added a bit more sugar, a teaspoon of butter and vanilla and used a mixture of half plain flour and half Bisquick to make the dumplings. Then I topped the dessert with Cool Whip. Although she has been gone for ten years, I can almost see Mother’s nod of approval and hear her soft chuckle.
 I always took it for granted that Mother created her recipe for Vinegar Pie, which she sometimes referred to as Vinegar Cobbler. Much to my surprise I recently found recipes on line for vinegar pie and cobbler, both calling for a top crust over the dumplings, then baked in the oven. My frugal mother simply cooked the liquids and dumplings on the stovetop and never applied a piecrust.

I always took it for granted that Mother created her recipe for Vinegar Pie, which she sometimes referred to as Vinegar Cobbler. Much to my surprise I recently found recipes on line for vinegar pie and cobbler, both calling for a top crust over the dumplings, then baked in the oven. My frugal mother simply cooked the liquids and dumplings on the stovetop and never applied a piecrust.
 
Having sampled my rendition of Mother’s Vinegar Pie (Cobbler), my husband and I recommend that anyone interested in making Mother’s depression-era dessert should select one of the on-line recipes.
Having sampled my rendition of Mother’s Vinegar Pie (Cobbler), my husband and I recommend that anyone interested in making Mother’s depression-era dessert should select one of the on-line recipes.
Here’s a link to a Martha Stewart recipe for Pioneer Vinegar Pie–a significant contrast to the “recipe” used by my mother.

Self-Reliance and the 1930s Frugal Farm Woman: Denim Quilts

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Since I only briefly mentioned my mother’s quilt making and her creative money-saving cooking in my book THE DIRTY DAYS, I would like to share a little more information about these two endeavors. First, I’ll comment on denim quilts in this April 15th post, and in my May 1st post, I’ll share my thoughts about her Vinegar Pie. Both writings, I believe, are examples of women’s self-reliance in the 1930s.

Mothers of the Great Depression, especially those in the 1930s Dust Bowl, were often artistically ahead of their times. For instance, when I was a teen in the late 1930s I thought my mother was rather cool when she saved the relatively new-looking backs of the legs of my father’s and brothers’ worn-out blue denim bib overalls to use in her quilt-making.

She also saved scraps of the flour sack floral print material left over after she made me or my sister a dress. She would creatively incorporate the colorful floral pieces with the denim pieces. The contrast of the two materials made a strikingly attractive quilt.  I noticed that my friends’ mothers also recycled coarse blue denim overalls material and gave it and the pretty print flour sack scraps a second life in the creation of their quilts.

I like to think the denim overalls material symbolizes the men’s persevering labor and the flour sack print speaks for the roll women played in the family’s survival of the 1930s hard times.

In retrospect, there was nothing backwoods about a quilt made of squares and triangles of faded denim overalls material interspaced between pieces of floral flour sack prints.

Pictured below is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that oday’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes--a trendy look  that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!
Pictured above is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that today’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes–a trendy look that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!

Today, in boutiques, department stores and trendy mail-order catalogs one can find numerous items made of denim with floral print trim, beads, embroidery, and any number of innovative and funky decor adorning all sorts of jackets, skirts, purses and home decorations. Yes, those artistic, quilt-making mothers of the 1930s were decades ahead of their times!

Frugal Farm Women Made Flour Sack Dresses

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Poor farm women during the 1930s Great Depression didn’t have much time or money for sewing clothing. Time was especially precious to the women of the Dust Bowl because there was almost constant dirt causing problems or requiring their attention. Without enough water, or any modern conveniences, cleaning chores were tediously planned and performed. Scraping together enough ingredients to make a meal took time to execute, as well.

But those cited examples are only the tip of the iceberg as far as demonstrating Dust Bowl women’s resourcefulness and self-reliance. For sure, there wasn’t much time for flexibility in their routine. And finding time to make a garment demanded extraordinary flexibility.

Traditionally, a woman’s time with a needle would have been spent in mending, or altering their children’s old clothing, or making quilts. And any cash in pocket was slated mostly for costs of running the farm, a few food staples such as flour, or very possibly for shoe repair. Often a significant amount of money would be needed to pay the doctor for delivering the next baby.

So it was a godsend when the flourmills began to package flour in cotton sacks made of attractive floral print material. The women took a liking to that immediately. So, since my mother and most of the other moms who lived in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression were also frugal women, they saved the print materials from flour sacks to sew dresses for their daughters.

A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.
A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.

Dress patterns were an extra expense, and the women often designed their daughter’s dresses by changing some of the detailing of an old or borrowed pattern. They also made the dresses with extra-wide hems, and when it came time to lengthen the skirt, my mother and some of the other moms sewed a narrow, bright colored trim, or lace, on the faded line where the old hemline once was.

The old saying Where there’s a will, there’s a way surely fits my resourceful, self-reliant Mother and the many others like her in the Dust Bowl and throughout our nation during one of our most historically difficult times.

For more information about those times, see my book THE DIRTY DAYS.

A Generation Fading Away

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grandmaandfamily
Mother: A pioneer woman, who stuck it out with her husband on the drought-stricken plains of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Strong, determined, hopeful. He continued to say, "It's going to get better. It has to."
Daddy: Strong, determined, hopeful. He continued to say, “It’s going to get better. It has to.”

While watching the History Channel Dust Bowl special a few years ago and the recent Ken Burns PBS Dust Bowl Documentary, I have appreciated the brief but touching testimonies of the now elderly survivors of that historic period.

Truthfully, I wish those articulate elderly survivors—approximately my age—had authored a book-length account of their parents’ courage following their decision not to flee the Dust Bowl. The day-by-day, year by year heroism of those parents has not been given the amount of ink Americans deserve to see in written history.

Sadly the children of those 1930s parents are fading away, and scarcely any have recorded the up-close and personal history of their parents’ courage, perseverance and physical endurance, much less record the ways in which those hard times impacted their own lives as youngsters.

Photographer Dorothea Lange’s photos of the weary Oklahoma migrant mother and her forlorn children say a great deal about the suffering of those who fled the Dust Bowl for California. Lange’s powerful images are a good backup to Steinbeck’s depiction of the migrants. However, I wish there had been many more photographs and more written depictions of the folks and their children who bravely remained on the drought-stricken dusty plains.

It is alarming to me that the children of the Dust Bowl, dubbed The Greatest Generation, are now in their late seventies to nineties and passing away at a rapid rate. So the chance of additional recorded accounts of the heroism and strength of the pioneer men, women and children who endured the 1930s Dust Bowl is very slim.

Fortunately, Steinbeck’s splendid novel lives on as a credible depiction of the Okie immigrant’s desperate struggles to survive in California. My novel, The DIRTY DAYS, is based on my life as I actually grew up in the Dust Bowl but with the intention to portray and honor those who didn’t flee from the Oklahoma plains during our country’s worst hard time. It received the publisher’s Editors Choice and Rising Star awards.

My father is delineated in my story with both strengths and weaknesses, with the latter trait garnering the reader’s sympathy. My mother, whom I call a pioneer woman in my book, sometimes tampers with the truth to protect her family’s peace of mind. Both are typical of Dust Bowl parents. Molly, my alter ego and narrator of my story, represents the real me and my friends in the 30s.

Readers tell me it’s good that my story doesn’t end when the drought and dust storms are over. Rather, it briefly takes the reader into Molly’s and her parent’s post Dust Bowl life, and it shows how their acquired 1930s life skills of strength and determination continued to serve them well.

My two children, in my real life and in my novel, express hope that my story will contribute something noteworthy to the recorded history of the Dust Bowl survivors’ vital role during our nation’s worst time.

MY MOUNTAIN

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My Mountain
My Mountain

To the left is a picture of my mountain taken from the car window when Dan, Ginger and I were driving to the site of the farm where I grew up.  As a child I viewed this mountain from my back yard, which was about thirty-five miles east of my homestead at the westernmost end of the Wichita Mountains.  In my early years it seemed much farther.

My childhood memory of this flattop, bare mountain had lain dormant for decades before it sprouted again in my consciousness. Like a tulip bulb that becomes a blossoming flower in springtime, that childhood memory came back to me many decades after leaving my childhood home.  It happened as I was writing my book, THE DIRTY DAYS.

I was writing about the loneliness that had come with the hot, dry and dusty 1930s summers, missing my schoolmates and with too much time for thinking about the scarcity of food. I must say it pleased me that my brain retrieved my decades-old memory of this mountain that had been my youthful imagined, yeasty-fragrant loaf of bakery bread—bread we could never afford to buy.

But as the picture reveals, the once-upon-a-time faraway, flat-topped mountain that I imagined looking like a loaf of bread now has slanted ends, due to erosion through the years. Furthermore, my mountain doesn’t seem so far away anymore, due to the changes in the contour of the once much flatter surrounding terrain, which these days also has some streaks of green grass and trees on its surface.

So I’m left with this thought: Land changes physically with the passing of time along with good, or bad, maintenance, as do humans.