By Dean Hulse
This article appears in the Key Ingredients issue of the North Dakota Humanities Council's magazine "On Second Thought," Winter 2012.
I recently came across a note I’d dashed off some time ago that concerned an advertisement (circa 1922),
which I’d seen in my hometown newspaper. If memory serves, I’d been looking through newspaper archives while doing research on a topic unrelated to the ad’s subject, but its copy nonetheless caught my attention. The ad read, “Butter and Eggs, same as Cash.”
My maternal great-grandmother and my grandmother both bartered butter and eggs (and cream) for staples,
probably with the same grocer who ran that ad in my hometown newspaper. According to family legend, my
maternal great-great-grandmother was a “fancy cook” in England before she and my great-great-grandfather
emigrated first to Canada and then to Richburg Township in North Dakota’s Bottineau County.
Mom was an exceptional cook, too, so perhaps it’s genetic. Even as a child I experimented in the kitchen,
and Mom and Dad were generous with what they allowed me to make. Like many farm families of that
era, our “fruit room” resembled a grocery store—with shelves full of jams, jellies, tomato sauce, green beans,
relishes, and pickles (beet, cucumber, corn, cauliflower). Also, canned stew meat and meatballs, with congealed morsels glistening like jewels inside the jars. Without asking, I could go down to the basement and retrieve a package of frozen hamburger, wrapped in white freezer paper carrying the “Not for Sale” label our
local butcher had affixed. The beef came from our own steers. My first food triumph was sizzling as Dad arrived for dinner: hamburgers, releasing the aroma of nearly every dried herb and spice Mom had in her cabinet. A predominance of chili pepper, onion salt, and garlic powder gave these burgers a piquancy that perfectly complemented a melting slab of Colby cheese.
Of course, I had a few failures. A sodden tuna pizza comes to mind. A meal fit for our dog Stub, who
required some persuasion.
“You eat that,” I barked.
I’ll end the tales of my adolescent cooking escapades here.
Beside my note containing the “Butter and Eggs” ad copy, I’d scribbled my reaction: “Oh really? Try making a cake out of cash.” I know about cake. Dad’s avocation was baking angel food cakes, each requiring fourteen egg whites, and many of which he gave as gifts.
Butter and eggs, same as cash? I know bartering is a form of commerce, but during my life, I’ve witnessed this butter-and-eggs sentiment assume a more literal character. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that many who frequent supermarkets today behave as though their cash is the same as cabbage, one indistinguishable commodity exchanged for another. For many years, I was one of those shoppers.
When my wife, Nicki, and I first moved to Fargo, I relished the fact that I could shop at grocery stores overflowing with exotic produce at 3 a.m. if I so chose. Like many Americans, I ate daily, and well, without knowing or caring a lick about the food on my plate—except how it looked and tasted, and perhaps how much it cost.
For me, the convenience of that marvelous arrangement helped blunt some repulsive memories of growing up on a farm. Picking eggs as a child was a chore, especially when I’d encounter an unexpected visitor in the henhouse. I once discovered a large rat, sitting on its haunches, exposing an oozing ulcer on its underside. After retracing my steps, lickety-split and empty-handed, back to our house, Dad returned with me to the clucking chickens. That rat departed this world squirming on the end of Dad’s five-pronged pitchfork, creating a silhouette against the early morning sun.
And so, I was OK buying anonymous eggs produced who knows where. But in my late twenties, my outlook began to change. I don’t think genetics was responsible. More likely, it was modeled behavior—that is, my having grown up with gardening parents and my having experienced truly fresh food. What manifested my latent craving for vineripened tomatoes? I can’t say. What satisfied it? Thick tomato slices still conveying the sun’s warmth, made even more perfect by salt, pepper, mayonnaise, and two slices of bread, substantial enough to absorb the free-flowing tomato juices without becoming soggy. A summertime sandwich to savor for only a few weeks, but to anticipate the rest of the time.
At first, we rented garden plots from the Fargo Park District, and we drove to our garden with open buckets of water sloshing in our car’s trunk. Later, I bought a small trailer and adapted it so it could haul two fifty-five-gallon water barrels. One year, someone stole our entire crop of spaghetti squash. I pacified my anger by writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, in which I offered a recipe so that our thief could fully enjoy his booty (his large footprints among our picked-clean squash vines). A day after the letter appeared, I got a call from a woman living in Casselton. She offered to share some of her spaghetti squash with me. Another woman from Moorhead did the same. We ended up with more spaghetti squash than we had growing in our garden.
That series of incidents planted a seed that would sprout once we bought a home and had a garden of our own. Now, we didn’t start our backyard gardening with the altruistic notion of supplying our neighbors with produce. But on most years, there are only so many zucchini squash two people can eat. To our credit, we are diligent in checking our zucchini plants. We aim to pick the fruit when it’s six to eight inches long, and that’s what we share with neighbors. Those zucchini lurking at the very bottom of our plants, the ones stealthily growing to the size of small children’s legs, we toss into our compost pile.
We also share tomatoes, eggplant, onions, spinach, chard—whatever we have in overabundance. Our neighbors have been joyfully generous with their in-kind reciprocations. One of our neighbors, an elderly Japanese widow, treats us to several meals reflecting her culture’s cuisine each year. Painstakingly garnished and with precisely cut vegetables, her dishes don’t disappoint in presentation, taste, or texture. I often daydream about her sticky rice. And the source of her homemade herb wine, which packs a punch more like a liqueur, grows right outside her garage service door. This year she’s going to show us how to grow the herb and make the wine.
Another neighbor is the patriarch of a family-owned package store and popular college bar. He repays
with wine or beer, some of which comes to us with a “born-on” date that is either current or only a day or two old. A Montana native, he’s also shared cherries that grow near Flathead Lake.
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Dean Hulse is a writer living in Fargo. He and his wife, Nicki, still own his family’s farm in Bottineau County, which is a source
for much of Dean’s activism and inspiration concerning land use, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture. In 2009, the
University of Minnesota Press published Hulse’s memoir, Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy.