Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression


One of the books I read recently was Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.   It’s a series of disjointed chapters about various aspects of her childhood in rural Iowa during the depression.   The book has been out for a few years, but I stumbled upon it this fall in the gift shop of Seed Savers’ Exchange and put it on my to-read list.    The other day I posted something about reading about the siege of Leningrad and how I think it’s a good idea to read historical/actual accounts of people coping with hard times in order to get ideas and stimulate your brain a little bit.   I can assure you that I got more out of this book than I did any of the fiction ones involving a karate expert with a heart of gold navigating a post-apocolyptic world.

This book was like talking to grandma (coincidentally my grandma did grow up on a farm in Iowa during the depression!) but maybe after a few drinks.  I’m not sure if this will make sense, but Kalish tells her story in a heartfelt manner yet at the same time she’s not caught up in being too sentimental.   By that I mean that she seems very honest.   She’s not writing a yarn about walking to school uphill in a blizzard both ways or pining about “the good ol’ days”.    I didn’t get the impression that there were any tall tales in the book.   She wrote about some of the hardships her family faced, some of the good times they had and most importantly, some of the routine things in their daily lives that often get lost in history between the yarns about how bad things were or good ol’ days recollections.

One example of the everyday things she writes about is the subject of cussing back then, a subject near and dear to my heart.    Although I’ve wondered about how people talked to each other in their day-to-day lives, I was never able to muster the courage to say “Hey, Grandma, did you guys ever say ‘fuck’ back then?”.   Now I know.    Another similar subject is outhouse usage and toilet humor of the day.   Kalish is very frank and vivid in her recollections of daily life during her childhood and leaves the reader with few questions unanswered.

The book is entertaining.   She’s a good storyteller and has some good anecdotes about the depression and life back then.   Although the book wasn’t meant to be a how-to manual, I think it has a ton of value in the way of passing on bits of folkish wisdom that have been obscured by the good times between the depression and today.   I checked the book out from the library, but I’ll probably end up buying a cheap used copy of the book so I can go through and highlight some stuff for future reference.

I’ll throw out some examples of stuff I’ve learned – so as part of  13 in 2013, I’m planning on tracking down at least five new wild edibles and using them.   Kalish talks about going after ground cherries and how they used them.   So now I know that they really are in my part of the world and I have an idea on how to use them when/if I find them.   While I didn’t buy the book from SSE’s gift store when I initially thumbed through it, I did pick up a pack of ground cherry seeds (among a lot of other stuff).   Maybe I’ll do a bit of guerrilla gardening?  She also talked about dandelion greens, wild fruits and nuts and the kinds of things they would do with them.   Foraging was an important part of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had problems making yogurt.   Kalish mentioned that they used to set their yogurt on top of the stove in order to stimulate the bacteria.   I had a duh moment when I read this.   The other day I tried making yogurt again and ended up with a great batch of it.   I put it on a heater vent and then a warm stove.  It had it setting in no time.   I looked at the recipe I’ve been using and notice that it says “put in a warm place”.  I’ve been just counting on room temperature being good enough.   So I think I’ve got that one down now.

There’s a ton of stuff about cooking and the things they ate.   Simple, hearty and economical foods in tune with the seasons and what they had available.   No one ever talks about Midwestern fare or writes it off as being bland and boring, but it’s based on necessity.   They needed foods they could produce on-site or store in bulk that would give them enough energy to go about their daily tasks, often in cold weather.    It’s probably not a good idea to start your day with ham, eggs and biscuits and then roast with potatoes a few hours later for lunch if you’re sitting at a desk from 9-5, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re engaged in physical labor all day.   Most of the recipes given would have a lot of conventional dieters freaking out, but I imagine their rates of obesity were pretty low back then.

I also learned a few important tips on chopping down trees.   As a kid I had about an acre or two patch of woods behind me and my only experience with chopping down trees was the time we took down a small maple with a hammer and a small section of rusty iron bar.   Kalish gives a few valuable tips that novice apsiring lumberjacks might overlook.

The chapter on how frugal they were was pretty impressive.   One example was that when they would wear out a pair of socks, they would darn them up and pass them down to the next smallest person to the point where a pair of socks would last through several owners.   The ankle part of the sock usually doesn’t wear out, it’s usually just the toes and heel.   The “hoarder” mentality is common enough among today’s elderly, but when you think about how many of them grew up with the “make do or do without” mentality of the Great Depression you can see how that can happen.   Especially when you consider how in today’s climate we assume that things will be worn out and tossed away and a lot of things are cheap and plentiful.

I got a chuckle out of a part where she mentions that her family were “hearty-handshake Methodists”, meaning that they frowned upon things like hugging or other physical or verbal public displays of affection.   I’ve got a little bit of this background and I’m notorious for being awkward with hugging and uncomfortable with things like hand holding and other such indulgences.   It’s kind of funny for me to see this in writing.

I found this book really cool.   Not only was it entertaining, it was full of a ton of useful stuff.   I think that anyone interested in homesteading, basic skills, self-reliance, traditional Americana, agrarianism, frugality, preparedness, rustic cooking and probably a dozen or so other niche markets would get something out of this book.   I’m glad that Kalish unflinchingly shared her story with the world so that all these little details on daily life wouldn’t get lost.

In addition to this book I’m currently reading The Grapes of Wrath.   Somehow I made it through high school and college (with a liberal arts major) without reading this.  I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it.   I also ordered a depression-era cookbook from a lady that had a series of popular YouTube videos on the kinds of things they ate back then.  I posted one of her videos last year, it’s worth checking out (link).   I wouldn’t be surprised if I post some more things about the Great Depression in the coming month or so.

A Taste of Summer in February

Tonight for dinner we made a soup with canned tomatoes from our garden, chick peas, penne pasta and rosemary, along with homemade whole wheat baguette bread and it was delicious.

Sounds like meaningless Facebook chatter.  What’s the point of this post?

Well, by growing and canning our own tomatoes we were able to use them several months later in the dead of winter and they still tasted pretty much like they were freshly picked.   We didn’t have to pay jacked up prices for inferior tomatoes grown halfway around the world.   The soup tasted better than if it were made with tomatoes from the store or a can, it was healthier and more environmentally sound due to the fact that the packaging (the jar and reusable lids) was reusable, they were grown using sustainable methods and it did not take fossil fuels to transport them.

The actual cost of the tomatoes was next to nothing, compared to the $1.50-$3.00 a pound they charge at the grocery store for non-organic tomatoes right now or even the cost of canned tomatoes.   I put more work into growing and canning the tomatoes than I would’ve compared to simply throwing some tomatoes into a shopping cart, but it wasn’t all THAT much work and it actually provided some sort of enjoyment – at least more enjoyment than my job does.  Watching things grow can be fun and there’s a lot of satisfaction from knowing you did it yourself.     I can’t accurately figure up the numbers right now, but I’d figure that the actual cost associated with producing the jar of tomatoes (my time, the water, the plants, a percentage of reusable gardening and canning supplies, etc) is lower than what it would cost to purchase a few pounds of tomatoes of anywhere near comparable quality from the store.   That’s the benefit of having productive hobbies.

Sometimes doing more with less yields some great results.