Famed radio homemaker and author Evelyn Birkby talks about her experiences living in rural Iowa in the 1950s and gives an entertaining history about Shenandoah, Iowa's radio homemakers.This interview with Evelyn Birkby was recorded on April 27, 2009, in her kitchen of her home in Sidney, Iowa.
Debra Herbold: Describe the effect food has in our communities.
Evelyn Birkby: I mentioned earlier that food is so daily. And the longer I work in radio, and in the newspaper and live in a neighborhood out in rural Iowa, the more I realize how important food is. What a great role food plays in the lives of people! And it's very simple. People use food as a way to connect with their families and their heritage and the country they came from.
One of the things that I realized as I wrote newspaper columns, shared recipes, and got recipes from various people - and also worked on radio with homemaking subjects and food - was how much food plays a role in the lives of everybody. One of the things I liked in our neighborhood was that nobody saw anyone was more important than anybody else. If they were a renter, they basically were low man on the totem pole, but nobody acted like that or made them feel that way. I grew up on church potlucks starting with my minister father's church and then as we went on down to the churches where Robert and I lived, and it always was such a fellowship. The food was never as important as that sense of community. The sense of caring was there. When you went and found out everything that was going on in everybody's lives, that was important. If somebody was sick or even not making very good grades, they'd share that because they needed help to encourage them along the way and to hear what other people did.
In other words we shared our lives. One of the things about southwest Iowa, people, the important people like Earl May and Henry Field, who had the big feed nursery companies, they shared their lives. The really great radio homemakers, they shared their lives. This is what the people did. Everybody, no matter what their professions, they shared their food. We have a hundred zillion pictures of our family eating a meal - a picnic, a Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving dinner, Fourth of July, birthdays, all of that. I asked a historian one time, who works with photographs, "Why do we take so many pictures of people eating?" He said, "That's what you do when you get together. You sit down and you share food". Very seldom do people come into your house that you don't offer them food, something like tea and hay hand rolls, something. I'll have store bought cookies and I'll say to someone, "well here are tea and cookies. And, of course, I've worked all morning on these cookies." And then we laughed because we just know that when people get busy then they go and they would get store bought cookies but it' -- it's the sharing. It's the sharing.
When we lived at Cottonwood Farm the people around us were from many backgrounds - Scottish, quite a few German, English, Irish. If you went up the road a ways, there were the Irish folks, and every one of them had their own food ideas and traditions, their food traditions. I had mine, the things that I had eaten at home. We had a friend, Mabel Lewis. Every time there was a funeral or sickness, she made a basic Jello salad - lime Jello, green grapes, and pineapple. That was it. And, you know, that simple refreshing salad was very good and very tasty. And it made you feel better because she brought it and she gave it to you. When there was sickness and death, here came people with food. And it's the good thing that women can do. Because when sorrow comes, they can head to the kitchen and they can cook something. They can "do" because you need to do something. When you're sorrowing, you need to do something so you feel like you are doing something. It's a hard, hard time in everybody's lives, because everybody faces these things sooner or later.
Debra Herbold: Do you feel that food is still comforting now - 50 years later?
Evelyn Birkby: Food is still as much of our lives today as it ever was. But it does take a different pattern. And I talk to young woman who have never really cooked much in their lives and they don't want to. They can go down and they can buy things at the deli. They can buy a box and add something to it and have a cake. Of course I do that too because they're so good. I haven't made a real angel food cake for years because box of angel food cake mix is so good. But you have to think -- does it cost more or is it not so good? Those are my two criteria. Like with my making bread, you can buy bread. You can buy frozen bread. You don't have to make bread. You can buy it already baked. But I love making bread. I like to get my hands in there. I tell people I make the best bread when I'm mad at Robert, because I can get in there and just knead away and I can just use up a lot of frustration making bread. It's also great to take to your neighbors when you have new neighbors. Bread is always acceptable -- always acceptable.
Debra Herbold: Describe how the radio homemakers shared their lives.
Evelyn Birkby: The radio homemakers -- most of them were on everyday or they weren't on everyday, they were taped and then played everyday, so that they were heard on the radio everyday. And so when sickness or trouble came along, either they had a back-up person that could come in and fill in, or else they would just come and do it. And, in a way, sometimes this was good, because again, as I said, women can go and cook and that's doing. Well, if you have a job which is radio broadcasting and you go and you do it, then you think, "I did it. I got over that hurdle. The next one won't be so bad".
My father had a story that he made into a sermon. When we moved to Farragut, he was the pastor at for a while at the Methodist Church, and there was a big hill, Stony Point Hill, north of Farragut. There was a big billboard up there. At one time Iowa had lots of billboards. They don't have so many now, which is a good thing. Here was this big billboard and it was advertising a gasoline, and it said, "There used to be a hill here". Those were the words on the billboard, "There used to be a hill here. Buy our gasoline". The idea being if you bought their gasoline, then you could just go tootling up the hill. It wouldn't, you know, it wouldn't bother you at all. So, dad told this story about how when you come to a hill -- when you come to a problem -- when you work over it, then the next hill you come to isn't so bad. You say to yourself, "Well, there used to a hill here". A lot of things my father said are still in my mind and they're so helpful. They are things that I have shared in my column and that I've shared with friends. Not too many people come in after there's a sickness or death or trouble and say, "There used to be a hill here."
Debra Herbold: Describe the role of a farmer's wife in the 1950s compared to now.
Evelyn Birkby: The farm wife in the 40s and 50s worked from "can't see to can't see" or from dawn to dark, but I love that phrase. You "can't see to can't see". That's an old pioneer phrase I think. They worked very hard physically. Monday you washed. The first person that could get up in the neighborhood and get the washing out on the line was considered the best homemaker. And it had to be white, of course. And if you were up the earliest and had the whitest laundry, you really were a good homemaker. So, I put clothes line at the back of the house where you couldn't see it from the road. Not everybody had that luxury but I could.
Then they had gardens with very few weeds and very straight rows. The women did the gardening. I tried. I was a complete failure at the garden. My rows looked like railroad tracks and I couldn't keep ahead of the weeds. So, I planted flowers along the edge. One day somebody said to me, "You have the prettiest flowers. I just love it that you put them where we could see them from the road". I said, "You know why I did that? So, I could hide the weeds".
I had a hard time feeling adequate and thank goodness Robert did not scold very much. He would have liked it if I could have gardened but I did learn to can. And we put up an inordinate amount of food, which was wonderful to eat. Then he'd go out and shoot squirrel and rabbit and dress them out. I cooked them in my pressure cooker. I'm a pressure cooker cooker. Got one for my wedding and I loved it. I've been pressure canning. So Monday we washed. Everything was all dried outdoors because we didn't have automatic washers and dryers then. We did them on the back porch in the old ringer washer. Even in the winter we hung them outdoors unless it was real stormy and that's another story in itself.
Then we sprinkled them and rolled them up and put them in a basket ready to iron and some things we starched. You could buy starch. You put it on the stove with water and cooked it to starch your clothes. Most things were cotton so they needed to be starched before you ironed them. So, then the next day, here were these baskets of damp clothes and it took all day to iron them, all day long. On Wednesday, you might cook most of the day. Many, many of the farm women made their own bread. They would make several pies. If they hay hands or other men coming in to thresh or do some of the farm work, they did all the big meals. Sometimes neighbors went together to cook, not always, but sometimes. I never had those great big meals. I might have three or four men to cook for if we were doing farming. And I didn't mind that because it wasn't too often. And we didn't have a very big farm, which was good. I drove the tractor when we put up hay. Well, Robert and the helpers would put the hay up on the wagon. I would take food out to the fields when the men were working. Even if it was just Robert, I would take lunch out sometimes with the children and we'd eat out in the field by the creek under the trees and that was fun. That was fun.
Debra Herbold: Describe other duties of a farm wife.
Evelyn Birkby: We did lots of errands. We went and got the chickens. We went and got the feed. We went and got things if something broke down on the farm machines. We ran lots and lots of errands. Then, by Friday night it was time to clean up everybody. We put a big tub out under the windmill and filled it with water in the summertime and let it warm. And then the children could get in and take their baths under the starlight in the warm air of summer. And they loved that. We didn't have a bathroom at Cottonwood Farm. I always resented it. I'd never liked it. We had an outhouse. In the summer, it wasn't so bad. We were back a ways from the road so it seemed like it was private. But in the winter, I didn't like it. I didn't like it.
Debra Herbold: What were Saturday nights in town like in rural Iowa in the 1950s?
Evelyn Birkby: We went to town. We went to Farragut when we lived at Cottonwood Farm and we did our trading. You took in your cream and your eggs and got the money and went and got your groceries. So, you traded your cream and your eggs for the groceries and that is what fed us. Robert milked 11 cows. I did the separating. That's what the women did. I did the separating and washed the separator which was a very difficult, most disliked job on the farm because cream is sticky. But then I made wonderful butter out of the cream. And I loved coffee and then I would put cream on it. I would make homemade cottage cheese. It's one of my favorite recipes to tell. Not long ago, I talked to my grandson's 7th grade out in Washington State. They never heard of a farm I don't think. So, I told them my favorite recipe for homemade cottage cheese. You take a great big dish pan and fill it with milk and let it ________ then you put it on the back of the stove. Now this is in the days of the of the cob burning stove, wood burning stove, where it was warm and it would separate. They call it curds and whey. You know, the whey is the firmer part. When that happens then you drain it into a clean tea kettle and you tie up the top and you take it out and hang it on the clothes line.
Now the clean tea kettle keeps it clean. Insects can't get to it. It keeps it clean. And then when that's all dry, you bring it in the house ready to prepare for the table. It's probably the best low calorie food in the world. So, what do you do with it? You take some of this thick separated cream that you can barely pour out of the pitcher and pour it over that cottage cheese. Oh, it is so good.
The other thing I think about food is that when you're younger, it tastes better. When you're a child, your whole taste mechanism is so sharp and everything tastes so good. Now sometimes I taste something and I say, "That doesn't taste like it used to". Then I realize, well when you've lived almost 90 years all those -- all those taste parts of your body are changing. So, just put on a little more sugar.
Debra Herbold: From your personal accounts in your book, people living on Iowa farms in the 1950s had to be resourceful. Describe what that was like.
Evelyn Birkby: Those of us who lived through the Depression learned to use everything. My sister was six years older than I and we had a cousin who would send us what we called "missionary boxes". They were much better to do than we were financially, we thought. I think the husband in the family, my uncle, was an insurance salesman. Anyway, whenever she had clothes that she didn't want anymore, she'd put them in a box and ship them to us. So, my mother would make them new again. I was in 8th grade before I had a store bought dress. I never felt deprived. I hated the color purple because my cousin had this rather old looking purple dress and mother simply cut it down for me. She didn't really redesign it and I was still wearing an old cut down purple dress. So, it took me a long time to get over that. In fact, I still go in the store and say, "Well, when I'm old I'll wear purple". Everybody in the store laughed at that one.
But resourcefulness was part of our lives. My mother was very good at using leftovers. My mother was good at making over clothes. I know with my own children, I would make a little coat for one of them or a pair of trousers. You could also buy remnants. I got five dollars worth of material one time. I made a dress for me, a dress for Dulcie Jean and a little shirt and pants for Bob. Three outfits for Easter that year for five dollars. It was fun to be able to make do.
Oh, and we used feed sacks too. We got the prettiest feed sacks when we bought chicken feed. There were some other kinds of feed that you could buy that had very nice patterns. They used to have real pretty white cotton sacks and then the ladies began saying, well why don't you put a design on them? Then we could make them into shirts and curtains and dresses and nightgowns and tablecloths. So that's what they did. And they sold more feed because the ladies wanted the cloth. We have some of those in our local Freemont County Historical Museum. Feed sacks from the 40s and 50s-- antiques!
Debra Herbold: Sum up rural life in Iowa when you lived on Cottonwood Farm.
Evelyn Birkby: Rural life in Iowa during the 40s and 50s after the war was a time of rejuvenating, a feeling that life was better. And that because of that wonderful program that the government had for education for the service men when they returned, that we got some of the finest educated people from that. We felt it was going to make our country and everything better because now they had this opportunity and the horrible, horrible, horrible war was over.
So, that was the main attitude at that time, one of optimism. There was a lot of cleaning up that needed to be done. There was a lot of restoring that needed to done. And there were many families that had been torn apart that needed help and courage and support. But we did it. We did it! And I think for awhile everybody was pretty optimistic. There's always a need for that. There are always problems. Life always has things that you have to face and struggle with and overcome and then you say, "Wheeeee! I did it. I went over the hill. There used to be a hill there".