This story is from CA Allen and submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
Spending part of my life on a ranch in northern New Mexico, I learned to make do with what we had, as we were pretty much limited to buying kerosene, diesel fuel, coffee, flour, salt, baking powder and cornmeal.
Not having electricity, we used the sun for a lot of food preparation. We chopped fruit, mixed it with sugar, spread it in shallow pans covered with old window glass and set it up on the roof for a few weeks. Voilá! Fruit leather! We cut pumpkin meat into long strings, hung it on the clothesline covered with cheese cloth and had dried pumpkin for pie and muffins all year long. Peaches, apricots, chilies and summer apples were also dried. Homegrown pinto beans were dried and then threshed out on an old canvas with wooden flails and eaten three meals a day. We also ate native plants like cactus nopales (pads) and tunas (fruits), yucca flower petals and pinon nuts, lamb’s quarters and sorrel made quelites (greens). Twice a year we went to Juarez, Mexico to buy sugar, bedding, boots, shirts and special treats like big tins of saltines.
Our few dairy cattle produced more than we could use, so milk was stored in a cool spring house during the week and churned up into butter on the day before the dairy man came to buy it. How I hated heating buckets of water twice a day to sterilize all of those little cones in the separator! A couple of 55-gallon drums set up to catch smoke from an applewood fire preserved hams and side meat. Chickens, turkeys and hogs supplemented the beans. Beeswax was rubbed into furniture melted with Indian tobacco leaves for a salve and chewed for gum. Cold winter nights were spent straightening baling wire for reuse, planing rough sawn boards for lumber and completing other time-consuming tasks. A messy daily chore was washing the chimneys on the kerosene lamps.
A big old iron spider (skillet) of cornbread was mixed up every morning and set on the back of the wood stove. It fed the dogs and gave us kids snacks in-between meals. We rarely ate beef as cattle were raised as a cash crop, not a food source. Unlike some modern ranchers, we knew where our cattle were at all times and spent most days out with them, slowly moving them across our range so that nothing was ever overgrazed, and stream beds were not denuded or trampled. Long days on horseback were accompanied by a can of peaches, and maybe some venison jerky. When we were far from home base, sometimes for weeks on end, oranges, pork and beans and canned peaches were the staple foods.
This may sound like life in the '20s, but actually it was rural western life in the 1960s. A tough life, good in many ways, but although I do still heat my house with wood, I really like the modern convenience of having hot water on tap. I have always been amazed that folks think there is something romantic about ranch life. I remember it as hard work from before daylight until dark, accompanied by daily scrapes, scratches, bruises and fatigue. A good life, but really not romantic.
Photo by Fotolia/Aleksandar Angelov
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