Food Independence on a 1930s Farm

A young man and his family relished the seasonal bounty of their garden and orchard, especially the green chili chow-chow they made each fall.

Braided Onions

We braided onions and hung them to dry in the cellar. 


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This account was told to me by my former neighbor, Harold Oliver, who has since passed away. He was a young boy during the Depression, and his farming family had food self-sufficiency thanks to their livestock, orchard and extensive garden. — Peter Kohler 

I was born in 1929 and raised on a little farm in western Boone County, Mo. I was 16 years old before I ate my first slice of store-bought bread. My mother baked biscuits from scratch every morning in a wood cookstove, before the family got up. On Sundays, she made a second batch for dinner.

There were six of us kids in the family, plus Mom and Dad, and a stray uncle who wandered in and out of the household. We all spent much of our chore time in the garden. We grew sweet corn, cucumbers, potatoes, green beans, onions, peppers, melons and tomatoes. We had a few apple trees and peach trees in a fenced orchard with a wooden gate. Raspberry bushes grew up and “ruined” a corner of the yard. For a couple of weeks every summer, the red-winged blackbirds dive-bombed us kids while we tried to pick those raspberries.

We kept a milk cow, and some hogs in a pen. There were chickens that would raid the garden plot and wreck some tomatoes, but they also kept the hornworms at bay and the ticks out of the yard.

‘Eggs and Legs!’

Throughout the growing season, we ate whatever was ripe in the garden. In summer, when we dug potatoes and the green beans were coming on strong, we would always have a huge pot of new potatoes and green beans on the stove with a fat hambone and a ladle in it. When the sweet corn was ripe, that’s what we’d eat for supper — six or eight ears of corn on the cob, dripping with fresh butter. There were weeks in summer when we would bust open a watermelon every day. When we boys caught frogs at night, the next morning you’d hear Mom yelling from downstairs, “Eggs and legs!” Also on the breakfast table would be a big platter covered with freshly sliced tomatoes.

We made cucumbers into bread-and-butter pickles. We stored potatoes in piles of oak leaves in the corner of the root cellar. We braided the green tops of onions into plaits and hung them to dry for a couple of weeks before we put them in the cellar. Every fall, we made apple butter in an iron kettle over a slow, smoky fire. We took turns stirring it all day with a wide wooden paddle that had been whittled from barn siding. We also canned peach preserves.

My father never staked his tomatoes. He let them vine out over the pasture grass. We kids picked tomatoes every day and canned them once a week. We picked them when not quite ripe, before the chickens got them, and then we’d lay them out on boards in the summer kitchen to let them finish ripening.

Bringing in the Harvest

In fall, before the first killing frost, everyone spent a day in the field picking every last green tomato, for “chow-chow.” Green chili chow-chow was the most wonderful part of fall — preparing the stuff that made other food taste better all winter. We ground the green tomatoes into rough chunks and hung the mash in white cotton sheets in the yard, like hammocks, to let the water drain. We dug up all the onions that were still in the ground. We picked the last of the peppers, hot and sweet. The exact chow-chow recipe changed from year to year, but it was always sweet with sugar, hot with peppers and horseradish, and sour with apple cider vinegar. The most important ingredient, however, was the green tomatoes, and they tasted lemony and wild — even a little dusty like the soil that grew them. We canned green chili chow-chow until we couldn’t find another jar to fill.

When the shelves of the root cellar had been filled with canned corn, beans, pickles and chow-chow, Dad would buy 50 pounds of red beans and 50 pounds of white beans. It was Mom’s custom to have a pot of beans on the stove all winter long. Anyone who showed up at our back door was always offered a bowl of beans.

When it snowed, Dad would slaughter three hogs. He cured six hams and six “picnics” — country ham with a salt cure. All the rest of the pork went to sausage. We fired the smokehouse for two weeks, and that’s the way we’d start the winter.

I remember that cold kitchen after morning chores: a big bowl of beans, fried ham steak, a couple of biscuits, and that green chili chow-chow over it all.

Recipes Wanted!

Do you have an old family recipe for green tomato relish? If so, please send the recipe to with the subject line “Relish Recipe.”

Share Your Family’s Homesteading Stories

Homesteaders from the early 20th century maintained self-sufficient family farms. Current MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers stand to learn a lot from the wisdom of the folks who farmed during this period. We are collecting Wit and Wisdom From Our Elders: tips and stories of how people took care of their homesteads in the past. Do you have a grandparent or senior friend who could share their stories? Do you have your own personal experience or favorite tales to tell? Please send to with the subject line “Elder Wisdom.”

9/7/2011 4:10:16 PM

I agree with Britesea. Farm work is hard work for some, but for the ones that are passionate about being stewards of the land and being self-sufficient, farm work isn't work at all. There are some people, like me, that would give up their day jobs to become farmers, regardless of the workload.

8/4/2011 8:16:05 PM

Yes, farm work is hard work. That's why the kids all headed to the city and left the farming to agribusiness, transients, and stubborn old people. But still... somehow... there's people that wouldn't want any other life. Especially when you take a few minutes from the chores to sit outside of an evening, sipping iced tea, watching the swallows and listening to the wind in the trees.

8/3/2011 5:38:58 PM

I agree; its a whole lot of work to take care of a farm like "the good old days". And you don't have to be a kid from the Depression to have that memory burned into your brain. I was raised in the 60's and 70's, and that's the way I remember it too. Butchering was my least desirable job, but one that was done out of necessity nonetheless. Plucking and cleaning chickens on a hot summer day? - blech! The "Good Old Days" they weren't, but the memory retains a bittersweet quality that bears recalling today. When money (cash money, anyway) is tight and getting tighter, we'll all be thinking about taking back a few of those chores we've relegated to big farms, migrant workers, and trucking companies. And that, perhaps, might be a "good thing" in the long run.

becky phillips
8/3/2011 4:14:05 PM

That is exactly how we were raised...60 dairy cows, 40 pigs, 120 chickens, a half acre garden where we put up yearly 75 qts tomatoes, 70 qts green beans, 60 qts corn,plus applesauce, peaches, frozen bluberries, frozen and canned meat. It's real easy to glorify the "Good old days". They weren't. The work does not end. I'd like to know how many want to get up and 4:30 a.m. and till the farm, weed the garden, and tend the animals (plus all the house hold and yard work) till it is too dark to see.

8/3/2011 12:19:30 PM

People need to get back to growing as much of their own food as possible. In addition to the financial savings, the vegetables are healthier, and taste better!

paul wade
8/3/2011 11:50:52 AM

Those were the good ol' days, Harold. The USA of today isn't the same one we grew up in. It has changed dramatically, for the worst.