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.

| August/September 2011

  • Braided Onions
    We braided onions and hung them to dry in the cellar. 
  • Fried Eggs And Frog Legs
    Fried eggs and frog legs was a special breakfast.
  • Dried Beans
    Dad bought a 50-pound bag of red beans for the winter.
  • Green Chili Chow Chow
    Green chili chow-chow was our family’s favorite relish. 
  • Pig For Slaughter
    We slaughtered three pigs each fall just as the first snow fell. 

  • Braided Onions
  • Fried Eggs And Frog Legs
  • Dried Beans
  • Green Chili Chow Chow
  • Pig For Slaughter

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.”

8/9/2017 6:25:56 PM

I don't really consider what I do farming. I do not make a whole lot of money off of my land. I do, however, have the luxury of being a stay at home grandma now, and was even a stay at home mom for a few years. I do most of my gardening in raised beds or containers. I do till the field to plant some melons, corn and monster pumpkins. I lay down weed barriers and only have to run the mantis through the corn once a week. The rest of my weeding is pretty easy, occasionally a stray weed will grow in my containers. I have 1 tom and 5 hen turkeys,1 rooster and 10 chickens, 1 buck and 8 female rabbits, and 3 little goats that go see there boyfriend at intervals throughout the year so that I can keep them in milk and have offspring for sale or freezer. I feed them every day, and water them and keep an eye on their health. I milk twice a day and look at the goats while I am doing that. There is always something growing under lights in the house, there is always something that needs attention, but I guess once you get into the daily habit of doing your chores instead of going to work it doesn't seem so hard.

8/4/2017 2:18:12 PM

All I hear is the complaining about it is too hard to farm - BULLhockey! I've been doing it since my divorce in 1995! I raise all of my food needs, other than the occasional "junk" food. Farming today is nothing like it was in the 1930's. We have many improved ways to grow plants and animals that make for less work. With motorized tools we can till, mow, cultivate, pump water, and can the product faster and easier than 90-100 years ago. We can go inside to cool off in air conditioning, or get an ice cold drink. Small acreage no-till and wood chip gardening as in the "back to eden" style make it quicker and easier and require less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides/weeding. The biggest problem today is that people require instant gratification and convenience, they no longer have the patience to wait for a chicken to grow up, blueberries to ripen, etc. nor do they want to get "dirty". When the SHTF it will be too late for most to learn to farm or to start a farm!

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.


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