My grandmother comes from generations of farmers, and when you’re on a farm, she said, you eat meat. Growing up, her family’s kitchen was roast, chop and chicken central, with a dozen or more variations on potatoes. On most nights, steak was served with pan-fried potatoes, and red leaf lettuce that my grandmother picked from the garden. There was all the (raw) milk you could drink, and on Sundays, they made homemade frozen custard.
They grew corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats to sell, but there was more to it than that; there were seven bellies to fill. And for that reason, there were cows for milking, pigs for butchering, chickens for eggs, and guinea fowl resting in the trees.
The land, registered as a Century Farm, remains in the family – though we are no longer the ones farming it. Although no one farms, we are a bunch that gardens, cans, and cooks from scratch. My fourteen- year-old cousin is probably the most dedicated; she keeps chickens in the backyard and plants her own vegetable garden. This is how we keep our ties with the Century Farm, but as a vegetarian, my veggie-burger-ways are at odds with the steak, roasts and pork chops.
I became a vegetarian in college, but the identity was really nothing new; everyone knew that I preferred the sides of pickled beets and okra to the roast and gravy. Meanwhile, I was studying the American way of eating and farming, and I wanted to reconnect with my family’s rural roots while also showcasing my own ethics of eating. My botany exam presented the perfect opportunity to do both.
This was an exam I was actually looking forward to: make a four course meal and host a small dinner party for the teaching assistants. And perhaps because it was botany, and because the way I thought about the healthfulness and ethics of food was evolving, I wanted to make a vegan meal.
Or perhaps cooks always begin with what they know and then try to make it their own. My Iowa farming forebears were meat and potato people.
Meat, monoculture, and identity were stitched together as tightly as the patchwork quilt that my great-grandmother left me. It’s a quilt of farm and family history — my mother and her siblings recognize its patches as bits of shirts and dresses they wore as children — I wasn’t sure how to stitch my own, animal-free sensibility into the quilt. My grandfather gave me some ideas.
It turns out that he knows beans. Everybody in post-depression Iowa knows vegetables, he told me. Meat was too expensive for families like his who weren’t living on farms, so they grew their own vegetables. Roasts and ribs were only served on Sunday or holidays, and leftovers were used to make bean soups, broths, and other, less expensive meals throughout the weak. As the economy and his income improved, putting meat on the table everyday was a point of pride. Listening to him softened my generational, college-learned distain for the meat-and-potato mentality. At the very least, it shed new light on the meat-and-potato mentality and allowed me to see that some food traditions are a result of remembered scarcity.
I started to wonder if my vegetarianism is, at least in part, a result of remembered abundance. My grandfather had enough of fried eggplant. I’d had more than my share of meat growing up and wanted nothing more than to say: “pass the vegetables.”
The insight didn’t change my Digby Dinner menu. Over the semester in my kitchen “lab” I pickled carrots, pureed beets, braised lentils in wine, grilled toast, and made potato salad and apple crisp over and over again. Understanding the origins of meat-and-potatoes may have softened my outlook and may have set the tone for the evening, carrying guests back through history to a weekday meal in a hard-scrabble Iowa kitchen, where eggs, vegetables, beans, and grains fueled the work day and meat was only Sunday’s reward.