Tennessee Mountain Stories

Potatoes, Butter and Today’s Wealth

Rotting Potatoes.jpg

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wealth we enjoy in this time and place and you know I’m always weighing these thoughts against our history. 

 My thoughts first began to turn this direction when Mama mentioned that the winter’s potatoes are rotting.  I found her assessment to be fully accurate when I noticed that awful smell of rotting potatoes emanating from my cabinet.  So I decided to mash a big bowl for supper and began peeling them and cutting away the bad parts.  As the scrap bucket grew fuller and fuller I wondered if that sight might have panicked my grandmothers.  Here we are in the early part of September, the potato crop has already been fully harvested because worms were threatening and the vegetables are showing signs of spoilage.  If my family’s well-being rested with those tubers I might be wondering already if this would be a lean winter. 

Do you ever think about the reliable food chain America enjoys?  Now my rural upbringing means my larder is usually pretty well stocked and we could go a few weeks without visiting the grocer – IF we were willing to eat cornbread made with water and all-veggie meals for a few days.  And I can do without potatoes mostly because I’ve tried to trim some starches out of my meals and so I don’t cook them every day like my grandmas did.  But for those families that raised pretty much everything they ate, failure of the potatoes would surely mean they’d see some hungry days.  And that reminds me that our Scotch-Irish roots are still planted pretty deeply.

The thought process continued after a cousin gifted me with my great-grandma’s butter mold.  Daddy and I were talking about what good shape it’s still in and he mentioned that Grandpa Key never kept more than one cow so the amount of butter they had would have been limited.  This mold is for 1 pound and it takes about 3 gallons of milk to produce a full pound of butter.  A cow can only produce about that much each day and if you let the calf have part of it then how much are you carrying to the house?  Certainly not much more than a large family can drink – and the Keys raised 11 children although no more than 6 or 7 were at home at the same time.

A neighbor shared the picture of her mother’s butter mold and it appears to be only ½ pound which would certainly be easier to produce.  Of course you don’t have to have a mold at all, and you can just mold the butter by hand on a plate. 

My own little family of four goes through nearly 3 gallons of milk each week – which we buy at the store because we’re worse off than Great Grandpa and have NO milk cow.  (I’m reminded of Ellie Mae Clampett saying of their Beverly Hills’ Mansion, “this is all we’ve got.”)

It’s sometimes hard for me to think of myself as well-to-do when I look around at the big toys my friends and neighbors often buy.  And my children have yet to grasp the concept that “we can’t afford that” when they ask for anything they can imagine (my son wants a “camper you can drive” and a flying car).  Yet when I look back at how very little my ancestors survived on and when I realize that I have little memory of hunger and almost no fear of it; I don’t believe in waste and always try to curb it but I know I can pretty easily get a gallon of milk, pound of butter or bag of potatoes.  When I look at it like this I thank The Good Lord for His manifold blessings and grace.