Thursday, October 21, 2010

Road Food

Back before we had cell phones, we survived harvest using a number of two way radios. We didn't all have them: most of the pickups had a receiver, one combine had a receiver, one a portable. The guy driving the auger wagon had a he could hear exactly where the wagon was supposed to be and how fast it should be going when it got there. We wives had base units at home, better than nothing, but leaving a wide margin of error. For instance, one would prepare a meal, then call the guy on the machine. He would give a destination, and a range, rather like the probability that a particular electron would be in a specific spot orbiting the nucleus of an atom. One would depart with victuals safely stowed, aiming for the intersection that would lead to a food exchange, knowing full well that the time, the place, and even the vehicle could be one, two, or more standard deviations off the norm. Only God could hear me, and I know I'm forgiven, but some colorful language was employed more than a few times as I set off in hot (hot!) pursuit of my particular responsibility, airborne over terrace basins, road ruts, heedless of dust and reason.

But the two ways had their moments. From our home on the eastern edge of radio range and high on a hill, we could pick up several ongoing conversations on a daily basis. One group was all business, primarily telling their drivers where to deliver fertilizer wagons and trucks. It was some consolation to know they couldn't find each other on the road either. One group was obviously another family farm with at least one member who was either hard of hearing or deliberately ignoring all pleas for conversation. "Are you in there, Harold" became a running joke on our farm, even as we tried to remember what we might be saying on the airwaves that other listeners would find amusing.

But the most consistent of all was the combine crew somewhere south and east of us. The two way would be quietly snap, crackle and popping until they came to work. But once they manned their machines, there was just one topic of conversation: FOOD. Starting not long after 10 a.m., these fellas would speculate about who would fetch dinner and when they would fetch dinner. The one fact they would NEVER discuss was just what they would EAT for dinner. Nope, the only item on the menu available, apparently, cheeseburgers, because that was the universal subject of the food conversation. Day after day, week after week, month fading into next month, this combine crew spent half their working hours discussing cheeseburgers.

Well, by the middle of November, I sometimes feel we've been in a rut food-wise, though nothing as tediously repetitive as a steady diet of cheeseburgers. When the kids were little, I attempted to produce a real meal once a day, replete with plates and tableware, so Lee and Ann could see their father during harvest hours. Then we ate a mom/kid type supper of eggs, or grilled cheese, or hot dogs while Blake made do with a sack lunch repast. But by the end of harvest, the notion of loading the dishes, the kids, the thermos, the theoretically hot food, into the car, spending fifteen minutes wolfing food and balancing assorted plastic containers and Crock pots, then bringing the whole mess home, cooled and congealed, got to be pretty unappealing and Blake ate by himself in lonely splendor after children had eaten at home. This became even more imperative by the time Ben came along. We ate meals in the combine with one kid perched behind the seat, one on a cooler on the floor and little Ben on my lap. That was before the days of buddy seats, and I wore a pretty good black and blue mark on my behind.

We've had some feasts. My birthday falls right smack in the middle of bean harvest. Many times Millie hosted an evening meal with birthday cake for a host of dusty family members coming in to eat in shifts. But one year, we ate down at the bin site of our rented farm on a bright lovely perfect fall day and another featured fish Millie and Charlie caught in Minnesota that summer. Its been years since we finished harvest before Halloween, so trick or treating is either preceded (for older ones) or finished (for little ones) with soups and spooky cupcakes at Grandma Millie's. It may not be eating at home, but it is home cooked food featuring metal spoons instead of plastic.

One year a CNN crew decided to film a feature piece on harvest and came to visit Hurst Farms. I was giggling inside as I cooked the bacon and egg breakfast they expected to see on a farm table and even more tickled when a closeup of my griddle appeared in the final version. Eating in the field is standard operating procedure, but these guys wanted film of our great big happy family spreading our noontime repast out among pines at the 'home place'. Out came the tables and the table cloths; the last time Millie's yard had looked so festive was a wedding rehearsal supper. We had put our best foot forward, but typical it was not! Even this fall we enjoyed one of these surreal meals in the field when a Japanese delegation came to visit and Kevin stood, surrounded by Japanese taking notes, answering question after question while Nancy set up a table of Matt's catering and served up tailgate fare of the finest kind. Of course we typically drive up from miles around for ribs and fixings directly at our 'business casual' dress. We had terrific fun with that occasion. I always appreciated hearing from Lydia as suppertime approached and I was helping dump trucks, offering to bring out sandwiches or pizza for the entire crew. During combine season, a good hot 'slab of grease' can really hit the spot.

My meals on wheels these days can be carried in a HyVee bag. I eschew cold cuts unless desperate; we eat plenty of sandwich food in the spring. Tortillas, pasta, burgers; harvest fare is beef based. Chili travels well and stays warm a long time; tomorrow may well bring a meatball sandwich. I bake apple bread often as a stand in for dessert, or if the day has been particularly rough, an infusion of Junior Mints may be required.

A discussion of road food is not complete without coffee. Coffee drinkers suffer during harvest, not for lack of availability but for lack of quality. I bought a serious go mug for Blake as my contribution to hot coffee this fall, but nothing can compensate for having to put up with that nasty metallic aftertaste from a stainless steel Thermos. I tried to satisfy the epicure one year with a glass lined Thermos. But HA! Just imagine how long that equipment lasted rolling on the floor of the John Deere. Nope, we just enjoy the rainy mornings when we drink the whole pot at home and look forward to winter. And I continue to heat up those antique and indestructible Thermoses just like the one my dad took to work decades ago.

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