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Family cookbook aims to explain how folks of modest means ate like kings

My Uncle Kenny Wilson is fond of saying that, until someone told him otherwise, he never realized he grew up poor. "I figure there were a lot of folks who'd like to be that poor and eat that good," he says, referring to the bounty the Wilsons provided for themselves on their homeplace in Rowan County, Ky.

Corn. Potatoes. Green beans. Rhubarb. Rusty-coat apples. These and at least a dozen other fruits and vegetables were grown on the mountain ridge that my great-great uncle, Lee Wilson, converted from denuded timber land into a family farm. He owned it only a few years before selling the place to my great-grandfather, Burl Wilson, in the mid-1920s. Four generations of Wilsons would live there, until it was sold in the early 1990s.

Kenny, my mother and their siblings grew up there in a three-generation household. Throughtout the history of the homeplace, the adult men held (modestly) paying jobs, but their land provided their primary sustenance until at least the 1970s and continued to grow food and, in many years, burley tobacco into the 1980s. Everyone shared in the chores.

Kenny lived there as an adult, on a subdivided piece of the property, as did my Aunt Vada. All of their children lived there for at least a while. I never had the experience of those cousins. Nonetheless, there's a plot on earth — not even in my beloved South Carolina Lowcountry — that I feel more connected to. The cumulative effect of stories from Kenny and my mother, my adoration for my maternal grandparents and my fond memories of visits to the ridge mean I sometimes have to remind myself I never received mail there.

Inextricably woven into those memories and my sense of place is the food I enjoyed there no matter the season. On Thanksgiving, we enjoyed tenderloin from a freshly butchered hog. On Christmas, it was turkey and dressing so steeped in sage, the heartburn delivered a mule kick to your chest for the rest of the day. On Independence Day, it was hand-churned ice cream slathered in Hershey's syrup from a tin can. There was always something good to eat when the Wilson family got together.

Of course, many families can say the same. What set apart the Wilsons and the other folks on that ridge is that they put their backs into almost every bite they put into their bellies. Beans and corn enjoyed on Christmas had been planted by the side of the house in the spring and canned in a wash house out back that fall. The hogs that provided the ham and tenderloin were raised in a pen by the barn. If the ice cream was not derived from dairy cows that grazed Oliver and Leona Wilson's hillside, it was churned by their eager, bare-chested grandsons.

The farm was only modestly mechanized. For example, the family didn't own a tractor until the early or mid-1960s and never did own a hay baler. My Uncle Jack recounts the absolute drudgery — and absolute necessity — of his least favorite chore, cutting firewood. Even in the summer when the family didn't need to burn wood to heat their home, they still needed it for the wood cooking stove in the kitchen. An electric range didn't arrive on the ridge until sometime in the 1940s. Neither did a refrigerator — often, the family kept butter and milk cool by dangling it down their water well.

I get my food the way most folks do — from the grocery store or a restaurant. Never once have I depended upon the sweat of my brow or been at the weather's mercy to eat. But I'm only a half generation removed from such a way of life, which has no doubt informed my ethic and my ethics in ways I do not even realize. This merits preservation.

Toward that end, I recently compiled a family cookbook, in which I sought to record not only family recipes, but the cultivation and preservation methods that made them possible. It was a project I started more than two year ago — and a project sidetracked by a recipe-software update that rendered my first draft useless. It is self-published. "Vanity press" they call it. And vanity is quite expensive.

My parents offered to split the cost of printing, and I took them up on it. But looking at the price of the order and knowing Mom and Dad were on the hook with me, I just couldn't see printing more than 60 — and frankly, I thought might still be too many. Turns out, I was unpreapred for the requests I would receive after my wife posted a photo to her Facebook page when the shipment arrived. I'm flattered, but unable to accommodate everyone.

So for anyone who cares to take a look, I've uploaded the book in PDF, eBook and .mobi formats. Anybody who cares to can download it here.

It's not Hemingway or Conroy. Like this blog, it's just a means of staying tethered to a plot of land where the people were rich, even though they didn't have a lot of money.

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