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Mrs. Vernon Johnson (lower right) is shown in a Milwaukee Journal advertisement after winning the Championship Dinner Roll competition at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1958. She is picture with other award-winning cooks: Mrs. Oscar Johnson, Edina, Minn; Mrs. Arnold Richardson, Brooklyn Park, Minn.; and Mrs. Arthur Stadler of Reedsville, Wis. Submitted by Charlotte Heikkinen. 

Recently, while extracting a pan of hot, caramel apple bars from the oven, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fall bounty harvested in the 1940s and ‘50s on our Stateline dairy farm.

By October, the last chicken had been plucked, quartered and placed in the new International Harvester freezer in the basement. A big black steer had met his demise and had been slaughtered, packaged, and frozen at the Clinton Locker Plant, while a porker waited unknowingly for his final journey.

Usually by mid-fall the garden area was cleaned of debris, while the canned tomatoes, peaches, applesauce, and jams were neatly stacked in rows on newspaper lined shelves in the basement. As harvest wound down gunny sacks full of potatoes and barrels of apples were stored in the basement stairwell leading to the outdoors.

Work hard and eat well

Although Grandpa Herman and Vernon worked very hard on the farm, we all knew that the unsung heroes were the cows and the women who put the “food on the table.”

The dairy herd and hardy farmers worked in tandem and on a rigid schedule; however, it was Grandma Jettie and Mother who made sure that the “eats” were on the table, treats were readily available for unexpected company, the clothes were sewn and washed, hungry kids were fed, Ladies Aid and potluck luncheons were served, and cookies and ice cream were available before bedtime.

Luckily for the men, Grandma and Mom believed the adage: “The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.” Since both women were excellent cooks the husbands benefited from caring warm hearts and pleasantly contented stomachs throughout their long lifetimes.

Susie comes to the farm

Now my mother, Susie, the oldest of 9 children, grew up on a poor dirt farm near Stewartville, Minnesota. In 1936, upon the deaths of both her father from typhoid fever and her mother from a mastoid infection, the family was split up and placed with relatives, foster families, and adoptive families throughout the Midwest. Mom was sent to live with aunts in the Beloit area where she completed high school and was taught the domestic lessons that young women needed to learn back then, i.e., cooking, homemaking skills, sewing, and childcare techniques.

I don’t know if it was the lovely smell of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven or having a good time at Luther League that did it, but Vernon and Susie found each other, and in a blizzard on New Years Day in 1941, they married and joined Grandpa and Grandma on the farm.

It didn’t take long for the young couple to become involved in the Bergen community. This led to mother joining the Jefferson Prairie Homemakers Club. Dad often teased Sue about being involved in a “homewreckers club,” but he didn’t seem to mind the new recipes and safety tips she was putting to good practice in the home. By now there were also two new mouths to feed in the family, and everyone was busy.

Hospitality and food go together

Many dairy farmers in the area were members of the local Farm Bureau Federation. Meetings and social events were often held in homes, and dessert and coffee were served at the conclusion of the evening.

Luckily Betty Crocker turned up with her new boxed cake mix by this time, and the Sunbeam stand mixer arrived on the kitchen counter. We were getting tired of trying to stir the butter, sugar, and eggs into the cookie or cake batter by hand. A new Roper gas stove also found its way into the tiny kitchen. Food became Mother’s creative outlet, and she was good at it.

As in most things, what Susie learned from her experiences spilled over into the 4-H Foods and Nutrition Program. When my older brother joined 4-H, Mom and Dad became leaders in the Clinton Club. Susie strove to teach young people how to use liquid and solid measuring cups, measuring spoons, cleanliness in the kitchen, proper temperatures and safe food handling, and these techniques spilled over into our daily lives. Conversely, I was mostly interested in leading my calves and raising my sheep.

I know that there were times when women at church and other activities, had to hold their tongues when mother came and critiqued some of their food gifts. Occasionally Mother lacked finesse when it came to food.

It’s off to work she goes

When my brother David and I went off to college, Mother went off to work at Mc Neany’s Department store in Beloit in the fabrics department. It was becoming difficult to find an employee who knew how to cut and measure fabrics, since fewer women were sewing, but Susie was a good fit for the job. Off to work she went, leaving the family with more easily prepared foods, and even the occasional dreaded “TV dinner” and “potpie”. She still didn’t want a microwave. She was afraid of radiation leaks.

In 1969, E. Mae Reese, Home Economics Agent of Rock County, asked Susie Johnson to join the staff of a newly formed Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program to provide food and nutrition materials and methods for using the FDA Commodity food products. Mother and she, along with others, tested and refined numerous recipes for using bulger wheat flour, commodity cheeses and other food ingredients. This year the EFNEP program celebrates its 50th anniversary throughout the nation.

Mother proudly worked as an employee for the State of Wisconsin in the program until her retirement in 1986. Dad and the rest of the family survived nicely.

I really don’t know if it is genetics or the environment that often determines the paths of our lives, but I do know that eating, preparing, and creating delicious food is something that really intrigues and inspires me to this day…and as the years have passed, I too have gotten pretty good at it.

The cows have long gone, but we still know that in many rural homes “the way to a man’s heart is still through his stomach.” How about joining me for some warm caramel apple bars and a cup of hot coffee?