This is the fourth in a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3). This post, by Rebecca Beausaert, was scheduled as part of a panel called “Food, For Thought.”
At the few tobacco farms left in Norfolk County, it’s harvesttime. Sixty plus years ago, this was the busiest time of year for tobacco growers, and the farmer’s wife, especially. The farmer’s wives are busy cooking with their cookware to prepare food for their hard-working husband to share. During the heyday of tobacco production in the mid- to late-twentieth century, women were expected to prepare meals for upwards of two dozen people, thrice daily, for several weeks. Like the nineteenth-century work bee and its reciprocal sharing of food and labour,[i] the dispensing of food and hospitality was, arguably, women’s most important role on tobacco farms well into the later twentieth century.
The sights and sounds of tobacco harvest—the smell of curing leaves and green kilns across the countryside—are imprinted on my childhood. On my grandparents’ farm in Norfolk County, my grandmother and aunt spent considerable time in the kitchen preparing meals for workers during harvest, which lasted from late July to mid September. Growing up, when our dinner table talk turned to the ‘good old days’ on the farm, my Dad’s memories always involved food. When I took my turn working on a tobacco farm in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the harvest dinner tradition was a relic of the past. Such hospitality was no longer expected of farmers’ wives now that workers’ bunkhouses had their own kitchens. Instead, women were needed for the lighter field, kiln, and strip room work,[ii] as was my experience.
Historically, higher profile and more labour-intensive farm jobs were men’s domain. Women did some of the other harvest work, but the tobacco industry typically attributed a farm’s success to the ingenuity of the male farmer. The work supplied by women, whether culinary or otherwise, was considered complementary.
The Canadian Tobacco Grower (CTG) magazine, which enjoyed a wide readership, provides evidence of the importance of the harvest meal tradition. The bulk of its content was for male growers, but most monthly issues also contained a column devoted to the women whose duty it was to produce meals for the “harvest gang.” Between 1953 and 1988, the column was overseen by Food Editor/Staff Writer Shirley Glendinning who interviewed farmer’s wives in their homes, tasted their food, and published their recipes and tips. Before her retirement, Glendinning conducted over 300 interviews with the women she affectionately dubbed “’my ladies.’”[iii] In the early 1980s, she compiled several of the recipes into a cookbook called Pick of the Crop, Volume I & II (see feature image).[iv]
In 1963, Glendinning noted that “there should be some kind of a medal to award harvest cooks,” or “a hall of fame.” Though women at the time “[thought] nothing of the mammoth cooking chore, others will agree it is a demanding job. Especially when you handle the task all by yourself.”[v] The practice of harvest cooking began in earnest in the 1940s, and flourished as tobacco farmers increased their acreages. Between the 1950s and 1970s, harvest gangs were comprised of local help and temporary workers from Quebec, the United States, and occasionally Western Europe.
Many women worried about workers’ ability to feed and care for themselves, but providing ready-made meals was also about efficiency. Meals ready to go at set times saved workers the hassle of cooking and cleaning up. Many oral histories attest to the fact that workers gravitated towards farms known to serve good, hearty fare. As such, women’s culinary labour played a key role in the farm’s success. Cooks tried to appease their gangs by serving food to which they were accustomed. Workers from the southern United States, for example, received grits and rice, while the Italian workers on one farm were served spaghetti.[vi] Some workers had no qualms with making requests or shunning meals they considered sub-par, like suppers of cold leftovers.
Harvest days were long, hot, and busy. Women woke bright and early to begin the day’s food preparations. The time between meals was taken up with dishes and planning the next meal. Nighttime was often spent baking, canning, or tending gardens. Cooks began getting ready in the springtime when they froze desserts, produce, and meat to expedite meal preparation. Winter was a time to experiment with new recipes. The family home also had to be adapted for harvest meals. Basements, summer kitchens, and sunrooms were outfitted with long tables, capable of holding anywhere from twelve to twenty-five people at mealtime.
Feeding a harvest gang involved several other ancillary tasks—menu planning, shopping, budgeting, setting the table, laundering linens, and washing dishes. When Mrs. Jean Beneff of Delhi cooked for a harvest gang of twenty-four in the early 1960s, she remarked that the dishes from the noon meal usually took until 2:20 p.m. to finish.[vii] All the while, women juggled childcare, housekeeping, laundry (sometimes the workers’ as well), community service, assisting with odd jobs on the farm, and bookkeeping. Though few admitted it, when harvest ended, women must have been bone-tired and thrilled to be relieved of their extra duties.
Though proud of their roles, many women downplayed the value of their cooking. Some even expressed worry that they seemed “lazy” for using labour-saving devices like dishwashers.[viii] ‘Good’ harvest cooks were also expected to be frugal, so many women continued to grow as much of their own food as possible. Several mentioned keeping cows, pigs, and chickens, along with nurturing large gardens. Seasonal produce was incorporated into the menus and any excess was canned for consumption over the winter months.
The recipes themselves are artifacts of the periods in which they were served. In the 1960s and 1970s, harvest cooks utilized popular packaged foodstuffs, such as Jello-O, condensed soups, and margarine. The fare tended to be carb-heavy and calorie-dense to keep workers satiated. A typical breakfast featured eggs, bacon, pancakes, or oatmeal. At the noon ‘dinner’ soup often preceded the meat and potatoes, or the ever-popular casserole. Suppers varied from hot dishes to deli meats. Desserts were plentiful—pies, cookies, donuts, loaves, and cakes—all prepared from scratch. Inflated food costs were a common thread in the columns, and budget-conscious cooks recommended cheaper cuts of meat, like ground beef, and saving chicken for Sundays. In the 1970s, harvest menus began to reflect North Americans’ fondness for fast food, with homemade pizza, hamburgers, and French fries making appearances at the harvest table. The culinary traditions of farmers’ homelands were also incorporated into menus. Many of the growers in southwestern Ontario were first- or second-generation immigrants from Western and Central Europe, so alongside the casseroles and lasagnas, Hungarian, Polish, German, and Belgian recipes were served, revealing a culinary hybrid of ‘old’ and ‘new’ world traditions.
The evolving world of kitchen technology was frequently discussed by the women as they reflected on the changes that had taken place in their lifetimes. In the 1940s and 1950s, harvest cooks relied on hot plates, wood stoves, and frozen locker services to cook and store food. By the 1960s, many homes had dishwashers and electric stoves. Freezers, especially, held a special place in women’s hearts as they were considered indispensable during harvest time.
The CTG’s food column illuminates much about the gendered nature of tobacco farms. Its presence signals the importance of women’s culinary labour, but it also demonstrates the value women placed on being part of a collective in which experiences, recipes, and knowledge could be shared and reproduced. The columns also reveal how much tobacco farms in the twentieth century were sites of both continuity and change. When farmers began mechanizing their operations, thus reducing the need for human labour and food to feed them, women’s place, and the value of their work on the farm, also changed. By the 1980s and 1990s, as demonstrated by my own experience, women were no longer needed in the kitchen, but they were still an important source of labour on the farm, albeit in gender specific ways.
The number of tobacco farms still operating today has dwindled, but the legacy of harvest dinners lives on. Many of the women who came of age on these farms still make their mother’s recipes and pull out the Pick of the Crop when they need a tried and true dessert. Just like in the ‘good old days’ of cooking for the harvest gang, in these households it’s still “nothing fancy, just basic meals that sustain you through a work day.”[ix]
Feature Photograph: Pick of the Crop Cookbook Volume II; Canadian Tobacco Grower Recipes with Selected Additions from Southwestern Ontario Good Cooks (Delhi, ON: Cash Crop Farming Publications, 1983).