In my family, harvest suppers were a simple affair. My dad preferred a cold supper in a lunch box containing no item he couldn’t eat with one hand while steering the combine with the other. The driver of the grain truck (usually my brother Tom) might come in for a quick supper in the time it took to unload, providing he was back in the field when Dad needed him again. If Dad did manage to get to the table for a sit-down meal, it was over in 15 minutes flat. A nourishing repast, but not a family affair.
It was certainly not akin to the legendary harvest suppers of olden times, when a hot meal was provided to a threshing crew that might include 15 to 20 hungry men.
Julie Feilberg described prepping such a meal on the homestead in 1911:
“We bake seven large loaves of bread each day, five to six pies, buns, tarts, cakes, and so on. Besides there are roosters to pluck, butter to churn. . . so you see when the dishwashing is added there is enough to keep us busy.”
In fact, Julie was preparing not one but three meals a day for the harvest crew, beginning with breakfast at 6 a.m.
She included a typical harvest menu in a letter to her family back in Denmark, noting that lunchtime was the largest meal of the day:
- Breakfast – Rolled oats porridge, eggs, cold boiled ham, potatoes, coffee, Sally Lunns (a type of bun), stewed apples.
- Dinner – A young rooster roasted in the oven, stuffed with bread crumbs, onions and sage; cabbage, potatoes, beets, tea, bread and butter, cheese, apple pie.
- Supper – Ragout, fried potatoes, stewed carrots, tarts, cake, cooked fruit, tea, bread and butter, pickles.
Back then, harvest meals relied heavily on the produce of the farm, a masterful balance of loading the table without breaking the bank. In a bad year, when prices or yields were low, it was possible to eat up a good chunk of the harvest profit.
It’s nice to know that some farm families continue the tradition of a hot harvest meal eaten together in the field. A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with Donna Driegder of Osler, Sask., in her century-old farmhouse as she prepared the evening meal for her harvest crew which, depending on the day, could include three generations eating together in the field.
Her kitchen was extra equipped with four Crock-Pots, two countertop roasters, several insulated carafes and covered containers of every shape and size. It took a good 15 minutes just to load the car.
“I always try to keep everything hot,” she said. “No one wants lukewarm food.
“Harvest is so busy, you can just run past each other and barely say ‘hello.’ We always want to spend some time together in the day, and we chose to do that over mealtime.”
That’s how it was done when her husband Irvin was growing up on the farm.
“Times have changed. If you don’t make an effort, there’s no more ‘family’ in farming than there is in a car factory,” he told me. “We’re all together for supper — it doesn’t matter if you’re three or 30 years old.”
We ate that meal in the shade of a windrow, the food set out on the hood of a pickup truck that had been draped with a pretty tablecloth. Baked ham, scalloped potatoes, garden vegetables hot and cold and, for dessert, rollkuchen and watermelon.
It was my first introduction to rollkuchen, a Mennonite treat made with old-fashioned farm ingredients that is perfect for any outdoor picnic, whether in a field at harvest time or a pretty city park.
- 2 c. flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 1 c. heavy cream
- Cooking oil or lard
Sift flour, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the eggs and cream. Mix well, adding more flour if the dough is sticky. Knead the dough on the countertop for a few minutes, until pliable and easy to handle. Wrap the dough and set it to rest in the fridge for an hour. On a floured countertop, roll the dough until it is as thin as a pencil. Cut into strips of 2 by 4 inches (5 by 10 cm). Cut a slit down the middle of each piece and pull one end of the dough through the hole, creating a twist. Fry in batches in hot oil or lard until golden. Serve rollkuchen with a sprinkle of icing sugar and sliced watermelon.