The following is a guest post by former AFC Intern Drew Holley.
Drew Holley is a master’s student in the Folklore Studies program at Utah State University with a particular interest in food and film. Drew completed his internship at the American Folklife Center earlier this year. Today’s blog will showcase foodways collections (traditions and practices surrounding food) found at the American Folklife Center. Many of these items can be found online in the digital collections of the American Folklife Center, while others featured in this blog post are physically housed onsite at the Library of Congress.
We start with an item from the Colorado Folklife Project Collection. This project was conducted in August 1980 in collaboration between the American Folklife Center and the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide Foundation to assist developing plans for an outdoor educational center. The collection consists of 18 audio recordings and 1800 photographs that document local history and traditional ranch life on ranches operated by the Knorr, McKee, and Lund families.
A freezer with food items is something that usually doesn’t seem to merit too much conversation; and it seems, most of the conversations we have about food fall into the realm of “normality.” That’s just how we talk about food, “What should I eat today?” “How does your food taste?” etc. And yet, what is normal for one person may not be normal for another. For example, the Knorr family (who the freezer above belongs to) butchered much of their own meat and cooked dishes, like rocky mountain oysters, that are part of typical ranch life enjoyed by the family. That is how it is with each and every community where food distinguishes people. Our traditional dishes and recipes are something that we take pride in, and they can help us relate with others. What intrigued me about this photo was an accompanying story shared by Barbara Natanson, taken August 27, 1980. Jean mentions while growing up that her husband Karl’s family didn’t have much variety in meat because they didn’t have a freezer to preserve it. One way of making sure the meat didn’t go bad was to invite the neighbors and divide the meat between them, turning it into a social event. You can listen to that interview in the player below. Jean’s comments above begin at the 5:17 minute mark.
The next collection that caught my attention is the Traditional Pork Processing Collection which is a physical collection visitors can explore by visiting the Center’s Reading Room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. This collection contains materials collected by Barbara C. Fertig between 1985-86 in Virginia and Ohio, and includes 5 audio recordings and around 450 photos of the Holt family hog butchering and local butchers. As I reviewed the collection, I became interested in the social aspects of the butchering process. Barbara writes, in a report included in the collection, about Betty Martin, a friend of the Holt’s who “just got hooked years ago and now wouldn’t miss this day for anything.” Helping with the process includes eating fresh pork from the freshly killed hogs and shows how food works as a social glue that brings people together. This festive day of processing meat is called a boucherie and serves as a celebratory event just as much as it is a day of work.
The thing is, even if we haven’t personally experienced a boucherie we’ve experienced events that connect us socially through food. For example, my parents press apples into cider in the fall time, and that experience is just as much about telling jokes, stories, and petting bees that are drunk on the apple juices as it is working to create the product. For others it may be a fish fry after a fishing trip, or a barbecue put on by friends.
These socializing events around food become grounds for sharing other folklore, such as our beliefs and even stories about food. This connects to one last item that caught my attention that documents beliefs related to food traditions in this collection. Take a listen to this recording from an interview done by Barbara Orbach Natanson and Howard W. Marshall from the Colorado Folklife Collection (mentioned above) where Vera McKee of the McKee ranch describes some of the beliefs her father held about farming by the signs of the moon, including when to plant crops. Take this story for example told by McKee; “one time [father] didn’t notice the sign and he planted a row of peas and this elderly man came by and told him, ‘these peas won’t produce,’ dad laughed at him and then [the man said] ‘I’ll tell you when to plant another row,’… my dad did plant another row, the vines didn’t get very big, but they got peas all over [while] dad’s vines got 3 or 4 foot tall, bloomed, but no vegetables”. Listen to the story at the 29:50 minute mark in the player below.