Michelle’s 98-year-old grandmother passed away peacefully a few months ago, inside the farmhouse she and her husband built on their Western Kentucky acreage. Postwar poster children for America’s re-energized agricultural community, they were named 1950′s “Master Farm Family” by Progressive Farmer magazine and the University of Kentucky Extension Service.
While “crops, pastures, livestock, farm equipment and farm management procedures” gained Papo recognition, Mamo was declared “the Master Farmer’s Wife” for her “home furnishings, comfort devices, labor-saving equipment and home management practices.” The house, sporting radiant heat through copper ceiling tubes and Thermopane windows, was proudly noted as “a ranch-rambler … of pink and tan Huntingburg brick … designed especially for farmers by Purdue University.”
Step inside … and you know right off that everything is under fingertip control. … The basement … has a bath and shower for the men. The work room, also in the basement, is fitted for washing and ironing. A sewing machine is kept there just for mending. The food preservation center boasts a home freezing unit and room for canned products and equipment for food processing.
For many years the farm and farmhouse were the envy of the community. Cows were milked, crops were harvested, trees were planted, children were raised. But the family farming tradition has come to an end, the house and its outbuildings now a small patch in the middle of a lease operation. The people attending Mamo’s memorial service looked out on soybeans starting only a few yards from the back door, rows stretching over the flat countryside seemingly to the horizon. Food had to be brought into a kitchen where the “fingertip controls” had long since stopped working. Around us, the Huntingburg brick was cracked and the copper ceiling tubes served merely as punchlines for nervous jokes about thieves and meth labs. Fortunately, even with these dispiriting changes to what was once a progressive vision of farming’s future, some of Mamo and Papo’s decisions still bear fruit.
We recently received a batch of pecans harvested from one of the old trees that Papo planted. These were definitely not commercial “papershell” pecans, but some old-school cultivar whose hulls resisted easy cracking. Our visions of pretty pecan pies were quickly dashed as we separated shreds and bits of nutmeats from the litter of shells, never a pristine half to be seen. We were enchanted, however, by the fragments’ lovely taste, a buttery, nutty almost maple-y intensity outmatching our usual store-bought pecans. We thought the strong elements of bittersweet and brown sugar in Alice Medrich’s Black Bottom Pecan Praline Bars (this time made with bittersweet chocolate instead of cocoa, as in her newer Chewy, Gooey Crispy Crunch Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies book) could handle the pronounced pecan flavor, and they performed superbly.
We can’t say how long the Progressive Farm of 1950 will remain standing, but we hope that last pecan tree will do so for a while. Mamo and Papo may be gone, but at least they’ve left a family full of progressive ideas along with at least one delicious pecan tree. We also hope the future holds a place for many more progressive farmers—especially if one can be persuaded to invent a non-papershell pecan nutcracker.