Gourmandistan

Progressive Farmer Pecan Praline Bars

1950’s “Master Farm Family”

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.

PapoMamo

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.

Mamo's kitchenMamo on phone

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.

Pecans

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.

Pecan brownies

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.

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49 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading about Michelle’s grandmother and her family on the farm. The photos were a treat to see and remember a time long ago when life was simpler, but I’m sure the work was harder. I’d like to hope that things are now reverting back, it sure seems that way from blogs I read. Younger families are bringing gardens, fruit trees and even chickens into their yards for a smaller footprint. You’ve even got me thinking that next spring I’ll be planting an apple tree in our yard. But for now, I might just have to make a batch of that slice, I can just imagine the authentic flavor of pecan would be incredible. xx Smidge

  2. What a fantastic post. Wonderful pictures of the original farmhouse and I was totally caught up in all the written details of the house. The pecan and chocolate bars look delicious, but we never see a pecan here. Your description of the taste of Papo’s pecans is mouthwatering..

    • Thanks so much, Roger. It makes me wonder about who that photographer was that came from the magazine to take all those photos. I guess he (or she?) gave my grandmother copies of all that he took, as there are bunches of them. I adore that one of my grandfather with the soybeans. Oh, and try walnuts. The recipe really is wonderful, as all of Medrich’s are.

  3. Such a fascinating post! For its time, that farm hose and its conveniences were so very futuristic. I. too, was struck seeing Michele’s Grandmother (presumably) using the phone. My family’s area of Michigan did not get private phone lines until at least 1900, as I recall, with running water becoming available just about 10 years ago. These pictures are such a treasure for your family. I hope you’ve many more.

  4. Thank you so much for this blog entry. I am almost 37 and have recently inherited the small multi-generartion family I grew up on. I struggle with the proper care and not to mention the memories that flood back each time I visit. best of luck. Take care, Anna

  5. This was a wonderful story; thank you for sharing it. The pictures are marvelous and the descriptions evocative. I must find some pecans and make the brittle; it would make a sweet Christmas gift for my brittle-loving father. Mayhap I’ll be lucky and find some hard-shelled like yours!

  6. Libby Bacon

    Michelle, I love this post. Brings back so many memories of my own life with my Grandmothers and their delicious food. I love the picture of Jean as a young girl. Delightful!
    Libby

  7. What a phenomenal entry! I love looking through old publications and trying out the recipes. I’m always looking for recipes to try out for Christmas gifts, and I think I’m going to have to give this one a try.

    Also, I’ve received a sack of pecans just like those you describe…I used to shell a bunch every week. It was always the last thing I did before refreshing my manicure :-)

  8. It’s really too bad that no one is interested in preserving yesteryear to be a lesson for today.
    I remember the summer house outside my grandparents main house on the farm. By the time I remember it it had cooked it’s last morsel and we were banned from entering it. I would have loved to know more about it, it would have made a neat apartment though.
    Those who build homes, like in Florida, build so for profit,few build to take advantage of a summer porch and air flow so when we nature “shuts us down” we suffer more than necessary….
    Thanks so much for you wonderful article. I come from a family who farmed and I so miss it.

  9. This is incredibly moving. And what wonderful photos. It is such a tragedy to see family farmers being replaced by factory farming and soil-depleting crops. (Insert rant.) As for the nutcracker, I suggest a hammer.

    • Oh, I know the rant—my friends get so tired of listening to me spewing it! My grandfather was of a generation that always wanted to tame everything in nature with lots of chemicals. But he was indeed very progressive, and so I like to think that if he were starting out in more modern times he would be at the forefront of organic and sustainable farming. (And thanks much. Though Steve gets the credit for the writing. And some anonymous Progressive Farmer photographer gets the credit for the old photos.)

  10. What a nice tribute to your family’s heritage. And the nuts! I get local walnuts and almonds from near where I grew up and they are nothing like their store-bought counterparts. Lucky you to have family in pecan country! And those bars look like they were worth the shelling.

  11. Touching and comical in a sense– we have come a long ways. Not all good, I must say. My husband’s family has a similar story.
    I often wonder if I could have worked as hard as my mother in law and grandmother is law did. Those were different days.

    Wonderful writing– thanks so much for sharing!

  12. Michelle and Steve,
    A lovely and rich family (and farming) history. The line “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” is so touching – and genuine. May their memories be a blessing.
    The bars are a lovely tribute and look decadent and delicious.
    Best wishes,
    Shanna

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