My Mother's Agrarian Making of a Home

By Mary Berry | May 01, 2011
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Tanya Amyx Berry at the kitchen table

My mother’s name is Tanya Amyx Berry and she is not from the farm in Henry County, Kentucky, where she has lived for over 50 years. She was born in Berkeley, California, in 1936 into a family with deep Kentucky/California ties, which I guess were never fully reconciled. Because of this my mother and her parents went back and forth between Lexington and Mill Valley many times.

My mother-to-be married Wendell Berry in May 1957. They traveled quite a bit during the early years of their marriage. In 1964, they bought a little hillside farm called Lanes Landing on the Kentucky River. Daddy was teaching at the University of Kentucky and Lanes Landing was going to be a weekend place for us. It quickly became the place they would live, raise my brother and me, and share in the work that they do there still.

Much has been made of my father’s return home and rightly so. He stepped out of a life that assured him a certain kind of success. But he did, in fact, return home. My mother made that place her home.

What did it take for a young woman raised in cities to make this choice? I’ll never know for sure. I do know, because he says so, that her decision to live her life in Henry County has made everything possible for my father. More than that, the way she made her home in Henry County made the choice to stay home possible for my brother Den and me. We have been happy at home and it is because of her.

When I think of the house I grew up in I think of my mother’s kitchen. It hasn’t changed much since we moved in in 1964. The house was added on to in 1975. Space was added to accommodate a couple of rocking chairs, a wood stove and a small utility room. Other than that I believe it looks much as it did when I was a little girl. And it is beautiful. Common sense tells me that there have been new things in that room but my mother’s taste is such that nothing ever looks new. From early spring to late fall the kitchen is full of flowers. My mother’s flower arrangements are exquisite. I would rather have her midsummer arrangements of wildflowers picked from the side of the road than the most tenderly cared for hothouse lilies or roses.

My parents have raised a big garden since we moved to Lanes Landing. During the worst drought years their garden has produced bountifully, even without irrigation, a testimony to what proper care can do for soil. They produce a large percentage of what they eat and we are the grateful recipients of excess and wonderful meals at their house on Sundays. Garden work is shared by my parents until the food gets to the kitchen; then it is my mother’s genius and industriousness that ensures it is prepared, pickled, canned and frozen for use all year. Mom has kept lists of all the food she has preserved over the years inside a cabinet door in the kitchen; almost 50 growing seasons recorded.

And the food that comes out of that kitchen is wonderful. My mother’s cooking my standards are high, and she has been cooking what we now call “fresh, local food” since I was little. She used all she learned from her family and from Daddy’s (California meets Kentucky) and something extraordinary happened. No one I knew in Henry County in the ’60s cooked like she did. She made whole-grain breads, yogurt, cottage cheese, head cheese, butter, granola. All that and hoe cake, pies of all kinds, creamed vegetables, biscuits and all the Southern food that Daddy’s family loved.

My mother’s “agrarian vision” is very practical. She has practiced home economics— a phrase that fell out of fashion, I suppose, partly because it was considered a sexist term. (It is only sexist if one means that only one gender can practice it.) I believe that the phrase fell out of favor because it does not serve the marketplace. To love ones home and to want no other, better place, is contentment. To relieve yourself and the people you love of dependence on people who want to sell you cheap, bad food or entertainment is home economics and it is powerful. In fact, contentment is powerful.

My mother will soon be 75 and I will soon be 53. My youngest daughter, who is named for her, is one year younger than my mother was when she married my father. And maybe I just got old enough to understand what my mother accomplished. She has used her intelligence and education to put herself to work and to make herself at home on a little farm in Henry County. And in so doing has enriched her community and made it possible for her children and grandchildren who have watched and learned from her, even before we knew it, to have an agrarian vision of our own and to be at home.

RECIPES
Rice Salad
Barbecued Lamb Breast with Vegetables
Hoe Cake


RICE SALAD

Rice Salad

  • 3 cups cooled brown rice
  • 3/4 cup French Dressing (recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup green onions
  • 1/2 cup radishes, finely chopped
  • 1 green pepper chopped
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chives chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dill, chopped
  • Salt and pepper

French Dressing

  • 1 and 2/3 cups salad oil
  • 3/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

Instructions

  1. For rice salad: Mix all above ingredients.
  2. Stir in French Dressing.
  3. For dressing: Whip all ingredients in blender or food processor.

BARBECUED LAMB BREAST WITH VEGETABLES

Ingredients

Lamb Breast

  • 3 pounds lamb breast
  • 8 peeled carrots
  • 4 peeled potatoes

Barbecue Sauce

  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 cup vinegar
  • 2 tablespoon Worcestershire
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1and 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup water

Instructions

  1. Cut 3 pounds lamb breast in 3-inch pieces and put in shallow metal pan; bake at 500° for 30 minutes or until browned. Pour off fat. Put 8 peeled carrots and 4 peeled potatoes in pan with meat (use glass 9- by 13-inch, if desired). Cover with barbecue sauce.
  2. For barbecue sauce: Mix all ingredients and pour over meat and vegetables. Cover casserole with a lid or foil and bake at 325° for 2 hours, or until the vegetables are tender, basting several times with the sauce. Double sauce if desired. Makes 4 servings.

HOE CAKE

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup bolted white cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon lard (heaping) and lard for griddle
  • Boiling water

Instructions

  1. While boiling the water, put lard on griddle to heat.
  2. Mix cornmeal and salt. Drop in lard. Mix in boiling water until you have a stiff dough and lard is melted. Then put in a little cold water, stirring until smooth to make a pourable batter.
  3. Pour onto hot griddle and cook on medium-low heat for 15–20 minutes. Lift sides to check and when brown, flip onto plate. Put more lard on griddle and cook 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Cut into pie-shaped wedges, butter and serve hot.
Article from Edible Louisville & the Bluegrass at http://ediblelouisville.ediblecommunities.com/recipes/my-mothers-agrarian-making-home
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