THE FARMHOUSE is empty and sagging. Cattle graze where the garden once grew. The smoke house and chicken houses long ago crumbled into firewood.
But stand quietly in the barnyard and the breeze brings back the jangle of workhorses in their harness, the voices of men coming in from the fields and the fragrance of country ham, cornbread and gravy drifting from the kitchen.
My grandfather built the house; he and my father farmed the land. They raised beef cattle, pork and chickens. For a time we had rabbits, once we had a deer and there were always dogs and cats underfoot.
The fields fed the livestock -- hay, corn and, early on, wheat. The livestock, the vegetable garden, my grandmother and mother fed us.
Days were longer then. To a child they seemed endless. There were wagons stacked high with hay to ride and gigantic, gentle workhorses named Bob and Ribbon to pet. Cool creeks cut through hills crisscrossed with cow paths.
The house was always full at mealtime. During the week 10 to 15 neighboring farmers, who had been helping in the hay, would come in at noon to eat. My mother and grandmother weighed down the table with platters heaped with fried ham, great bowls of green beans and potatoes from the garden, corn on the cob dripping with butter, sliced tomatoes and hunks of cornbread or biscuits to sop up the gravy. Despite the summer heat, the food was served hot, steam rising from dishes as they passed among hefty men.
I was too young to remember, but my mother says they often had to cook breakfast for just as many. She and grandmother would be up at 5 frying eggs, bacon and potatoes, slicing tomatoes and baking bread.
On weekends neighbors and relatives came and went, but there was usually a houseful at dinnertime to feast from a table groaning with fried chicken, garden vegetables, a wonderful dumpling-like concoction my grandmother called "slickers" and freshly baked apple, blackberry or cherry pies.
Of all the foods of my childhood, the memory of grandmother's slickers remains the strongest. The slickers were merely a dough of flour, salt and water rolled out in a sheet and cut in large diamonds. But grandmother cooked them in a chicken stock that was more chicken than stock. The result was thick, flat dumplings coated with a rich broth and bits of chicken meat.
The adults sat at the big table; we children had our own smaller arrangement. The adults would eat and gossip; we would eat and giggle. Grandmother's slickers were not only good to eat, they were also wonderful, slippery objects to throw at my cousin. My cousin thought so, too. She would throw them back.
Living off the farm was not easy. It was long hours of backbreaking work. Since I was small I escaped most of it. My chores included carrying cold water to the men working in the hayfields and, as I got older, weeding the garden.
The garden was a massive plot of land planted with beans, peas, tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, onions, potatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. When the vegetables had ripened, mother and grandmother spent days canning and pickling. The cellar was filled with Mason jars lined neatly in rows. Canned, home-grown vegetables and fruits saw us through the winters.
The foods my folks prepared weren't fancy by any stretch of the imagination. The only spices my mother and grandmother used were salt and pepper. They were, however, strong proponents of bacon drippings. They would render large hunks of bacon fat and keep the drippings to flavor all the vegetables and even the cornbread they cooked. There is no match for fresh, tender green beans cooked with a spoonful or two of bacon fat and sprinkled with chopped onion.
There was meat at every meal. We raised our own beef, pork and poultry. Every fall a cow and a hog were butchered, the neighbors coming in to help with the butchering. The beef went into the freezer. The hams were salt-cured. Mother would bring in the hams from where they hung in the smokehouse and slice off thick cuts to fry. That's all I ever wanted to eat. There was -- and is -- nothing better.
When mother finished frying the ham she left the drippings in the iron skillet and added milk and flour to make gravy. The gravy came out thick and dark, full of little bits of crackling ham.
Every evening the cows were milked and the milk went into the separator. Even a small child could turn the crank on this machine that separated the milk from the rich, heavy cream. The milk we couldn't use went into big milk cans, and grandfather and I would put the milk cans into his old Plymouth and drive to town, where we'd leave the milk at the train station. I never knew where it went from there. I was little, and things like that didn't matter.
My grandparents died years ago and father found that the work and cost involved in keeping up a small farm just didn't pay. He built my mother a new house. They still keep a small garden and a few cattle. Gradually, the farm has slipped into memory.
But here, thanks to mother's memory, is how my grandmother made slickers.
GRANDMOTHER'S SLICKERS (2 generous servings) 1 cup flour Salt and pepper 6 tablespoons water Chicken or beef stock
Combine flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix in water a tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork to form dough. Roll out on a floured surface and cut into large diamonds, rectangles or squares. Drop into simmering chicken or beef stock and simmer at least 15 minutes. The longer the slickers simmer, the more tender they will be. Remove from stock and salt and pepper to taste.