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Published April 21 2012

Swift: When food hoarding becomes a necessity

No sooner is the cap off a fresh tube of toothpaste, my husband says, and I’m flying into town to replace it with a new one.

It’s true. Life in the country turns one into a bit of a hoarder.

I’m always anxiously surveying foodstuffs and supplies to make sure we don’t run out.

Some of this behavior was spawned by the Great Ice Storm/Electricity Blackout of 2006, in which we were stuck in our home for days with nothing to eat but canned salmon and graham crackers.

I won’t make that mistake again. Right now, our pantry contains 11 cans of tomato soup, eight boxes of Uncle Ben’s rice and enough Mrs. Butterworth’s to feed a lumberjack convention.

At least I come by this trait honestly. My mother, the intrepid farm wife, stockpiled food as if she were opening her own Sam’s Club.

She learned her lesson early. As a young bride, Mom once prepared a big meal for seven extra men who were helping Dad work cattle.

When dinnertime rolled around, the extra diners showed up, but it didn’t stop there. The number jumped to eight, then nine, then double digits. They just kept coming through the door.

Turned out the men had brought along extra reinforcements for help, which brought the guest total to 14.

The flustered young cook ransacked cupboards and the refrigerator to “pad out” the meal. Cans of corn were hurriedly opened; leftover bread was tossed on a plate.

The hungry group descended on the table like ants on a Karo spill. When they finally left, Mom used to joke, they had eaten everything but the plates.

Poor Mom was traumatized. She had broken the cardinal rule of Midwestern hospitality: sending away guests who did not waddle from overfeeding.

I believe that is the last time that Margaret Swift was ever accused of serving skimpy portions.

For most of my life, I remember a house brimming with food. There were two chest freezers, bulging with meat, frozen vegetables, homemade bread and ice cream.

We had a “pickle room” that contained hundreds of jars of home-canned goods, and an actual root cellar filled with potatoes.

And, because this was the ’70s, we had two whole cupboards solely devoted to Jell-O.

This may sound like food hoarding. But keep in mind that we lived 18 miles from the closest grocery store.

You couldn’t just send the kids down to the corner mart to pick up a gallon of milk. Instead, you had to drive four miles to the nearest neighbor and ask if you could milk their cow.

And so my mother became a master at running her very own PX.

Once a month, we made a trek to the big city of Bismarck to go “warehouse shopping.”

This was a joyless, two-hour experience that encompassed walking down row after concrete row of a huge, glumly lit building and buying economy-sized ketchup by the case.

Food was moved in such quantities that no one used a flimsy shopping cart. That was for city folk, with their fancy name-brand soda and non-institutional-sized condiments.

Instead, we steered huge, heavy flatbed carts, specially outfitted with wonky wheels that made it impossible to turn a corner without plowing into the 82-ounce vats of apple sauce.

Afterward, we would pack every square inch of our station wagon with groceries and fly home before the 124-pack of Popsicles could thaw.

Once home, it took a good hour to unpack and restock our pickle room, deep freezes, root cellar, refrigerator, cupboards and Jell-O reserves.

You know what they say on the farm: You don’t want to get caught with your pantry down.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com