When an author description begins with "this is his final book," as does the promotional material for Bob Artley's recently released Memories of a Farm Kitchen, you keep reading. Was there a personal tragedy or publishing world mishap? No, Mr. Artley, an illustrator and author of several country living books, is simply 93-years-old. The book, part storybook/memoir, part cookbook, was completed with the help of his son, Rob, and other children (their father suffered several strokes shortly after completing the watercolors for the book). It's unusual in that the book has readership appeal for both adults and kids, or adults reading bedtime stories to kids. And oddly enough, it works.
Artley was born in Hampton, Iowa, in 1917 on the family farm established by his grandfather forty years earlier. They were oat farmers who lived a simple but not uncomplicated life, as life on a farm with no refrigeration, electricity or other modern inconveniences was hardly luxurious. But it was replete.
The book is divided into fifteen very brief chapters, really more peeks into Artley's childhood through his charming watercolors with text written (and in places, more transcribed) by his son, Rob. If the kitchen was the center of farm life, the coal-fueled range (wood or corncobs worked in a pinch) was the power horse that sputtered it to life daily. Sometimes the kitchen served as a nursery for the baby pigs, chicks, turkey hatchlings and other farm animals born during the cold winters: "I remember seeing Dad holding a baby pig, its little body blue and stiff with cold, and massaging it to renewed life in front of the open oven door of the range... It wasn't long before the tiny pig was emitting little grunts that sounded much like the perking coffee in the coffeepot on the stove-top," Bob recalls in chapter three.
Other days the kitchen became the Laundromat when it was too cold to scrub the family's clothes clean on a metal washboard with homemade lye soap. To keep the kitchen filled with icebox rolls and fresh meat, there was the oat-straw lined ice-house out back, where ice blocks harvested from the streams in winter were stored for summer. The attic served as the curing room for farm-smoked hams and bacon that would be brought to the kitchen to cook when ready; the cellar was stockpiled with canned peaches, lard for cooking, and preserved meats for lean months and lunch pails.
That same kitchen served as the original school cafeteria kitchen (Bob describes the lunches in syrup pails he toted daily to school filled with homemade canned fruits, sandwiches on homemade bread wrapped in wax paper, and a sweet surprise). It was also the scriptorium, as Bob calls it, as the kitchen table was where all pen-to-paper business took place (homework, farm paperwork and correspondence with friends and family).
And so by the time you get to the final chapter filled with dozens of recipes from friends and family -- those icebox rolls, a wilted lettuce or dandelion green salad, creamed "frizzled" dried beef -- the assumption is that you know how to cook (of course you do, you live on a farm). The chocolate drop cookies simply instruct to "mix, drop from spoon, and bake," with no oven temperature or baking time given.
Yet here, those exceedingly simply recipe instructions seem like more than childhood memories. They're a quiet challenge from a farm boy now in his nineties, one who must be skeptical of this modern food truck, frozen fish stick, and drive-through "family" dinner world, to take another look at that kitchen of yours. It might be useful for more than simply making this carrot jam. But like this recipe, what exactly that means is up to you to figure out. Turn the page for Bob Artley's mother's carrot jam recipe.