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June 24, 2020

from Singing the Land, by Chila Woychik

Makes sense Iowa feels home to me. Crop plats so large you drive a mile and the spread keeps going. They say South Dakota’s are even bigger, some five or seven miles square.

Grandpa’s piddly seven acres behind the old Illinois homestead with a kitchen pump handle and no other plumbing grew corn. The John Deere tractor’s flywheel took all that three-hundred-pound man could give it before the characteristic pop pop popping began. But he didn’t work those rows for nothing; his payout was mealtime when he ate and ate and ate. Half a dozen eggs, half a pound of bacon for breakfast. Sausage gravy and biscuits some days. Roast and potatoes, supper. Fried chicken. Corn on the cob. And homemade pies tasty as anything you ever had. The crank on the ice cream maker hardened along with the ice cream when the rock-salted ice started melting in earnest.

This was our growing-up, the land and seasons, the old-timey meals and the Hicksville blood running agrestic, green, and good. But our strange breed also had a German mother, as European as they get, strange indeed when you realize we settled smack in the middle of a provincial Midwest. Mother, lover of all things wurst: knockwurst, liverwurst, bierwurst. Maker of spaetzle and dumplings, red cabbage and rouladen. A small cold beer with each dinner meal.

The palate learned diversity that way, tongue split along the lines of Bavarian and backwoods. I took a twenty-year hiatus from that lineage to experience urbanity, discovered fine restaurants hold charm, hefty prices, and unique savor-jumpers, but even so, those memories of youth hover hard, and I’ve never junked the urge for home-cooked meals.

In my own kitchen, I fumble, knowledge, a lost vision in the presence of such worthy childhood ghosts. The acumen, I have, but lacking is desire, except the desire to be a child again alongside Mutti’s counter, watching her make Bavarian Zwetschgenkuchen, fresh plum cake, attuning my ears to her lovely throaty phrases, hearing an old German polka record spinning on the turntable. Or in Illinois Grandma’s cold winter / hot summer home where I felt secure, ran free, and feral, where her third-grade education and stories of working in the humid Arkansas cottonfields at age eleven gave rise to imagination and family strength and a can-do spirit of endurance still bound tightly to our pith in the face of each new adversity.

—Chila Woychik, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology

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