Apprenticed for Life: Learning From Millie Kalish’s Hard Times on an Iowa Farm During the Depression | Civil Eats

Apprenticed for Life: Learning From Millie Kalish’s Hard Times on an Iowa Farm During the Depression


Recently, a good friend handed me Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s outstanding book, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, and succinctly said, “I think you’ll appreciate this.” And she was right. Named one of the best 10 books in 2007 by the New York Times, Little Heathens is a breath of fresh air, a message of hope and revival, and a timely reminder of how we once knew how to grow our own food, chop our own wood, and survive on next to nothing. I’ve returned to the book as a constant reference, source of inspiration, and general salve for simple, good ideas, common sense, and for a dose of Millie’s refreshingly honest and joyous take on life. Part memoir, part how-to manual, her life lessons of hard work, self-reliance, and determination to make it through one of the toughest times in American history are especially relevant today.

Born in 1922 on a farm near Garrison, Iowa, Kalish grew up during the Great Depression under the watchful eye of her family and community. Her grandparents, with whom she and her four siblings lived part of the year, “never quite made it into the twentieth century” and imposed strict habits, the main message being: “Endure deprivation without complaining; mind your manners at all times; do as your elders say.” Millie writes, “Austere and challenging as it was, it built character, fed the intellect, and stirred the imagination.”

Building character and developing a sense of responsibility was the essential focus of her life. Much of the book is devoted to entire chapters on how her family survived on a rural farm in record cold with no running water, no central heat, no electricity, and no money. And while Millie and her family were very poor, they were rich in so many other ways. Rather than painting a picture of desperation, or of yearning for “the good old days,” Millie’s book is chocked full of creative, home made solutions and the kind of “can do” American spirit that seems hard to come by these days. A whole chapter devoted to “Thrift” details how every last thing was saved, reused, and recycled. “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever—or as close to forever as we could contrive,” writes Millie.

A chapter on “Medicine” notes the common knowledge of home remedies (Vaseline, lard, baking soda, boric acid, Vicks, etc.) from the People’s Home Library, a “compendium of lore on the treatment and medication of people and livestock, and on domestic science or cooking and household management.” People hardly, if ever, went to the doctor, and largely took responsibility for their own healthcare. We need that book today (and, yes, it’s available online).

Writing about the “kinship of souls that is created when everyone gathers in a kitchen to prepare a meal together,” Millie’s chapter on “Farm Food” is loaded with recipes for Corn Oysters, succotash, buttermilk pancakes, cooked pheasants (“disjoint four ring-neck pheasant…”), cabbage salad, apple pies, and homemade marshmallows. She writes:

I do feel that the knowledge of how to fry potatoes, make a piecrust, and dress a chicken encourages self-sufficiency and creates a sense of confidence in one’s ability to cope with life. Indeed, I want my own family to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills, and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplied were limited.

“Chores” lays out the reality of hard work on a rural farm, with the youngest being recruited into the workforce early on. From garden and farm work, such as oat schocking, to household and kitchen duty (dishwashing meant spelling lessons, math and science were learned through biscuit making), there are whole chapters devoted to “Milking,” “Wash Day,” “Gathering Nuts,” “Gathering Wood,” and “Outhouses”. And while many of us might see this kind of work as intolerably arduous, which make no mistake, it could be, Millie also writes about the inestimable rewards of learning discipline and independence.

Especially meaningful is her description of living in close contact with the animals on her farm: “The domestic animals were almost like people to us, and we treated them with respect. Their welfare was always our prime concern.” She writes:

Interacting so closely with the wildlife, along with domestic farm animals, was not a trivial aspect of our young lives. I have come to believe that this close relationship not only immensely enriched our growing-up experience, it made us kinder, more empathic, more understanding human beings. In addition, it clarified and defined our responsibility to these creatures and the entire natural community.

Millie did eventually leave the farm and continued working her whole life, becoming an English professor. Today she is a Professor Emeritus of English, retired from Suffolk County Community College on Long Island and she taught at the State University of Iowa at Iowa City, the State University of Missouri at Columbia, and at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.

I recently had the enormous pleasure of speaking to Millie, who had just returned from another book tour, where she won an “emerging author” award, about which she said, “At 88, it’s a thrill!”

CE: Your book has been an enormous success and has taken on a life of its own. To what do you attribute the response?

MK: Well, I’m honestly dumbfounded by the response. It’s as if I’m standing outside of myself and looking at someone else’s charmed life. When the book first came out, by and large, there was an immediate response from older folks. But now, I’m getting emails from the “going green” crowd and “eco moms” as well as the “voluntary simplicity” types. It’s amazing who is reading this book. I get e-mails from 16 year olds and 96 year olds. People write me for home tips, to trade recipes, and to share ideas.

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CE: I think the book’s message resonates in some way with what the country is going through right now.

MK: There is a whole new group of people who are using it to downsize their lives. They’re up to here with consumerism. And that’s one of the nicest things that’s happening. For one thing, I’m disappointed, angry, and critical of our economic situation. We have replaced our final tradition of delayed reward with instant gratification and allowed people to get themselves tied up in debt. We learned, growing up, that every single one of us was expected to contribute and be a part of the family, the community. I learned, early on, how to deal with money. We simply, never, ever went into debt, unless it was for something profoundly important in your life. I’m thinking about writing a book about how to win in this life. Think about how much money is wasted on buying soda and coffee at Starbucks every day. It’s a fierce drain on the pocketbook.

CE: What do you think is the solution to our current situation?

MK: I would require domestic science courses in every school, which would be updated to teach students simple life lessons: how to create a budget, how to balance a check book, how to handle a credit card, how to comparison shop. I would insist that everyone learn how to cook, how to sew, how to handle life, which we simply don’t teach our kids any more. It truly upsets me that most kids don’t even learn how to put anything together; most things come already half-assembled. We’re not doing our duty by these young people; they’re growing up having everything done for them, and they lack confidence. I was apprenticed for life. When I came off that farm, I had confidence, maybe it was unwarranted, but I knew I could do anything I set out to.

CE: You left the farm and never looked back. What’s it like for you now to go home?

MK: I recently went back to visit a cousin in Iowa and he took me out to his farm. Back then, it took eight of us to run two little farms. Today, my cousin grows mostly corn and has a $250,000 combine that he can use to farm all by himself. He has no cattle and all of the fertilizer has contaminated the water, so that he has to buy drinking water from the store. The corn is meant for ethanol and it’s hard on the land. It’s terribly sad. I’m dismayed and concerned about the future, but I’m heartened by the people who are coming back to the land.

CE: What do you make of the growing trend of urban gardening and folks who keep backyard chickens and other animals?

MK: I think it’s terrific. Whatever people can do to grow and do for themselves is just great. And I think you’ll see more and more of this.

CE: You write that memories of having to kill Colorado beetles as a child might be the reason that you no longer grow vegetables. What other reasons might there be?

MK: I got older and smarter. My advice now is to make a friend of a gardener and they’ll bring you endless zucchini, but also wonderful tomatoes and other things. It’s been so long that I’ve grown food or cooked for myself, mostly because I’ve been so busy with the book, but I must say that the spearhead of my life were my cooking skills. Because I actually knew how to cook, folks came over to our place for Peking duck or lamb. A specialty of mine was a wagon wheel of anchovies and pimentos, with loads of fresh dill, pepper, lemon juice, and toast points.

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CE: Your book and you are full of optimism during a particularly hard time. To what do you account this?

MK: I look at life as the glass half full. We were all this way. Literature and poetry was extremely important. I recall reciting Longfellow’s Psalm of Life together around the kitchen table: “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul” and “Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.” We learned those verses by heart. We had an optimism that man was improvable, he could do it himself, and this pervaded our household. I’ve just recently been thinking how my mother never complained, my grandparents never complained, so we didn’t complain. We were just fired up with optimism.

CE: What would your mother and grandparents think of today’s world?

MK: Oh, I think they would have disdain for this world. Even people who’re living now have disdain for this world. A friend of mine recently told me he looked at his 15 year old son slouched over on the couch, texting on his phone, and wanted to give him a punch. Hanging out at the mall is so far out of the realm of what I was permitted to do.

CE: Do you think things will get better?

MK: Things will get better, but we’ll have to get better. We have to get back to frugality and old virtues: hard work, responsibility, and thrift. I’m trying to grow old gracefully and I would love to continue sharing ideas and recipes with people. I’d like to continue teaching how to be apprenticed for life.

Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. The book sounds like a great read, and your interview brings it to life even more. How sad that our culture had to completely gorge itself before we crashed. But, as your review and interview point out, good things are coming of it.
  2. I have seen this book in stores so many times and haven't bought it for one reason or another (mostly because it costs money!), but I think now I will.

    As a 24-year-old raised by a frugal mother and trained in the fine art of delayed gratification, I think I would appreciate reading it. Besides, I've always heard stories from my grandparents growing up on the farm during the Depression and this could give me some insight on those not-often heard stories!

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