It’s about that time of year again, when stinky, rank piles of gold are to be created in rural Nebraska – it’s getting to be time to cut silage.
Silage time was of the upmost importance for our farm while I was growing up — back then, that was our harvest since we didn't pick a lot of corn or even plant soybeans. Everything was about that silage, to feed our dairy cattle all through the year.
A group of men would come to work . . . some we knew, because they came back every year. Some were new, because the older ones were "getting out of the business." Funny, though, how those "older ones" would always show up at the end of that taxing season to survey the huge pile over a cup of coffee.
When it was time to cut silage, school took a back seat. The teacher understood — her husband also milked cows for a living and with the majority of our little country school being Muellers, there wasn't much point in getting worked up.
For "the men," which also included my mother, it was about an endless stream of wagons coming from the field filled to the brim with chopped stalks and leaves. For me, it was about food service.
I think that's when the cooking bug first infected me — not because I chose it, but because I was forced into it. Something happens when silage cutting starts — suddenly, everyone has to eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner (that's what we called the mid-day meal), bologna sandwiches and homemade cake for lunch (around 3 p.m.), and then a round of meatloaf and baked potatoes for supper (after it got dark).
This was also the time we started to reap the benefits of all that summer work — canning, cleaning chickens, feeding the steer. With the deepfreezes filled and the cellar full of jars, there was plenty of food to feed all those hungry workers. So each morning, the regiment was the same — take meat out of the freezer, send one of the bawling siblings into the cellar for some canned corn and apples (for pies) and pounds of potatoes from the bin.
Then, while the younger ones pretended to clean our tiny little house, I cooked. While I got acquainted with Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden on "Good Morning America," I baked pies with recipes from my 4-H cookbook, and followed Mom's written instructions for the menus of the day. Then about 10 a.m., her tractor and wagon would fly into the yard to check on the status of everything — they had to eat at noon, you know. And she had no choice but to stop by — these were the days before cell phones.
My goal was to have everything under control by the time she arrived — have all the skinned knees bandaged, the crying stopped, the bikes off the sidewalk, the pies sitting on the dishwasher and the chicken ready to fry. My sister, Nancy, would be standing on a folding chair, peeling potatoes over the sink, and the younger ones would be in the "play room" with their dolls.
My mom, with tanned skin the color of bronze and dust in her hair, would sprint to the house and tell everyone to stay off the running tractor while she checked the progress. She'd tell me there was too much lard in the cast iron skillets and she didn't have time to go to the burn center. Then she'd remind us there were about four dozen tomatoes that needed to come out of the garden — slice some up for dinner, she said. And then she'd smile, say everything looked great, and they'd all be there at 12 o'clock on the dot.
For the next two hours, we'd sweat over the task of making sure everything was ready. Plates on the table, extra chairs in the living room, ice in the instant tea and plenty of salt for the one hired guy who smoked three Lucky Strikes from the pickup to the front step.
And we had to have root beer for one guy named Ed. He was bald and told jokes I didn't understand. For whatever reason, this one didn't drink water or coffee or tea . . . he had to have root beer. So my mother kept a stash of Shasta hidden in the broom closet, just at that time of year for when he was there to cut silage.
Tick, tick, tick, the clock's hand would slowly move toward 12 . . . then I could hear them coming. Some rode in the back of my dad's old blue pickup, others were still on their tractors. Regardless of how they got there, the yard filled with hungry men we now had to serve.
They'd line up to wash their hands — that's when I realized the perils of cutting silage. It didn't take long for me to notice a number of them were missing fingers — a thumb here, a pointer there. Stubs all around.
The kids were sent outside to play — also known as waiting for their eating shift — while the men got to eat dinner. And with those stubby appendages, they'd pass around my chicken, slop gravy all over jello salad and talk about the biggest tomato they ever saw while eating slices straight from the garden.
They'd argue about politics — I think Carter was the enemy during that particular season — and whether gas prices would go up. They'd joke about how much more bald the cutter-guy was this year (his head was as round as an egg, shiny as the sun), and whether or not the youngest one had met a girl yet (he was as red as a stop sign from embarrassment). One guy (I don't remember his name, we'll call him "The Critic") would give me tips on how to keep my coleslaw from being so runny, and another one named Joe (he was more like a grandpa) would call him a name I'd never heard before and reassure me he'd never seen a 12-year-old who could even make coleslaw.
And when the destruction was over, they'd put their John Deere and Allis Chalmers hats back on, thank my mother for dinner (Huh?), and head back to the fields.
The kids would eat, lay down for a nap and my mother would tell me to start getting ready for "lunch." Off she’d go and I would survey the damage. There were dishes everywhere and all that extra lard she warned me about was all over the stove. There was flour on the rug, gravy between the floor tiles and coleslaw dressing on the handle of the tea pitcher.
The rest of the day was spent doing dishes, scrubbing the floor and making sure the brownies were baked for lunch. That was followed by making dozens of bologna sandwiches (it was referred to as minced ham). A bunch of tea jugs and Styrofoam cups later, we were out for the best part of the day. This time, Mom arrived in the old blue pickup and we kids piled in the back. We held the food steady as she drove through the cornfield to where the guys would be meeting us.
And once parked, everyone would gather around the tailgate, to eat and talk. Then, the best thing would happen . . . Dad would ask who wanted to ride with him in the big tractor on the pile as he packed the silage. My mother always protested — yelling about not putting her child in a vehicle so many feet in the air under something as unpredictable as fresh silage.
But he'd always just ignore her comments and ask me if I wanted to go. Of course I did! That was my reward — a daring carnival ride, of sorts — to pay me back for all the chicken, pot roasts, meatloaves and runny coleslaw I could muster. And it was one of those special times I could be alone with my dad — the guy from whom everybody always wanted something, the guy who worked so hard that he fell asleep before you could really talk to him after supper.
So I'd sit on the side of his seat and we'd march up that giant mountain which would eventually become that stinky fuel for our black and white milk machines. He'd tell me my chicken was good that day and I'd tell him I didn't like "The Critic" who put down my coleslaw. And Dad would tell me to ignore him, "because he's never been around women" (whatever that meant), and I'd ask him where all those fingers went.
Then, when our time was up, I'd get off the tractor and walk across the pasture to the house where I'd start working on Mom's next menu.