My Favorite Farmer Boy

I've started reading the Little House book series with Ella, and it is such a pleasure to see her enjoy it as much as I have over the years.  It was a few years ago now when I randomly found myself talking to a coworker about it, and we both shared the same favorite book, Farmer Boy.

It's a lovely story about a boy growing up in 19th century New York State.  But although the story isn't particularly compelling, the vivid descriptions of food make it memorable.  Stacks of pancakes, covered in maple syrup. Home-fried doughnuts, crispy with sugar coating.  Baked beans with thick pieces of melty salted pork.  And the pies.  Thick pumpkin pie.  Spicy apple pie with crisped edges.  Chicken pie with pieces of white and dark meat in gravy, sliding off the bones. Apple pie topped with slices of homemade cheese.  My favorite part was at the 4th of July picnic, when they sit down to a table filled with amazing food:

"Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie.  When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else.  He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie.  He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it.  He just couldn't do it.  There were berry pies and cream pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more."

My PaPa would have loved that.  Most of my memories of him are surrounded, like Almanzo in Farmer Boy, with images of farming and food.  One of my earliest memories of him was riding in his truck (either in the front seat or the now terribly dangerous pick-up bed) down the road to the Dairy Queen for ice cream or french fries, as the occasion demanded.  I loved the Hawaiian Blizzard, and he always got a banana split, with its three peaks of ice cream perfectly nested in a banana and covered with chocolate, strawberry and pineapple.  When we were home in January, I loved treating Ella to a birthday cake from Dairy Queen and buying PaPa a banana split.  Ella and I shared one as well, and it was just as nice as I remembered, although I get why PaPa always bought me a separate ice cream as 4-year-olds are not great at splitting banana splits. 

He was a logger by trade, but he was a gardener and farmer at heart, I think.  His hands were so big that I remember a time when both of my hands could barely cover his dark brown fists.  I laughed once when I saw him without a t-shirt, as his "farmer tan" was like a dark caramel and his belly and shoulders were as white as his undershirt.  I never saw him without a baseball cap, but I was always surprised that the top of his head wasn't white as well.

I was always amazed at how he could take tiny seeds and plants and make rows of corn and beans and peas and eggplants and tomatoes.  Those tomatoes were like eating summer in a red skin.  The same coworker who I bonded with over the food in Farmer Boy found ourselves painting the nursery in her house as she was heavily pregnant, and although it was hot work, when she brought a tomato sandwich and a glass of sweet tea as dinner, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.  The tomatoes that my PaPa grew were best enjoyed on their own, with a bit of salt and pepper and mayo, in between two slices of the Sunbeam white bread that was ubiquitous in Granny's breadbox.  I remembered some of them being so fresh that the tomato was still warm from the sun.  In my eyes, there is no sandwich more perfect than a PaPa tomato sandwich.  I'm just sad I won't have another one.

A few days ago, my mom asked him if he felt well enough to tell her a story.  He didn't have the breath or the energy, so instead she told him my favorite PaPa story.  The year after fourth grade, I went to summer camp every day for a few weeks.  As it happened to coincide with my mom taking a class and my granny working, PaPa was left in charge of me for a couple of hours every afternoon.  Sometimes he took me to the feed store, which had a Coke machine that was like an old square refrigerator. The air from it was so cold that I would hold the door open as long as I could before someone told me to get a chilled bottle and close it.

But even better than the feed store was Shoney's.  Every day, he would drive me in his red truck, burning hot with no air conditioning, up to the door of the restaurant.  We would sit in the mostly empty restaurant, and he would buy each of us a slice of strawberry pie.  With him being a Type I diabetic, this was strictly prohibited, and I was sworn to secrecy.  Hint: if you want a 9-year-old to keep your secrets, pie is a good silencer.  I tried to finish mine every day.  It was so good, though I'm sure it was a sugary, gelatinous mess even then.  It was a thick, cookie-like white pastry crust filled with big red strawberries and some mysterious red jelly that you can still buy in Kroger in a plastic tub labeled "Gel for strawberries".  It had just the right amount of white puffy whipped cream to kill the too-sweet taste if the red gel got to be too much.  If I wanted to break out of the mold, I would get a hot fudge cake, but the pie was still my favorite.

Mom said that as she told him the story that he smiled and had absolutely no recollection of those trips to Shoney's.  I don't mind so much though.  Every time I eat pie, I think of the times I was with him at family gatherings, holidays or parties, sitting with his plate of pies.  He could eat four or five slices (and still have room for cake), when I would generally top out at 2 1/2 like the boy in Farmer Boy.   He would eat tomato pie and pumpkin, apple and lemon meringue and chocolate silk.  Once I laughed because he ate a slice of cheesecake and said "What the hell kind of pie is this?!"  I have the same thought and am generally unimpressed with cheesecake as it is a bastard cousin of pie.

Although I wasn't at home in Perry by his side, yesterday we saw some beautiful strawberries and rhubarb at the farmer's market, and I suddenly had a craving for pie.  And although it was made with the tears falling down my face after finding out he was gone, it was delicious.  Josh has pronounced it one of the best desserts I've made, and Ella's begging for more has given me a chuckle as the love for pie clearly seems genetic. I'm hoping he had a direct line with God, watching us eating pie, sitting in my tiny garden with the vegetables that I will overwater and fertilize, hoping to get something remotely in the region of his results.  As I felt the sun warming my arms, I was thankful that I got to spend 2/3 of my life down the road from him.  I can't wait to see him again, where we'll sit at another feast with our family elbow to elbow, and there will be no cheesecake in sight.

Love you always, Farmer Boy. X


  1. Beautiful story full of love and memories! Thank you for sharing with others so freely! Love you sweet girl! Teresa

  2. So beautiful, Wenderella. I'm so sorry for you and your family's loss. I love you. Hug Ella and Josh for me.

  3. Wendy, I have tried twice to respond to your beautiful tribute to your grandfather

  4. Stumbled upon this by accident. A heartwarming story.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts