Thursday, July 24, 2014

Back in the day, fresh was really fresh

November 24. 2013 11:28PM
Tom Mooney Out on a Limb

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Carefully the bearded man presses the hatchet blade to the sharpening wheel. By his side, a boy turns the crank that powers the wheel, a wild smile on his face.

“Getting ready for Thanksgiving?” asks the early-20th-century newspaper ad.

By modern standards, the drawing in a 1914 edition of the Sunday Independent is an unsettling one. Intellectually, we know that somebody had to kill the golden-brown turkey on our holiday table. But the frozen or fresh bird we buy at the store, wrapped in plastic and with nary a feather in sight, simply doesn’t generate images of someone chasing it with a lethal weapon.

Welcome to Thanksgiving a century ago, the way even our fairly recent ancestors knew it.

We genealogists are good at tracing our forebears through all kinds of historical twists and turns. We spend years figuring out who great-aunt Gertie married and what regiment great-grandfather Joseph joined to fight in the war. But how many of us ever stop to think, especially around holiday time, about how these folks put vittles on the table and otherwise lived their day-to-day lives?

Actually by the early 20th century, most urban people were far removed from killing their own food, though some still kept chickens or geese in their yards. But it was common in those days to buy fresh-killed poultry and lug home a bleeding carcass in a bag. Sometimes you got to choose the bird from a flock out back of the market, and then you’d wait, within hearing distance, while the storekeeper performed the execution and then cleaned and dressed the chicken or turkey.

To some, animal slaughter was a spectator sport. Old news reports show that, in Wilkes-Barre, crowds would gather at butcher shops to witness the killing and cutting up of record-size pigs.

All that was because freezers were far in the future, and lots of homes still had primitive iceboxes, with food kept barely cool by big blocks of ice that had to be restocked almost daily.

Bottom line: Even our non-farm ancestors were closer to the basic sources of food than we are, with our spic-and-span supermarkets and shrink-wrapped meat and poultry. They knew how many pecks make a bushel and how to bake a cake in a balky coal stove with Betty Crocker’s smiling face nowhere in sight.

As Thanksgiving nears, let’s consider this. Proud genealogists though we are, if we and our ancestors of 1913 (or 1813 or 1863) were plunked down on a “Survivor” type of island, how long do you think it would take them to pronounce us utterly clueless and boot us off?

Genealogy Instruction: Don’t miss this. The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will offer “Genealogy 101” on the first Thursday of every month, beginning in December, the society recently announced on its Facebook page. John Stevenson, lead instructor, has taught beginning genealogy at Luzerne County Community College. No reservations are required, but attendees are asked to phone ahead for details (570) 829-1765 and leave a message. The society’s library is on the grounds of the Hanover Green Cemetery, Main Road, Hanover Township.

News Notes: One of the joys of the holiday season is the “Afternoons of Colonial Hospitality” at the Nathan Denison House in Forty Fort, and it’s back for another year. Costumed interpreters will greet visitors at the historic site, Wyoming Avenue and Denison Street, 1-5 p.m. on Dec. 7 and 8. Call (570) 288-5531 for ticket prices and other information.

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