Cowgirl Sass & Savvy: Folklore and remedies

Julie Carter is a New Mexico writer and author whose column appears weekly on Rio Grande Digital.

Julie Carter

The great old-timey cooks were the women who knew how to make anything out of nothing and make it taste good.

They grew up during the lean times of the 1920s and 30s on rural farms. Their day started at 5 a.m. (or before) with chores done by lantern-light, meals cooked on the wood cook stove, food refrigerated in the spring house and water carried to the kitchen in buckets.

The wood cook stove was the signature for those who toiled for hours cooking, canning and keeping the family fed. When gas and electric ranges became available, many put them alongside the ever-faithful wood stove, not yet trusting enough to give up the very center to every family kitchen.

Of interest are the remedies, folklore, weather predictions and superstitions that evolved from the kitchens of that era.

Commonly heard were warnings like: Always bake a cake while the sun is going up. (Advice to prevent the cake from falling.) Don’t throw away the eggshells until after the cake is baked. Stop the clock while the cake is baking.

It was thought that anyone born while the mulberries were ripe had a good chance of being redheaded. Other direct pieces of advice were: A fat kitchen, a lean will. Don’t fall out with your bread and butter. A rotten apple spoils its companion.

Then there were the vegetable insults. His family is like potatoes; all that is good of them is underground. She rattles around her house like one pea in a pod. He’s too lazy to shuck corn if you gave it to him.

Using bread for weather forecasting was undoubtedly as accurate as anything used then or now. To take the last piece of bread on the plate foretold of rain. If one were to drop a piece of buttered bread upside down on the floor, it would soon rain. When handling a loaf of bread, if it broke into two parts, rain was predicted for a week.
Folk remedies were often worse than the ills they were intended to cure.

For baldness, the cure was to consume the gall of a lizard, fresh mouse meat or mole’s blood. To prevent a cold, one was to tie a big red onion to the bedpost. It was believed that a good spring tonic was anvil dust mixed with cream.

Necessity is the mother of invention and also the source of the many “mock” recipes that sprang up during the depression. Finding themselves without money or access to needed ingredients birthed the mock cherry pie made from cranberries and raisins.

Mock turtle soup was created using cow’s tongue and soda crackers were substituted for macaroni. Mock coconut macaroons used rolled oats and almond extract and mock honey was created from sugar, oranges, eggs and butter.

The only thing harder than all the cooking done in that era was the laundry.

A recipe for doing the laundry, as written by a West Virginia grandmother, gave a 12-step chronology for the job. It began with “Bild fire in back yard and get kettle of rain water.”

Step 3 instructed, “Shave one whole cake lie sope in biling water.” After the clothing sort, the scrubbing, boiling, “renching” and spreading items on the grass and fence to dry, the “rench water” was poured on the flowerbed and the porch was scrubbed with the soapy water.

Step 12 was advice still good today. “Turn tubs up and dress-smooth hair with side combs. Brew cup of tea, set and rest and rock a spell and count your blessings.”

We owe much to these stalwart women of our past.

There is a story about a man who eventually became the president of the United States. He reportedly got his start and a good part of his consistent following on the political trail by his hard work as a young man getting electricity to the rural hill country women so they didn’t have to cook, wash and iron with wood heated or generated implements. He loved his mother and he could not stand to see her and others working that hard.

That’s the Democrat version of the story. The Republican version is that he just hated chopping the wood.

Julie can be reached for comment at Visit her website at




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