(Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a series on broomcorn)
Once the seed has been threshed from the bush, the heads of its 18-inch long fibers are placed on the slats in the drying shed. However, before the handlers (Ants) returned the bundles to the drying slats, they stopped by a butting block. The purpose of the butting block was to provide the handlers with a solid surface on which to tap the butts of their bundles, thereby, facilitating an even distribution of the heads.
After a normal six weeks curing period, the dried out heads or plumes are bailed and sold to buyers operating throughout the south central Canadian River Basin.
Throughout the golden years of McClain County’s broomcorn industry, the perennial high school football rival, Lindsay, in Garvin County, prided themselves on being the, “Broomcorn Capital of the World.”
In the midst of all the dirt and grime generated by the endeavors of the broomcorn harvest, proper dining etiquette was never overlooked! Before the mad rush of grub grabbing Johnnys began, appropriate behaviors were properly addressed.
Clean hands and clean faces were always made possible, but, not mandatory by the Johnny’s purging dips and splashes lathered up with home made lye soap, in the communal waters of a Number Three galvanized wash tub. And, by the time, the last guy accessed the tub, it was a mud bath of broomcorn residue!
With all that is going on amid today’s reality entertainment craze, I can’t help but believe that the broomcorn ethos could have ever slipped past the note of memorialists the way that it managed to do back in the middle of the 20th Century. Given it’s beyond spectacular, culinary rollout and its “You must see to believe,” harvest theatrics, I have to believe that in today’s environment, the reality production crews would be right there smack dab in the middle of it all!
The sharp contrast between the Broomcorn Johnny’s dogged sweat hog morning of blight-filled working conditions in the console of tabled broomcorn and that of the Bon Appetite extravaganza tables of food served up at noon for the Johnny’s indulgence is beyond worldly comparison. And, any such attempt to compare would most assuredly require a, “Heaven to Hell,” analogy!
As an uninitiated 18-year -old broomcorn Johnny enduring the stifling heat while trying to work my way up into a job somewhere in the shade, I never realized it would be the food, not the broomcorn misery, that ultimately stands out in my memories.
I knew the luncheon spread, locals called it dinner, was something to look forward to, but I had no idea that I was experiencing a smorgasbord of gourmet improvisation whose fabled height of gastronomic excellence would never again enliven my tastebuds!
And so to this very day, I remain convinced that the quintessential epicurean dining experience is not to be found in today’s five-star restaurants, but, was served up long ago on the tables of McClain County’s unsung broomcorn chefs.
Out of necessity, these were ironic, yet, iconic chefs who never thought of themselves as such, nor did any of us who ungraciously engorged ourselves on their gastronomic delights! All from ancestral recipes, never written down, yet, forever copied, but, never quite duplicated.
At the time, I knew I didn’t eat that well at home, but, I had no idea that those Oklahoma broomcorn feasts were anything out of the ordinary. I just allowed that was the way all rich broomcorn farmers ate every day.
Nevertheless, upon reflection, these many years later, my fantasy taste buds, find their way back to the savory stuffed pork chops, corn bread and cold buttermilk, hot potato salad, red eye gravy over mashed potatoes, pinto beans with pork belly, southern fried chicken, deep fat fried okra, high rising yeast bread with freshly churned butter with other entrees galore.
All served at a boarding house arm’s length spread across open air tables. And, for the hardiest of hardy eaters, an occasional mess of Poke Salad greens gathered in from the wilds of a nearby persimmon tree thicket. All washed down with an energizing brew of Lipton’s ice tea gulped from a big mouth mason jar packed with clinking chunks of ice chips from a 50 pound block.
Any time a product of work or art is up for praise, as the broomcorn food fest is, the salient question which must always be broached; Compared to what?
Love for the American cuisine, along with my intrepid existence after the broomcorn fields has afforded me a dazzling array of storied dining venues from which to compare.
The $300 a plate setting I laid out for my wife and I to dine at the much ballyhooed French Laundry in California’s illustrious Napa Valley most definitely gives a pricing edge to the broomcorn cuisine.
Admittedly, the black sea caviar on a bed of the chef’s exquisitely crafted tapioca was certainly a watershed dining experience for me.
However, I am still sticking with the deep fat fried okra beside a ladle of freshly picked blackeyed peas with buttermilk laced cornbread from the broomcorn cuisine. And, furthermore, when I lined up at the five star buffet at Hawaii’s celebrated Turtle Bay Resort, a one of a kind luau, with high expectations of a gastronomic Eureka—only to discover the buffet’s biggest draw was poi, my appetite suddenly tanked.
Learning of poi’s origin, which is an unflavored edible root pounded out from the Taro Plant, I just couldn’t help but yearn for those days of yore, dining at the broomcorn fest board!
The brigade of housewives turned into self-styled chefs responsible for broomcorn’s open-air food feasts, “Help yourself, It’s all on the house,” personifies the different roles played by women in the kitchen and men in the field.
I think most broomcorn survivors will agree that the drudgery in the field and epicurean zest in the kitchen pretty well explained the Johnny’s tolerance for sticking with what has to have been high among mankind’s most punishing means of earning a wage!
In the field and in the kitchen, each with their own satisfying rewards, hard cold cash on the barrelhead from the fields, and, from the kitchen, out of this world country cooking, the likes of which today’s money cannot buy!
So! In saying, “Goodbye!” to a once relevant industry, just know that the long hot summer will be a better one without the constant irritation of broomcorn fuzz! The happy news is that the great old-fashioned cooking once enjoyed by the Johnnys, can still be found today in traditional country eateries such as the Chickasha diners up and down Oklahoma’s South Canadian corridor.