When I was a child, one of our main family activities was going to visit friends and relatives and having them visit us. The adults would sit and talk and drink coffee in the winter and lemonade or iced tea in the summer. The children would play, outside if possible. Most often, we visited and were visited by aunts and uncles and cousins. Mom and Dad both came from large families, so the extended family net was wide. Sometimes it was friends or neighbors.
I don’t know exactly when visiting starting to decline, but I know it’s not practiced in our culture anymore the way it was then. Today, visiting has mostly been replaced with television, digital games, recorded music, movies, the net, all kinds of wonderful media.
I’m not saying we don’t have face-to-face visiting anymore. It hasn’t died out. It’s just not our main form of entertainment and support these days.
I’ve been reading a book titled Vinegar Pie and Chicken Bread about a woman who lived in the Arkansas delta and for two years, 1890-91, she kept a diary. The diary gives a real glimpse into the daily life of isolated rural Arkansas farmers.
Nothing of much importance happens in the diary. She records the weather, daily chores, work being done on the farm, and quarrels with her husband. But what is really striking is the sense of sharing and community. Much of every day’s entry is about who visited whom and, no matter the weather, hardly a day went by without either hosting visitors or making visits or both.
And visitors often brought food. Instead of making a pie, you made two, one to give to someone you were visiting. It might be a washtub of turnips, some onions, a couple of pieces of cornbread, some fish, or fresh meat. Basically, people shared what they had with others around them.
They took care of each other. If you were ill, they would come and sit up all night, keeping a vigil in shifts. If a person was dying, they stayed with them until they passed and then saw to the burial. If you came for a visit and someone was doing a chore, you pitched in and helped. The women sewed outfits for each other, even made doll clothes for the children.
Here is a typical entry from the diary for January 2, 1891:
“Clear & cold and windy, we got up late this morning and I got breakfast in time for Miss Carrie & the children to get off to school, Caroline Coalman came & helped me get dinner & washed the babies things for me & Fannie & I went to see Mrs. Caulk & tell her good-bye for she leaves tomorrow on the boat she was at Mrs. Giffords and we went there, Lizzie went up to spend the night with Katie McNiel after supper Mr. Jackson and I took the baby & went to Mrs. Giffords & stayed 2 hours and Sue washed the supper dishes & Brother Dick stayed with her, after she got done she wrote to Eddie Mann, & Brother Dick wrote to Ella Chandler, Dr. Chandler went home to day, Eddie Peoples came after Miss Carrie & she went to Mrs. Peoples to stay until sunday evening all well to night, no mail today, Mr. Jackson and Brother Dick picked cotton today & Will Emmet too, John Hornbuckle was here awhile this morning.”
This is a typical day in the 1890s, with a whirl of social activity, people coming and going, people helping each other with work and chores. You were part of a circle, a community, and you were in daily touch with each other.
By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, visiting had already started to be a diminished part of daily life. We didn’t have the bustle of activity described in the diary. We went visiting and/or had visitors maybe once or twice a week.
We lost a lot when we stopped spending most of our time with the other people in our community. But now maybe a new way of “visiting” will revive and increase our contact with others. For example, I have friends who I regularly keep in touch with on the internet on four continents and all over the United States. Unfortunately, I can’t hand them a slice of cake when we get together or help them wash the car, but the most important part of the equation, the social part, is still there.
And there are advantages. When we used to go visiting during my childhood, we were limited to those who lived nearby. With the internet, the world is your backyard in which to play and make friends.
So I feel like we’ve come full circle. What used to be a face to face encounter has been replaced by the tools of technology. But even if we are connecting with other humans over long distances, across national and cultural lines, across oceans and continents, the connection can still be real, and satisfying;
Recipe for Vinegar Pie
In the old days, fresh lemons were not always available to farm families. Vinegar pie was developed as a substitute.
1 (9 inch) pie crust, baked
1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
3 egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
3 egg whites
6 tablespoons white sugar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
Mix the flour with 1/2 cup of sugar. Add the water gradually and cook on top of a double boiler for 15 minutes, stirring constantly, or until thickened.
Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the yolks and salt and mix well with a whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the hot flour mixture to the yolk mixture gradually, mixing all the time. Return to the double boiler and cook for about 3 minutes more or until the mixture is thick and smooth.
Add the butter, extract, and vinegar. Mix well and remove from heat. Place a piece of plastic on top of this custard.
Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until foamy and gradually add the 6 tablespoons sugar. Beat until a stiff, glossy peak is achieved.
Pour the custard filling into the prebaked shell ( the custard should still be hot, if not, heat up a again before adding to shell). Top with the meringue. Spread the meringue all over the top of the pie, sealing to the edges of the crust. Place into the oven and bake until the meringue is a nice nut brown, about 15 minutes. Traditionally, this pie is served hot.
Chicken Bread was cornbread made with just water and corn meal and it was called that because it was usually used to feed to chickens, but when pioneers ran out of the other ingredients needed to make cornbread, they had to eat chicken bread.