BLUE MOUND, Ill. (DTN) -- There's nothing quite like eating by tractor headlights to make you realize where food really comes from.
Amy Brown and her mother-in-law, Roberta Brown, waited for their dinner guests Wednesday night as the sun set over the Illinois prairie. Dusk doesn't last long this time of year and the farm crews are late. A text informing Amy of a new estimated arrival time extracts a slight sigh -- hot food doesn't stay hot forever, but then, she's been here before.
Hardly a harvest night goes by that Amy and Roberta don't carry a meal to the field to their family of workers. Amy typically brings the main dish and Roberta is the dessert lady. They both bring an attitude of loving commitment to this life -- a fuel even more important than the food that keeps Brown Farms moving forward.
In the middle of an Illinois cornfield, darkness comes like a slamming door on a no-stars cloudy night. Cooking for field hands isn't only about bringing hearty fare and lots of it. It requires patience and more than a little flexibility.
The field meal gig is the equivalent of ordering a meal from the best comfort food restaurant imaginable; then, asking it to be delivered; then, changing the venue and the reservation times; then, expecting the dishes to be hot and tasty. A food truck would definitely make the experience more palatable for the cooks.
When flashing lights finally appear on the horizon, the two women know enough to wait a bit longer. A fog of dust will come, too. It's been dry lately. They discuss tomorrow night's meal and talk of how different life is during this time of COVID-19. It is revealed that in Roberta's church they are now allowed to do a pandemic hum. Who knows ... maybe singing will one day return?
Obviously, these nightly meals are a type of lifeline to some sort of normalcy for these women too -- something to count on in a time when all the world seems uncertain.
The combine, grain carts and semis suddenly surround Amy's SUV and the women move -- peeling aluminum foil off pans of beef stew and cornbread. Tupperware seals pop and Saran Wrap is gingerly removed from an assortment of iced bars and cookies.
Some diners gulp their food -- there's a hydraulic hose to tend. Others linger -- glad to stand and hunch over the still-warm sustenance to chase away the chill. Amy and Roberta receive mumbled thank yous and a few hugs and now, become the clean-up crew.
It is not the first time I've been invited to watch this drama unfold with the Brown family from Blue Mound, Illinois. I came here today specifically to take photos. I realize as night has fallen that I've barely pushed the shutter. I have apparently come here hungry -- not so much for food, but for fellowship.
In the middle of this field, memories come faster than hunger pangs. One of my chores growing up was to deliver meals to the field. It was also my first clue of how powerful food could be.
My father would actually stop a few minutes to eat and talk about how the crop was doing if I brought a meal. I tried hard to prepare things he liked. I have a particular memory of him saying that he craved a radish sandwich. This concoction of sliced garden radishes and a hint of salt between two pieces of buttered (margarine likely) Wonder Bread became a go-to in my field meal lineup. Only recently did he admit to me that he craved having it just once and didn't actually like the sandwich. However, he knew I was trying so hard to please that he didn't want to hurt my feelings.
This week I wrote about Deanne Frieders and her cookbook focusing on field meals for farmers and other tailgating experiences (https://www.dtnpf.com/…). She gives several tips for taking food to the field, but the one that struck me most was her hint that the cook should not be offended if those being fed don't rave about your food. Minds are occupied this time of year and long leisurely picnics aren't really what we are talking about here.
Still, as one who has fixed many a meal for work crews, I hope we don't forget those working behind the scenes to feed those producing food. It doesn't matter whether you eat at home or in the field or at the downtown diner -- someone worked hard to plan and prepare those dishes and it likely wasn't the only meal they prepared that day.
On this night, Roberta finishes the field dining experience by handing out Tootsie Roll Pops and gets grins all around. The sweet treat is meant for later, but hardly anyone can resist plopping it into their mouth. Tractor headlights reflect off the white candy sticks as workers turn back to their machines -- all fueled up for more rounds of harvest.
When you head to the field with food, it really is about more than providing a meal.
Great harvest photos deserve to be noticed. Entries are open for the DTN/Progressive Farmer harvest photo of the year contest. We are recognizing winners by voting procedure and all entries must be received by Nov. 16 at 11:00 CST. Watch for #MyHarvest20, and for more on contest details, see https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/…. Photos can be uploaded to https://bit.ly/….
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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