Harvest picnicsSep 01, 2018 12:26AM ● By Eileen O'Toole
In the early 1900s, houses with wood and coal stoves, hot and burning from dawn to suppertime, drove people outside. Although always an excuse for escaping the stuffiness in the house, early day picnics were sometimes part of the job—especially during harvest time.
Western Slope residents at the turn of the 20th century escaped the hot desert air by sitting under tall cottonwood and Chinese elm trees with their families. A spot in the shade could be 15-20 degrees cooler than one in the sun.
Often, harvest laborers brought their own sack lunches, gathering in the shade to eat lunch. But on larger farms, lunchtime meant it was time for a picnic of enormous proportions.
On some days during harvest, women spent hours cooking food for picnics for 20-40 people at a time. Sometimes they were financially rewarded, and sometimes their only reward was a compliment on their fine cooking. No one would dare ask for anything rare or well done, or to hold the onions. After all, they could take or leave whatever arrived at the table.
The men picked sweet corn that was shucked and boiled in large pots. Tomatoes were picked, washed, sliced and served immediately. Potatoes were taken from the cellar or garden, peeled, usually sliced, boiled and then creamed—mashed potatoes required more work, while creamed potatoes did for both potatoes and gravy. Peas and small onions were also usually creamed. Green beans were a staple cooked with bacon. Sliced cucumbers floated in vinegar, keeping them fresh.
Meat—beef, pork, chicken or turkey—cooked in roaster ovens. Chickens and turkeys had to be killed and dressed the morning of the picnic. Sometimes fried chicken made an appearance, but that entailed more work. Ham was the standby because cured meat resisted spoilage, and it didn’t matter if it was hot or cold. Bread, usually in the form of rolls or biscuits, was baked early in the morning and arrived at the table with jams and butter.
In the kitchen, cooks used the entire stovetop for frying, boiling or simmering, moving pans from high heat right over the fire to low simmers away from the firebox as necessary. Warming ovens above the stove allowed bread to rise and food to stay at a serving temperature. The ovens weren’t large, but women could fit a variety of covered roasters inside them to keep meats separated. Without temperature gauges, the cook’s full attention had to be on whatever they were baking or roasting.
Meanwhile, men hauled all the furniture they could find outside, even using logs for stools and saw horses as table legs. Huge coffee pots and multiple pitchers of lemonade and milk sat on the tables. There was no ice for iced tea. Oilcloth table cloths flapped in the breeze, and the table was set with any type of flatware that could be found. The meals were divided among tables so that everyone could reach the food.
Harvest-time picnics were not a one-person job. Everyone pitched in, sometimes using more than one kitchen. And since there was less time during this busy season to cut, chop, bake, roast and stir, everything had to be ready when the crews arrived. Family Sunday dinner was a labor of love. Feeding a harvest crew was more like operating a production line.
Harvest wasn’t the only time to picnic. Families and friends gathered on Sundays after church for fish fries along the river or after hunting small game like rabbit and pheasant. People often picnicked on Grand Mesa, Glade Park and in the Colorado National Monument.