Laura Dean Bennett
Louise Barnisky has a green thumb.
And, as the saying goes, she comes by it honestly.
As Marlinton resident and gardener extraordinaire Louise Barnisky putters around in her flower beds and her garden, she has 80 years of memories and experience informing her every move.
She knows all about summer vegetables – raising them, cooking them and preserving them.
Several years ago, she started the “What’s Cookin’?” column in The Pocahontas Times.
She’s a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother – and a wonderful, old fashioned cook.
Like many of our parents and grandparents, Louise’s family always grew a large garden, in fact, her mother and dad – Tony and Thressa Leo – grew four or five gardens every summer.
For most people back in the day, summer vegetables weren’t just a welcome fresh treat for the palate, they were necessary for feeding the family all year long.
Louise grew up in Greenbrier County, at the bottom of the hill in the little mining town of Duo.
“Daddy worked for the mining company, and Mama raised six kids,” she said.
Louise’s dad came to this country from Italy, arriving at Ellis Island when he was sixteen.
Louise is very proud of her Italian heritage.
She remembers that her grandmother in Italy sent the family a beautiful nativity set for Christmas one year.
Louise admits that she now wishes she had visited Italy. She had a chance to go once, but was too afraid to cross the ocean.
She still has relatives there and has a niece who has visited them.
Her father definitely brought his Italian food preferences with him when he came to West Virginia.
He liked his olive oil.
“He ordered Contadina Olive Oil in large quantities,” Louise remembered. “We always had it. Mama used it for frying everything.
“I guess pork is popular in Italy – Daddy was always partial to pork.
“We ate beef, but we ate way more pork.”
Louise’s mother, who came from a family of 16, was from Clover Lick, and it was there the couple met when Louise’s dad was working on the railroad.
“We lived in a little shanty house,” Louise recalled. “Everybody called it the shanty house. And there wasn’t anything wrong with that. My dad had to hunker over a little inside- the ceiling was just barely tall enough for him,” she remembered.
“We didn’t have electricity – Mom cooked on a wood stove.
“We had a wooden table with benches for us kids, and Mama and Daddy sat in chairs at the ends.
“Like everybody back then, we had a big garden.
“Of course, in the summer, when the vegetables came in – we were knee deep in ‘em.
“In the summer, we worked in the garden and harvested vegetables. In the fall, we butchered meat.
“We raised all our own meat,” Louise said.
“Daddy raised thirty hogs every year, and we always butchered a heifer in the fall.
“He built a smokehouse out of railroad ties and he cured his own hams, bacon and everything – pepperoni and capicola, too. And he made his own sausage.
“Mama stayed busy from morning to night.
“She did laundry for people. She scrubbed clothes on a wash board.
“And she gardened and she did everything around the place she could. She raised her own chickens and did all kinds of things.
“And she was some cook!” Louise said, proudly.
“When she cooked her vegetables, she usually seasoned them with some meat.
“When she made green beans, she’d have cooked a chicken, taken the meat off the bone and used the broth to cook the beans and added in some of the chicken with the beans when she served them,”
“She did that with a lot of our vegetables – with either pork or beef or chicken. The meat flavored the vegetables.
“Her corn on the cob was so delicious. She cooked it in the ashes in the fire box of the wood stove.
“She’d put the corn, still in the husks, into the fire box after the fire had almost died out so that the corn would roast in the fire’s ashes.
“We always had cow butter and olive oil. She’d usually use olive oil or cow butter on her vegetables if she wasn’t using meat or broth with them.
“We grew everything – green beans, corn, onions – lots and lots of onions – radishes, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, all our herbs for seasonings, lettuce, peppers, cabbage – everything but sweet potatoes.
“Daddy never could grow them. I guess the ground wasn’t good for them.
“So, sweet potatoes were a treat. We only got them at Christmas. And Mama would put marshmallow fluff on top of them,” Louise recalled, fondly.
“The apples, cabbage and potatoes we’d store for the winter buried under the house.
“Mama had all her herbs in the garden. I remember planting finocchio (fennel) seeds. Oh, we planted lots of those seeds. She used a lot of that in her cooking.
“She canned everything we raised, everything we picked and everything we were given or we bought.
“I remember Mama always tried to can seven bushels of everything. She canned hundreds of jars of vegetables and meat every year.
“Daddy had made us an outdoor fireplace out of rocks, and Mama would do a lot of her canning out there.
“She had a big #3 wash tub that she’d put on top of the fire. She got twenty-three jars to fit in that tub. I still remember exactly how many jars it took.
“She canned beans that way. She canned lots of stuff that way, out on the outdoor fireplace.
“It was probably a lot cooler to can outside than canning in the kitchen. You know how hot it gets in the kitchen when you’re canning,” Louise said with a smile.
“But, sometimes she’d can on top of the stove. Usually she’d do her tomatoes that way.
“Every summer a man would come through with peaches, and Mama bought them for $1.25 a bushel. One summer, we canned seven bushel of peaches.
“We went to Clintonville (in Greenbrier County) to pick cherries.
“And we picked blackberries and sold them for forty cents a gallon.
“The ones we didn’t sell, Mama put up into jam, jelly and juice.
“My grandma had sixteen kids. Mama was the oldest. She learned everything about cookin’ and keepin’ a house from her mom, just like I learned everything from Mama.
“Mama baked all the time – she had to. We didn’t go to the store and buy bread like people do now.
“She made bread and biscuits, and she made a lot of pies and cakes.
“She always made round loaves of bread. She didn’t have a bread pan so she made round loaves.
“Mama made a lot of pickles and relishes. And they were good – mostly dill pickles – she grew dill in the garden.
“And she made hot pepper relish out of the hot peppers. Daddy, being from Italy, he really liked his hot peppers.
“Mama didn’t use recipes. She just made it up as she went along,” Louise told me.
“We always grew a lot of tomatoes. Mama canned all her own spaghetti sauce. She was famous for her spaghetti and meatballs.
“When the tomatoes were in, we ate a lot of sliced tomatoes.
“I remember when the beans were in, sitting and snapping beans for hours.
Mama always had lots of flowers. She loved flowers.
“We didn’t have money for flower pots, but she’d plant flowers in old buckets, and sometimes we’d find something she could use for them at the dump.
“Poppies were her favorite flowers. She’d start bulbs in a box and put them behind the kitchen stove for the winter.”
Louise said life was pretty simple back then.
“Oh, we had us some times!” Louise said, chuckling.
“Back then, we’d be excited to get dishes out of oatmeal boxes. We didn’t know we were poor, although I guess we really were.
“Us kids had a good time. We went barefooted in the summer and swam in the creek.
“But we always helped out with everything that needed doing on the place. Oh, we worked hard. I know we pulled a lot of weeds and carried a lot of water – but we had a lot of fun, too,” Louise insisted.
“And we had a baby groundhog every year as a pet. We always called them “Groundy.
“Sometimes they’d live under the house for a long time. Sometimes they’d take off but they’d come back and visit us once in a while,” she said with a smile.
But Louise was tired of talking, so I guess that’s a story for another day.