The Old Scout

Ambition and the honesty of everyday work
September 27, 2005

People tell me I work too hard, but I don't work nearly so hard as my mother did, raising six children, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and hanging them out on the line, and then there was the late-summer orgy of canning. We scoured the garden for every last tomato, string bean, ear of corn, cucumber. The kitchen was a boiler room. Billows of steam from the pressure cooker, teakettles boiling - hot water to skin the tomatoes! Boiling water to sterilize the glass jars! Children chopping and slicing! Mother slaving away, her hair damp as if she'd swum the Channel, sterilizing, steaming, aware that one little mistake could mean a jar full of botulism - "Clostridium botulinum," which is Latin for "pushing up daisies." One jar of stewed tomatoes gone bad could wipe out our whole family.

But she plowed forward and fulfilled her quotas, a hundred jars of tomatoes, fifty of beans, twenty of corn, plus beets and corn relish, in elegant Ball jars with the name "Ball" in cursive writing on the side, all lined up on deep shelves in the basement, and then she cleared the kitchen so she could start fixing supper.

Today, home canning has gone the way of the typewriter, the vacuum tube and the TV variety show. The Ball company sold off its jar division and now makes satellite sensors or something, and groceries stock fresh tomatoes all winter, imported from Mexico, which cost a buck apiece and taste more like tennis balls than tomatoes. But at least you don't have to stand in a steamy kitchen and ruin your hairdo.

Mother canned vegetables to please my father, who tucked into his stewed tomatoes satisfied that we had outsmarted the supermarket cartels scheming to sell us inferior stuff at exorbitant prices. He was a resistant consumer who instinctively distrusted all advertising, believing the world was full of con men, and you had to outsmart them by growing your own food, slaughtering your own chickens, shopping around for cheap clothes, reading the Bible and paying no attention to theologians, and sticking to Ford automobiles.

I think of him and his brothers and cousins, taciturn country men who were good with their hands and loved to get under the hood of a '53 Ford, their big rumps in the air, heads and shoulders down next to the engine block. They were proud of their good carpentry, their gardens and orchards, the concrete steps and sidewalks they had mixed and poured and smoothed with a two-by-four. I set myself apart from them as a boy, thinking their work dull, preferring the swashbuckling life of a writer - Brilliance! Wit! Triumph! And gradually it dawns on me these fall days when I get to go into the woods and put on work gloves and cut my own firewood, that in search of brilliance I also found a great deal of B.S. as I went careering around and flaunting my great intellect in long meetings at which we may as well have been dropping clothespins into bottles for all the good we did, compared to which cutting firewood is useful work.

Ambition can take you far, but who are you when you get there?

I know plenty of people who could work up an expensive marketing plan to persuade you that having a doohickey is crucial to your well-being, and I know nobody personally who could build a stone wall or mill timber or drill a well. It's odd, but that's the world we live in. Here's Northwest Airlines, a good Minnesota company hijacked by corporate buccaneers in the go-go Eighties and now stiffing its mechanics, hard-working people who actually know how to do something right.

We're not so different from the English gentry who settled on the Minnesota prairie in the 1870s and expended their capital to build a hunt club, a boating club, an Anglican church, and a brewery to produce ale and porter. Unfortunately, they didn't know how to plant wheat. They didn't scatter the seed, they knelt down and pressed it into the ground, one at a time. The grasshoppers wiped them out clean. Their land was bought cheap by peasant Swedes from Smaland who did much better. They baked the grasshoppers in a crust and called it pecan pie. They put their shoulders to the wheel and hammered and cut and made a life with their own hands.

Beware of losing basic skills. Hang onto that pressure cooker.

© 2005 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

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Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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