Traverse City Record-Eagle


August 2, 2012

Everyday Cook: From farm to table

When Elaine Hager was a little girl growing up in Kalkaska, she and her brother would pick beans, peas and whatever else the family had growing in their garden, load it in their red wagon and go door to door selling it.

Hager is 83 now, and except for the wagon, not so much has changed.

A longtime Williamsburg resident, Hager can be found every Wednesday and Saturday at this time of year selling produce from the Skegemog Gardens booth at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market in Traverse City. Her son, Tom, owns Skegemog Gardens, and Hager estimates she's been helping man the booth at the market for more than two decades.

It's a good place for her to be. Ever since she married her husband Don going on 65 years ago — even during the decades when canned and processed seemed to surpass fresh and local when it came to produce — she has cooked from the garden. It started out of necessity, she said, noting there were some lean years as she and Don raised their four children.

She recalled living on a farm when they were first married.

"We had a garden of our own," she said. "I don't know what you'd call it, but we were poor. I made corn with tomatoes and bread crumbs and that was a casserole. My husband never complained.

"But while I was raising kids, I had to live within a tight budget. Still do."

Hager remembers preparing meals using her grandmother's old cookstove.

"We burned wood, and I made casseroles, boiled potatoes on the top," she said. "We didn't have an awful lot of meat, though during deer season, of course, we had venison, and once in a while we'd get a chicken. We raised chickens, too, so we had our own eggs.

"But it was just getting along with what we have — just vegetables and things out of the garden."

Hager still relies on vegetables from the garden to be mainstays in the meals she prepares daily. Her current garden is bigger than their house, she said, and in it they grow pretty much everything but potatoes — corn, peas, beans, squash, tomatoes, etc. She sells some of it, and also cans, so that come winter, that fresh taste is still part of the menu.

Hager loves to cook, and they enjoy simple meals — fresh fish or chicken, with corn on the cob or maybe a sliced fresh tomato with a baked potato.

"I cook much the same as I always did," she said. "I use very few bought things — except for meats."

Where Hager really enjoys indulging is with baking. She's known for her cookies, which have a following among her kids and grandchildren.

"The grandkids like anything I make, and the cookie jar is the first place they go when they come," she said, adding that includes her oldest grandson, who is 38.

And given that she sells tons of them at the farmers market, Hager knows her way around a blueberry recipe, too. She also offers this tip: buy them by the box and throw them in the freezer. Then just take out what you need through the rest of the year.

"As long as they are dry (before they go in the freezer), they will not stick together," she said.

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