From back yard to holiday table Thanksgiving: For the Knill family of Mount Airy, what was recently in its 600 acres of fields and pastures will be in the dining room today.

November 26, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The food on the table at a farm family Thanksgiving is not just something to eat. It was once something to grow, something to harvest, something to put up.

For the Knill family of Mount Airy, vegetables and beef cattle raised on its 600-acre farm will end up on the table today as mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin and mincemeat pies. The centerpiece -- the turkey -- is a gift from a fellow farmer who worked for them as a boy.

"There's a certain amount of self-reliance you get used to when you raise your own food," said Jean Knill, whose husband, William, and son, James, work the farm that William's father started in 1939.

"One thing we never worried about was going hungry," she said. "We may not have had the latest clothes or the latest cars, but we always had food on the table."

And not just any food.

"It's so much fresher when you pick it in the morning and process it that afternoon," Jean Knill said. "And you don't have the additives."

It comes naturally that what is on the table was raised in the back yard.

"I'm not going to compete with Martha Stewart. She's doing it for fame and glory. I'm doing it for family and economics," Jean Knill said from the kitchen table of her home.

Large, square rooms with broad windows look out on the farm's rolling fields. The kitchen opens to the living room on one side and the dining room on the other. By 1 p.m. today, at least 14 people are expected to fill the house with happy sounds as they prepare to feast on old favorites.

Most cooks are proud to make real mashed potatoes instead of instant.

Knill makes real mashed potatoes, all right. She goes down to the cold cellar, where she has about two bushels of white potatoes her husband and son unearthed in September.

30 quarts of beans

They picked the green beans in July and August, and she froze about 30 quarts -- freezing works better than canning for green beans, she said. On Thanksgiving, she will cook them with a little ham broth.

The beef for the mincemeat pies came from a steer her husband raised and sent to a Mount Airy meat locker for butchering.

The pumpkin filling for the pies is a variety called neck pumpkin, which is grown on the farm. It looks nothing like what most people think of as a pumpkin. These are long-necked, beige squash. Knill likes them because they have more flesh than other varieties.

The turkey? The family has never raised turkeys, although Knill has been known to slaughter, scald and pluck 50 chickens in a morning on a table set up outside and then freeze them so that she has chicken when she needs it.

The turkey will come from a fellow Carroll County farmer, Jerry Watt, who milked cows for the Knills when he was 13 years old. Now he's 44, has a herd of dairy cattle in Middleburg and grows turkeys on the side.

When Watt was a boy working on the farm, he and the other workers sat down every day with the family for a hearty lunch Jean Knill had cooked using the meat and vegetables raised on the farm.

"They didn't have to bring their sandwiches for lunch on the farm. I cooked a hot meal. I tried to do a variety of things," Jean Knill said. "Hamburger, french fries, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried chicken. Regular meals."

Sandwiches might have been easier, she said, but she would have had to buy the makings.

Still, the image of a farmer as self-reliant is a bit misleading, Knill said. All farmers have to buy some food.

"None of us are self-sufficient," she said. "Not many people grow everything, and things are seasonal." She buys fruits and vegetables at the grocery store out of season, she said.

Store-bought asparagus

"The other day, I bought asparagus. It isn't the season for asparagus, but I saw it and it looked good," she said. "And I'm not above buying a can of pumpkin."

The farm has changed over the years. The Knills stopped raising chickens when William became president of the Maryland Farm Bureau because it was too hard to find someone to care for the birds when the Knills traveled. And the labor-intensive dairy operation has changed to beef cattle as William approaches retirement.

One of their four children, Jim, 37, is a farmer. He and his family live in the old farmhouse that Jean and William once lived in and the house where William was born.

Jim Knill's brother and sisters chose other things. Duane Knill is an aerospace engineer doing doctoral work in Seattle -- he's the only one who can't make it home for Thanksgiving this year, but he'll be home for Christmas.

Anne Dorsey is an accountant living in North Carolina with her husband and son, and Susan Shankle is a second-grade teacher who lives with her husband and son 100 yards from her parents' home.

Susan and Anne are expecting babies. Susan's due date is Saturday, and in the back of everyone's minds is that the call might come during the holiday that Susan is ready to go to the hospital.

Even if it happens the day before, they will expect her to show up for dinner. If it happens on Thanksgiving, Jean Knill said, she'll fix up a plate to send with her son-in-law, the sort of thing that happened several Thanksgivings ago when Grandmother Gosnell was in the hospital. They sent her a plate with her favorite turkey meat -- the neck.

No surprise dishes

"Every year I think it would be neat to try something different," Jean Knill said. But she has learned to suppress the urge to throw in a surprise dish.

"One year, my sister brought sauerkraut with apples and brown sugar in it. It was good, but I had my heart set on plain old sauerkraut.

"Once you start on the things everybody likes, you don't have room for a lot of extra things," she said. "The turkey, the fried oysters, dressing, the pumpkin pie. They know what to expect when they come here."

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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