Monday, August 26, 2013

A Timeless Harvest of Knowledge: Interview With My Dad

Having a blog for our company allows us to venture out and get some insight on everyday topics. Sometimes the things we search high and low for are simple and right in front of our faces.  When we put our phones down and take time to have a conversation with people we learn from one another's life experience, trial and error, and good, old common sense.  Simplicity is key to many aspects of life, and I love getting to know people through candid and casual encounters, which allow me to pick their brain and get a better scope of the world we live in.  I have come to realize that routine can easily become a shield that blinds us to the answers we search for daily.

I had the honor of interviewing my father, Larry Telep.  He is a man of few and carefully chosen words but is always willing to share when prodded.  This was a grand opportunity for me to hear some of my dad’s stories, understand his perspective, and find a common ground that everyone looks for in people close to them.  I spoke to my dad about his experience growing up on a farm, surrounded by family just outside of the very city we live in. I got to hear my dad’s stories through the eyes of his youth and experience the things he cherished. 

Times, places, and people all change faster than we like at times, and these shifts can easily be missed until you reflect and see how far we have come.  My dad went from working in the fields, eating fresh and local produce, to fast food and suburban life.  The interview with my dad shines light on the simple truths in life as seen by a Pittsburgh farm boy.

You practically grew up on a farm. Tell me about that.

Not practically…we did grow up on a farm.  Eggs, cows, sheep, horses, and everything to make that farm work!   For example, my uncles used the mules for plowing.  And we had cherries, strawberries, black berries, plums, sour cherries, blue berries, black cherries, eighteen different species of apple trees in the orchard.  It was a fantastic place to grow up as a child.  Acres and acres of strawberries that we picked.  Corn, tomatoes and every vegetable that you can think of. We even had watercress. (My dad can get very Bubba’s Shrimps on me sometimes.. love it!)

Mom never went to the doctor until the end of her life.  She medicated with her herbs.  She would make balms to cure bruises…she had an herb for everything.  She knew where they were and what they were used for.  She was always reading about herbs and how to use them in cooking.  We had tea with herbs, mints and different things.  She used to make her sun tea.  She had a large bottle that she’d leave out in the sun with either black or green tea and the sun would heat it up and cause the tea to brew, and then she would serve it with sprigs mint that were near the house.  I wish I would’ve listened to her.  I really didn’t have much interest at the time.  As a young child, you really don’t pay attention to things like that. 

Grandma had a greenhouse.  Tell me about that.

That's where grandma grew many of her herbs.  She planted them herself.  She would go to a lot of the herb fairs that they had on Wednesday and Thursday nights in Shadyside.  She’d volunteer at different places like Phipps to learn about flowers and herbs.  Her greenhouse was mostly for flowers, but she started her vegetables there first before planting them outside. (Ah, my grandmother never shared much of anything with her life, but I do revel in knowing that she had a passion and sought it out!)

Who built it for her?

My dad built the house and the greenhouse.  When I was young, he and my mother put the roof on and they had me tied up with a rope attached to the roof so that I wouldn’t slide down because there was a rope around my waist.  People might see this as child abuse today!  They built the house from scratch.

You had meat and veggies on the farm.

We had over a hundred chickens. We always had fresh eggs and fried chicken and chicken soup.

Who would prepare those chickens?

The women got them and killed them.  You dunked them in hot water to get the feathers off.  I remember my grandmother was really somethin’.  There was a stump and a hatchet and she’d get the chicken and kill it.  We had rabbits, too, and they would snap their necks.  My uncles were hunters and trappers, so there was always turkey, deer and rabbits to eat.

Do you have a memory of being stunned by the process?

Once when I watched my uncle kill a pig I wouldn’t eat bacon or ham for months.  Seeing it done puts you off.  I was maybe ten or eleven years old and I didn't want anything to do with pork products.  Also my grandmother made all of her own butter, cheese, cottage cheese, and she made her own root beer. It was wonderful.  In the spring time we always went looking for mushrooms that grew around the farm near the trees and watery banks.  It was always a fun thing to do together.

What was set up of you family dynamic. Where did everybody live?

Until I was 6 we had all lived at my grandmother’s house.  My father served in the army, and my mother and myself lived with my Uncle Joe, Uncle Steve, and Aunt Helen. We’d get up and have a hardy breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and donuts. Everything was made from scratch.  There was no Dunkin Donuts, Crispy Cream or Horton’s.  My grandmother used to make these donuts with a dried paste that she made from the prunes that grew right behind the house.  They were so good, so delicious that you just couldn't stop eating them even if you were full.  We'd have our chores, and everybody would go out to do what they had to do, and you wouldn't see them until lunch time.  Then my grandmother would prepare lunch for everybody and have it ready by the time they got there.  Everybody would eat, rest on the front porch for half an hour, and then continue to do their chores.  You had to put a lot of hours in.  Living on the farm you work from sun-up to sun-down.  We had television, but there was no cable. There was only TV from 6-9 o’clock at night.  After 9 o’clock it was dark, so you’d go to sleep and wake up and start all over again.

That’s very different from today.

Much different, but it was a wonderful life.

Since you had so much on the farm…what was the grocery experience like?

We’d go to the grocery store maybe once a month for flour and salt.  We had milk, cheese, and butter on the farm.  When we went to store, we’d all stop at this ice cream shop and have an ice cream before we went home. That was a big treat.

What was with all of the fridges in grandma's house?
(Note: From as far back as I can remember my grandparent’s home had a fridge in the kitchen, a small soda cooler, a fridge in the basement, a fridge in the garage and two large ice chests where you could store 4 dead bodies…if needed)

My mother canned canned a lot of stuff.  We froze vegetables 52 weeks in a year, so you’d have 100 packs of corn and 100 packs of beans, peas and whatever stashed away.  She also canned tomato, peaches, plums and a lot of other fruits.  She would make her own pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays, and put the cubes in freezer bags and put them in the freezer.  She did that with a lot of different herbs, so that she could put an ice cube into a dish she was cooking.  The reason that was a lot healthier is because you didn't’ have to add salt to it as a preservative.  We always had lunch meat.  But not like you have now.  She’d have a used brisket and a slicer and slice it down.  Everything was sliced down with a slicer or knife.  Everything was from scratch.  Not like now at the deli with the preservatives.

There must have been a shift. When did you experience that shift?

I think, for me, it was probably in college.  I ate lot of fast-food, and I was constantly focused on getting things done as quickly as possible.  I worked at McDonald’s, so I ate there a lot.  When I was in the service, I don’t think the food was all natural.  I think that was the shift...when I went to college.

Where was the college?

I grew up in Coraopolis.  I went to college at Lycoming, which is in Williamsport, PA.  I lived there for four years.  I only came home for the summers.

Did you see any changes in mood or weight?

I was always very active, so I didn't see any change in my weight but I could see that I was...I don’t know how to say it..more tense, I think.  When I was on the farm I was much more relaxed.  It was a much more relaxed life.  With my diet and busy schedule in college, I noticed it affected the way I responded.  I would respond quickly.  I seemed to question everything.  I just know that there was a mental shift.  And now that we are talking about it, I wonder if maybe it was due to the change in food.

Maybe deadlines and way of life could have done that, too.

Could have been...while I was away from home at college I would get sicker and have a lot of colds and sore throats.  Maybe it was because of the living arrangements, but it could have been nutrition. also.  I wasn't really eating a lot of vegetables.  It was imperative that we’d eat a lot of vegetables at home.  That was something that I was lacking while in college.  We had our own property with our own gardens, orchards, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, we always had corn and tomatoes and zucchini.  Everything that my mother did was home-grown.

When do you think the shift for your parents happened?

Probably in about their 60's.  They were starting to move to the advertising at that time for TV dinners, and, since there were only two of them, the farm was a lot of hard work, and it simply became too difficult.  I think since there were just two of them they went out to eat more often.  I guess when you get to be 60 or 70 years old you want to take the path of least resistance.  You don’t have the stamina.

That’s an interesting point – because people now have the same mentality at a young age.

Well, yeah.  I would think that the big thing is television.  Now there is television with 300+ channels all day.  Before, you could only listen to the game on the radio.  We’d plan our chores so that we could be near a radio when the baseball game came on.

And how were the Buccos doing then?

Well in 1960 they won the World Series. They were always a good team. They always had a strong following.

So it’s the TV and lack of experience in hard labor?

There is something out there.  There were no water-slide parks, and all of these things to go to.  You had to be inventive to make up your own games and entertain yourself.  Going to Kennywood was something you didn't even think of.  I really can’t say because the world today is so much different than the world I knew growing up.  There’s computers and Facebook.  There are people who spend half of their life watching television and the other half on Facebook.  I really don’t know how to relate to that. It’s just a different world.  There’s more commercial during a scheduled TV show than time for the programming.  There are a zillion and one things to keep you entertained, and kids today are still bored.

How did the farm and cooking translate into your adult life?

It made me more conscious of eating a lot of organic fruits and vegetables.  My uncle, who is 89, still has a small garden and he provides me with fresh zucchini, beans, tomatoes and peppers.  He can’t keep it on the scale that he had before.  He had acres and acres of garden, and now he has just a small plot.  He likes to keep himself busy and work with the soil.  He has fig trees, peach trees, and apples.  Now that my mother has passed away, I don’t think anyone grows asparagus.  She always had rows and rows of asparagus.  She called it her spring time treatment.  Every spring we had asparagus at every meal.  Steamed, grilled or she’d cut it up raw in our salads with our own lettuce, tomatoes and carrots.

It seems like you have a sixth sense about food...

That’s true.  I saw on the news that they have these dead zones across the US where people are unaware of different vegetables.  They don’t even know what an apple is.  Their whole diet is chips or ding-dongs.  Fruits and vegetables are foreign to them.  That’s kinda sad.

Your childhood was so different and you saw the shift. What will the next generation be like?

I saw the other day that they are making hamburgers from cow stems. I have no idea what the future will be like.

What do you think is most important for people to do now, today, for good health?

I would think that living on a farm we got good exercise.  We were exercising from morning to night. I don’t think people do that anymore.  I think exercise is good – just moving around and being active really helps protect you from illness.  I would say exercise and nutritious food are the mainstay of health.  That will never change.

What do people have to do to change that?

People have to want to change.  I mean, you have to make the commitment based on how you want you to live your life and how you want your body to be. 

Stephanie Telep is a co-founder and health coach at Sweat and Butter.  She received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duquesne University.  She is inspired to help others make necessary changes in their lives while fostering a positive and healthy path. She can be reached at

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