“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Freeport?” I could’t help but remember the lyrics from Judy Garland’s 1942 song from the film, For Me and My Gal.
“I grew up on a dairy farm on the northwest corner of Illinois between two small towns, Warren and Winslow. I have seven brothers and sisters, including an identical twin, all born in the 1950s. Every 10 years, we have a party. We had a 30-something party when we were 30. Then ten years later, we had a 40-something party. There are a few months when all the brothers and sisters are the same decade. That includes in-laws.”
They wait for the youngest to turn the next decade’s age and then have the party.
We were lunching at the organic foods cafe, Halsa, on Riverside Avenue in Rockford. It seemed right to talk to a farmer’s daughter in a natural foods place. (Unfortunately that gem of a restaurant didn’t get enough support from the Rockford folks, and closed shortly after our luncheon.)
“Growing up on a farm, we didn’t see our classmates every day like kids nowadays do,”Janet continued. “We grew up with each other, so we were pretty close. We played softball in the backyard. You know, when there are eight of you, you’ve got almost enough for a softball team.”
“And what about chores?” I chimed in.
“Well, just being on the farm, my dad always said, “I’m not a city slicker. We didn’t run to town just to see friends. We were three miles from a small town, six miles from school. Warren. In the summertime, we’d go to Monroe, 25 miles away. I remember trips to the dentist.”
“This was a special occasion?”
“For us it was. Monroe’s such a neat town, built on The Square. If we were good, and didn’t have cavities, got a free ice cream cone around the corner. the dentist gave us a gift certificate for the ice cream at Ruf Confectionery. It’s still open. The dentist’s office was upstairs and had a nice view of the whole square.” (A Trip Advisor reviews states that if all towns were like Monroe, no one would live in the city.)
“We made an annual trip to pick out materials for summer 4-H projects.
Janet’s 4-H projects were mostly cooking for the Jo Davies County Fair.
“I was baking bread and pies when I was 10. We did sewing and flower arranging. Muy sisters and I did mostly the food things. In addition to 4-H, we got into making money at an early age. We would bake cookies or rolls and would enter the fair.”
“Did you win?”
“Yeah, till we were 14.” she smiles. “We made a haul. When we turned 14, we had to compete with the adults. There weren’t many 12-year-olds baking bread, making all the stuff we did.”
She left the farm to study foods and nutrition at the University of Illinois.
“My food interests never changed. I worked for a food manufacturer for more than 20 years–high end groceries, gourmet foods. Do you know Spike O’Dell from WGN (the Chicago news radio station, were he was a broadcaster until 2008)?
Spike had Barry Levenson from the Mustard Museum (Mt. Horeb, Wisc.) on his radio show. Spike said, ‘I ought to have my own mustard.’ He wanted it to first be sweet and then sneak up on you and bite you in the butt,” Jan said. “I was working to private label mustard, and suggested to Barry we could make the mustard in Freeport.”
Jan got a chemist to develop a formula, which she presented to Barry, and Barry presented it to Spike.
“It was called Bite Your Butt Mustard. It became very popular. We thought it would probably sell about 5,000 jars. The neat thing, for every jar sold, $1 went to the Neediest Kid’s Fund. We were raising a lot of money–more than $1 million. Stores started selling it in Rockford and Spike made appearances that drew crowds. He would autograph the jars of mustard and people would stand inline for the length of the (store) aisle.”
“Do you miss the farm?”
“I like living in the city, because I work a lot. It was great to grow up there, but I think I’d kind of get bored now.”
“Very competitive. I think my brothers and sisters were always betting on something. We ‘d bet bottles of pop on baseball games. I’m a Packers fan in Freeport. It’s probably 60:40 there, Bears to Packers.”
“You like winners.”
“You’re allowed to like a California team?” I needled.
“I wouldn’t wear a Dodgers T-Shirt to a Cubs game,” she smiled.