Lunch with Marjorie: 'How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Freeport?'

Janet Blair has lived in Freeport for 30 years.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in the northwestern corner of Illinois, between two small towns, Warren and Winslow. I have seven brothers and sisters, including an identical twin, all born in the1950s. Every 10 years, we have a party. We had a 30-something party when we were 30. Ten years later, we had a 40-something party. We’ll have a 50-something party in two years. There’re a few months when all the brothers and sisters are the same decade. That includes the in-laws. We’re waiting for the youngest to turn 50. Then we’ll have a party.”

We lunched at the new organic, natural foods café on Riverside: Halsa. It seemed natural to talk to a farmer’s daughter in a natural foods place. And, this gem shouldn’t escape attention. They do a fantastic job serving fresh deli sandwiches, soups, salads, and more. It’s fun to choose from many toppings, condiments and breads. Thank you, Sandy, for this leap in Rockford food service!

“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’re pretty close. We played softball in the backyard. You know when there’re eight of you, you’ve got almost enough for a softball team.”

“And 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, we got a free ice cream cone…around the corner. The dentist gave us a gift certificate for a free ice cream cone at Ruf’s. It’s still open. The dentist’s office was upstairs and had a nice view of the whole square. I pick on dentists now that have a back lot.”

“Other excursions?”

“We made an annual trip to pick out material for summer 4-H projects.”

Janet’s 4-H projects were mostly cooking for the Jo Daviess County Fair.

“I was baking bread and pies when I was10. We did sewing and flower arranging. My 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 in the fair.”

“Did you win?”

“Yeah—until 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 that 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.”

“You know Spike O’Dell from WGN?”

“Spike had Barry (Levenson) from the Mustard Museum (Mt. Horeb, Wis.) on his radio show. Spike said, ‘I ought to have my own mustard.’ He wanted it to ‘first be sweet, then sneak up and bite you in the butt.’ I was working to private label mustard and suggested to Barry we could make the mustard in Freeport.”

Her chemist developed a formula, and she presented it 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 5,000 jars. The neat thing was, for every jar sold, $1 went to the Neediest Kid’s Fund. We were raising a lot of money…over $1 million. Stores started selling it in Rockford…Spike made appearances…drew a crowd…would autograph jars of mustard. People would stand in line for the length of the 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 get kind of bored now.”

“You’re competitive.”

“Very competitive. I think…my brothers and sisters…we were always betting on something. We’d bet bottles of pop on baseball games. I’m a Packer fan in Freeport. It’s probably 60:40 there: Bears to Packers.”

“You like winners.”

She laughs: “Well, I followed them through their bad years, too. I like the Dodgers.”

“You’re allowed to like a California team?” I needled.

“I wouldn’t wear a Dodgers T-shirt to a Cubs game,” she smiled.

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!