Charlotte, age 69

I grew up in a home on Cape Cod near the ocean with a mother and father and two brothers. I was in the middle, with a much younger brother. My older brother and I are two or three years apart and my younger brother is seven or eight years younger than me. My father worked for the electric company, as a lineman. My parents had both grown up on Cape Cod and I had extended family down there. And still do — my cousins still live down there.

My father was an avid ocean lover, boat lover, fisherman. Avid, avid, avid. After he retired, long after I had left home, he had a boat and went out fishing for bluefish all the time. He loved sailing. I remember sailing with him too. It was nice living on the Cape. I’m very drawn to the ocean, very drawn.

One in your mouth, and one in the pot

I have good seafood memories. It always seemed pretty abundant. I remember going and digging up clams. And after a hurricane, the walk on the beach with my father, and the scallops would have gotten blown up on shore and you dig quahogs and bring them home. And we’d go sit on the back steps and shuck them. Put one in your mouth, and one in the pot, and one in your mouth, and one in the pot.

A really good food memory I have is a clambake on the beach. When you’re little it’s always a big deal when the fathers were home on the weekend and they’d come to the beach with you. And the kids would collect rocks and seaweed, and then dig a big hole, put the rocks in, build a big fire over that. And then cover all that with seaweed, and then a big tarp, and cover the tarp with sand. Meanwhile they had layered in lobsters and crabs and quahogs and potatoes and corn, hot dogs. It would all just steam and then kids would bring buckets of water and throw it on it. It would steam up and then as it was getting dark they’d undo it all and you could eat all that. It was just so flavorful with the seawater. And it was getting kind of dark. It was so exciting to be at the beach when it was dark. And you could taste everything. Oh, it was so good.

The beach wasn’t, like, in my backyard but we definitely went every day. That was like the park. The mothers all took the kids and had their little enclave with beach chairs. Hundreds of kids would be in the water screaming Mom, Mom! Watch! Watch, Mom! And fishing, catching crabs and all that.

This was in the 50s. The fathers didn’t cook much, but they were the ones who went quahogging and brought home the quahogs and made the stuffed quahogs or the clam chowder. That was their domain. My uncle, my father. That was the only thing I can remember them cooking, or having anything to say about food, aside from grilling the hot dogs and hamburgers.

My uncle was actually a school teacher, but in the summer he ran a snack bar at the beach. He did all the cooking there. He made great clam chowder and fried clams. He had a beautiful, huge garden. A really big garden.

That’s another memory I have of when I was little. The tomatoes in the summertime. They were always big and juicy. Everybody waited for them. There was a little old man who lived across the street who had a barn. I don’t know where it was but he’d take some of the kids in the neighborhood with him because he went over there to tend his tomato patch. We’d bring home these huge tomatoes.

As much as my mother wasn’t a cook, or real interested in good food, there was a farmstand that we always went to in the summer, specifically to get the corn and the tomatoes. And she would go for that rather than gathering food and going to the market and getting a lot of processed stuff. That was later, when I became a teenager.

We had cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch. I still remember going after those tomatoes, having tomato sandwiches in the summer with lots of mayonnaise and salt and pepper. And, of course, packing them in a bag and taking them to the beach. Because we were always at the beach. There always this level of grittiness with the sand, but it just made it taste better. The back seat of the station wagon was just filled with sand and cookie crumbs.

The giant kitchen with the big wood stove

My grandmother and grandfather lived in this huge house with my aunt and uncle and my cousin. It was this giant house. My grandmother and aunt were incredible cooks and entertainers. They always cooked beautiful food and hors d’oeuvres and fancy cocktails and nice cheese. I learned a lot. There was always a covered cake in the pantry – even though it was probably a box cake. But there was always a cake around. And bread. She made bread. On Sundays she’d make a giant pot of red sauce and spaghetti and everybody would gather over there, eating.

People gathered around good food and the kitchen when I was really little. It was all happening in the kitchen or that grand dining room. It became a social event. She had lots of cats and dogs in the house, in the giant kitchen with the big wood stove in it. I remember my grandmother sitting in a rocking chair next to the wood stove. Every time you finished eating you’d put your plate on the floor for the cats and dogs to lick clean.

The traditional meals, like the Thanksgivings and Christmases were always at this grandmother’s house that had a huge dining room, with a fireplace in it and a big sideboard. It was painted red so it had this great feel to it. And a really long table with 75 chairs that fit around it. And two giant turkeys and flaming plum pudding. My grandmother really put on the ritz. Really, really good stuff. I was drawn to that.

Another memory. The bakery in town. Not an artisan bakery like we have here, but it was a real treat to get Martin’s bread. It was so good. My mother would go to the bakery sometimes and buy bread. And my grandmother used to make us butter and sugar sandwiches on Arnold’s bread. That was so good! Arnold’s bread was really good. It had a really distinct taste. It was really good as toast. Of course, Wonder Bread came out, so that was cheap, and I’m sure my mother loved that. She’d make my father’s lunches. Balogna and cheese. Ugh! I never liked cold cuts because I never had good cold cuts. It was so disgusting. So a lot of those foods . . . if you grew up with someone doing the cooking who wasn’t that into it, you took an automatic dislike to it.

We ate dinner every night at the kitchen table. There was a dining room. I remember having a turkey dinner there – occasionally. But it wasn’t very diverse. It wasn’t a thoughtful meal. It was more like getting it on the table. That was just my mother as the cooker of the food and the tenor of the food in the household. That’s sort of how it was.

Moose roasts

There was one time my father went hunting with his buddies, in Canada. They went moose hunting. He shot a 1,500-pound moose. He had never been hunting before. It was a big deal. They cut it all up and he brought it home and rented a frozen food locker on the Cape. We had 1,500 pounds of this thing, and it was the worst meat. It was awful. Have you ever had mutton or venison? They can be prepared in a way where they’re ok. They have a distinctive little taste. This is like times four thousand. That musky, awful, aw! I can still smell it, it was just so awful. My mother would try to fake it because that was all the meat she had. She’d make these hamburgers out of it. Just when they were cooking, this stuff was . . . ohhh! It was awful! This was in the early 60s and the lights all went out in Massachusetts. There was a big power outage in the Northeast region of the United States for days. The frozen food locker died. Oh my god, thank god we never have to eat this stuff again! Like these moose roasts, and moose chops, and moose burgers. Oh, it was so disgusting! Thanks, Dad!

Basic kinds of fare

There wasn’t a lot of diversity on the Cape. And half of the area closed down in the winter, so there weren’t a lot of people around. So it was mostly just the locals, and they all ate the same, bought all their food at Stop & Shop, and that was it. Even if there might have been diversity in tourists coming down, it wasn’t the tourists influencing what was available for food. It was mostly people setting up shop to accommodate the tourists with the simple, basic stuff – hamburgers or hot dogs or fried clams. Ice cream. The basic kinds of fare.

I don’t remember eating out a lot of places until I got older. That wasn’t something the family did.

There was Mildred’s Chowder House. That was a good cup of chowder. That’s where you went out for a special birthday dinner. I do remember going to the restaurant and the waitresses giving you a cupcake with a candle in it and singing happy birthday to you. That didn’t happen frequently. My brother would always get spaghetti. This was a restaurant that served everything from clam chowder to spaghetti, so you can imagine it wasn’t really good about any one particular thing.

I don’t remember what I’d have, but stuffed shrimp or something like that would be really fancy to have. I always gravitated toward the seafood. It was always a treat to have a lobster. That was a summertime treat. I never ordered lobster out because they would be far too “dear.” But maybe once or twice they’d spring for lobsters. And it was an outside ordeal on the picnic table, a big, wonderful mess with corn on the cob.

There must have been a Chinese restaurant that I went to. Of course the big idea was the umbrella in a kiddie cocktail. And fried egg rolls. That was so exotic! I can’t remember how I ended up in a Chinese restaurant. It doesn’t sound like something my parents would have done. But we must have, or with somebody else. Some uncreative Asian fare that wasn’t real Asian food, but we thought it was. We never did take-out or anything like that.

When I was very young my parents rented out our bedrooms to college girls who came down to be waitresses on the Cape in the summer. My father had converted the basement with knotty pine, and that’s where my brother and I slept. And they converted the dining room to their bedroom. There were three bedrooms upstairs. In one bedroom they put four beds, and then each of the other two had two beds. But there was one tiny, tiny bathroom in the house that we all used. And my mother did all their laundry! They had their waitress uniforms. I loved to hang out with them, because they were college girls and I was like 8 and they would do my hair, put polish on my nails. They had boyfriends who picked them up in convertibles. Actually I do remember going out with one of them. One of them must have taken me out – because she was kind – to a Chinese restaurant. That’s how I went there!

Very rarely we’d go to Boston to shop for school clothes at Filene’s Basement, not to go see a show or anything like that. Must have been around a doctor’s appointment. We went to that famous restaurant that I just heard closed the other day. It was up these back stairs, and it was sawdust on the floor. Durgin Park, or Jacob Wirth. I remember going to both those places. But at Durgin Park, you would walk up the stairs and it was like community tables. My parents liked those places. They were familiar with them which is why we went.

That’s kind of my young food memories, probably up to 10 or 12. The ice cream man came at the end of the day in the summer with the jingling truck and you’d run to get popsicles or creamsicles or something from the ice cream man. The milk was delivered by the milk man.

Better living through science

Then as I got into high school — better living through science. Everybody loved that when you’re teenagers — ooh, instant mashed potatoes! That’s when all that processed food came out that my mother thought was great, because she wasn’t into food. Like frozen vegetables, which she’d use in the pressure cooker. She’d cook broccoli for like twenty minutes in the pressure cooker. Or, frozen lima beans in that block – that were probably triple frozen – and there was no redeeming value to them at all as far as taste, texture. They were just disgusting. Why that? Why not green beans, or peas or corn, or something that kids would eat. It’s not like she cooked them in nice broth and herbs so they would taste good. Oh, she didn’t know how to cook vegetables. It was just getting a meat and potatoes thing on the table.

My father must have gotten paid on Friday or Thursday, so she went and did the week’s shopping. We loved to go with her so we could beg her for chips and stuff like that. Which she never got. I never got stuff like that. She wouldn’t buy us snack food, like bags of chips or whatever else you wanted. That was always in somebody else’s house, but not your own. Didn’t have soda, ever, in the house. I think they thought it was a waste of money. They knew it wasn’t good for you. Juice was kind of precious too. Like orange juice. I don’t know why.

Her big meal, the shopping night, she would get that terrible steak. Pretreated to not be so tough. It was not a good cut of meat. But we thought it was great to have a piece of beef. Back in those days – not that my mother did it – but Sunday dinners with a hunk of meat in the middle. I was brought up when that was still made – pot roast or a leg of lamb, or a roast of beef. That was kind of like your diet back then. Occasionally, my mother would do that but it was more at my grandmother’s house because she was into the food thing. So my mother would cook the bad steak and the pressure-cooker broccoli or lima beans. Nobody liked lima beans. Or a pile of overdone spinach. She didn’t know how to cook vegetables. For a green vegetable, at least get something you like. It’s a shame that I had to go through a learning process to relike a lot of foods that were just cooked badly or prepared badly.

Then I went off to college and you get dorm food. I don’t remember it. I don’t have food memories of what happened with college food or anything. Oh, yes I do. Once you get your first apartment, and there was no kitchen, the bathroom was down the hall. We had a hot plate, my roommate Stella and I. And we’d buy these five-for-a-dollar little frozen pouches of meat and gravy. God knows what the meat was. It was like turkey or beef or something. And you plunk it in boiling water for ten minutes and put that on a piece of toast. Ooh that was good. And instant coffee. I drank instant coffee. Oh, bad! I never bought fresh food. Or instant rice. I remember buying chicken for the first time. And frying a chicken leg or something. I was not into food. But maybe that is life as it was back then.

I mean kugel!

But then I ended up living in households with people who came from different backgrounds. We’d be sharing meals, and a food co-op started and you got into working there. And you took more of an interest in food and preparing food. And meeting these people who had different traditions of their own. I mean kugel! I had never experienced it before and that was really interesting. And rice dishes. And then we dabbled with vegetarianism. That was way back in the late 1960s. Or growing your own food was more like it.

We formed a co-op, and they’d deliver all the food and you’d have to take everybody’s order and sort it all out. We got these oranges in the winter. They were so cheap, I’d order bags of them and go home and squeeze fresh orange juice with that old hand squeezer. That was like heaven! Getting in touch with real food again.

Do-it-yourself hippie thing

And actually I moved on from there into the do-it-yourself hippie thing. And really got into raising most of my own food. I had chickens and goats for milk, and pigs that I had slaughtered and put away the meat. And collected wild elderberries and wild asparagus and froze stuff. And canned stuff. Canned tons of stuff. That was good! And my neighbors were older people and they raised sheep for the wool and the meat. This was in Northfield, Massachusetts. I had a big plot of land with a big hayfield on it. So they had the equipment to mow for the hay and in exchange they gave me lamb from the lambs and wool. It was like bartering food. Learning how to spin wool and knit sweaters out of it. Learning how to do that stuff. There was something — really important at that time — to be that close to what you ate or what you made. My good friend Joan, we always say I’m going to put on her tombstone, “She made everything.” Because she built her own house, made her own dishes. And she was going to put on my tombstone, “She could whip it out.”

I always wanted good bread, like that bakery bread from childhood. I craved good bread. I got into baking all my bread in those days I was raising all my own food. One day I’d cook five or six loaves of all these different kinds of bread to have for the week. I remember making my own bread and the way it tasted. Because [at home] we just had Wonder Bread.

That was then. And then I had two young children. Trying to finish school. And I tried to eat as well as I could and raising the kids, but I was always rushed, or didn’t have money, or whatever. But I always kept an interest in it.

My poor mother

My poor mother, having this dislike of cooking, or feeling it was a chore. So she felt alienated from the process. Even in the end, she had the worst nutrition. I’d visit her and she’d open up a can of pineapple, and eat it out of the can, saying, “I just read this thing – pineapple’s really good for you.” It was just so sad. The lack of love for food can bring you to a bad end. It was this living through science thing. Convenience food. So you lost the ability to cook fresh food.

She worked full time as we got older. She did a variety of jobs like secretary in a dental office or office work at the local newspaper. Or at Sears and Roebuck as a secretary. I don’t think she was a very happy woman, probably unhappy like a lot of women of those times. But not really understanding that she herself could have done something about it. Didn’t know what her options were. Probably felt a lot of resentment. That’s what I remember about her. And cooking became just another thing she had to do. I remember her slamming the cupboard door and throwing together that horrible balogna sandwich. So there wasn’t happiness in the kitchen, as there can be now, thank goodness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who grew up like that. It’s kind of sad that they didn’t get to enjoy it.

It’s like being an artist

Over the last twenty, twenty five years, with my interest in food and the people I know, I just feel so blessed. There’s this huge community of people who are really into good food. And good food is so available. You can really get anything you want. Cooking and eating is always a topic of conversation. It’s like being an artist. It’s just a way to be creative. I love that. I like that it’s such a big part of my life now, as an adult.

I think of my own daughter and my son-in-law. He always worked in restaurants, really good restaurants, and is an artisan bread baker. He’s such a good cook. He has such an attachment for food. He studies it. I like that, that it can be a topic of conversation around the table. And I see my grandchildren with an appreciation of food that just didn’t exist when I was their age. They’re 10 and 13. They like to cook. They have a real liking of it. Their biggest, best gift this Christmas was The Great British Bake Off cookbook. They want to try all the recipes.

One thought on “Charlotte, age 69

  1. Loved this! Cape Codders who don’t know how to cook a moose! And maybe linguists can dig deep here and explain why I hear echoes of New England hippie communes in the diction.


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