I grew up in the older suburbs of a large city during World War II and into the Sputnik era. I was the oldest of three children and had a younger brother and sister. My parents met each other through a bicycling club in the 1930s. My mother was a fashion designer before she married and my father held jobs as a salesman before he started his own business selling films, filmstrips, and projectors to schools. He came from a poor family but was determined to succeed. He told us a lot of hard luck stories about growing up. He said that he and his sisters sold paper flowers on the street corner and that sometimes he would come home from school and discover his family didn’t live in the same house anymore. Turns out they had moved to a new flat down the street. He said he moved 25 times.
Most of the time I was growing up we didn’t have much money and my father was ultra-sensitive to anything that hinted that he wasn’t a good provider. If I ever complained that the milk was sour or something didn’t taste right he would grab it, taste it, and insist it was perfectly fine. He often contrasted our suppers with other families who, he said, had nothing on the table but cold cuts, and where the fathers beat their wives and kicked the children down the basement steps. We had to be grateful.
My mother retired from work when they got married and was proud that she didn’t “have to” work, even though it seemed she didn’t like staying home all that much. She liked decorating the house – she even hung wallpaper and used a blowtorch to remove old paint from the woodwork — but she hated cooking. The small house we lived in when I was little looked like something from a storybook. It was painted barn red with white trim and had a big oak tree in front. Mother laid bricks for sidewalks and she and my father built a patio in back where we had parties in summer. We lived there until I was 12, next door to the very house where she had grown up, watching the old neighborhood go downhill. My parents would sit on the front porch swing in the evening, and once they saw thieves trying each parked car along the street to see if it was unlocked. Finally in 1955 they had enough money to buy a bigger house in a better neighborhood farther out. It was a WASPy dry town without good restaurants. I felt we were like immigrants, or as my brother said recently, pretenders. We passed, but we became more buttoned-down people, especially us children.
I was always hungry
I never craved candy and I didn’t eat it all that often when I was little. There weren’t any candy machines at Immaculate Conception, my school, but a block away there was a little brick shotgun-style house with a penny candy store inside. The front room had glass counters in the shape of a U and they were filled with boxes of loose candy like licorice sticks and candy dots on paper. Sometimes I stopped there after school when I had a few cents. I wanted the candy, but it seems like most of the time I ended up buying tiny china dolls instead because they would last longer.
One of my big thrills was a kindergarten field trip to a farm, one of the few farms I remember ever seeing up close as a child. I have a mental snapshot of standing there with the other kids in the tall grass. The sun is hot and we have a broken watermelon at our feet that we are scooping chunks from. That’s all I remember about that farm trip, except that the watermelon was so delicious even though it was warm. Another thing about kindergarten was that every day we each got our own little glass bottle of chocolate milk. That was an all-new taste to me, so rich and chocolatey. Just thinking of it takes me back to the wonderful feeling of finger painting and stringing colored wooden beads on laces, probably my happiest school memories ever because mostly I was just bored with school.
On the whole I’d have to say that I prized sandwiches more than candy. I was always hungry and sandwiches counted as real food, while candy didn’t. It was wonderful to bite through a squishy white bread sandwich of braunschweiger and Kraft Miracle Whip, and to leave teeth marks in the meat like it was modeling clay. The meat had such a smooth texture and an odd sweet yet slightly bitter taste and a spicy leathery smell. I loved those sandwiches. The Kraft spread was so good I would sometimes eat it on bread all by itself. It was wonderful on tomato sandwiches too. Braunschweiger, sliced ripe tomatoes, and Miracle Whip sandwiches were delicious. On days when I ate lunch at school I took braunschweiger sandwiches but by the time noon came the meat was warm and gave off an odor I didn’t like at all. Then you had to eat fast and take a big gulp of milk after each bite.
Braunschweiger was good but I really liked ham or bacon and tomato sandwiches best. The best ham sandwich ever was the one I ate one evening after a parent-teacher meeting at my grade school. I remember somebody’s mother, standing at a card table up on the stage of the auditorium and cutting thick pink slices off a big ham while a helper put them between bread (with Miracle Whip of course) and handed them out to all of us waiting in line. Standing right near me were some children from a family I’d heard my mother talk about. Their father had died and their mother could barely feed them. I felt so sad watching them stare at the sandwiches because I knew they really wanted them but were afraid to get in line because they thought they cost money. I told them they were free and their faces lit up. Of course, I was glad the sandwiches were free too.
I worried about people who were hungry, like the tramps from the train tracks who came begging at our back door. Or the little girl at the neighborhood grocery store who started to cry because she didn’t have enough money for the bread her mother sent her to get. The store owner – who I thought was mean — wouldn’t let her have it without paying the full price. I had extra money and I gave her some. It couldn’t have been more than a dime.
That store, Evergreen’s, was a big neighborhood attraction for me. I loved it when Mother sent me there to buy bread or a can of soup. At the front of the store there was a plate glass window that was filled each morning with trays of caramel rolls, crumb cakes, and German cheese cakes. I usually went in the back way because it was closer to our house. I remember going up the iron stairs, opening the loose screen door, and stepping onto the worn linoleum. I could see the window of pastries from the inside when I went to the front to pay. Another fascinating thing was the boxes the store threw out. After the clerks stocked the shelves each day, they would toss crates of rotten produce out the back door to the pavement below. Rooting through the pile was a great thing to do in summer. We waved away flies and bees and sorted through the garbage to find good wooden boxes for making dollhouses and racing cars. But we had to be quiet because if the storekeeper heard us he would run outside yelling and throw a bucket of water over the railing.
I was so disappointed that my parents would never buy us sweet rolls or coffee cakes like the ones at Evergreen’s. I wondered why I couldn’t be as lucky as the children down the street whose mother gave them a dollar for breakfast. One summer morning I saw them sitting on their front step eating a whole cheese cake between the two of them. I was so jealous. They lived in a shabby rooming house, and now I realize their mother was probably an alcoholic who neglected them, but back then I thought they were rich because they could have the wonderful pastries from Evergreen’s.
I had very little money to spend, never a whole dollar. Once in a while Mother would give me and my sister and brother a nickel apiece and let us to go to Evergreen’s for Popsicles. She didn’t believe in spoiling us and she hated begging. On really hot days she sometimes froze Kool-Aid in ice cube trays. On other days I can remember pretending that a raw carrot was a Popsicle or filling a soda bottle with water and pretending it was soda. We could only have a real soda once a week, on Saturday. My favorite was an orange soda called Whistle that was made by a local company called Vess. Their slogan was “Thirsty? Just Whistle,” which I thought was so clever.
I always wanted to be one of those lucky children who got to buy their lunch at school. A lot of us didn’t get to though, because we couldn’t really afford to. My friend Barbara went to Mass early every morning in Lent and she fasted beforehand so she could receive communion. Then she ate the breakfast that she brought from home. I thought it was horrible — a hard-boiled egg and milk that had gotten warm, in a jar covered with wax paper tied on with a string. She seemed like a saint to me because she went to Mass every day but mainly because of that depressing breakfast. Most school days I went home for lunch and I ran both ways so I would have enough time left to play ball games in the schoolyard. A lunch at home I especially liked was spinach soup that my mother made out of leftover spinach mixed with milk and margarine.
Bland, subtle flavors were what I liked best. Vanilla was my favorite ice cream. We rarely ever ate food with much seasoning. Onion was about as far as it went and I don’t think we used garlic until much later when garlic salt came into the stores. When a Mr. Fine (as I always assumed his name was spelled) rented a stall in my aunt’s garage next door for his garlic business, I was curious. I was amazed how he could work for hours and hours in that dark and dusty space sorting garlic on a big table with boards nailed around the sides to keep the bulbs from falling off. I just couldn’t imagine who would ever buy the garlic or why.
Food was on the skimpy side
Food in our house was improvised and definitely on the skimpy side. Mother was an artist, but not in the kitchen. She would fasten a meat grinder onto the counter and grind up pieces of leftover rump roast. I can’t quite remember what she made with the ground up meat but I do know that it wasn’t anything I liked. Other dishes were hard-boiled eggs sliced in half with a white sauce poured over them (not real cream – we never had that!). And then there was raw hamburger spread on white bread and put under the broiler and bologna fried in ketchup. The bologna was for lunch, actually, since lunch meat was not regarded as good enough for supper.
No matter how pathetic the food was, though, we always sat down together and the table was set with dishes that matched and a had tablecloth on it. We never used plastic glasses or plates. Horrors! There were a lot of rules. No bottles or jars could be on the table, we could only talk about pleasant things – no arguments allowed – and we had to ask “May I please be excused?” before we could leave the table. During supper we often played word games. My sister was the champion because she learned to spell eleemosynary when she was 6.
Even though our meals were often meager, we always had plenty of milk. It was delivered every other day by our milkman, Sam. And my parents bragged about how we had a lot of milk to drink, as much as we wanted. Whenever my mother mentioned her father — who was an Irish immigrant and died before we were born — she told the story of him buying her family a cow so his children would have enough milk, and so he could make it cheaper to give them plenty of milk. Having a cow in the city was unusual and I think she liked the story because it — along with how much he loved poetry even though he worked in a foundry — showed what a “rugged individual” he was. That was something that my mother considered the highest kind of praise.
My parents would often say that they had been used to eating better before we children came along, but when they mentioned turnips and rutabaga as examples I really couldn’t take them seriously. Mother told us that the white bread we liked, Tastee Bread, was awful and that we had no idea what “real bread” was like. It was one of her rants that I found annoying and tried to ignore like the one about how modern toys left no room for children’s imaginations. She had strong opinions. She had a fixation on wooden salad bowls and in restaurants she wouldn’t eat a salad unless it was served in one. She insisted lettuce should be torn, never cut with a metal knife. My father, on the other hand, would eat just about anything and say it was good (even if it wasn’t). But he became upset if his horseradish or his lemon for tea weren’t on the table. Both of them liked to drink and it was great fun to sit at the top of the stairs and eavesdrop on their parties when things really got going and hilarious laughter filled the house. They had a lot of friends, including four couples who belonged to a supper club that held potluck dinners once a month for about fifty years.
I was as ignorant as anybody could possibly be about food. I knew intellectually that peaches grew on trees but when I tasted the canned peach halves I liked to eat with cottage cheese, I found it hard to believe. I was perfectly happy eating most of the dishes my mother made, especially breakfast treats such as “cream gravy” made from bacon grease, flour, and milk poured on bread, and day-old glazed doughnuts she heated in the oven until they were all puffed up and crispy. But when we moved “up,” to the new suburb — where even the Catholics seemed like Protestants — I grew embarrassed about the food at home. I became a Girl Scout and we did a nutrition project for which we had to keep a daily meal record. I considered falsifying my notebook entries and in fact I think I did leave out some things. I just knew nobody else ate bread and gravy for breakfast and that they would think that was strange. I knew that Cheerios and Wheaties were the “normal” things to eat for breakfast, but I never developed much of a liking for them even though I always felt I ought to like cereal. I still try to like it.
I loved meals away from home
I loved meals away from home. My parents were leaders in my school’s PTA and in the Spring when the weather turned warm they helped run fish fries in the schoolyard on Friday evenings. These were fundraisers for the school. This was in the old Catholic neighborhood. When it got dark my father — he sold motion picture projectors then — showed Abbott and Costello movies outdoors. The menu was always the same: deep-fried jack salmon, a kind of gummy spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce that only had celery in it, and lemon meringue pie. I totally adored everything about those fish fries — the food, the fish pond game, the movies, everything. The adults drank beer and the children drank soda and nobody counted the empties. Picnics were another time when we enjoyed “special dispensations” to drink sodas and eat as much food as we wanted, especially fried chicken which was always paired with “bread and butter” sandwiches (which actually were made with margarine). I was overjoyed when I got invitations to eat at my friends’ houses and see what kinds of food they had. It amazed me that my best friend’s mother, who was unusual because she had studied home economics, made coffee cake from scratch. I didn’t know it was possible. I thought you could only buy something like that.
An interesting place I remember going to was Madam DeFoe’s. I don’t know how it was spelled or exactly where it was other than that it was in the country, outside St. Louis before it sprawled like it does today. It was probably in West County. I have a sense of being there, late on a Sunday afternoon, in a dining room resembling a big screened-in porch. It was surrounded by a forest and it was very full of people. I think of Madam DeFoe as being tiny and wearing black, but maybe I’m confusing her with my father’s grandmother. It was a family-style place that specialized in platters of chicken and bowls of vegetables. It was off the beaten track and that’s probably what my parents liked about it. They were explorers and knew where everything was.
My parents especially liked to eat out at small hideaway-type restaurants from their single days, Italian places on the Hill. I didn’t realize it then but probably they were old speakeasies. Usually they took us along and we had kiddie cocktails and spaghetti. I discovered real butter that was sweet and kind of waxy with an indescribable taste that you can’t get anymore. I ate it straight off the knife.
My mother liked to be unconventional and she hated shopping except in a particular neighborhood that was a run-down and filled with with hat shops and bargain basements. But occasionally we would go to a dime store counter there for lunch and I ordered my favorite, an open-face roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and everything covered with brown gravy.
I remember how sophisticated I felt when I was about 12 and tasted broiled, not fried, halibut steak in a hotel dining room in a little Mississippi River town over on the Illinois side. For years I impressed adults (and myself) by claiming that broiled halibut with lemon was my favorite food. But it wasn’t until I moved out of my parents house and got my own apartment that I started eating things like mushrooms, shrimp, or blue cheese. It wasn’t just that I changed. I think the world changed and they became more common, and probably cheaper too. But of course I desperately wanted to be sophisticated, can’t leave that out.
Today I have plenty of food
I’ve gone a little bit “pc” about food. I think about health issues and the unequal distribution of resources, unsustainable agriculture — things like that. I’ve cut back on meat, but I still love it. When I’m hungry, that’s what I want. It just wouldn’t occur to me to eat a braunschweiger, tomato, and Miracle Whip sandwich on white bread today – though I bet it would still taste great. Only the tomato would be really ok to me now. Cream gravy or doughnuts or bologna are other things I wouldn’t touch. But I still love most kinds of food and eat broiled halibut with lemon and the occasional caramel roll or German cheese cake. I don’t like sweets or desserts, even chocolate, the same way I like other things, “real food.” Maybe I compensate for some of the food from the past I don’t eat now by collecting vintage images of it. I rejected margarine and upgraded to butter in my twenties, as soon as I moved into my own apartment. And I started eating real mayonnaise. No more Kraft.
I still worry about people who don’t have enough food. I donate money to food banks and homeless shelters, and maybe that’s also why I once took a job as a caseworker for the food stamp program. In that job I met people who didn’t have a single thing to eat in their houses. They mostly used their stove burners and ovens to keep warm in winter. I became really good at pushing their files through the system fast.
I’m very lucky today that I have no strong food aversions or allergies. And I have plenty of food, and really good food too, like bakery bread, locally raised grass-fed beef, locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits from the farmers’ markets, local milk from family-owned dairies that don’t use growth hormones, and so many other good things. I’m happy with simple food if it’s fresh and good quality, but bad food depresses me. Like what you get when you’re traveling across the country. Meat with stripes painted on it to look like it came off a grill. Most of what is in the supermarket I don’t really think of as food at all. I eat out a lot and where I live I can get delicious meals that are prepared from scratch by chefs. And they cost less than many chain eateries. I still like subtle flavors but now I understand why people use garlic.