Su Lum: Slumming
November 9, 2011
Family meals when I was growing up were about as basic as you could get. A number of factors were involved, including lack of finances (no one had any money in my hometown), lack of imagination, World War II rationing and my father’s ulcer.
Back then, the treatment for ulcers was a diet of bland, bland, bland.
We were a family of six: my parents, my paternal grandmother, my older sister, younger brother and I. Every day my father’s breakfast consisted of a bowl of Cream of Wheat (ick), a soft-boiled egg on toast, milk, bacon and coffee; the latter two probably broke the ulcer rules.
We kids grabbed slices of bacon and fixed ourselves bowls of corn flakes or Cheerioats – the first Cheerios (and much better before they added vitamins) – with lots of milk.
I think all that milk probably kept us alive. The milk was delivered every day, in glass bottles with heavy cream on the top, from a dairy farm a mile away where we could see the actual cows grazing in the fields of Sunset Farms. For school lunches we carried Thermos bottles of milk to wash down the peanut butter, bologna and or fish sandwiches. There were no Twinkies or cookies or fruit – just a sandwich and the milk.
Dinner was served on the dot of 6 p.m. It was a baked potato, meat or fish, a vegetable and dessert. And milk. We could get milk refills.
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I didn’t have much to which to compare our cuisine, but the culinary lifestyles of my peers didn’t seem much different. Everyone ate when the father got home from work in the city (New York) and the meals were basic, so it wasn’t that I felt deprived, but I look back and wonder that we didn’t feel starved all the time.
One package of pudding (usual serving, half-cup, serves four) for six of us, one package of frozen peas – the standard small boxes – amounted to a small pile of peas each. One hamburger patty (no bun, unseasoned) each, but you got a big baked potato with margarine and, of course, milk.
If we were served something disgusting, like liver, there were pockets for that.
Very few people were fat in my hometown and, if they ate like we did, no wonder. Regular – not super-sized – servings in restaurants these days are easily four times as much as we ingested in our evening meal.
For Sunday dinner at midday, we had a feast. Maybe a roast chicken, which was more expensive than a rib roast, or a leg of lamb or a ham. “It looks as if someone attacked the ham with a trowel,” my mother would say the next day after my midnight forays down to the kitchen. On Sundays, there was occasionally rice instead of potatoes, or my favorite, white cornmeal spoonbread, and sometimes a side dish: fresh sliced tomatoes or my grandmother’s sugary baked apple dish (“Gran, Gran, make apples,” we’d beg).
I don’t remember ever having a salad, didn’t see the inside of a restaurant until I was 11 – a Howard Johnson’s – had never heard of Chinese food or spaghetti or pizza. I had my first pork chop after I was married and my first taco in Alaska when I was in my mid-20s.
My mother made a delicious meatloaf, but I can’t imagine what was in it because we never had onions or garlic in the house and not a drop of ketchup. When I moved to Aspen I bought an interest in a cow from Tee Childs, who owned a farm in Snowmass, and when I fried up my first hamburger I was transported back 30 years. Whoa! This was the hamburger I remembered from my childhood, nothing like the ground-meat product we get now, so maybe that was what made my mother’s meatloaf so good.
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