In the Bleak Midwinter: Food stories from my youth by Paul Rest
By the time February rolled around, winter’s firm grip in our area meant the implementation of different menus. Meals changed from those during the late autumn and early winter months and often included wild game, nuts and lots of canned vegetables from the basement cellar.
Vegetables served for meals were canned or flash frozen and found in one of the freezer food sections at our local markets. To be truthful, the taste between the fresh vegetables and those from cans or frozen, well, it was night and day. My mother would attempt to add some zip to peas, string beans, carrots and the like by adding (I hate to say this) margarine. Melting a bit of margarine on top was her answer to the dull gray string beans, mushy peas and the like. Farmers would occasionally drop a slab of butter by but that was put aside for baking or meals with guests. My brother and sister and I were victims of the myriad butter “substitutes” available. We had no voice in the family food choices other than on our birthdays. That was it.
Fresh vegetables that time of year were slim pickings. Translucent iceberg lettuce, funky looking carrots and beets with wilted leaves. Of course, there were potatoes, onions and cabbages. Other “fresh” vegetables came wrapped in or packaged in cellophane so you really tell what it would taste like. It is probably what you would see now in the tiny vegetable section of your local mini-mart. Slim pickings indeed.
In the morning we would often begin our days with “pigs in a blanket,” which were sausages placed in the center of a pancake. This was served with apple butter and whatever sweet syrup was on sale at the local I.G.A. Sometimes mom would pick up a bottle of “Blackstrap Molasses.” This was a thick, dark syrup which was a change from the usual syrups. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, well, maybe you’ve missed something and maybe you haven’t. Br’er Rabbit was on the bottle. He was a figure in the racist “Uncle Remus” stories of the Deep South.
When not at school, lunch in those freezing months was made to fill our bellies. I’m not sure of the nutritional aspects of these meals. But the filling the bellies part worked. We would often be served chipped beef with a rich gravy on white bread. The military has another designation for this so for you who are not familiar with this, the abbreviation for chipped beef, gravy on bread is “SOS.” We would be given a glass of milk and maybe the last of the Christmas cookies, now stone hard and needing extensive dunking in the milk to get them to a state other than having to make an emergency trip to the dentist. The “vegetables” served were usually pickles.
Years later, when visiting my parents, this is what my mom served for a lunch. I still got a glass of milk. They drank coffee as usual. I don’t know if this was in honor of my visit, or her just wanting to get lunch over with? I dutifully as the good son (which I marginally was) ate what had been put in front of me without nary a complaint. Thankfully that was the only time she placed that in front of me. The next day, my parents suggested we go out for lunch. At that time they were living in New Braunfels, Texas, a food paradise known world over for the area’s tradition of hickory-smoked meats. Oh boy, was I ever excited. Innocently, I asked, “Where we going dad?” “Your father’s favorite,” my mother answered. “Sizzler.” They loved that you’d get an entrée, salad, baked potato and dessert, then all for $9.99. All I can about that was that it was a meal that I wanted to forget about the moment my plate was put in front of me.
It’s not that they were cheap. Well, maybe a part of them still had thriftiness from growing up during the Great Depression? Even more so, they liked value. It was only after my father passed away that my mother (now gone too) would she open what was in her mind that Pandora’s Box of eating good, and eating what she liked. But more on that later.
Dinner at our family table this time of the year was often from a can. Chef Boyardee fulfilled that role perfectly. We ate his Ravioli, Lasagna, Beefaroni and Spaghetti. He became a regular addition to our family meals. Looking at his image on the can, Chef Boyardee looked like a nice guy. And I, in my innocent young years, concluded that all Italian men must look like the way he looks: mustache, toque, smile on his face, laboring in his kitchen just to make these “real” Italian meals to cheer us up. The food did look happy. Others notables showed up at our table too. Those nice ladies who made Campbell’s soups (as seen on TV and in magazines) were often a visitor. Soup was served with Nabisco saltines. My brother and sister and I would pile the crackers on, and I mean pile them on, partially I think to stretch the meal.
The basic reality here was at this time for where we lived: you ate at home. There was a Foster Freeze that opened in the late spring and stayed up until around the beginning of October before the creek flooded that whole part of town. When we’d drive to Saint Louis, there were hamburgers, fries and milk shakes at Stake n’ Shake. The then black and white interior reminded me of a barbershop. That was cool but what was the most cool were the yummy smells from frying burgers and fries cooking. To say I was in heaven is an understatement. My young brain was in overdrive, thinking that this would the perfect job for me. Here in Hamburger Heaven, flipping patties wearing that neat uniform with the paper hat.
The trips to St. Louis were sadly only twice or so a year events. My gastronomical vocabulary during this time of the year was short based on what I have written above. Oh, there were occasional cakes and pies and puddings. But the joy of food, with one or two exceptions, now resided mostly in my imagination and not my taste buds.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin