What I read and what I lived
Chef Boyardee pizza mix – strawberry Kool-aid – chicken and biscuits – smelt – hot water bath canning – strawberry picking – bread and butter pickles – Jell-0 – Swanson TV dinners – Coney Island dogs – hot German potato salad – Ernest & Julio Gallo wine – dumplings – stewed tomatoes – orange juice concentrate – bologna sandwiches
Kathleen Finn’s 2014 memoir Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good brought back growing up in the sixties and seventies more vividly than anything I have ever read. It’s got to be the food. Her story is not a flashy one. Finn’s parents were hard workers from the east side of Michigan whose paychecks never quite stretched far enough to feed and clothe a family of six. Mom gardened, canned fruits and vegetables, and shopped for the children’s clothes at St. Vincent de Paul’s. The men in the family fished and hunted. The big treat on Friday night was popcorn and Kool-aid. There was plenty of love to go around, but children weren’t coddled–nor did they expect to be. Birthdays were one gift events. Daily chores were a fact of life. Even Grandma Inez brooked no nonsense–if she sensed an tiff brewing between the cousins, she’d say, “You got time to argue? Then you’ve got time to sweep the kitchen. Here’s a broom. And you, here’s a rag. Go dust the living room.” Girls wore knee socks and Mary Janes; dads smoked Kents and drank Old Milwaukee beer. TVs sported rabbit ears.
If you grew up in the sixties and money was tight, Kathleen Finn’s Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is sure to stir up some memories.
It was, in many ways, my own story. My mom, too, worked on and off throughout my childhood and, like Kathleen, I was a latch key kid before latch key kids were a thing. Until I was eight, my dad was a college student and worked part-time at any number of jobs. To say money was short is an understatement. We moved nearly every year–to a cramped ticky tacky ranch, a drafty old 3-story house, a newly constructed duplex in a subdivision–our housing choices dependent on how much money was coming in. Mom shopped for school clothes at Sears or “Monkey Wards” and then only on sale. (I remember being ecstatic when she came home with three pairs of new play pants, only to have my happiness dashed when we realized that they were ‘husky’ sized. I wore them anyway, waistband practically up to my armpits!)
I guess I’m finally of an age where hard times have turned into the good ol’ days.
So after reading Burnt Toast is it any wonder I wondered what my own children would remember? Like the Finns we had some hard times, too. After their father and I divorced, I was right back where my own parents were when Dad was in college and starting his business–always a dollar short and robbing Peter to pay Paul. I scrabbled together work as best I could while I commuted to class at a university fifty miles away: I cleaned houses, an office, and worked in a bookstore. Dinner was sometimes pancakes and sausage–a treat! the kids thought. In reality, it was a cheap meal. I made a dish I called caterpillar, biscuit dough jelly-rolled with browned ground beef and slathered before eating with ketchup. I added little biscuit dough eyes and antennae which is how the dish got its name. We ate Kraft macaroni and cheese because it was fifty cents a box. There was a time or two when I arrived home and found my mom had left a bag of groceries in the kitchen. We laugh now, but I marched my kids down to the local convention center each winter where a local grocery store held a food fair–an extravaganza of vender booths giving away food samples and pre-packaged portions and coupons. I bought them each a $3 “under 12-years-old” ticket which entitled them to fill up a grocery bag with as many free goodies as we could find, treats for a month or two depending on how I rationed them out. If I worked a little extra or had some birthday money to spend, nothing felt as extravagant as a Little Caesar’s $5 pizza on a Saturday night.
Surely nothing evokes memory like the food we eat growing up.
Stove Top stuffing – tuna and noodles – Little Caesar’s $5 pizza – grape juice concentrate – frozen peas – Kraft macaroni and cheese – sloppy joe – grilled cheese and tomato soup – ‘breakfast’ cookies – crescent rolls – 19 cents a pound turkey legs – hot dogs – Hawaiian Punch – chicken pot pies – baked beans – SpaghettiOs – fish sticks