I knew a man who had suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He and his family oftentimes went hungry and their mealtime staple was usually a pot of beans. When he finally made it into the middle class as an adult he refused to have beans at his table, not even red beans, although he was a bonafide Cajun.
My mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table, but she liked to brag that in spite of our meager budget we never once missed a meal. She was incredibly creative when it came to stretching the offerings in the pantry. She was such a good cook that we rarely noticed that we were sometimes nearing the end of our stores. Only once in a great while would the refrigerator be almost empty, and the cupboards be bare. Even then Mama used her ingenuity to whip up what felt like a feast. She told us that she had learned from her mother who fed a family of ten during the great depression. She told us the story of how our grandmother would cook a whole fish with head still attached. After everyone had taken their share Grandma would eat the head. Mama laughed and said the her mom was actually getting the part with the most vitamins.
I was a skinny girl who barely weighed eighty eight pounds on my wedding day. Food didn’t really matter that much to me. I rarely ate breakfast which was no doubt a bad thing, but I never really missed it. I took a sack lunch to school and it usually consisted of either a bologna sandwich on white bread or a fried egg sandwich. The egg was the more delicious of the two, but it embarrassed me to open the wax paper and let the aroma of cold egg waft across the cafeteria. Someone invariably made a comment, and I quietly did my best to disavow the idea that it was all that we had for that day.
It was supper time when my mother became like the Julia Childs of the low economic set. She was literally able to make hot dogs into a gourmet dish, often making up recipes to use the ingredients that she had on hand. After my Grandmother Little she was the best cook that I have ever known.
I suppose that I was much more affected by the scarcity of food in our home than I ever dreamed because I eventually developed a kind of fetish for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean cuts of meat. I like to have my larders well stocked at all times, and I get a bit nervous when they are not. I’m not much for purchasing junk food because that was never something that we kept around my childhood home. Instead I take great joy in visiting a farmer’s market or a really good produce department. I become like a kid in a candy store in such places. In fact, I actually enjoy going to such venues for fun. I suppose that if I am honest I must admit to carrying a hidden fear that the food will one day run out.
Nothing pulls at my heart strings more than seeing photos of starving children in distant lands. My mama used to caution us not to waste food, reminding us that children in some places would be more than happy to have the plenty that she put on our table. My brothers sometimes joked when she was not around that it wasn’t as though we could put our waste in a little box and send it somewhere that it would be appreciated. Of course, that was before we grew up and realized that even though we lived on the edge, we still had more than millions of souls whose misfortunes made ours seem like nothing.
I worked as a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank a number of times. Some of the students that I have taken with me ironically had used the services on a regular basis. It was humbling to realize that even within my own city there are families struggling to get the proper nourishment. I’ve often thought of my own mother and her incredible knowledge of ways to create a healthy diet on a very small income. We may have eaten beans and greens, but she understood the value that they gave to our diet, and cooked them so that they were also delicious. A problem that far too many people have, is a lack of understanding of how to feed themselves and their loved ones with only a small number of ingredients.
I have a good friend who is much like my mom. She uses every part of every kind of food that she purchases. She boils the tops of beets and the peelings from potatoes and all the rest of the seemingly unusable parts of vegetables to make broth that is filled with vitamins and flavor. She purchases big bags of overripe bananas that are practically being given away and freezes them for the smoothies that she makes her husband each morning. Whenever I’m looking for a good way to use food to its utmost she provides me with dozens of ideas. She even knows how to make her own chocolate and has devised a method for making ice cream that doesn’t even require a machine.
I used to shudder whenever I had cafeteria duty in the schools where I worked as I watched the garbage cans filling with perfectly good items that the children simply did not want to eat. I thought of those babies with bloated bellies and wondered if they would have been more than happy to munch on the food that would end up in a landfill. I found myself understanding what my mother had been thinking when she told me and my brothers not to take what we did not think we could eat.
Food is one of our most basic needs. It is also a way to celebrate and gather with friends and family. We humans have turned eating into an art form. It is one of life’s great joys, and as I grow older it has also become a source of contentment for me to choose a juicy red tomato or find a display of perfectly formed apples. As I store away the meats, fruits, vegetables and grains I feel so thankful. Now when I make an egg sandwich for myself I see it as a great gift. The horn of plenty that is my refrigerator and pantry makes me feel quite thankful, particularly for having a mother who so quietly and courageously fed me an my brothers with no complaint and great joy. She taught me to have an appreciation for whatever I have and to never forget those who have so much less.