My mom was a member of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. She was proud of the fact that nobody in her family ever missed a meal even though their food intake was heavily rationed. Her mother and father owned their home because they had built it room by rooming, paying cash for each addition. They had also turned their backyard into a vegetable garden and they bought a cow. Those things kept food on the table along with my grandfather’s job at a meat packing plant.
My mom often spoke of her mother’s ability to stretch a few items into a decent meal for the ten members of the family. According to my mother my grandmother usually waited until everyone had been served before she took her portion of the dinner. Sometimes that meant that she got her nourishment from sucking on the bones of the roast or eating the head of a fish.
After my father died my mama prided herself in being able to provide us with food on an unbelievably thin budget. She told us that she had learned all of her tricks from her mother and a home economics class that she took in high school. We might have egg sandwiches in our lunch bags or a bowl of pinto beans for dinner but we never went hungry and our menus were healthy. Snacks and sugary items were a grand luxury.
As each month waned our refrigerator would grow more and more empty, sometimes threatening to be devoid of any possible ingredients for dinner. Somehow my mama was a miracle worker who never once failed to come up with something delicious no matter the circumstances.
I never recall seeing a fully stocked pantry or refrigerator in our home. Mama purchased the basics and enforced a firm rule that we were not to eat anything without permission lest she had intended to use it to feed the family. I suppose that’s why I have never forgotten a scene that I saw in the movie Goodbye Columbus in which the main character, a poor college student, opens his wealthy girlfriend’s refrigerator to discover a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and meats filling every corner of the appliance.
I saw that film with my husband Mike when we were still dating. When I mentioned how stunning I thought that scene had been he did not understand. Upon finally visiting his home I realized why it had been so meaningless to him because his own refrigerator was just as well stocked.
In our first days of marriage we struggled to stay financially afloat and I was happy that like my mom I had learned how to stretch our food budget to the max. With the help of both my mother and may mother-in-law who often brought groceries when they visited I got us through our early years without starving.
Once we had both graduated from college and were working at good jobs I was able to fill the shelves of my refrigerator with better and better quality items. Today if one were to open the door of my appliance they would find apples, oranges, berries, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and a host of other healthy fruits and vegetables along with chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese.
We live in a place where there is a remarkable bounty of food at affordable costs, a luxury that few other countries in the world enjoy. On a recent journey to England I realized that so many things that we take for granted were unavailable in the grocery stores where we shopped. The same was true in Austria and Canada. Our country’s proximity to Central and South America provides us with an almost endless supply of lovely produce. Our own farmers grow the rest.
I have heard of visitors from other countries marveling at our supermarkets. The variety of items that they hold almost overwhelms them. We had a German friend whose mom always wanted to spend time walking the aisles of Randall’s, Kroger, and HEB whenever she came to town. She was like a kid in a candy store.
Sadly there are still those even in this country who don’t have enough income to fill their larders. Like my mother and my grandmother they have to make do and hope that their dollars will stretch far enough to keep everyone fed until the next payday arrives. Sadly they don’t always possess the knowledge about food like my mom did or how to keep things healthy without breaking the bank. They don’t own their homes like my grandparents or have a cow. Nobody has taught them about budgets or nutrition or even how to cook and that is a travesty.
We spend a great deal of time in classrooms teaching our children about things that are interesting but not necessarily useful. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we educate our young. They need lessons in budgeting, shopping for healthy items and learning ways to prepare meals inexpensively. There really is a kind of science to running a healthy kitchen that fewer and fewer people understand. I think that a bit of practical knowledge would not only be well received by students but might also change their lives. We should not take for granted that such things just come naturally.
It would be wonderful if everyone had access to a refrigerator filled with the cornucopia of the one in Goodbye Columbus but since that will probably never happen maybe it’s time we at least gave everyone some guidance as to how to live better with what they have. My mom and my grandmother would have been in the one lowest economic levels but somehow they had the wherewithal to make their meager incomes work. Let’s teach everyone how to do that rather than just assuming that they will figure it out on their own.