North Country Girl: Chapter 13 — Food, Glorious Food

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.

Every Duluth organization met over a breakfast or lunch (if not at the clubhouse bar), as parents and kids were expected to dine en famille. If it wasn’t Friday, dinner at the Haubners had a large meat component, along with a starch and at least two veg. Gravy arrived at the table often and in a barge. Even though I was a picky eater, I had my favorites: Beef tomato, which my mom had learned to make at a Chinese cooking class she took in Hawaii, and which resembled no Chinese dish ever. It was tinned tomatoes, strips of steak, and green peppers that had to be prepared in an electric skillet for authenticity. It made a brownish soy sauce gravy and was served over huge lovely beds of overcooked Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. Chicken and dumplings boiled away for hours on the stove; it made a bland white gravy often  served with egg noodles for extra starchiness. There were a few non-gravy menus.  

Parents at dinner
My parents having dinner. (Author’s photo) 

Mom rubbed the outside of immense pork roasts with a mixture of spices that made eating the salty crispy fat bits the best part. I failed the see the charms of the boiled dinner — ham or corned beef simmered with potato, cabbage, and onions into a uniformly grey mess, but I adored the required accompaniment of brown bread that came in a can — bread in a can! — thickly sliced and thickly covered with butter. In summer there were hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks on the barbeque, overseen manfully by my dad (until he moved out and I was assigned to the grill); ketchup was the only condiment although there was usually a jar of sandwich pickles somewhere. 

There were homemade chocolate chip cookies and banana bread and a crisp and flaky apple pan dowdy that was made with a pound of lard. I tried not to think about what exactly lard was even as my heart rose every time I saw that blue box peeking out of the brown paper grocery bag. Baked goods were washed down with milk from glass bottles, which appeared a few times a week in the silver Springhill Dairy box on the side of the house, a box adorned with a drawing of a cow who looked very contented. 

Dinner was eaten in the dining room at 411 Lakeview (the banquette table in the remodeled kitchen was for breakfast, lunch, and the rare occasions my dad brought home take-out Chinese food). Memorable events at that long, highly polished mahogany table include my projectile vomiting as a result of my dad forcing me to eat a boiled brussels sprout (it took years for me to try one again, and even today I prefer them burnt to a crisp). Then there was the dinner party when our long-legged neighbor, Joe Kraft, who habitually teetered on the hind legs of his dining room chair, pushed his balancing act so far that he cracked the legs off the chair. He went sprawling to the floor and my mom flew into such a rage that I fled upstairs to my room. 

Dinner parties were regular occurrences; Duluthians were great socializers. My mother held weekly bridge parties, setting up card tables in the living room, fixing a special dessert, and arranging tempting tiny nut cups at each place filled with cashews or waxy chocolate Brach’s Bridge Mix (“Don’t touch anything!”). My parents, those madcaps, had learned the Twist so they could show off at a dance party they threw in our basement after it had been de-ratted. My parents went out almost every Saturday, leaving Lani and me in the hands of a bored teenager who spent all evening on the phone. Only on those nights were Lani and I allowed to eat in front of the TV, dining on actual TV dinners. I loved the turkey one, even though when you took it out of the oven the cinnamon-y stewed apples were so hot they singed your tongue, while the so-called stuffing nestled under the paper-thin slices of white and dark meat remained ice cold. The upper right compartment of the tin foil tray contained whipped potatoes with absolutely no taste at all, so they were mixed with an equal amount of butter. The sitter reappeared at 10 to pick up the half eaten trays and shoo us to bed, where I lay awake, convinced that I’d never see my parents again. 

When Lani passed the stage where she was enjoyed throwing fits so rabid that she sent everyone around her into fits as well, our parents started taking us out to dinner. There was the Fifth Avenue, with spindly tables and pink and black wallpaper depicting people carrying baguettes, riding bikes, and wearing berets. Every meal there began with a basket of popovers right from the oven, steam rising above the white cloth, so hot that butter melted immediately on them; a burnt tongue was a small price to pay for such loveliness. There was the Flame restaurant, down by the harbor, where they announced the names of ships that were crossing under Duluth’s “famous” aerial bridge. The Flame had a short man in a bellhop uniform stationed at the door and an immense and frightening lobster tank. There was the Pickwick, long and dark and medieval, with stained glass windows on the side and a view of Lake Superior from the back. I loved their chicken, with its salty blackened skin, ignoring my mother’s “You can get grilled chicken at home” stink eye. Starting about two months before Christmas, the Pickwick bar offered Tom and Jerry’s. A drink named after a cartoon! A Tom and Jerry was warm, heavily spiced eggnog fortified with brandy or rum. I was allowed small swigs; it was the nectar of the gods. 

The Flame restaurant postcard. 

The swankiest restaurant was the London House, with cut glass dishes of celery and carrot sticks and black olives, tri-part stainless steel salad dressing servers with Blue Cheese, Thousand Island, and French (I used French by the teaspoon as it was the only one that didn’t make me puke to look at it), and baked potatoes the size of cantaloupes, that came with their own servers holding sour cream, bacon bits, grated Cheddar, and diced onions. Everyone got steak or prime rib or lamb chops or fried shrimp. We ate ensconced in huge red leather booths; my parents knew everyone who passed by our table. We girls were supposed to order something not too expensive, eat all of it, and shut the hell up.  

Every once in a while a tinkle of piano and song would drift up from Tin Pan Alley, a mysterious basement piano bar where children were strictly forbidden. This joint was the favorite destination of my mother’s pals Karin Luster and Gloria Hovland, who imagined themselves glamourous chanteuses making a pit stop in Duluth on their way to stardom. Gloria also wrote songs, which she sent out to agents, hoping one of them would catch the ear of Tony Bennett or Perry Como. She was convinced that the music publishers were stealing her melodies and would cock her head like a robin anytime she her a few bars of Muzak.  

In Duluth’s bustling downtown there was The Chinese Lantern, which had huge portions of blandly delicious Cantonese food and the best prime rib. There was also the dreaded Jolly Fisher, permeated with a nauseating smell of fish, which made me so ill that I couldn’t swallow as much as a french fry. Not wanting to repeat the brussels sprout episode, my parents stopped taking Lani and me along when they ate there, leaving us at home to enjoy our TV dinners. 

I think our favorite meals were the ones we ate when my dad wasn’t home. Pretty much everything tasted good in Duluth in the 1960s: there weren’t a lot of artificial flavors or preservatives, no microwaves, and the only sweetener was cane sugar. At drive-ins (it wasn’t fast food then as it wasn’t especially fast) everything was prepared fresh right when you ordered it. We’d sit and wait for our Kentucky Fried Chicken (we would have been mystified by the initials KFC): watching the fry cook in the little paper hat take the pieces of chicken we ordered (Lani and I liked drumsticks), dredge them in batter, and sink them in the Fryolater.  We took the waxy bucket home, almost too hot to hold, perfuming the car interior with eleven different herbs and spices. The mashed were real potatoes, the pallid gravy slightly floury, the biscuits were buttery, light, and fluffy, the cole slaw uneaten. I have no idea when everything went so terribly wrong. 

Fried chicken. (Shutterstock) 

For my mom to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken we needed ready cash, which was always in short supply at our home. But if we went through all our coat pockets, the couch seats, and the bottom of my mom’s purse, we could come up with enough change to go to the London Inn and get 15 cent hamburgers, fries, and onion rings. The London Inn’s parking lot was always filled with cars and teenagers and blasting radio music, all tuned to the same station, WEBC. 

The onion rings were even better and the burgers grilled over an open flame at Nick’s, but Nick’s was in the West End and my mother was loathe to drive the 20 minutes. If the London Inn counter was eight deep in teenagers, we would head to the A&W, where a brown-and-white costumed carhop took our orders and returned with a heaping tray of food and once in a great while, root beer floats, which she perched precariously on the half-opened car window. More than once, my mother got splattered with root beer, melted ice cream, and ketchup when she upset the delicate balance created by three heavy glass mugs. 

Root beer
A&W root beer float. (Shutterstock) 

The A&W’s floats were good, but there was really only one destination for ice cream:  Bridgeman’s. A dime bought a single scoop cone. A Tin Roof Sundae, with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts, was eighty cents. Bridgeman’s had fresh peach ice cream, studded with pale pink chunks of frozen fruit, but only in August. The shakes and malts came straight from the blender in a tall, heavy glass and topped with whipped cream, along with some extra in the silver blender jar to make sure you achieved maximum ice cream freeze head. An evil second cousin had showed me how if you dipped the end of your paper straw end into the malt, you could shoot it up to the ceiling and it would stick. (This was the same distant relation who also gave me a lit firecracker to hold.) I would not have dared to so sully the pristine white and stainless steel interior of Bridgeman’s.  

North Country Girl: Chapter 3 — The Charms of South Dakota

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week. 

While we spent every Sunday in with my dad’s parents, we saw my mother’s parents in Aberdeen once a year, over a long summer visit. We traveled by train, my sister and I in matching navy blue coats and white gloves, first south to Minneapolis and then switching train stations, onto another train heading west. We arrived in Aberdeen in the middle of the night; my grandpa Bill would meet the train and carry us sleeping girls to his car. When I woke up the next morning and saw the faded rose trellis wallpaper I knew I was up in the tower room of my grandparents’ Victorian house. My grandmother Nana loved babies, cats, and wallpaper: the dining room featured huge tropical leaves, like a Rousseau painting and a small downstairs bedroom had a meticulously detailed Old West landscape that encouraged daydreaming about cowboys and Indians.

Dale and Joan
Uncle Dale and Aunt Joan (Photo from the author’s collection)

Nana had a large garden plot across the street, where she grew vegetables; her huge side yard was dedicated to flowers, my Uncle Dale’s white box beehives, and my Uncle David’s pigeon coop. I was a bit frightened of those beady-eyed birds and my mother thought the pigeons were filthy and disgusting and forbid me to go near the coop, one rule that I happily obeyed.

Uncle David, a weird old bachelor, who had once been a noted small town athlete (too oddball for team sports, he was a champion ice skater, runner, and singles tennis player), lived with my grandparents. My Uncle Dale and Aunt Joan lived across the street, and produced a baby a year, to my grandmother’s delight; she adored lap babies, happy to spend hours rocking them and soothing them with an almost tuneless lullaby. I’m sure all of us cousins are disturbed by early memories of being ousted from that warm and cozy nest in favor of a smaller and cuter kid. Eventually even the youngest grandchild got dumped out of Nana’s lap, to be replaced by a cat.

Those visits to Aberdeen were my first chance to really wander and explore outside the confines of a yard, by myself or with a cousin or two trailing behind. Kids were let out of the house after breakfast, expected home at noon for “dinner,” eaten with my grandpa and uncles and any workers from their house painting business who happened to be around; and then sent off again to play until dark.

Ice cream pop
Creamsicle (Pixabay)

Aberdeen was a flat plains town, with a looming water tower that was visible from everywhere and marked the way back home. Unlike Duluth, a city that was all up and down hill, Aberdeen was perfect for bike riding. It was a lot hotter than Duluth and no one cared if we cousins turned the hose on each other, creating mud pits on the lawn. There was also that height of civilization, a municipal pool, just down the street, entry 50 cents. (Duluth, proud of its lakeside status and crisscrossed with rivers and creeks, scorned pools.) A short bike ride away was a playground whose main attractions were a snack bar and a rusty, creaky merry-go-round; we older cousins forced the littler ones to push us while we lay on our backs, heads hanging off the sides to better swirl our brains, until one of us was flung off or a pusher lost her grip and went tumbling under the spinning metal wheel. We had gravel from falls embedded in our knees all summer long. I was given a dime to spend at the snack bar there, where I was always torn with indecision.

Dr. Pepper bottle
Wikimedia Commons

Should I get a Dr. Pepper or a pink Creamsicle (vanilla ice cream coated with raspberry sherbet)? Neither was available in Duluth, though sometimes I could find a misshapen and ice-encrusted orange Creamsicle at the bottom of a store’s ice cream freezer. The Dr. Pepper, icy cold and mysteriously delicious, came with a challenge: I had to lean into that coffin-like cooler, holding the lid up with one hand, the other navigating the bottle through a metal  maze until it was finally freed at the end, without smashing my fingers. I would have to drink the entire thing right there, as the empties had to be deposited in a wire rack next to the cooler. An already melting Creamsicle I could take with me, some of the pink and white mess dropping off to sizzle on the sidewalk, some creating a sticky mess on my rubber bike handle grips.

Nana kept her hair eggplant red, and wore her rouge high on her cheeks like a kewpie doll. She had to start every morning with dry toast and coffee lightened with evaporated milk. She had grown up next to her father’s cheese factory in Wisconsin inhaling the fumes from solidifying milk, and the scent of most dairy products made her sick. She was happiest hoeing in her garden or rocking a baby or collecting a new cat; the best-smelling stews on the stove were reserved “for my kitties.” My grandpa Spellman was a kind quiet man, a dead ringer for Cab Calloway, and the only adult I knew who read the funnies in the newspaper; I would hop in bed with him on Sunday mornings so we could page through the colored comics section together, admiring all of them: Ella Cinders, Steve Canyon, Beetle Bailey, Dagwood, Dondi, even Mary Worth, a soap opera in pictures.

Sunday Comic strip
Ella Cinders (Wikimedia Commons)

Aberdeen had a very minor league baseball stadium, where no one in my family ever went, and a downtown lined with two-story, red brick, glass-fronted shops. On Saturday nights, we brought blankets to the park, where the adults sat around the band shell, listening to the town brass band, out of tune but spiffy in their dark blue uniforms, while the kids ran amok. Afterwards we went to Lacey’s Dairy for ice cream; I always got a cone of White House, vanilla with candied cherries and walnuts.

Another Aberdeen-only treat was my Uncle Dale’s homemade root beer, sweetened with honey from his hives. He brewed up a dark mixture with squares of root beer flavoring, yeast, tap water, and honey, poured it into glass pop bottles saved throughout the year, sealed them shut with a fascinating bottle cap press, and stored them in his basement to ferment. We kids were always warned not to open the bottles until Uncle Dale said. I could never wait that long—certainly the root beer had to be ready by now!—and at least once a summer I snuck down to the basement with a bottle opener, took a mouthful of warm, sweet, flat liquid, poured the rest down the sink, and sneakily hid the empty bottle.