Marie Osmond told me on television that she lost 50 pounds eating pre-packaged meals sent to her home, and not too long ago, the nation’s first lady ran off the White House pastry chef. That reminded me of childhood mealtimes and my grandmother’s nutritional malfeasance.
Until well after World War II ended in 1945, I lived on Sixth Street in Corinth, Mississippi, with my grandparents. Two aunts also lived with us. All the men were in the Pacific, leaving my grandfather, called Pop, to provide. My grandmother, Mom, ran the house.
Pop was a superb provider. He worked as a carpenter for the Tennessee Valley Authority and had a green B sticker on his car’s windshield, meaning that we had income and gasoline. He also had a green thumb and grew green vegetables in a huge backyard garden. Pop also fished, and he put fresh bream and crappie on our big dining room table at least twice a week. He also oversaw a backyard chicken house that delivered eggs as well as raw material for the big black frying pan that dominated Mom’s cooking.
Mom was a canner and preserver. We had — in what seemed to be endless quantity — green beans, pickled beets, peaches, strawberry preserves, and goodness knows what else.
Mom supplemented this bounty by going to the tiny Kroger store once a week for meat, which was rationed, and such staples as Luzianne coffee, Domino sugar, Clabber Girl baking powder, and Crisco shortening.
Our main meal, eaten at noon, we called dinner. The evening meal was supper except on Sunday when it became a “snack.” Sunday evenings were Mom’s lone break from cooking.
Many things were served fried: chicken, green tomatoes, the fish caught in Hatchie Bottom, and pork chops. Steak, scarce in wartime, was “chicken-fried.” Meatloaf was baked, of course, as was macaroni and cheese.
Mom always overcooked the steak and pork chops. In those times, the idea of a rare steak or hamburger could disgust entire neighborhoods. A typical summer meal included fried fish, tomatoes, green beans or butterbeans, and turnip greens. Or collard greens. I hated greens more than I hated Tojo or Hitler. If we had salad, it was a wedge of iceberg lettuce doused with French dressing, an orangey liquid unknown in France.
Breakfast might be fried eggs and bacon or cereal. Cold cereals were Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and Kellogg’s Pep, which came with a nifty airplane cutout inside. Hot cereals included Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, and Hot Ralston, sponsor of radio’s Tom Mix. We ate these instead of grits.
Modern nutritionists would hyperventilate just thinking about what we ate in the 1940s. On the healthy side were the vegetables and greens that were available six months of the year. From there, things went nutritionally sideways. It’s a wonder my grandparents were not jailed for child abuse.
Can you imagine a germ-laden henhouse in a backyard of today? How about wringing the neck of a chicken on the back steps and then, for the kids’ amusement, letting the headless victim lurch about the yard for a time? Those activities would have had SWAT teams from PETA and the EPA pouring through our front door.
The Department of Agriculture never inspected Pop’s garden, let alone the henhouse, and Mom adhered to no federal guidelines when it came to canning and cooking and cake making. As for fried food, the only questions were, “Is it crisp enough?” and “May I have some more?”
Our house was heated by coal; we drank non-homogenized milk; and we rarely locked doors. It’s a wonder I wasn’t overcome by fumes, poisoned, or stolen by gypsies. Yet we survived. Pop lived to be 88, Mom to 82. Both aunts made it well past 80, and I was 77 on my last birthday.
That’s what 400 years’ worth of fried chicken and beet pickles can do for you.