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My grandmother’s kitchen

Reheating my trashy frozen food like a boss

I don’t know what prompted me to write about this — maybe thinking about my love of so-called “trashy” foods, and how the foods we ate on my mother’s side of the family were emblematic of poverty.

The thing to know here is — I’m not kidding when I use the term “poverty.” My life has always been comfortable, but my mom’s was not. I spent loads of time growing up with my maternal grandmother and my aunt (my mother’s older sister); their lives were a lot better by the time I came around, but they were still poor, even by the standards of a poor part of the country.

We ate well, from a certain perspective. We never went hungry. But the foods I ate were… very different than what I ate in my own home, and very different than I suspect my peers were raised on.

To name just a few of the things we ate…

  • White bread, above all. At home I ate wheat, although in the 80s “wheat bread” was basically just white bread with caramel coloring.
  • Bologna. My grandmother lived on bologna sandwiches with mayo on white bread. I still remember the order she sent me into the corner grocery store all the time: a quarter-pound of garlic bologna.
  • Occasionally, if we got fancy, there was olive loaf. Or turkey (which my grandmother ate with butter. Yuck).
  • Speaking of processed meat products… Spam! Or Treet, or some off-brand thing. Looooooved pan-fried Spam sandwiches on English muffins. Still do.
  • there was, in fact, government cheese. Though I don’t think anyone actually liked it…
  • Cheese sandwiches (toasted or not) and grilled cheese were a thing, but always with American cheese singles, the kind with the consistency of the plastic they’re wrapped in.
  • Omelettes. Except my grandmother called them “cheese eggs,” and told me how she had learned to make them from my Uncle Sonny after he came back from the Navy.
  • For all this use of fake cheese, there was almost always real cheddar in the house, too. They just… didn’t put it in anything?
  • Tinned vegetables, never frozen, and rarely fresh. I remember complaining to my mom that the frozen peas we ate at home didn’t taste as good as the (salty, mushy) canned peas.
  • Canned soups. Still unironically love Campbell’s Cream of Celery.
  • Boiled eggs. It was also a treat to get pickled eggs when we went to bingo.
  • Always, always tea in the afternoon, which was Salada black tea served with sweetened condensed milk. I thought it was disgusting, at the time.
  • My grandmother perc’ed her coffee, which I’m told is also disgusting, tho I never tried it.
  • Boiled dinner – that very New England meal of bits of corned beef, cabbage, carrots, and potato.
  • Roast beef, which my grandmother would cook to the point of leatheriness
  • Frozen fish sticks
  • TV dinners
  • This disgusting macaroni soup with tomatoes and hamburger (always ground chuck, because it was cheap), which I disliked even then
  • Hamburgers (again, from ground chuck) and hot dogs
  • Apple crisp. Learned to make it from my aunt.
  • Always ice cream. Store-brand vanilla.
  • Popsicles
  • Strawberry shortcake when berries were in season, which they made by smashing up berries and putting it on those bright yellow cakes. With Cool Whip on top, of course.
  • In summer, there was raw rhubarb with salt
  • Nobody drank water as a beverage. Nobody. There was, as I said, tea and coffee. There was always Coke in the house. (My mother was a Pepsi drinker, though, and I take after her in that regard). There was “orange juice,” which was usually an artificially sweetened orange-like beverage like Sunny D. There was Kool-Aid in summer.
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Gravy from a mix
  • Pizza was too newfangled for my grandmother (this was not my Italian grandmother, mind), but there was occasionally frozen pizza, like Mama Celeste.
  • when all else failed, Burger King. My grandmother loooooved Burger King.
  • Or that regional treat, michigans.

What foods did you eat growing up? Are they similar or different from what you eat today?

  1. My father was a private high school math teacher when I was growing up. This is notable because it meant my family ate over 50% of our meals at the cafeteria for boarding students. I credit this experience with my ability to handle cafeteria food during the entire course of my Undergrad college years, much to the horror of my friends.

    I also had a Chinese grandmother who loved to cook, so I also grew up loving that cuisine.

    These days I eat better, but still prefer simpler meals as opposed to fancier meals putting together lots of ingredients for exotic tastes. I still also love Chinese food.

    • I hear you about handling cafeteria foods. Vassar’s cafeteria (to my mind) wasn’t half bad; it just got repetitive after a while. I think this is true of any cafeteria, though.

      Thanks for your sharing your childhood food experience!

  2. My father came from a Swedish immigrant family that was big on meatballs, meatloaf, cold cuts and ham — all with scalloped potatoes. My mother was Jewish. The result was that we got ham, but never with cheese. Unless it was on a pizza. My mother bought fresh vegetables…and then cooked them until they were grey! In the summer, we lived at the beach and there was lots of fresh fish and fruit to eat. In the winter, we lived in the Northern Virginia suburbs and there was supermarket food. Campbell’s soup (chicken gumbo, cream of mushroom, and beef barley); frozen pizzas; and pot roast with the grey vegetables! My mother associated coke and soft drinks with Southerners (she was a Yankee, and though Southerners were creepy because they were so polite); all forms of carbonated beverages were banned from our house. As was candy, with the exception of Russell Stovers on very special occasions, such as birthdays. My father’s family did desserts, but my mother’s family did not, with the exception of a biscotti-like cookie (mandlebrot) that could shatter your teeth. I had never seen a tapioca pudding until I got to college!

    • It sounds like you had a fairly healthy food experience growing up, although tempered by that horrible period for cooking known as the American mid-century 😉

      Pudding and jello are other things there were a lot of in my grandmother’s kitchen. I’m beginning to think she had quite a sweet tooth! I remember my grandmother making tapioca, but I found it disgusting at the time. (Love it now. And love bubble tea, too). I also remember my parents asking my grandmother to stop giving me so many sweets!

  3. “This disgusting macaroni soup with tomatoes and hamburger (always ground chuck, because it was cheap), which I disliked even then”

    Haha! This was my favorite comfort food growing up. Sometimes we’d have it with government cheese as well and that was really good. It’s apparently a very New England dish.

    What is funnier about it is how it has changed over the years depending on our financial situation. When I was very little, it was government cheese, wagon wheel pasta, and canned tomatoes. Then when I was young, it was elbows, canned tomatoes, and ground chuck, as I got older it was sometimes rice, canned tomatoes, and ground beef. In the 2000s when carbs were evil, it was cauliflower pulsed into “rice”, canned tomatoes and ground beef. These days it’s the fancy ribbed elbows, heirloom tomatoes, and ground beef.

    My horrid food memory from childhood were “mexi-melts” which was a wheat tortilla with salsa, ground beef, and some cheddar cheese on top of the beef, rolled up and put in the microwave until the cheese melted. The smell of microwaved tortillas still makes me gag.

    • I know exactly what you mean about microwaved tortillas. I would still eat a dish like this, but there’s something disgusting about the smell. Maybe it’s the lard/shortening used to make tortillas?

      The change to the composition of a dish to reflect better financial circumstances is interesting. I find myself wondering if the cheddar cheese I’m remembering in the house was a later addition…

      I’ve heard a number of people describe the hamburger/tomato/macaroni concoction as American chop suey, but I think ours was more soupy than I usually associate with that. Also I didn’t grow up in New England (although close to it — upstate NY), so I don’t think I really knew what American chop suey was until I moved here.

  4. So, first off, I absolutely grew up in poverty, and also in semi-rural New England. It does sometimes make me feel glaringly out of place among my/our peers — I know a few others who grew up in poverty, but most of them were more urban than rural, which tends to be a fairly different experience.

    That said, I honestly had never given much thought to the fact that poverty informed my diet and my parents’ food choices until just now, reading this list. I ate a *lot* of these same things growing up. And this was normal at my home; fancier home cooked food was a thing that mostly only happened at family holidays.

    In great depth, because I am prone to wordiness:
    Some different but similar things I ate a lot included plain spaghetti with store bought tomato sauce, Kraft mac and cheese, rice-a-roni, and packaged ramen (mostly a thing I made for myself in the microwave when I didn’t want whatever my mother had made). Also sometimes we’d get a whole chicken and stick it in the oven. For breakfast, usually it was sugary cereal or Quaker Oats flavored oatmeal. As to things on this list: White bread definitely/always. Bologna sandwiches with mayonaise and pickes were my absolute favorite sandwiches, though we did also frequently have oscar mayer ham and turkey slices of similar quality. Canned soup, absolutely, especially Campbells. Canned vegetables definitely, and as you’ve written here, rarely fresh, never frozen. Also canned fruit, mostly pineapple slices and mandarin oranges. Fish sticks, yep. TV dinners, definitely. Frozen pizzas, definitely, as well as delivery or in-restaurant pizzas from Dominoes or similar. Apple crisp was one of the few things my mother would bake from scratch with some regularity. We also pretty frequently got store bought ready to slice cookie dough. We didn’t even do popsicles; usually it was freezepops. I did drink water, though partly for medical reasons; the rest of my family rarely did, and we also tended to have a lot of Sunny D and Kool-Aid around. Grilled cheese sandwiches were a ting I disliked cause I can’t handle melted cheese, but my sister ate them all the time, and of course it was with those cheap bright yellow slices of cheese. Is that what ‘government cheese’ is? I honestly had never heard that term. We would also go to McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s, as well as a local cheap Chinese place, pretty regularly. Also, my parents were pretty casual about junk food and candy. I honestly still have trouble conceptualizing my diet as particularly unhealthy, because we just didn’t think in those terms. However, it is definitely true that I ate very little in the way of fresh food. At least we didn’t eat tons of bacon and red meat, I suppose.

    So, yeah. In college I started moving towards healthier eating, and have been building on that since, so my current diet looks quite different. (Except I do still eat plain spaghetti with store bought tomato sauce *all the time*)

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