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.
- 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?