Thursday, January 10, 2008

Horrible Foods of Yesteryear

My father was a child of the Depression - and by that I mean he probably remembered the thirties about the way I remember the seventies, except without the psychedelic TV programs. However, this Depression era childhood must explain some of his weirder traits, like his inexplicable fondness for chipped beef. Chipped beef. Does anyone else remember that stuff? It came, for some hideous reason, in glass jars with thin metal tops, like cheap jelly and it was noxious in all its incarnations. The very thought of those glass jars (they had blue labels, I think, and the tops were red) sends shivers down my spine; I mean the shit was Lovecraftian in its horror. We had it one of two ways: chopped up in scrambled eggs, which was bad, or in a gloppy white sauce served over white toast - "creamed chipped beef" - which was far, far worse. And the worst thing about it was that my father loved it and so we had to eat it, no excuses accepted. We could get away with avoiding other things: lima beans, okra and milk for me, and pretty much everything in the world except peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese sandwiches in my younger brother's case, but we had to eat the goddamned chipped beef. It was salty. It was pinkish. It was formed eternally into thin leathery slabs, which is not something that should ever be said of meat, and I hated it more than all other foods in the world. I probably still hate it, actually - hell, I still avoid limas, okra and milk - but fortunately chipped beef seems to have faded and gone away into the Before Time, absolutely the best place for it.

The other food bane of my childhood was twofold: succotash and gumbo. They both had limas and okra in them. With gumbo, at least, you could eat around the limas and okra and maybe even hide them under the rice or tomatoes or something, but succotash, which was this terrible combination of corn, green beans, limas, okra and these weird little tasteless red soft chunks that I think were supposed to represent peppers, left you nowhere to stash the nasty things. Come to think of it, I bet that stuff was frozen, because those red things don't exist in nature, but you'd never get my mother to admit it. Most of the time, my mother was pretty relaxed and lenient about what we ate, but occasionally, over either the succotash or the milk, we would get into a battle of wills. Then I'd have to sit at the table until either I drank the milk and ate the vegetables or my mother gave up or, in the best case scenario, I got my brother to drink the milk (he liked the stuff, which was handy) and fed the limas to the dog. That worked out well, since it preserved everyone's honor.

With my own kids, I tried hard to avoid battles over food and mostly, I think I succeeded. Young M went through a weird phase at around age 3 where he only wanted to eat things that were cut into sticks, which is fine for hotdogs and french toast but a bit more difficult for stews and casseroles, but other than that we've done okay. In a fully serious parenting tip, I will now tell you how: don't make them eat anything. First off, they're not going to starve to death. They're just not. And if they don't eat something, it's not a rejection of you and frankly, it doesn't really matter in the great scheme of the world. So what the hell, be nice. If you cook something you don't think they'll like, go ahead and make something else along with it that they will. It's not fair to confront a kid with a plate full of creamed chipped beef or succotash or cassoulet, but if you make them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or fried chicken or something they adore and put a little of the grownup stuff on the side of their plate, remarking casually that they are probably not old enough to like that stuff, but if they would like to try it that would be great, well, they probably will. And then they may surprise you, which is how I ended up with a four year old whose favorite food was sushi and an eight year old who requested Cornish game hens for her birthday dinner. Which is infinitely more fun than an eight year old sitting for several hours at the dinner table surreptitiously feeding okra segments to a dog who will then go and be sick on your favorite rug.


Edward said...

My parents also came of age in the depression and so they were mostly pretty frugal, which I inherited. this can be good and/or bad. But the food situation... The "creamed chipped beef served over white toast" reminded me of something my Mom made. It was called creamed hamburger, and wasn't bad at all. Replace the chipped beef with hamburger, and the gloppy sauce with a tasty one based on cream of mushroom soup. Still served over white toast, but nowadays, we could adapt that to some nice hearty crusty bread. I think I know what I will have for dinner tomorrow.

My Dad's family did pretty well during the depression and maybe as a result of that, he was forced to "clean his plate" at dinner time. In response, nobody had to do that in our family thank goodness.

zen said...

I love creamed chipped-beef on toast! But you're right - why the heck it came in a glass jar i can't fathom... it had enough salt in it to last a Spanish explorer's sea journey.

Andy from the 'burg said...

Why are you hatin' the creamed chipped beef, aka SOS (shit on a shingle)? It's a Christmas tradition at my house. I've had it for Christmas breakfast for 42 of my 43 years (1 xmas I was in Belize, alas no SOS down there). Try the Joy of Cooking recipe with the green peppers and onions and it's yummy. All my kids love it! Oh, and stay away from the dried beef in the jars. Save that stuff to resole your shoes. Use the corned beef in the plastic packages. Salty, yea, but delicious too.

Gourmet Grrl said...

I have one or two Depression era foods that have perservered through the generations, namely Hamburger Surprise.

Hamburger Surprise:
Ground chuck
canned tomatoes
canned corn
frozen peas
chopped onions
salt,pepper, basil
cook in a large skillet, cover with gobs of cheddar cheese, serve.

I guess the surprise would be finding a nutrient or vitamin within this hearty concoction.

The 1941 tuna casserole recipe's another story, a better one, actually.

mygothlaundry said...

OMG I can't believe y'all actually eat and enjoy that stuff. I thought it had gone away forever, lost into the mists of time. Glah. Eeep.