Saturday, October 5, 2019

SEASONED SOUTHERN STYLE: The Great Depression, WWII, and Home Economics Greatly Influenced Our Family Foodways

One day recently, as I was reading about foods and recipes in the 1940s, it dawned on me that Mom’s cooking style in the 1950s-when I was a young child and through most of my grade school days-was carried over from those earlier years of the twentieth century. Three foodways influenced her: Grandmother’s simple country cooking during the Great Depression, influenced by Creole and African American dishes; food rationing during WWII; and her lessons from her home economics textbook, which she referred to often for many years later. It was in the 1960s that she started branching out with new recipes, casseroles, and other cuisine. And, it was in the early 1960s they quit raising hogs and chickens. For us, the 1960s was when my family became more dependent on grocery stores. I remember my parents saying that they could buy meat on special cheaper than raising it. Even then, Mom made sure the meals were balanced.
Mom was born in 1927. As a she ate the foods common to the Great Depression. She told me they never went hungry, since Grandmother always had a garden, a cow, and chickens. It was a time of making do with what one could raise, though. For Grandmother’s style of cooking, I had to look back into the history of Missouri where she was raised.
Grandmother was born and raised in the Bootheel of Missouri, at Hayward, a small community close to present-day Portageville. Her second great grandfather, John Ruddle, settled in the area about 1799, when the Spanish owned the territory of Upper Louisiana. Daughters of John, Grandmother’s ancestral aunts, married French and Creole men. It was only recently that I realized the Creole influence in some of Grandmother’s dishes. Of course, as with the entire South (and the Bootheel is considered by most locals as the South), the African American foodways was a huge influence, even though there were few blacks in the area where she grew up. I will go into more detail of these two influences in later posts, as the discoveries I have made are quite lengthy.
For now, I would like to concentrate on how WWII molded the healthy eating habits of my family for another decade after the war. I believe Mom’s well-rounded meal plans helped boost our immunity to diseases then and later in life. She made the comment many times that she didn’t know who drummed the necessity of well-planned meals into her head but she was glad she was paying attention. We never were overweight and all of us were physically fit. We contracted the usual childhood diseases, colds and flus, but that was about all.
Looking through Mom’s home economics book, I feel it that training she received during high school that set her on the way to good, balanced meals for us in the 1950s. Grandmother and her recipes were also incorporated but I think Mom realized in high school that a healthy family ate the right foods in proper amounts. She kept her textbook, entitled EVERYDAY FOODS, close at hand throughout the 1950s-90s. That home economics book was written during WWII, a time when rations were enforced. Naturally, there were recipes that supported the rationing. At that time, no one knew how long the war-or rationed food-would last. Also, this country had just come through the Great Depression when there was definitely a lack of food supplies, so cooking meals with what one had on hand or could grow was already a way of life in the U. S. The textbook foods and diets were sensible for the time. And, it was observed years later that people were much healthier during war time than afterwards when everyone returned to their diet of high fat and calories.
“EVERYDAY FOODS is written for youth. . .to whom knowledge of the science of nutrition and the application of this knowledge in their everyday lives offers a more vigorous health and a more abundant life. Nutrition in relation to health is a major concern of the nation. . .
EVERYDAY FOODS is written with the idea of making food study a science comparable to the other sciences. . .practical food and nutrition text. . .”
The book goes on to say that we eat three times per day, which is nearly 1100 meals per year. Those meals should be balanced.
“A well-balanced diet is one that provides all of the material a body needs-no more, no less-will do something for you, not to you. . .a veritable fountain of youth. . .People who eat a balanced diet usually live longer and look younger than those who do not. . .
Good care of the body is rewarded by an extended period of good and buoyant health, that is, by an extended period of the prime of life, and by delayed old age.”
Let me interject some family history here. Not only did Mom take this advice to heart, so did most of my extended family. Grandmother Magers lived 86 years, Grandmother Duncan lived 83, Granddaddy Duncan 85, Aunt Mamie 93, Aunt Naoma 91, Aunt Pearl over 100, and my own dear Dad warded off “terminal” cancer for 25 years, passing away at 83. Mom lived to be 77, but had scarlet fever as a child that weakened her heart. Longevity abounds in our family but I don’t just attribute it to genetics. I believe food-homegrown, clean eating-was the primary reason.
Mom’s basic meal plan never changed for over a decade. Our main meal was at 11:00 and called “lunch” even though it was the biggest meal. Everyone was hungry after working all morning at jobs and school. Also, Mom felt it wasn’t healthy to eat a lot of food at night. The lunch plate weighed heavy on vegetables and small (by today’s standard) amounts of meat. It included one green vegetable (or more) , one yellow vegetable, one starch, one meat/protein and one fruit or fruit based salad. A dessert of some kind was eaten after the meal and only if we cleaned our plate. This meal corresponds to the suggestions in her home economics textbook. A typical meal might be: English peas, summer squash, sweet potatoes, pork chops, a (home) canned pear topped with mayonnaise and grated cheese.* For dessert, Mom made mostly cobblers and pies from fruit picked and frozen when in season. No matter what, one meal a day had to be this well-balanced menu. We were not big bread eaters so it was often left out of the meal.
The other meals were not as large as lunch. The nightly meal that we called “supper” was usually left-overs from the noon meal. If there were no leftovers, or not enough for everyone, we might have a breakfast meal of eggs, home-cured ham, sausage or bacon, biscuits with homemade jam or fruit butters—red eye gravy if we had ham. Or, tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich (my favorite) was often the menu. If Daddy was cooking (which was rare), it was either pancakes and sausage or white rice with butter, sugar, and maybe pecans, along with bacon or sausage. That’s the only two dishes he did well. He often helped Mom in the kitchen but only followed her lead. (**See more Supper ideas below.)
For the most part, though, our suppers were the same as lunch, just in smaller quantities because Mom was a true believer of not overeating at night. We didn’t always get desserts at supper either but could have fruit or a cookie.
Breakfast was kept simple. When Mom and Dad married, she got out of bed every morning and made biscuits or toast, eggs, and bacon or sausage. Then she found out that Daddy actually preferred only toast and coffee and maybe a fruit juice. And, that he could fix that himself. Daddy was always an earlier riser than Mom anyway. 

Then I came along. I never liked traditional breakfast food as a young child. Hated homemade biscuits and sausage. So my meal consisted of cheese toast, oatmeal with butter and a little sugar, or rice with butter and sugar. She insisted I drink milk (which I didn’t like) and fruit juice. When I got older, I often had left-over chili or pizza, but that’s another era. 

Sometime after my brother was born and he began eating solid foods, the breakfast of cooked oatmeal or rice became cereal from a box—but never the cereal coated in sugar. Cheerios and cornflakes were the usual choices. 
So, two good balanced meals per day and a breakfast that provided energy for us through the morning was the norm. Those meals were eaten at 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 5:00-5:30 p.m. The only other food we might have during the day was a snack at 3:00, after school. We weren’t to “ruin our supper” so it was usually an apple or a few crackers with peanut butter. Sometimes one-and only one-home-baked cookie or a couple of graham crackers. If it was summer, we might be allowed a small Coke.
Today’s science fully backs up Mom’s approach to eating. Now, people speak of “clean eating” which is simply the way I was brought up. We grew our own vegetables, raised hogs for the pork, was given beef from my uncle’s herd, chicken and eggs from our own brood. Daddy fished at Big Lake, scoured the woods and fence rows for wild berries, grew apple and pear trees. When Swihart’s commercial peach orchard began selling their fresh peaches by the bushel, we made a trip to Leachville and bought those for canning and jams. The only groceries Mom bought for many years were the cooking basics of flour, cornmeal, sugar, condiments, bread, milk, Jello, cereal, and salad dressing. She also shopped the specials and stocked up on items such as ice cream for the freezer. Now, that was clean living! (Maybe not the ice cream.) Unfortunately, living on the family farm today, we can no longer grow “clean” food. Insecticides and pesticides sprayed on crops are found in our vegetables, fruit trees and pecans, if they make it through the Dicamba and Round-up spray-which kills almost any vegetable or stunts its growth. I wouldn’t dare eat the fish out of Big Lake due to chemicals from the crops, nor any wild animal for the same reason. It is a very sad fact, as well as alarming, that we own acres and acres of rich farmland but can’t grow food on it that is fit for consumption. But, that’s another story.
Not all our meals were straight forward meat, vegetables and a piece of fruit. For example, a meatless meal of pimento macaroni and cheese, boiled cabbage, fried squash, and a pineapple slice or canned pear half with mayo provided all the requirements of her basic meal plan. The pimento macaroni and cheese (***recipe below) included a vegetable, a starch, protein and dairy. All that was needed to complete the meal was green and yellow vegetables and a fruit. Every meal wasn’t necessarily elaborate, but Mom did make sure it was balanced.

Irene Magers Duncan
She also insisted that everyone sat down at a table and ate together. There was no wandering in after a meal was served. If personal plans were made, we had to keep in mind that first came our family meals at those specific times during the day. She felt that sharing a meal together helped bind our family closer. Some days, especially in the Fall when Daddy was rarely home and we were back in school, it was often the only times we saw each other. In fact, since we lived only a block from the school, my brother and I walked home each day for lunch, instead of eating in the cafeteria. And, I admit, the day seemed to go better, just being in touch with the family unit and feeling that support.
I can look back and see how those first years of my life were so important to my well-being in later life. I do realize that many who lived around us or on the farms did not eat so well and their meals might not be balanced as ours were.
Mom never wanted a career. She never wanted to work outside of the home. She felt her job as a Mom was more important than any other. We often kidded her that she went to college only long enough to get her M-R-S. To some extent, that’s true, but I have to say, we all benefited greatly from it.
Pork Loin Roast, cooked with Kraut or Hominy
Fried Okra
Stewed Carrots
Blackberry Cobbler

Country Ham
Cottage Fried Potatoes with Onion and Green Pepper
Green Beans
Corn on the Cob
Tomatoes (as a fruit)

Meat Loaf with Cheese on Top
English Peas nested in Mashed Potatoes and Butter
Squash Casserole
“Junk” (a mixed fruit salad with sour cream and coconut)

Big Bowl of Red Beans (with Italian Sausage) and Rice
Fried Eggplant

Beef Roast, cooked with Potatoes, Onions, and Carrots
Purple Hull Peas
Fried Apples
Creamed Tuna on Toast with Green Peas and Fruit
Tuna Salad Sandwiches, Soup and Fruit
Grilled Cheese, Tomato Soup, Dill Pickles
Chipped Beef on Toast (from left-over roast), English Peas or Green Beans, Fruit
Chicken-a-la-King, Green Vegetables, Fruit
Chili or Stew with Green Salad and Crackers
Pancakes with Sausage or Bacon
Pecan Waffles with Sausage or Bacon
Rice with Butter, Sugar, Milk and/or Pecans, Bacon
Eggs, Bacon or Country Ham, Biscuits, Jams and Red-eye Gravy
Hot Dogs and Kraut Salad on a Bun

1 cup dry macaroni, cooked in water. Drain. In the same pan, melt together ½ lb. Velveeta type cheese, 2-3 T. butter, and 1 small jar pimentos drained. Once melted, add macaroni and salt to taste. A little pepper may also be added. If mixture is too dry, add a little milk.
(Mom never baked this dish, as many recipes call for.)

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