Friday, May 13, 2016

Mama was a COD

My mother was a true COD (child of the depression).  She could scrape the mayonnaise jar so clean, it looked like it had already been washed.  And yes, we kept all the mayonnaise jars (and the jelly jars - I wish I still had the marmalade jar collection).  She crocheted rugs from the plastic bread bags she washed and saved.  Even empty Kleenex boxes were saved, so we could come in from shoveling snow, put our feet into the Kleenex box without removing our boots, and make that emergency trip to the bathroom without taking off all the outdoor gear.  (There were, quite likely, bread wrappers on our feet inside the boots, as well.)

I was reminded of this yesterday, as I went through my ancient three ring recipe binder, placing all the old handwritten pieces into sheet protectors.  It's touching to find the recipes mom wrote out for me, often noting which sister gave her the recipe.  (Almost always, Bernice or Rosie, one from Bea.)  Those recipes were, without fail, written on scrap paper.

Often, as in the photo above, recipes were passed to me, written on the back of  outdated invoice paper, or key punch cards, which her brother brought to her from his employer.  Instead of "wasting" the paper, it was brought to our house, and put to good use.  I can't tell you how many recipes are written on the back of yellow cardstock, promoting a display spinner - the Harvard beet recipe is notable, because it's not only on the yellow cardstock paper, one of my kids took a bite out of the edge.

Junk mail was saved and anything printed on one side was turned, clean side up, and placed onto a small clipboard next to mom's place at the kitchen table - to the immediate right of her coffee cup, saucer, and spoon.  (Aside - I never saw her drink coffee from a mug, always cup, saucer, spoon.) She used those pieces to write her grocery lists, or to share a short recipe.  I actually have a three ingredient sauce recipe that was written on the bottom half of a piece of junk mail, and ripped in half, so as not to waste that extra blank space.

Today is garbage day in my neighborhood.  Each house in my neighborhood puts out two large bins on wheels - one for recycling, and one for garbage.  In my youth in Minneapolis, our family of four was allowed one metal lidded can (Oscar the Grouch style) per household, and it was picked up once a week; rarely did we fill ours.  Granted, we each also had a burning barrel in the driveway.

This is how trash was done at our house:  There was a large wastebasket in the kitchen, lined with a paper grocery bag; this was for burnables, like dirty Kleenex, paper towels (which we bought one roll at a time, and used judiciously), labels from the canned vegetables, etc.  There was another bag for the unburnables like the empty vegetable cans, etc.  In a corner of the kitchen sink, there was an open milk carton, inside a bread wrapper (we must have eaten a LOT of bread) and all the wet waste went in there - egg shells, potato peels, orange rinds. All tin cans were rinsed, labels removed, both ends removed, and flattened.  Every week, before trash pick-up, the bag of cans and other unburnables went out to the trash can; the paper stuff went into the burning barrel, a twist tie went around the bread wrapper holding the wet trash, and it too went to the lidded can in the alley.  And that's how a family of four got by with one small can.

I know that these days we are no longer allowed to burn, but I can't help but wonder what is worse for our environment - burying all that waste, or burning it.  Granted, back in the 60s, we didn't get every single thing from the grocery store double wrapped, in moisture proof styrofoam trays.  We didn't get our sandwich in a plastic bag with a zip top - you learned to do the "drug store wrap," and your sandwich was in a piece of waxed paper, as were the celery and carrot sticks.  Ice cream came in cartons, which could be rinsed and flattened, before being put in the burning bag.  And those foil insulated bags that kept your ice cream frozen on the way home?  Saved and re-used, sometimes in your school lunch bag.

Just remembered... there was a man you called when the burning barrel got full and he came and emptied it in the back of his rusty red truck, by hand.  Actually got out of the truck and lifted it up himself....

All this from going through my old recipe folder.

Friday, May 06, 2016


Growing up in Minnesota, wherever we lived, there was rhubarb.  My earliest memories of rhubarb are of my mother cutting the first ready stalk, hacking off both ends, and letting me sit on the back step with a custard cup of sugar.  The end of the crunchy stalk was dipped in the sugar, and then a tart, crisp, gritty bite was taken.  I rarely finished the whole stalk, and never asked for a second one the rest of the growing season, but that very first taste was the taste of spring.

The last hobby farm my parents owned sported a large garden with a long row of rhubarb - it had to be at least 30 feet long.  As soon as it was ready to pick, mom filled the freezer with bags of frozen cut rhubarb, and put up jars of cooked sauce.  She gave away what she could to friends and relatives and then called our neighbor, "Scherber," to come and harvest what he wanted for his family.  He always showed up in his pick-up truck, three of his sons in the back, with a stack of galvanized wash tubs.  They were like locusts - they took everything that remained, every year, filled those wash-tubs to overflowing, and his wife thanked my mother effusively, saying how much it helped keep her large family fed with some sort of fruit throughout the winter.

My former mother-in-law (who hailed from South Dakota) loved rhubarb.  She also never did anything halfway - when rhubarb was in season, we had rhubarb everything - cakes in numerous iterations, pies in almost as many different ways as cakes, and sauce.  Even she couldn't make a dent in my mother's rhubarb patch.  I bet the Scherber family was glad of that.

The first house my now-ex and I owned had a patch of rhubarb.  It took up a large spot next to the fence where I wanted to plant a hedge to soften the fence line.  The first year we had the house, we dug up the rhubarb, but it came back the next spring.  That year, we roto-tilled the rhubarb, thinking that would destroy it.  Instead, rhubarb came up the entire length of the fence the next year.  That fall, I planted tulip bulbs and let everything come up together happily the next spring.  Though I gave up trying to eliminate it, I came to see rhubarb as a nuisance, almost a weed.

The taste of rhubarb now represents spring and promise, and that first fresh taste of grow-your-own abundance I remember from Lolo's garden. However, I haven't had rhubarb once since I left Minnesota in 1997.  For many of my adult years, rhubarb was not the taste of spring or youth, but the taste of "eat it, we can't waste it."  But now... without the taste of it in nearly 20 years, it has taken on a new symbolism, it brings back fond memories right up there with irises around the pump house, and the sound of spring peepers.

Today I made the trek to our local upscale grocer - AJ's.  I *love* shopping there, though I don't do so very often.  I made my selection at the seafood counter, and headed toward checkout through the produce aisle.  Everythingin the produce aisle is carefully, lovingly arranged.  The produce manager stood near the display, making fresh cuts on the ends of ruby-red stalks of rhubarb, and artistically arranging them in beautiful straight lines.  I couldn't help myself, I said (rather loudly) "OHhhh, rhubarb!"  He smiled when I asked if he minded if I disrupted his display, and told me to help myself while he went back to the computer to check the price; he didn't want me to have "sticker shock."  I told him I needed a couple other things as well, to take his time.  I also told him how delighted this Minnesota girl was to see rhubarb.  When he returned, he said "I'm glad I checked - it's only $5.99 a pound now.  When we had the hothouse stuff over the winter, it was $11 a pound."  I didn't think I could have sticker shock over the price of rhubarb, but I was wrong!   I told him that I'd once treated it as a weed, and now I am happily paying $5.99 a pound for that taste of my youth.  He smiled and told me that if he could grow rhubarb in Arizona, he could retire, just because of people like me.

During a visit back home to Minnesota a few years ago, I drove past the place where mom had a 30 foot row of rhubarb.  Scherber bought our old hobby farm and folded into his property when my mom moved away after my dad died.  The old farm house is torn down now, and two of his sons have built new houses on the property - one of them right on top of the rhubarb patch.  I guess they got sick of rhubarb too.  I wonder if they know that they have apparently built their new house on a gold mine.

(That little bundle of rhubarb up there at the top of the post cost $6.14.  I am happily paging through Lolo's recipe box and old cookbooks, deciding how to use it.)