Fried Spam, Milk Toast and Scrambled Egg Sandwiches
I almost cracked yesterday. It was Day 17 of the 26-Day detox referenced in my last article. I was irritable and hungry. I’d had enough of green veggie juice and no salt. It didn’t help that I watched four episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Talk about a weird form of self-torture. All I could think about was food. Interspersed with thoughts of ripping open a bag of cheese popcorn and pouring a glass of wine were memories of the foods I ate when I was a kid.
I grew up in a family with five children, two brothers and two sisters. My dad was a pastor and my mom was a full-time homemaker. Given their limited income and food budget, my mom was a magician when it came to keeping seven people fed. My dad would give her $60 a week to buy groceries. She’d get what she could at the store and then make the rest. Fortunately, my dad’s parishioners were generous. He served mostly rural congregations, and the farmers would bring us all kinds of food. They brought beef and pork when they butchered; they gave us eggs and produce; one neighbor let us take as much fresh milk from his cooler as we could drink. Dad would fill three gallon pails every other day, straight from the bulk tank. Before we drank it, we’d have to scrape an inch of coagulated cream off the top or stir it into the milk. More often than not, we’d have to pick out a few dead flies. That same farmer also gave us chickens on the condition that we butcher them ourselves. My mom would go down to the neighbor’s farm once a year to collect on that offer. I helped her by grabbing the chickens with a fowl catcher. She and the farmer’s wife would chop off their heads, clean out the carcasses, dunk them in boiling water, pluck the feathers, bag them up and put them in the freezer. 20 chickens would last us a long time.
My parents also had a huge garden where they grew all kinds of fresh vegetables. Mom would can tomatoes, pickles, peaches and pears. She would freeze strawberries, raspberries, green beans and peas in the summer and sweet corn in the fall. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money we never went hungry.
We sat down at the kitchen table three times a day. We called breakfast what it was; we called the noon meal dinner and the evening meal supper. For breakfast we usually had cold cereal, mostly Wheaties or Cheerios, sometimes with sliced bananas or strawberries on top. On some mornings mom would make Malt-o-Meal. If she made the regular flavor, we’d put raisins in it; if she made the chocolate flavor, we’d put a single marshmallow in our bowl and when she poured the hot mush over the top, it would pop up through the cereal.
When we were kids, we played hard every day. We’d come into the house after running around the neighborhood, go straight to the fridge to see if there was anything good to eat and ask, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” Or, “What’s for supper?” She always had something cooking or baking. She made eight loaves of homemade bread every week. We had a lot of traditional meals like pork chops and potatoes or liver and onions, but she also made homemade hot dishes and soups, macaroni and cheese, and a few other strange dishes.
A couple stand out in my memory. For lunch she’d make us sandwiches – tuna, peanut butter and lettuce or scrambled eggs with Miracle Whip. There would always be homemade pickles and fresh vegetables on the table.
For supper, sometimes she’d make fried Spam. Spam came in a blue can that you opened with a key that peeled away a strip of the tin so the lid would come off. It was a gelatinous glob of who knows what, but it sure tasted good when it was fried to a crisp in some butter. One of the side dishes she often made was stewed tomatoes. She’d heat a jar of canned tomatoes in a pan and put some in a bowl for each of us. We would sprinkle sugar over the tomatoes and slurp ‘em up. Every once in a while, mom would take all the leftovers from the fridge – potatoes, meats, vegetables – cut them up, mix them together and fry them in a skillet. We simply called it hash. Or she would make a huge pot of steamed rice and that would be our entire meal. We would put butter, brown sugar and cinnamon on the rice and eat bowls of it.
Sunday night was the only time we didn’t have to sit around the kitchen table for our evening meal. On Sunday nights, we would set up TV trays in the family room and watch The Wonderful World of Disney. For our meal we’d have cinnamon toast. We’d each make four pieces of toast, spread on some butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. With a cold glass of cold milk and an occasional dead fly, it was hard to beat that meal!
On rare occasions when my mom was not around, dad would step in and make us one of his specialties called milk toast. He would heat up milk in a pan and drop in half a stick of butter. Then he’d make toast, burnt to a crisp the way he liked. He’d put the toast on our plates and pour the salty, buttery milk over the top of it. Voilà! Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
In between meals, we would snack on apples, carrots or raisins in water. We’d put a couple handfuls of raisins in a glass of cold water which would make them hard and chewy and then eat them with a spoon out of the glass. For desserts mom would make banana cream pie, raisin bars, or rhubarb crisp, or she’d give us canned peaches or pears. Our favorite, though, was ice cream. She would give us each one scoop which usually resulted in a minor insurrection where each of us would get up from the table, take the ice cream out of the freezer and add two or three more scoops to our bowls.
On some Friday nights my dad would make homemade popcorn on the stove. He’d pop the corn in Crisco and drizzle melted butter on top. When I was little, I had trouble digesting popcorn, but it tasted so good that I couldn’t help myself. In a family with five kids, there is one simple rule that everybody learns. He who eats fastest gets the most. I’d gobble down as much as I could as fast as I could. Then, in the middle of the night I’d wake up in a cold sweat and throw up all over my bed. It was totally worth it.
We never had soda, or pop as we called it. The only time we got pop was on New Year’s Eve when my mom would buy an 8-pack of 7 Up and make 7 Up floats before we went to bed. The grandest treat of all? Once in a blue moon dad would pack us into our brown Ford station wagon after church on Sunday and drive to Sioux Falls where there was a McDonald’s restaurant. He allotted one dollar to each of us older kids which was enough back then to buy a hamburger, French fries and strawberry shake. Oh, the joy!
I’m still hungry. I think it’s time for some raisins in water to hold me over.