Because of the economics of my childhood, my parents were thrifty. Because of the economics of their respective childhoods, they knew how. There was never enough money to be miserly, and my parents practiced generosity whenever, and, however, they could. They set aside money for church and charities, and birthdays and Christmas never lacked the magic of Special or Thought Of.
Frugality was in the day-to-day. With yards of fabric still less expensive than pre-sweatshop ready-made, mom sewed many of our clothes. Back to school meant pattern books, cutting tables, buttons, and thread. Fabric stores were places of unlimited possibility, always a good feeling to garner at the start of any new school year. We did shop the mall for shoes & socks & shirts & sweaters, the only time of year we did so, but only at the less expensive stores. The end of August, still, has a pull, a visceral memory of new.
I’ve mentioned before how we canned and/or froze vegetables from the garden to eat throughout the winter. From berry patches, our own and U-Pick, we’d freeze strawberry and raspberry jams. We processed peaches and pears from our neighbor’s grandparent’s orchards, food at the ready in that basement cupboard, the one squeezed in, between the crawl space and the stairway, the one intentionally designed for canning jars.
My mom shopped for the lowest priced foods, which until they went out of business, was the Prairie Market. I don’t know what made it Prairie, but it was definitely a precursor to the bulk-buying monoliths of today. The only carts available were the large, unwieldy, flatbed kind. Bins piled high with empty boxes flanked the automatic entry. Customers piled empties onto a cart, while kids enjoyed being ferried throughout the store, ferried until the potential purchases pushed them to their feet. I most remember the coffee cans of mechanical grease pencils, pencils to mark shelf-tag information onto the products being purchased. This was the dark ages before POS or UPC or SKU. It was easier to change shelf tags than re-price all the product? Sometimes we helped mark things, sometimes we drew on the empty boxes, regularly marveling at the audacity shown by previous shoppers, those who’d taken time to embellish the Quaker Oats guy with angry eyebrows, or Tony the Tiger with earrings and eyelashes. Our trip to Prairie Market was always at the beginning of the month, coinciding with PayDay, and we always left with a cart loaded with product. My mom stuck to her list, knowing what we needed for the coming month, what meals she’d be able to pull together, knowing that things would get tricky as the days wound down toward another PayDay. There were those days with shopping treats, maybe of Hostess Cupcakes, or the occasional bag of Popsicles. I never felt any lack or deprivation. We had plenty.
My dad was, and still is, a fixer. He kept our stuff in service. Lawnmowers, rototillers, wheelbarrows, bicycles, automobiles, all repaired, patched-up, sometimes MacGyvered with baling wire and nuts/bolts, especially where nuts and/or bolts had not been a part of the equipment’s original design. My mom budgeted for replacements, but those replacements never occurred until all other attempts at resurrection had failed. After full days of Middle School Teaching, Dad came home and DIY’d the house repairs, plumbing repairs, electrical repairs; he’d build up the firewood supply, weed the vegetable garden, prune the apple trees, and re-gravel the driveway. Just this year, now that my parents are 80, they have hired landscapers to show up once a week, only to edge all the flower beds, AND they’ve hired the occasional help to fix the roof, put down new bathroom vinyl, or re-carpet the house. Only lately.
But getting back to my mom, with all the tasks she took on: gardening, house painting, household accounting and procurement, all things clothing and laundry, she had no fear in the kitchen. She could make bread or cinnamon rolls with her eyes closed, roast turkeys without breaking a sweat, was, and still is, a legendary potato peeler. Canned salmon, boxes of Jello, melon-balled watermelon, not always epic in their final presentation for a meal, she handled all deftly, confidently. We had to eat, we ate on a budget, and I know I didn’t always like what she served. Tuna Noodle Casserole? Not so much. I’m sure some of those You’ll-Eat-It-And-You’ll-Be-Grateful speeches were delivered, most likely by my dad, but I don’t really remember that. I do remember my mom’s Kitchen Can-Do, a memory I still feel and work to harness for my kitchen practice.
Like many, I have Dad- and Mom-isms that pop in and out of my consciousness. Most of mine are harmless and even endearing. One of my favorite Mom-isms, one that I hear repeatedly during many cooking projects, stems from cookie-making as a child. One learns early on that when scooping cookie dough, if the bowl isn’t spatula-scraped clean, the baker gets to indulge in the remnants. Gets to indulge until the efficient, frugal mother looks into the bowl and says “Oh Honey! There’s a whole cookie in here!”, and who then proceeds to get that last cookie onto the sheet pan.