Saturday, October 4, 2008

It came from the basement

I've been reading the first set of papers for the ethnographic writing class I'm teaching this semester, in which I asked the students to research and write about a family story, custom, or foodway.

One of the papers I read today was about a dish the student's family called "cornstarch": basically, a cooked chocolate pudding of cocoa powder, sugar, and milk thickened with the eponymous ingredient and then served warm over white bread or biscuits. I'd actually heard about this dish previously--called "chocolate gravy"--from a student in Colorado whose family originally came from the South. In both cases, the dish wasn't served as dessert, but as a meal; my current student's family traditionally ate it with hot dogs.

Yeah, gross, I know, but in both cases the students traced the origins of this dish to the Depression. In that context, and especially in rural Appalachia, the dish makes perfect sense: quick, easy, filling, with a high calorie-to-cost ratio. When we study foodways, I like to remind students that the luxury to eat what we want, when we want, in any season is a very new phenomenon.

So, it's no surprise that my parents, who both grew up during the Depression, hold onto things for a long time. Sometimes this works out beautifully, like when we were watching some old home movies one Christmas and the projector bulb burned out. My dad sprung up, saying that he thought he had a spare in the basement, and a few minutes later came upstairs with an entire box labeled "projector bulbs." The show was back on.

Other times, though, this instinct is a little more suspect. Several years ago, Tom and I were visiting and decided to make a brunch casserole that called for frozen hash browns. I seemed to remember seeing some in the basement freezer, and sent Tom down to get them. When he came back up with them, I took one look and decided we needed to go to Kroger's to get a new bag: the pricetag (yes, a genuine, stick-on pricetag) was from a grocery store chain that had closed in the 1980s.

My dad also had an ancient jar of Postum in the cabinet. I mean, it had to be at least 30 or 40 years old. I'd never seen anyone in the household drink Postum, ever. I suggested that perhaps it could be thrown away, and he recoiled at the very thought: it was Postum! How could it go bad? Upon opening the jar, though, we saw that the contents were glommed together in a hard mass--not the mixable powder it was supposed to be.

No problem, claimed Dad: it could be reconstituted in some water to make a kind of Postum concentrate. Which he did. And, to prove a point, he put some Postum sauce in hot water and drank it. The jar mysteriously disappeared shortly afterward.

I heard somewhere recently that with food prices skyrocketing, people (and restaurants) are throwing away much less food, which is making things difficult for food banks and shelters. Bad for those organizations, but perhaps good for us, who tend to forget that most of the rest of the world doesn't eat like we do--especially not when they're at war. Seems to me some government-imposed rationing, like there was during WWII, might make timelines for ending the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem a lot more appealing to our more bellicose citizens.

Now, I'm not advocating digging that old Postum out of the trash can and savoring every last crusty bit with righteous frugality. But we probably could all be more grateful for the abundance we have. For myself, I hope to be somewhere near the Hathaway basement come the Apocalypse, since there's enough down there to subsist on for at least as many decades as stuff has been accumulating there.

P. S. I wish I did have that jar of Postum now: apparently, Kraft Foods discontinued it this past January, and some members of the Seventh-Day Adventist and LDS churches--which both eschew caffeine--are up in arms about it. There's an unopened jar selling on Amazon for $'d think that rehydrated Postum might bring a few bucks, anyway.

In case you're still in doubt about the historio-cultural significance of Postum, check out this item from the Smithsonian's archives.

--With thanks to Historiann's blog on "retro recipes" for additional inspiration.


historiann said...

Wow--you weren't kidding about your parents saving food that's older than you are. (Well, maybe older than I am, anyway!)

I think you're right about developing a respectful ethic towards food, seeing it as a precious resource, etc. I think home gardens would go a long way towards encouraging this. Once you see how much work goes into them, and how long you have to wait to have edible produce, it makes you more respectful of farmers and the work that goes into making sure we have fresh veggies all winter long in our supermarkets.

Michael said...

My mom's basement is crammed full of paper towels, toilet paper, Christmas and Halloween decorations, a few canned goods, and, to be fair, hundreds of my old books and vinyl albums. So if we could get your mom's basement and my mom's basement together in time for the apocalypse, we'd be in clover, eh?

Rose said...

Oh, there's TP galore in the folks' basement, too, on the "shelf of broken dishes," as I like to call it: boxes with the odds and ends of generations of family china patterns, labeled "four teacups--chipped," etc.

But there's not much in the way of reading and listening material down there, so I think you're on to something! Maybe we could dig a tunnel from Grove City to Bexley...?

Erica said...

My parents' Postum is only about 20 years old... although there's a few bottles of Scotch (they aren't big drinkers, but occasionally got some as gifts) that are now probably pushing 60 years old.

The disconnect between widespread civilian sacrifice in WWII, and widespread civilian profligacy in modern conflicts, is amazing to me as well. Even in a bad economy, more publicity is concentrated on being unable to afford gasoline, get a car loan, or take a vacation than is focused on the prices of food. (Although every now and then you'll heard about the price of food in conjunction with the price of fuel.) It's interesting that we've progressed to a point as a society where food isn't considered a fundamental to be concerned about.

To counteract that, I'd grow a Victory Garden, except I kill plants :(

Rose said...

Welcome, Erica! I've really enjoyed looking at your blog since Ann brought it to my attention. Maybe you need to include some photos of those Scotch bottles on your site? They're certainly old enough to qualify! (Though they probably don't contribute to "mental hygeine" in the traditional sense, though I enjoy using liquor to wipe my mind clean from time to time.)

You make an excellent point about "widespread civilian profligacy" during our current wars. What depresses me most, I think, is knowing that most of the flag-waving ribbon-wearers would go ballistic if they were asked to make such sacrifices.