“The World” is a sinful, fearful place according to way too many messages delivered from Mormon pulpits and lesson manuals. Now, nobody can reasonably argue that the modern world lacks sufficient violence and suffering. Yet this message is often delivered by an exhortation to return to a halcyon past—the good old days when our country was righteous, peaceful and prosperous.
Of course, that storied era never actually existed. Neither we nor our ancestors were ever all that good. And our country has cycled through wars and economic depressions throughout its history. I remember the 1950s and it was not much like the idealized version immortalized on Leave It to Beaver. Some mothers did work outside the home—with good and bad effects. I hated tending my toddler brother while my mom checked groceries in our family business. But I loved riding to school with my friend’s mom on her way to work. Stay-at-home moms let their kids roam unsupervised and the kids sometimes got into trouble. My 8-year-old cousin humiliated the family by getting caught shoplifting candy from a competitor’s store.
We were scared to death of communists and a possible nuclear attack by the Soviets in those days, but the economy and personal prosperity boomed—probably due to more equitable tax policies and arms-race spending rather than to superior virtue. True, illegal drug use was a lesser problem back then, but alcohol use and drunk driving—even by teens in solid Mormon communities—existed. The illegitimate birth rate was lower, but not all the hasty marriages of reluctant boys to girls with bulging bellies lasted or produced healthy families. And not everyone prospered. My widowed grandmother with a crippled, dependent daughter lived in abject poverty until Social Security benefits were extended to all aged and handicapped persons.
Skipping back a generation, the prohibition era was hardly a time of social purity as otherwise respectable citizens flouted the law to buy illegal beverages—and gave rise to organized crime supplying the need—much the way current drug laws do. Despite bootlegging, the twenties were generally peaceful and prosperous.
In the previous century our country endured persecution of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, religious discrimination against Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, slavery and a Civil War. Not exactly a recipe of peace and virtue.
A better solution than donning colonial attire to recapture the imagined spirit of an earlier age is to enjoy the present. Despite our current problems, I wouldn’t choose to live in any period of the past—although a quick visit might be fun.
My mother occasionally made a loaf of homemade bread which we devoured hot from the oven in thick, crumbly slices with butter melting through. Aunt Dutie made homemade bread too, but it wasn’t the same. Homemade bread at Aunt Dutie’s house was cold and cut into thin slices almost like store-bought bread.
My mother’s cooking was pretty standard for the ‘40s and ‘50s—meat, potatoes, gravy, and a canned vegetable. After our mother died, Dad dashed home from the family grocery store each night with the kind of instant food available in the early 1950s. One night a week we had meat pies from the butcher case with cardboard-flavored crusts topped with Franco American beef gravy—a thick, dark brown sauce that had no more than a nodding acquaintance with beef. Another night was Franco American spaghetti—similar to the Spaghetti-Os which contemporary mothers serve to condition their small children for school lunch. Thursdays were best with paper-wrapped tamales from the butcher case, topped with catsup. Salsa was unknown in Provo in the 1950s. Pan grilling was too slow, so one night a week Dad charred cheese sandwiches under the broiler and served them with Campbell’s tomato soup stretched with two cans of milk to feed the four of us. Dinty Moore beef stew was also stretched with a can of water. Dad owned a grocery store, but didn’t want to eat up all the profits.
Except for my mother’s homemade bread and sugar cookies, I don’t really have a yen for the food of my childhood. And neither do my grown children who now try to “introduce” us to exotic foods they refused to taste at our table. You know, it really wasn’t me who picked celery out of the turkey stuffing and begged for Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup at every meal.
I tried to serve my kids nutritious foods while they were growing up, but, except for broccoli, they balked. They only ate broccoli because, in a stroke of genius, I called the florets trees and said only giraffes could eat them. Unfortunately, I was never inspired with an animal motif for any other vegetable. By the time our kids hit their teens, our menu was limited to five items: hot dogs with sauerkraut (they would eat fermented vegetables), hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, and enchilada casserole. I can’t tell you how an empty nest has improved our diet.
Now George and I cook vegetarian. We love foreign foods—Thai, Indian, Middle-Eastern. For us, comfort foods are not from a nostalgic past that wasn’t all that good. Comfort food is now.
Watching A Christmas Story this week sent me on a nostalgia trip for my own childhood of the ‘40s and ‘50s—the blue collar neighborhood, vacant lots with junked cars, bullies beating kids up with no adult intervention. Those were the good old days. Life was simpler then. I wish my kids could have experienced the simple pleasures of walking to school on tree-shaded sidewalks—not having to breathe bus fumes or dodge scores of cars from mothers dropping their kids off. Instead of Seseme Street, I wish they’d had radio programs that required imagination for visual images. I wish they’d had the freedom to roam the neighborhood cutting through backyards because everybody knew them and their parents. And if only they could have had the thrill of after-dark night crawler hunts for bait to sell passing fishermen.
Of course life was simpler back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I was a kid. No bills to pay, no responsibilities. But those days were not simple for my parents. They had to deal with my dad’s military service, with finding housing during the war, with starting a family business after the war. They worried about polio epidemics in the summer and croup and pneumonia in the winter. For them, the “good old days” were the 1920s when they were kids.
I reread some of my dad’s writings last night—he rhapsodized about herding cows each summer and of sledding in front of their house on Center Street each winter. He learned to swim in the Provo River—no lessons in those days—no swim suits or towels either. Grandma washed clothes with a wringer washing machine, but didn’t have the mounds of laundry modern moms process weekly.
Dad thought his kids missed a lot by being born too late. I don’t know about my brothers, but I never envied his childhood. I wouldn’t have exchanged my library card and radio for the thrill of watching cows eat grass. And freedom to play in the street wouldn’t have compensated for living in a neighborhood swarming with flies from the neighbors’ pig pens, chicken coops, and outhouses. My kids probably feel the same way about my tales of the past. I doubt they would have traded TV, more than one bathroom, malls and movie complexes for my bucolic childhood.
And was life really that safe and secure in the past? Every generation seems to believe the world is becoming increasingly evil and dangerous. Possibly people spend too much time reading the Book of Revelation and too little time reading secular history. The world has always been a dangerous place. The good old days exist mostly in memory. Years from now, people in their 20s and 30s may recall their childhood through the rosy filter of time and wish their children could have lived in the simple, secure world of the early 21st century.
Turkey was not a Thanksgiving tradition during my early childhood. A roasted hen served our small family quite well. We didn’t spend Thanksgiving with either grandmother although we all lived in the same town. Since my brothers and I didn’t grow up with the family reunion kind of Thanksgiving, we didn’t miss it. Our family dined in elegant simplicity, setting the gate-leg dining table in the living room with a linen table cloth, china, and crystal stemware. I actually enjoyed washing the once-a-year dishes after our dinner. Crisply browned chicken skin, fruit salad and black olives were my favorite parts of the holiday meal.
After my mother’s death, Aunt Dutie invited our family to join theirs for Thanksgiving. Aunt Dutie had seven children, baked everything from scratch, and set a plentiful table despite Uncle Grump’s relatively small salary. Children were not welcomed in Aunt Dutie’s kitchen. No chance to snitch a piece of turkey skin before dinner. What a disappointment when the platter of turkey was passed around—dry white meat with not one scrap of browned skin. Where did Aunt Dutie put the good stuff? And no olives—they would have been an extravagance for that many diners. Instead of my mother’s fruit salad made with marshmallows and thickened juice folded into the whipped cream dressing, Aunt Dutie served red Jello with fruit cocktail and bananas. At least the mashed potatoes and gravy were familiar. I took a second helping of mashed potatoes, poured gravy over the top, took a big mouthful, and nearly gagged. The bowl contained mashed parsnips, not potatoes. That Thanksgiving was not the same as our mother’s, but it was definitely better than what our dad would have served up. We were grateful for Aunt Dutie’s invitation each year.
When my dad remarried, we spent Thanksgiving with my step-grandmother—a white-haired, storybook grandmother who loved feeding her gathered family—even when it grew to more than 30 members and strained the seams of her house. Male relatives created a table stretching across the entire living room while the women cooked vats of food. We were crammed shoulder to shoulder, but everyone had a place at the table. Grandma had beautiful dishes in her china cupboard, but Thanksgiving was not the occasion for their use.
This year our own nuclear family has grown to 16 members and they will all be coming for Thanksgiving. Like Grandma, I won’t be using good china. The dishwasher is hard on gold rimmed plates and I don’t have a set of 16 of anything. We will enjoy our Thanksgiving feast using turkey-themed paper plates, napkins and tablecloths. Not traditional, not environmental, but nobody wants to spend unnecessary time in the kitchen when we’re all together.