Home Economics

What’s for supper? 

When I was growing up, we called the evening meal supper in our house. At mid-day we ate our dinner. This was Midwestern parlance, perhaps typical of farm families, from which both of my parents came. At mid-day we didn’t eat “lunch.” A lunch was minimalist, more substantial than a snack, less substantial than dinner. It was a mini-meal. You ate lunch at school, out of a lunch bucket or lunch pail. (The more delicate term “lunch box” took a while to arrive.) North of town was a little restaurant called Lynn’s Lunch. On rare occasions we ate supper at Lynn’s Lunch. I don’t think I ever had dinner at Lynn’s Lunch.   

My mother had a degree in home economics from Central Michigan University. She taught home econ for a few years before I was born. I don’t know what was on the home econ curriculum at CMU during war time. I do know that my mother was not a chef and she was not a seamstress. By the time I got to know her, she was an English teacher. Before that she was a math teacher. Such was work in education in the years after the war. And she had to work. 

What was for supper? The menu was pretty limited in our house. Beef and potatoes; chicken and potatoes; pork and potatoes. Once in a while, to disturb the monotony, terrible fried salmon patties and potatoes. Once in a very great while, unspeakable liver that she also fried and served with potatoes. There must have been a vegetable on the side. If so, unless it was summer and the garden was growing out behind the house, the green items would have come from the canned foods aisle at Pat’s Food Center, across the street. Along with the beef, chicken, pork and potatoes she made a mean noodle casserole (leftover ground beef, leftover chicken) that was helped to be flavorful by a can of cream of mushroom soup.

“Tonight,” she would say once a week, “we’re having round potatoes.” 

That was a food l looked forward to. I never gave the term much thought.  

Round potatoes were leftover mashed potatoes she formed into patties and seared in a frying pan. On either side was a brownish, sometimes blackish crust from the cast iron pan; on the inside, the soft texture of the mashed potato. It never occurred to me I was eating a leftover. To me it was a genius invention I never saw at the house of any of my friends. 

Doesn’t your mother make round potatoes? 

What’s that?

She taught seventh graders all day, then came home and put supper on, which we usually sat down to eat around six o’clock. It must have been a daily grind for her. While cans reigned supreme in the 1950’s, frozen foods were beginning to establish a niche at Pat’s. A couple times a month, probably out of pure exhaustion, she warmed up Birds Eye chicken pot pies in the oven. They weren’t nearly as good as round potatoes. If there was carry-out in town, it was from Rodeitchers, up the street, which doubled as a hotel and a Chinese restaurant called Tai Shun. Rodeitcher’s-Tai-Shun was never an option. The entire time I lived in Freeland, we never ate a meal, supper or dinner, at Rodeitcher’s-Tai-Shun. For one thing, Chinese was not Midwestern farmer food. For another, it was dark in there. There were linen table cloths, lanterns on the tables. And there was liquor.

Even if there had been carry-out in town (a sandwich shop, say, or a pizzeria), my mother would not have gone that route. The economics part of her degree stayed with her. She had a budget. Her job was to feed us, to fill us, and to do it cheap. To please us she baked box cakes and cookies and pies.   We were fed and we were filled. May I have another piece of cake? 

Every so often, while we ate supper, my father would look at her and say, “FHB!”  She would smile and say back to him, “FHB!” That was short for “family hold back.” More than a slogan, it was like a creed. We are making due with little. With just enough. My parents were both children of the Great Depression. They were both scarred by the experience, radical scarcity bordering on deprivation. In my mother’s family, living on a farm up by Houghton Lake, they ate venison year around that my grandfather shot to put meat on the table. My paternal grandparents lost their home between wars. On top of that, my grandfather had encephalitis and couldn’t work.  

When they got married, my parents borrowed my Uncle Stanley’s car. The four wheels my father owned was a truck with a feed grinder on the back of it, which was how he intended to make a living. They drove to Petoskey in a borrowed car and spent the weekend. That was their honeymoon.  When they came home, they had $35 to their name. 

Family hold back.

This regime of thrift endured through my entire upbringing. It touched just about every aspect of my life. My parents said to my brother and me, “We want you boys to have a better life than we had.” They said, “We want you to have more.”  

More. What did that mean? 

They grew up with next to nothing, so perhaps a little more seemed like a lot. What we learned about “more” was how you acquired it: through sacrifice, through hard work and continuous application, through self control. 

Mornings we sat at the breakfast table at our house on 280 South Main Street, a house my parents had somehow been able to buy. My dad pulled on his clean light blue work shirt with the Standard Oil insignia just above the left pocket. He shoved a balled-up fist through the right sleeve and said to me or my brother, as that fist shot out of the other end of the sleeve, “Wanna see stars?” He’s give us a little cuff on the chin.

He delivered farm gas and fuel oil. He was an agent of the company. “What do you do?” we would ask. 

“I am a Standard Oil Agent,” he said. 

“What does that mean?”  

“I haul oil.”

Saturdays and summer days, we went with him in the truck, sitting up in the cab, high above traffic, feeling the haul of the truck engine as he put it through the gears, 1000 gallons of oil or gas in the tank behind us. He waved at every car that drove past us. He played the radio and sang along with it. “Hey, good lookin’. Whatcha got cooking.”  He whistled and yodeled. At every stop, he pulled the long hose to a 275 gallon tank leaning next to a house or perched next to a barn and filled it. Back in the truck, he wrote out a bill of sale, in duplicate, with his Eversharp pencil, and sent me or my brother to the customer’s door with it. 

Each customer had a delivery card. He kept track of deliveries in gallons, dates, tracking weather conditions with what he called “degree days,” monitoring each customer’s consumption so he made timely refills and kept people warm. As an agent of the company, he wrote monthly reports, usually at night: how much product delivered, at what price, at what total amount owed back to the company, at what profit for him. In the office in front of our house, we heard the keys tick on his adding machine, the crank handle he pulled to print figures on the narrow white tape, the swish of the pages as he slipped large sheets of carbon paper between pages. Everything exact, in duplicate.

And once a month he sent statements to his customers, pressing my brother and me into service. 

We folded the photo copies of account ledgers so the customer’s name appeared in the clear cellophane window on the envelope, we rubber stamped the John H. Bailey return address on each, and we licked and tore postage stamps from a roll of 100 stamps. 

“Careful,” he would say. He expected neat work. The customer’s name and address should be visible–and straight–in the window.

“Careful,” he would say. The stamps had to be ripped just so. Of course, with clumsy fingers or in a rush to get the job over with, we tore stamps in half, which made him mad. That was four cents. It wasn’t the money, it was the carelessness that annoyed him. But it was also the four cents.  

To teach us about money, he gave us an allowance. Mine was 25 cents a week. I took payment in quarters. Loved the feel of them in my hand, the cool heft of what he would call a twenty-five cent piece or, bigger money, a fifty-cent piece. 

Four quarters made a dollar. As they accumulated I arranged them in piles of four on the floor. 

One time I helped myself to some quarters in the cash box he kept in his office to make change for customers who came to the house to pay their bills. I had eight piles of four quarters on the floor in my bedroom. 

My brother, future CPA, said, “Where’d you get all those?” And ratted me out.  

On those rare evenings when we went for dinner at Lynn’s Lunch, we ate chili and hamburgers that came to the table wrapped in tissue paper. There was a bowling machine in the restaurant. You slid a metal puck up an alley and the pins, suspended at end of the alley, disappeared if you hit them. It looked like fun. It cost a dime to play. 

“Can we play?” 

“No.”

“Just once?”

“Did you bring your money?”

“No.”

“Then no.”

“Please?”

“It’s a waste of money.”

There were small economies and large ones. I was still in elementary school when my dad was treated for pyorrhea. We saw a dentist down in Saginaw named Dr. McGowan. He was a gruff man. I guess he was good. Who knew? At that time, you found a doctor and you stayed with him the rest of your (or his) life. We all brushed our teeth every night. Maybe we had once a year visits to Doctor McGowan. Everything seemed okay.

“I’m going to have a procedure tomorrow,” dad announced one night at the dinner table. “I’m having my teeth out.”

What? My brother and I looked at him, then our mother. She nodded.

“Out?”

“Yes, all of them. I’ll go to the hospital in the morning, they will give me an anesthetic and pull all my teeth. I’ll be home by late afternoon.”

One of us must have said, What’ll you do without any teeth?

“I’m going to have dentures made.”

False teeth. They were kind of a joke. Kids made faces. Look, I got no teeth!

“I’m going to have dentures made.  It will take a couple weeks.”

“Doctor McGowan.” 

“He thinks this is the best idea.”

It was the best idea for my dad, for our family. How much trouble and expense would have been involved in treating gum disease? There was no such thing as dental insurance. Or if there was, we probably didn’t have any.  

The next night, when we sat down to dinner, he was wearing a scarf tied around his mouth. My mother made him poached eggs.  When she set the plate down in front of him, he untied the scarf.  

We saw. I looked at my brother, he looked at me, we both looked down at our plates.

“It’s okay,” dad said.  “You can laugh.” 

We did. 

It was winter. The cold air hurt his mouth. For a week or so, after he pulled on his work shirt, he tied that scarf around his face and got back to his life. 

In the spring of 1962 my father bought a new Chevy pickup. He bought it for work purposes. He could load 55 gallon oil drums onto the bed in the back, or a furnace he was going to install, or tools he needed when he went out at 2:00 a.m. on cold weeknights to fix a customer’s furnace, or the five-gallon cans of Atrazine and Malathion he needed for farm spraying. The pickup had a hitch on the back, so he could also pull his utility trailer loaded with trash to the township dump or drop a 300 gallon tank off at a farm. It had a three-speed transmission, on the column, and a bench seat where three adults could sit uncomfortably. Pity the guy squashed in the middle. 

When he bought it, I don’t know if he bought it thinking it would also serve as a camper. He probably did.

Camper–in the most spartan sense of the word. 

He bought a light metal cover that fitted on the back. The cover–I’ve seen them called a “tonneau”–was 20 inches high, giving us a living space that was roughly three feet high. You couldn’t stand up back there, you couldn’t sit back there. You could hunch, you could crawl, you could sleep back there. On either side of the camper was a small window that may have been decorative only and a gate in the back that locked from the outside only and swung up when open. With the tailgate lowered and the camper door raised, you crawled inside on your hands and knees. 

“Pretty neat,” dad said.

Pretty neat, my brother and I agreed.

I can’t imagine what my mother must have thought.  If she was not a happy camper, she never showed it. 

We were a camping family already. In an earlier iteration of this experience, before we graduated to the 22 foot house trailer he parked at the county park in Lake City, we had a pop-up camper called a Nymrod, with green canvas walls and canvas roof that folded open and two beddish platforms that pulled out of the side of the camper like drawers. From those Nymrod days we still had a Coleman lantern and a two-burner Coleman stove that burned white gas and that my mother used to fry eggs and bacon and make coffee for breakfast and to warm soup for lunch. 

In this new rig, this once-in-a-lifetime camper (we hoped), we took a weeklong vacation, a camping trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; four of us riding in the cab, practically sitting on top of each other, and the dog. The idea was to explore the farthest reaches of the UP. The Keweenaw Peninsula, the Copper Country, Eagle Harbor, the Porcupine Mountains, Lake of the Clouds, Lake Fannie Hooe, Brockway Mountain Drive, Fork Wilkins. We had a fourteen foot boat by then, just big enough, with an engine just powerful enough, for my brother and me to water ski behind. Always game, my dad skied too.

It rained all week. It was cold. Jacket weather, my mother called it. Nevertheless, everywhere we stopped, at every lake, in every park, we swam, usually in the late afternoon.  We swam, we put the boat in the water, we skied. Dad insisted. Well, we’re here. People thought we were crazy. We thought we were crazy, too, and were kind of proud of that.  

In the back of the Chevy pickup camper, my brother and I slept crosswise in sleeping bags on a sheet of plywood dad had laid across the top of the pickup bed, shoved up close to the cab.  We were on the second story back there, in the loft. When we lay in bed at night, twenty inches above us was the camper’s metal roof the rain pinged against, pounded on a few nights. He and my mother slept lengthwise, heads to the tailgate, on the pickup bed beneath us. I don’t remember air mattresses. I think would remember the tedium, the lengthy fuss of blowing them up with our mouths.

On the road we drove past gift shops, past trading posts in period-looking wooden cabins that appealed to my underdeveloped sense of frontier times. They sold moccasins, head-dresses tomahawks, arrowheads, vests, coats, purses, lots of industry-standard antiques. 

“Can we stop here?” my brother and I would ask.

“No, not today.” A two-person chorus. 

My parents were on the same page. It was the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not waste money on knick knacks and trinkets

We drove past tourist traps like Castle Rock and Mystery Spot. 

“Can we go there?”

“No, not today.”

There were toys in places like that. I might pick one up, cast an imploring look in their direction.  I had heard the answer. A two-person chorus: “You don’t need that.”

Need. 

Want. 

That week we must have lived on bologna sandwiches and Campell’s soup. What drudgery it must have been for my mother, rustling up grub in the rain, heating water over the Coleman stove to wash and rinse pans and cups and dishes. 

Whatta ya say we go out for breakfast this morning? 

Those words would not have been uttered, maybe not even occurred as a passing thought. 

At Lake Gogebic, we went to the town dump one night to see the black bears that came out of the woods at dusk and scavenged for food.  There it was, the wild. 

We got home, all four of us with frayed nerves, damp and dirty clothes, none the poorer; Five tanks of gas, five bucks a night for campsites.

The family consensus, a kind of ethos, was like FHB: It wasn’t that bad.   

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