Depression Kids Kept Eyes Peeled For Food

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One day, one of the wisest men I have ever personally known was running a meeting when someone asked a question. I didn’t think much of the question: “Well what about people who haven’t got one? They’ll want one too.” Duh!

Ah, but the answer? Brilliant!

“People always want what they haven’t got.”

I have a feeling that explains a lot of what goes on in this old world. In fact, when I look back at myself as a Depression kid, I’m sure of it. All I have to do is think about one thing: Food.

It isn’t that we were starving back then. Far from it. At least not in my neighborhood, as poor as we were, and I would say we were about as poor as you can get and still have anything you can call a neighborhood. When things get worse than that you’re lying on a park bench with a newspaper over you. 

But there’s food and there’s food. Some food fills your belly, but leaves something missing. Know what I mean? You’re full, but you wish you weren’t because that way you could go out and find some real food. 

An example? Cream of Wheat — it promises nothing and delivers less. And did it every doggone morning when I was a kid.

Anyway, we Depression kids knew what good tasting food was for. We didn’t see too much of it at times, but when we did we knew what to do with it — inhale it. The trouble was it took money to get it, and money was even scarcer than good tasting food.

It wasn’t that we were focused on food. That’s a losing game unless the food you’re focused on is in the oven filling the house with mouth-watering aroma. Roast beef. Roast turkey. Roast pork. Roast chicken. Roast anything. And apple pie, of course. 

That game you can win.

I’ve read about people who were starving in the desert, or at sea, or in some frozen mountain pass, and who sat around talking about food. Not me, bubba! How dumb can you get? That’s nothing but self-torture. It’s as dumb as spending your time redesigning the electric chair you’re going to be fried in next week.

We Depression kids were not focused on food all the time. It was just that when duty called we were ready to answer — for city, county, state, nation ... and digestive tract.

As it is now, so it was then. Isn’t it always some holiday that stirs us to our patriotic duty to get out there and eat up the planet? Think about it: Easter: Ham. Thanksgiving and Christmas: Turkey. New Year’s Day: Ham again. Then, as now.

To fill in the blanks between the big holidays we Depression kids had three more chances to do our duty: Memorial Day in May, Independence Day in July, and Armistice Day in November, each well and truly celebrated by ingesting a knee-bending load of hot dogs.

The public holiday I remember best as a kid is Memorial Day. It was big back in the ’30s because we were not too many years beyond World War I, the biggest war we had ever fought. The “celebration” was held in Woodland Cemetery each year. I suppose there must have been official events — speeches, applause, cheers, and such. I have no memory of all that, but the flags and the free hot dogs I will never forget. “Mustard, little boy?” (Yes, thank you!) “Relish?” (No, thank you.) “Sauerkraut?” (Oh, yes!)

There must have been other foods too; many of them no doubt excellent, but the world can be cold and harsh in its judgments, mere excellence being overshadowed by hotdogian supremacy.

Two kids sprawled on a grassy knoll with eyes half closed.

“How many did you get, Garrett?”

“Three. With sauerkraut! And a bottle of Coke!”

“I got seven! With everything! And three root beers!”

Just the thought of seven hot-dogs-with-everything sloshing around in a sea of root beer was enough to make me shudder even then, but I didn’t dare. I wanted those three dogs to stay down.

We repeated that act on the 4th of July and again on the 11th of November, which as I said was called Armistice Day in honor of the day the shooting stopped in World War I. It’s called Veterans Day now. The name was changed after World War II. It had to be. If we had stayed with the same theme — the end of the fighting in a battle zone — we’d have had to have had VE Day for Victory in Europe, VJ Day for Victory in Japan and Armistice Day. Then someone would no doubt have started carping about the fact that we were dissing the end of the Revolution and not giving the end of the Civil War its fair share of the attention. And by the time we added in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II and whatever, we’d have had kids who couldn’t squeeze sideways through a double door.

And there was Halloween trick or treat. We didn’t get bags of candy back in those days, but when we said trick, we meant TRICK!

“Old cheapskate! Ain’t got no candy? Baloney! He’s a liar!”

“Yeah! Let’s get him!”

“OK, who’s got the two-inchers?”

“Forget two-inchers. I got some cherry bombs. What we do is string six of them together, stick them in his mail box, ring the bell, and run like hell!”

I’ll never forget that night, Johnny.

Mount St. Helens. Right there on Pike Street.

Of course, as anybody will tell you, I wasn’t there.

Ah yes, food. Good for what ails you. Especially on a cold winter’s night when the neighborhood kids have a barn fire going on the corner of Brook Street and Pike Street, right across the street from Lombardi’s Grocery, when all of sudden Bobby Hein jumps up and says, “Hey! Why don’t we roast some mickies?”

I did not know what mickies were, but they sounded edible and likely to warm me up so I was for it. So were Junior Disarro, Buddy McKinley, Kenny Fessler, and Muzzie and Benny Battiglia. 

“But who’s gonna steal ’em?” somebody asked doubtfully.

“We don’t have to steal ’em,” Bobby Hein said. “I got a dime.”

A dime, I learned, would buy five pounds of mickies, whatever they were. Bobby set out across the street. “Kick the fire around so’s we can get at the ashes,” he told us, heading for Lombardi’s.

Five minutes later there were five pounds of potatoes under the fire, roasting away. Thirty minutes later they emerged, black, smoking, raw centered, skins and a quarter inch of potato burned to a crisp, and far too hot to eat, which we did anyway.

Heavenly. A repast from above, as delicately toothsome and delectable as wasabi tongue of grouse a la Parisiene.

Did you know that charcoal is good for you, Johnny?

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