My husband, Tink, had been in Los Angeles for a week. The morning before his plane left LAX, it occurred to me that a good, wifely thing to do would be to welcome him back to the Rondarosa with a homecooked meal.
It would be, I decided, simple but grand. After deciding upon a vegetable lasagna and a four-layer red-velvet cake with coconut-cream-cheese icing — nothing says, ‘Welcome back South’ better than red-velvet cake — I sat down at the kitchen table to make out the grocery list. It was long and, as it turned out, expensive. Guiltily, I gulped and paid the $60 bill, picked up my grocery bags, all of which I could tote without the need of a buggy, and left.
I was raised better than that, so as I left the grocery store, I felt terrible that I had slipped so far away from Mama’s teachings of food frugality. First of all, Mama rarely went grocery shopping. It was basically a foray every couple of months where she picked up staples such as coffee, flour and sugar. And when she shopped, she did not require a grocery list because the things she needed were so few and always constant. Once a week, Daddy stopped by the store to bring home a gallon of sweet milk and a gallon of buttermilk. Occasionally, he would also bring a loaf of bread but, mainly, we lived on what we grew.
Mama worked a garden in the unforgiving heat of the summer humidity to put aside enough vegetables to fill a pantry and two freezers. I sat on the family porch swing on many a July evening and shelled field peas until my thumb was tender. Other evenings, I watched television with Daddy and helped Mama string green beans. I can still feel the stickiness of the corn that splattered and clung to my face, neck and arms as we sliced it from the cob then ran the knife in the reverse direction to gather the cream from the cob so we could freeze it.
It isn’t hard to close my eyes and recall the heavy scent of tomatoes or vegetable soup being canned in the kitchen as Mama stood diligent guard over her ancient pressure canner to make sure the gauge did not go too high and explode. I remember clearly, too, the smell of sage that permeated the house as Mama and Daddy set about making sausage from the home-grown hog that Daddy had felled with a single, well-placed bullet from his shot gun. “Hog-killin’ time” came as soon as the first heavy frost had hit the ground.
In those days, if I had to venture a guess, I would say we spent no more than $800 a year on groceries. Both Mama and Daddy were raised to know how to grow and harvest food so they would be self-efficient and frugal. Mama recounted from time to time how her family bartered for what they couldn’t raise. As a young girl, she would walk a couple of miles to the small country store and exchange fresh eggs or a chicken for coffee, sugar, salt and flour. Their cornmeal came from corn they raised then took to the mill to have ground.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that our family from Mama and Daddy’s generation lived, for the most part, long and healthy lives. There were no preservatives in their food, and their water came either directly from mountain streams or deep wells.
While I have neither the time nor the serious know-how to live off the land like they did, there is one thing I can do: Cook from what is in the pantry. I can be resourceful and smart rather than grand.
Except, of course, when it comes to that scrumptious four-layer, red-velvet-coconut cake. You have to splurge somewhere.
Rich is the author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.