I certainly don’t want to be repetitious, but our growing up years in New York were marked by tight budgets and very few luxuries. This was not uncommon in our neighborhood and in no way do I write this with a “poor me” theme to it.
As both Rob and I have mentioned in different posts, our Dad worked himself to exhaustion to provide for his family. I honestly don’t think this kind of man is the norm any longer, but that is neither here nor there. The only reason I mention how tight money was is to set up want I want to talk to you about today; Eating on a budget.
I never knew how much money Dad made, nor is that important. I only know what I saw. I witnessed a guy who would leave the apartment before most anyone else was even up to ride the subway to Brooklyn to work a long ten-hour day as an under baster at the Howard Clothing factory. It was ‘piece work’ and it was long and grueling. An under baster was basically a sewing machine operator and for eight hours a day, you would sew one particular part of the piece of clothing being made. Dad was part of a major Union, but even with that being the case, salaries were low and work was long and hard. On many nights, I saw Dad come home from his job at the factory and change into his Pinkerton guard uniform to work another six hours into the dead of night. Many weekends, on Friday and Saturday night he would work the one job he loved, leading his Big Band as they entertained at one of the many dance places around the City. One way or another, he was working at least two jobs at any one time, and on occasion, all three. He did this to provide as he felt a man should provide for his family. Even with all his hard work, money was tight. Mom had to feed two young, growing boys and her husband and herself on a pretty small budget.
This brings me to the purpose of this memory. Rob and I never, not for a moment, ever wished that we had more. Somehow, she put together meals many would snicker at, that were wonderful to us. Allow me to introduce you to Peppers and Oil night. Yep, that was dinner; Peppers, Oil and good bread.
She would slice up four of five sweet green Italian peppers and spread them beautifully on a big plate that would go in the center of our small kitchen/dining table. The second plate consisted of vegetable oil. Not the expensive olive oils of today, just simple vegetable oil. That also went in the center of the table. The final plate had a nice, fresh loaf of Italian bread cut into small pieces. We each had a small plate in front of us and that was basically it. Would dip the bread in oil, ad a slice of pepper and “chow down”. On occasions, Dad would make some homemade lemonade. Lemons, sugar and water and it was the best lemonade I have ever tasted, hands down. I loved Peppers and Oil night.
Then there was Lentil soup night. A bag of dry lentils, some water and seasonings and the best Lentil soup ever. The pot on the stove was huge and we were always assured of some leftovers from this meal.
Fish Stick night was another weekly favorite. This was usually served on Friday nights: remember we were Catholic, and back in the day, Catholics would not eat meat on Friday, only fish was permitted. Eating fish was intended by the Church to be a form of sacrifice, but we certainly didn’t look at it that way. We looked forward to Friday night Fish Sticks. This was one of the few meals that Mom didn’t make from scratch and I think that fact secretly bothered her. The meal was just what one would think. A box of frozen fish sticks, a few fries and dinner. It’s funny, the fish sticks of the day were almost pencil thin pieces of fried fish, nothing like the more exotic varieties of today, but we didn’t know any better and enjoyed them to the fullest. The other typical fish dish for us on Friday nights was Tuna salad sandwiches. Lord, how Rob and I loved (and still love) our tuna salad sandwiches! Mom would mix up a big bowl and buy a nice loaf of Italian bread and we feasted! (notice the common denominator of many of these meals is was good, fresh Italian bread?) If things were really good, we may even have had a bag of chips with our sandwich: Wise Potato Chips, Mom’s favorite.
A really big favorite of the entire family was potato and egg night. Again, you don’t need much of an imagination to know what this consisted of, yet the way Mom made it? priceless. It was simply scrambled eggs with nice pieces of potato and peppers mixed in, but lord how we loved that. If you have never tasted a well-made Potato and Egg sandwich, you are missing something indeed! I still enjoy these today and every time I have one……. I’m back at 418 West 17st watching Dad and Rob eat with a gusto one would expect to see at a five-star restaurant.
Of course, the one big meal of the week was Sunday pasta and sauce. That was a tradition that lived a long and happy life. (If you want a good, funny read about pasta and sauce, take a look at Rob’s entry entitled The Night of the Yoo-‘s Revenge
A big pot of fresh tomato sauce, delicious home-made meatballs floating to the top, a huge plate of Spaghetti and …heaven. (Oh yeah, don’t forget the loaf of Italian bread!)
But, you know what the one thing about all these simple, inexpensive meals that I remember most? Dads reaction to them. Whether it be a Peppers and oil or potato and egg, Dad would push back from the table and, addressing Mom, say: “Babe that was delicious! I’m stuffed! What a meal!”
One would have thought he had just feasted with Kings.
It was one his great traits…. He so appreciated the simple things in life. He would turn them into luxuries.
… and Mom? How did she take such simple ingredients and turn them into these memories?
I believe I know.
It was love, and we tasted it in every bite.