Last night, my husband used the expression “penny candy.” He was not raised in the Great Depression; he just acts like it sometimes. After laughing at him, I started to think about what elements of the early- and mid- century American culture persists today. We don’t go the “5 and dime” anymore, but we do “dial” the phone.
For me as a child, the specter of the Great Depression and World War II, through grandparents and family friends, informed a great deal of my consumership. I frequently heard, “back in my day, we just cut off the burnt piece of the toast…” For my parents, boomers as they are, this must have been an unquietable refrain of their childhood, because now they are a marketers dream. It was not until college that I realized that there was not an electric can opener in each and every household. This ying and yang of consumership helped shape my sense of how much I NEED to own. This introspective turn is to explain that while my grandmother makes every meal she eats (and always makes complicated meals), my mother thinks if it is purchased, it must be better. Though she was a good cook and made dinner every week night, I also ate out most weekends of my childhood. So, if we needed to stop by Richmond Mall and I was somewhat puckish, even though dinner would be in an hour, she would buy me a whole meal at the Woolworth’s.
This was not the ubiquitous Woolworth’s lunch counter. This cafeteria used dark wood, atmospheric lighting, deep-colored carpeting (red, I think) and leatherette chairs to create a Mid-Western rendition of a swank dinner club. You would walk down a long tiled path to get your tray, still damply warm from the dishwasher. And, then you would be able to purchase a meat and two sides—there was always a roast turkey being carved. But, for me it was the roast chicken. Its seasonings of paprika and tarragon was so All-American and comforting. I always paired it with mac and cheese (I think it was the stove-top kind.) I often completed the meal/snack with a bowl of J-E-LL-O.
For an immigrant’s kid, this was the height of American-food as exotic. This is perhaps how I came up loving the high and the low of food.(Who needs therapy when you can blog?) But, thinking about it, it is my guess that few of my friends were eating at the Woolworth’s on a Saturday afternoon. Instead, they would be sitting down for their American food dinners, either prepared from fresh ingredients or from a box.