Lard sandwiches and oranges, a Depression era diet
I grew up with two stories shaping my childhood. The first of The Depression and the second of The War. It wasn’t just the Depression, small t, or the War, small t, it was The Depression, capital T, and The War, capital T.
The capital T signaling that it wasn’t just any economic turndown, or just any war, but rather the signal events of one’s lifetime. My parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were speaking, of course, about the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II.
My uncles, who’d fought the war, didn’t talk about it. It was my grandmother who sent four of her six sons, one was too old, and one too young to serve, who talked about it. As for the Depression, they all had stories about it.
Both my mom’s family and my dad’s family were rural Southern Illinoisan’s. They didn’t get laid off from city factory or office jobs because there were few, if any of those kinds of jobs in the hills and hollers of Southern Illinois in the nineteen-thirties.
My paternal grandfather left the thirty acre family farm in Cumberland County, Illinois, because the fifteen tillable acres weren’t enough to support even a subsistence level farmer. My maternal grandparents likewise left the scrubby land of Wayne County, Illinois. Both families for the richer black dirt of Central Illinois’ Douglas County, where my maternal grandfather was a tenant farmer, planting corn and soybeans on other people’s land, and my paternal grandfather drove a truck picking up dead and dying livestock for transport to rendering plants. A rendering plant for you city folk is a plant that converts livestock carcasses into industrial oils or fertilizer. It’s a smelly, dirty necessary job.
My mother would tell the story of how as a grade schooler, she would ride the school bus to school with her lunch sandwich. The lunch sandwich bread and lard. I couldn’t imagine anything more disgusting. Lard, for you city folk, is boiled down white animal fat. My grandmother used it for cooking, much like we use butter or olive oil today. Lard was cheap. It came then, and maybe does today, in a blue and white half gallon metal bucket. Once the lard was gone the bucket was useful for holding nails, screws, bolts, and other things you save because you may need them.
It looks like thick white paste. I never knew lard was actually quite delicious until I ate it decades later in Poland. But, as a child, the thought of eating that cold, white, pasty grease on a piece of bread was enough to turn my stomach.
My mom would go on to say that the town kids would, in addition to their sandwiches, bring peanut butter sandwiches and oranges to school for lunch. The peanut butter and oranges provided by federal aid programs. During the Depression any of the federal programs, started by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, were known as “relief”.
Although she longed for the taste of one of the oranges, she was forbidden by her mother to take one. “Don’t you dare take one of those “relief” oranges. We don’t take relief,” her mother would tell her. I can picture her sitting to one side with the other farm kids too proud to take anything from a federal aid program eating that waxed paper wrapped, cold lard sandwich as the townies munched on their oranges.
My dad would tell the story of how his father, because they didn’t own a car and didn’t have the money to buy a train ticket, walked from Tuscola, Illinois, to Decatur, Illinois, thirty-six miles, seeking a job. There were no jobs to be had, so he walked back.
He would also tell the story of only having one pair of bib overalls to wear to school, so laundry had to be washed on the weekend when he didn’t have to go to school. Then there was the story of walking along the railroad tracks after school to pick up pieces of coal that had fallen from the train to heat their tiny, frame, shotgun house with. And the story of having but a single twelve-gauge shotgun shell to get a rabbit for supper or go meatless.
His parents were too poor to own a car. He desperately wanted the prestige of being able to say they owned a car, so he urged them to buy a broken down car sitting in their neighbor’s backyard that didn’t run, just so he could tell his schoolmates they owned a car. The price? Fifty dollars, which my grandparents didn’t have, especially not for a car that didn’t run.
Today celebrity chefs in four star restaurants promote using lard in their “back to roots” cooking, while young people avoid owning cars in favor of ride-sharing apps. Choices that are made today, not the realities of life for working class America during the Depression.
© William L. Enyart
Reflections from the River
Audio production by: Tom Calhoun, www.paguytom.com