Food Recollections: On Coconut Cake and a Grape Nehi

Many of us have probably read journalist and food activist, Michael Pollan’s famous quote, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” But how did (depending on your age) our parents,  grandparents or great-grandparents really eat?  I had this idea to interview some seniors to ask that question.  You’ll be happy to learn that if your parent or grandparent lives in a retirement facility you cannot just waltz in and ask them questions.
Privacy and security guidelines made it necessary for approval from several layers before I could pay a visit to the Mars Hill Retirement Center in the little town of Mars Hill, North Carolina  in Madison County about 20 minutes from Asheville and about 10 miles from the Tennessee state line.

A helpful activities director scheduled time for me to talk to some  residents, a total of 7 people. The two men and five women ranged in age from 71 to 95 years old.  Most needed the help of walkers, canes or motorized wheelchairs. Some had more difficulty speaking than others,  but all were eager to talk and answer my questions.  We met in a sunny lounge around a large oval table. I was not permitted to take photos of some of them , so my descriptions will have to suffice.

Lewis B. – (82) – Polite, well-spoken and neatly dressed, Lewis has lived around Western NC for the majority of his life and when asked where he grew up he motioned with his hand saying,  ” …about 10 miles away”.  Lewis’ father grew hay, corn and tobacco on a 30 acre family farm, “plus 5 or 6 more acres that daddy leased”.  They also had 300 hens and a small dairy.

James – (89) – Like Lewis, James also grew up in Madison County.   His family’s farm was  82 acres and they primarily grew tobacco and corn.  A bit more taciturn,  James spoke slowly and had strong opinions about food and business.  As a young man he had  worked as a meat supplier and remembered “…selling a lot of meat to Mr. Ingle’s daddy when he had his store.”  (The father of Ingles Markets founder, was Elmer Ingle,  he owned a small grocery store in Asheville until the mid 1950’s. http://www.groceteria.com/place/north-carolina/asheville/chain-grocers-in-asheville-1925-1950/ )

Photo of a “typical old-fashioned mountain house” in Madison County NC 1926.  From NC State University libraries.

Patricia – (“in my 80’s”) – Originally from Chino, California Patricia was reluctant to give her age and said, “Let’s just say I’m in my 80’s”. Even seated in a wheel chair I could tell Patricia was tall and at one point she laughed as she mentioned that as a young woman she could never find clothes to fit and had to make her own.   Patricia recalled her father working as a bread delivery man and then in her teens he bought a 25 acre farm (“…it was always his dream”) and had a  fruit orchard.

Bread Delivery truck from Los Angles – 1930’s.

Florence C. – (95) – A slim woman with s sweet smile, Florence grew up in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and lived in cities.  I  could occasionally hear a bit of that New England accent in some of her words.   She moved to North Carolina in the 1970’s with her husband who taught at an academy in the Asheville area.

Judith L.  -73 – Judith grew up in Kingsport, TN and talked with pride about her father’s important position with a Tennessee company.

Harriet P. – 90 – Lived in Morristown, TN on a 450-acre family farm and laughed often as she recollected her childhood.

Wanda. B. – 71 – From rural Asheville, NC and though the youngest of the group. Wanda had a great deal of difficulty talking and was only able to share some information.

Here were some of the questions I asked them:
“When you were growing up was there a grocery store nearby? Where did you shop for groceries?”
James – “We raised everything we used. If we needed coffee, salt or sugar there was a small store called Frank Runyon’s where we’d go.”
Lewis  – (nodding his head in agreement with James) “I remember Runyon’s …we never wanted to run out of salt…or black pepper.  If we needed more groceries we’d go to town in Marshall where there were four grocery stores.We even grew our own wheat and corn and would take it to a mill to grind.”

Harriet – “There was a grocery store right next to my school so if my momma needed something she would send money with me to school and I would get it on the way home.” She started chuckling as she remembered a time when she’d been asked to get peanut butter and ended up scooping half of it out with her finger before she made it home. “Peanut butter was my favorite!”.
None could remember freezers until they were in their teens or older and a couple mentioned weekly visits from the ice man who would deliver blocks of ice to keep food cold.

When I asked how the nearby 70,000 square foot Ingles Market would compare to the grocery stores of their childhood they all laughed.  Florence said, “You could have fit about 7 or 8 of the grocery store we shopped into that Ingles!”.  Harriet flung her hands wide and said, “Let’s just talk about the cereal aisle…you can’t even see to the end of it!  All we had was Post Toasties!”

Ingles Markets


Post Toasties

Question:   Was there a restaurant in your town?  Did you drink soda when you were a child?
All agreed that there were few if any restaurants when they were growing up.  Judith said there was a Woolworth’s in the town of Kingsport that served food.

Woolworth – Kingsport, TN – photo courtesy of Kingsport Archives.

Harriet remembered, “The first time I went to a restaurant I didn’t know what to make of the paper napkins.   The only napkins we had were cloth and only for special occasions.”.
Patricia recalled that the only time she ate at a restaurant was if they drove from California to Kansas to visit family.  “We’d pull up at a restaurant and my father would go in.  If the place served alcohol he’d come back out and say we weren’t eating there and we’d keep going.”
Sodas were something not regularly consumed.  Milk and water were usually served at meals, some also had sweet tea.   Patricia said that orange or grape Nehi soda, “10 cents per bottle!”,was a special treat and something they only had on a car trip.

Question: “What was a special meal  like when you were growing up?”
This question elicited slow smiles and almost dreamy, faraway looks.
Harriet answered, “Well, first we always had family meals sitting around a table.”  Several of the others nodded emphatically.   Walter talked about a trip to one of the Marshall grocery stores to buy fresh oysters so his mother could make oyster stew but also said, “Meat was not a priority…there were always bowls of fresh greens like turnip, mustard and spinach.” The type of meat served for a special meal seemed to depend on where people lived.  For those  that had grown up in the country or on a farm it was usually ham. Those that lived in towns mentioned eating  beef or fried chicken for a special dinner.  When I asked about turkey Harriet puzzled for a moment and then said, “No one raised turkey so I don’t recall having turkey for a holiday meal until I was much older.”  Lewis recounted that his father would butcher about one or 2 hogs a year and then in their small community families would take turns butchering a beef cow which would be shared with neighbors.

Desserts seemed to merit the most fond memories and two that were mentioned specifically were a fresh coconut cake at Christmas and a “5 layer Apple Pie”  that I have  searched for unsuccessfully on-line.

As we moved on to talk about the difference between food and meals now compared to their childhoods, the differences grew even more apparent.  Most said that they ate foods in season.  During winter months fresh fruits and vegetables were seldom available and  fruits or vegetables at meals were from those canned or preserved in the home or in some cases purchased from a grocery store.  Harriet remember that getting an orange in her Christmas stocking was like “pure gold”.

All had “kitchen gardens” except Florence who had grown up in the city.  The kitchen gardens supplied their families with the vegetables that were served at meals like beans, tomatoes, and greens. Patricia explained that during World War II these were known as “Victory Gardens”.
There were two issues that these seniors were most concerned about. The first was the  prevalence of eating out and the second, food waste in the home.  Several mentioned that “people could save a lot of money if they didn’t eat out so much” and Harriet remarked quickly, “It’s because they don’t know how to cook!”.
Food waste was also top of mind and I could tell many of them were particularly bothered by this problem.  Florence, the oldest of the group, felt most strongly about this,  “You didn’t waste food.  You cooked what you would eat and didn’t save anything because you’d eat it all.”  Harriet agreed saying, “So much food is wasted now. If we had scraps they went to the chickens”.
My last question,  “What would you say to people who think that food when you were growing up was better?”
There was no real consensus on this.  Some seemed to think food tasted better but there were far fewer options.  Most agreed that life was harder, particularly during war time when sugar and even shoes were rationed.

World War II Sugar Ration card.
Some were impressed by and appreciative of all of the choices and variety available today and others felt this was not necessarily a good thing.  Patricia observed, “I hate to see people buying peaches in the middle of the winter and then eating them like an apple because they are so hard …peaches shouldn’t be crunchy!”.

James in particular seemed dismissive of the idea that the old days were better.  “If we wanted chicken for dinner we had to raise it and then kill it and pluck it and cook it.   Life was harder… you had to be tougher.”

I don’t know if I would necessarily want to eat the way my great-grandmother ate.  There are foods that I have access to now that she would never have seen in her lifetime.  King crab legs, mango, papaya, kiwi, quinoa…. I celebrate all of the choices we have today.  At the same time,  talking to these seniors made me reflect on what we may have sacrificed in our race towards material success and technological advancement. Fewer people have the  ability or inclination  to cook, and technology-free family meal times have to be fiercely guarded.  It would be optimal to take the best of the past and combine it with present day so we don’t lose sight of valuing time with family and simple food pleasures….like that one orange in the midst of winter….like “pure gold”.

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