In 1946, we raced over to Eddie Keefe’s store one fine day to get our first allotment of bubble gum. Some part of that product was necessary in the War effort. God knows what it was; we never figured it out. Kids hadn’t seen it for years. Bubble Gum and baseball cards took the place of ration books in the late 40’s, while the neighborhood grocer enjoyed one more decade of predominance.
Grocers always had a scary machine to cut cold meat like the famous “minced ham.” Today they call it bologna -- and I can’t stand it! Baloney to me meant the delectable, spicy sausage in a ring. Ed Keefe often showed me where his missing finger tips once were. I still shudder to think of it! I guess he talked too much while slicing cold cuts! Such accidents weren’t uncommon. I once had a teacher with missing fingers too, from a paper cutter. She would shove them in your face in a fist and say, “There’ll be two hits; I’ll hit you and you’ll hit the floor.” While she spoke, the rigid student stared at her stumps, and then looked up to see the twinkle in her eyes. The only present I ever bought a teacher was for her, a recording of her favorite song, “Always.” I still remember the words.
I liked baloney sandwiches with lots of butter. I learned to make my own, because my mother, with her strong farmer’s arms, would smash it to a pulp when she cut it. She’d put her hand firmly on it, with the knife under it and bear down something fierce. Out came a mashed sandwich. In that way, she taught us -- if you want it done right, do it yourself! I remember, too, how she cooked pork chops to cinder-crisps -- a precaution against trichinosis, which farmers had seen often and guarded against assiduously. I’ve always joked that if we dropped a chop of hers on the floor it would shatter!! NEVER did we have meat with any juice or redness within, except for pork roasts, which were marvelous and juicy but always done, always.
During the depression, when heating materials were scarce, kids of some families would go down to the tracks and throw rocks at passing trains, and the men would throw back coal. The kids would then bring buckets for a bigger supply. Sometimes the trainmen, usually poor themselves, would catch on, and throw whole bucket-fulls. As in the picture, children would pull their Radio Flyer down to the tracks and, if lucky, found abundant coal there. They would take it home and throw it in the furnace, because the coal bin was empty. Do you remember “stoking” the furnace? What a chore!
We all remember with fondness products from those years. Over on 3rd Avenue So., one can still see where Voelpel pop company had an establishment, (now it’s RHA). Many of you will recall the fine soda pops that they turned out…. Lemon Beer, a dark tangy Ginger Ale, and many folks even liked Cream Soda. (Question: Why is it called “soda” out East and “pop” here in the Midwest?) Best of all, though, was Orange Crush in those homely old brown bottles. Six ounces was considered enough then; now, of course, everything is super-sized! Speaking of favorite drinks, do you remember the milkshakes and malts from Elmwood Dairy down on Camanche Avenue?! M-mm-m.
Clinton also once produced a hot, dark “Clinton Mustard.” Whenever my brother Gene came back to town on a visit, he had to buy a dozen bottles of that potent, thick-with-horseradish stuff!
It was routine dinner conversation to talk about the food and then wander into a discussion of grocers or politics. We didn’t talk about politics, but we liked to gossip. We analyzed the grocers’ idiosyncrasies, their business habits, and what we liked and didn’t like about their personalities, but basically we loved them all. We also did this sort of thing regarding neighbors, druggists, street urchins, you name it. One thing that I never recall in our house, though, was talking with bigotry about groups of people. We only trashed “deserving individuals!” At least we thought they were deserving. But I’m fairly sure there were other families talking about the smart-alecky Herrity brats!
Suppertime was for our family what T.V. talk shows are for today’s people. We had our own “Hardball or “Survivor,” with 6 to 8 people sitting around the dining room table shouting simultaneously. After dinner, many retired to the small kitchen to help with dishes, hang out, and continue discussing whatever. I would sometimes go into the darkened living room and listen squeamishly to horrible radio stories and sound-effects, before gravitating back toward the warm safety of the kitchen. Families were tightly-knit then, and those were glorious times!
The neighborhood grocery store like Hardersens on Camanche Avenue couldn’t compete with the new “supermarkets”-- like A&P, Tenenbaum’s, National Tea, Eagles, etc. Soon, most of the small grocers were out of business. Later, still bigger markets would run the supermarkets out of business. It’s ironic that “quick trip stores,” charging appreciably more than mom and pop markets, have been able to find a niche where the old store-on-the-corner couldn’t. Maybe it has something to do with the three staples of today’s marketplace (not eggs, milk, and bread as in the 1940’s and ‘50’s), but, rather…. gas, cigarettes, and lottery tickets!