Growing up 50’s and 60’s style – The traditional family gatherings
Famous comedian Buddy Hackett once said: “As a child my family’s menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.”
The backbone to every American family throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s was the dinner hour; that special time when Dad came home from work, kids’ were home from school and everyone sat at a kitchen or dining room table. Most Moms still stayed home and prepared the family meals. The dinner hour was the way to connect at the end of the day. Generally speaking many homes had suppers that consisted of some kind of meat, starch and a vegetable. A second choice for dinner was definitely out of the question – you ate what was cooked or you went hungry. That was the way it was back then.
I have to say that my first memory of vegetables was not pleasant due to the fact that most every vegetable served came out of a can. Back then processors boiled the daylights out of everything which left very little natural flavors in the vegetables. We were lucky enough however, to have a Dad who loved gardening, so the saving grace during the late summer and early fall was the bounty of fresh vegetables from his garden. Eventually a man named Birdseye came up with a method of freezing summers bounties and my mother did away with most of the canned vegetables.
My mother was truly a great home cook. She was such a good home cook that my childhood friends would actually ask if they could stay for dinner. Mom’s only big cooking flop was a recipe she got out of the newspaper for a dish called “Ginger Beef”. Nobody liked it and we often teased her throughout the years about that one dish. Often I would come home from school and from the three or four or five channels we had available via our rooftop antenna, Mom would be in front of the television watching Julia Child. I can recall being mortified if Julia was cooking something like sweetbreads (which resembled tiny brains) and feared my mother would attempt to cook us something like that.
A lot of my mother’s recipes came from her mother, my grandmother Eva who was a wonderful cook herself. Grammy Eva emigrated from Poland and brought her heritage to life through cooking. There basically was not a strict recipe that was written down for anything that my grandmother or mother cooked. All of it was done by smell, touch and texture and of course by tasting the dish. My best food memory of my grandmother was this wonderful bread that she made. I simply could not get enough of it! Before my grandmother passed away, one of my cousins Eve (who was named so after my grandmother) attempted to write down a recipe for the bread by going and watching how it was put together. I saw my cousin recently and she did manage to come pretty close to the recipe.
Throughout my childhood there was a weekend ritual. If my father did not have to work the night shift we would travel to West Haven to my grandparents’ house and have Friday suppers with my grandparents and aunt and uncle. My grandmother would have spent the day making pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and beef barley soup – any number of scrumpscious recipes from her kitchen. Due to the solid Catholic connection during lent, the Friday meal was fish of some kind, which for me wasn’t exactly what I wanted to eat. The way I was raised I was told I must be polite and eat it anyway.
The flip side of the ritual was that our city relatives: aunts, uncles and cousins would travel out to the country to my parents’ home. It was their way of escaping “city” life where the houses were so close together in most neighborhoods that if you passed gas they could probably have heard it. It also was a time for a large Sunday afternoon meal or a backyard barbecue in the summer months. They called it barbecue back then and nowadays it would be differentiated – there is grilling and there is barbecuing. But back then it was barbecue – at least for us Northerners. There were not any fancy gas grills, just the grill where you had to use charcoal and lighter fluid.
In my family the females were very domineering for that era. My father who was a Connecticut state trooper was not prone to being very accepting of that, especially when it came to the grill. He and my aunt Connie (my mother’s sister) had a constant battle over grilling the chicken and how much charcoal fluid was needed to light the grill. My father insisted my aunt burned the chicken skin to intolerance and my aunt insisted my father always used too much fluid to light the grill. My mother was stuck in the middle. She often told my father to let it go so as to not cause any arguments. I am positive now that his tongue had many holes in it!
While the ladies and older cousins prepared the dinner and chatted over cups of coffee and some freshly baked goodies from one of the city bakeries, the rest of us kids and dads and uncles were outdoors playing badminton, softball or doing some other outdoor activity. In the fall and winter the outdoor activities ceased when the Sunday football game was about to be televised and the men sat there until the dinner was pronounced ready or until my mother summoned my father to the kitchen to sharpen the knife and carve the roast – unless of course my aunt Connie beat him to the punch.
The dinner was often a roast of some kind, some side vegetables and a salad and a fresh loaf of bread or dinner rolls and of course, dessert. Most everyone that came out contributed something to the meal: a vegetable, apples for a pie or the afternoon Danish, cannoli or fruit tart that would also be on the dessert table if there was anything left. My mother was at the helm of the kitchen (or so she thought) and in the background would be my grandmother, aunts and cousins doing some of the prep work. One of the things that sent both my parents around the bend was that my aunt would insist on “frenching” the green beans (which most of us were not that fond of). Secondly, she would complain about the salad dressing being overly tart or some other complaint and yet would sop up every last bit of dressing with a dinner roll. I know I am picking on my aunt, however she did another annoying thing: she insisted she was not very hungry by the time the dinner was ready and usually ate very little – especially if she wasn’t directly involved in the prep or cooking.
My grandfather rarely made the trek out for the Sunday gatherings. When I was younger it was explained to me that it was due to his age and that he was tired from the long week at work. Now that I am older I realize what may be the true reason: he probably loved being alone in the house without a wife and daughter around to tell him what to do! I don’t feel that I got to know my grandfather all that well and I wish I had. My mother often spoke of his gentleness and kindness and playfulness with her as if he were the one stable factor in her life growing up. I know that he worked different jobs – in a slaughter house, as a truck driver and for a gun manufacturer until his retirement. But that is about all I remember.
As I got older, the less and less we stayed connected as an extended family group. Either people passed away or others became busy with their own lives. Recently we had a “family reunion” held at my sister’s home and it was wonderful to see our cousins (all my aunts, my grandparents and parents have passed) with their children and grandchildren. It reminded us of an era gone by and of all the wonderful times spent around a dinner table when we were young.
Growing up 50’s and 60’s style – The traditional family gatherings