Water for Elephants barreled into theaters over the weekend with its melodramatic circus romance set during the Depression.
And no, this is not a movie review so just bear with me a moment.
The film adaptation of Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel lushly depicts the gritty circus life juxtaposed with scenes like the dinner in the owner’s railcar, which, in the book is described as oyster bisque, prime rib, boiled potatoes, asparagus in cream, lobster salad and English plum pudding with brandy sauce.
Of course there are also hobos in camps eating beans from cans.
When we think of the Great Depression we often think of soup kitchen lines stretched around city blocks, desperate men stealing loaves of bread (which cost about eight cents then) to feed their families and, of course, those hobos and their cans of beans. But the 1930s were actually a lot like today. The rich were rich and the poor were poor.
Some people drank homemade gin and others sipped imported champagne, even before Prohibition was repealed. And some Americans starved to death while others supped on lobster bisque and prime rib.
But some ate pretty darn well on the kind of meals we pay a pretty penny for today at restaurants like Haven, long before the Slow Food Movement was even a gleam in Carlo Petrini’s eye. In fact, Petrini wasn’t even born until 1949 so he didn’t even have eyes then.
Which all led to a fascinating conversation with my octogenarian Dad. Just what did he eat as a kid in the '30s?
“We didn’t go hungry during the Depression,” he explained. “We ate pretty well, anything we could grow or hunt.”
Dad was born and reared in Chesterfield, Ind. During the 1930s, it was a rural farm town of about 250 people with a grain silo at one end and a lumberyard at the other. There was one other business in Chesterfield that figures into this story, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The interesting thing about my family is that Dad’s parents were divorced and his father had custody of the two boys, my grandmother having taken my young aunt with her off to the bright lights and big city of Anderson, Ind., which had a population of more than 39,000 in the '30s.
Divorce was almost unheard of then, but Grandpa shortly married Babe, which is how I grew up with three grandmothers.
But I digress.
Babe’s parents were known all through town as Ma and Pa. They had a house at the end of road right before the river with a huge backyard. Both of Dad’s parents worked and it was Ma, my great grandmother, who did all the cooking.
“We had strawberries, grapes, pigs and cows in the backyard,” Dad says. “Pa would butcher a pig every year and we had chickens so we also had eggs and there was fried chicken with lots of gravy on Sunday.”
Yes, the man who today lives mostly on chips and chili con queso grew up eating organic, local produce and meats. And greens; lots and lots of greens from the garden.
And today, I can’t get him to eat collard greens or Brussels sprouts and he freaks if the guacamole touches anything on the combo plate.
When I ask why he won’t eat greens anymore he says its because he ate enough of them as a child. And he won’t eat mushrooms, apparently because the only mushrooms back then were wild and he was taught they were poisonous.
“We could pick and eat dandelions but not mushrooms,” he explains.
And while all this sounds great to me, there were a few oddities on the menu. Dad and his brother used to catch turtles along the riverbed for turtle soup and they also shot squirrels. With a 12-gauge shotgun. Which I’m thinking didn’t leave a lot of squirrel. But apparently, it left enough for stew or a little fried meat.
Pat Willard’s America Eats!, which originated from research done for a never completed 1935 WPA project that sent out of work writers into the countryside to document America’s culinary history, explains that the meat of a young squirrel “is tender and best cooked simply — pan-fried, perhaps, with a little wine sauce on the side.” And then it goes on to talk about grilling squirrel heads and scooping the brains out …and we’ll stop there.
“The stew was all right,” Dad recalls. “Fried squirrel is a little chewy.” I’ll take his word on that.
But the thing is, that’s just the way people ate back then. If they lived in rural areas, they lived off what they could grow or shoot. And if you look at old photos, you don’t see a fourth of the people being obese.
Nobody then was eating daily at fast food emporiums or sitting down at restaurants serving over processed, packaged food in ginormous portions.
Although occasionally, Dad did grab a hamburger at the gas station across the street from his school, or a snack at — wait for it — Camp Chesterfield, A Spiritual Center for Light.
That’s right, the other main business in Chesterfield was, and still is, a spiritualist camp. Yep, séances, tarot cards and past-life readings.
Back then, the camp was only open in the summers, and people came as far away as Europe. For 10 cents the locals could get in the gate, although Dad used to sneak in through a hole in the fence. Other than curiosity the main draw was an ice cream shop. So the only places outside of home where Dad ate as a kid were a gas station and a mystic soda joint.
See, these are the kind of fascinating things you learn when you sit down with your elders over chips and queso.