For most of my childhood, my mother went to the grocery store once a week, on Friday. My father was the breadwinner, and each week he gave my mother an “allowance” for all household expenses. On Friday morning, my father would tuck a check into the corner of the mirror that rested on top of her dresser and on Friday afternoon, my mother would go grocery shopping. Whatever my mother bought on Friday was our food for the week.
Typically, we ate the same things for dinner from week to week, a steady routine of spaghetti, meat loaf, pot roast, baked chicken, minute steak, porcupines (ground beef rolled in minute rice and cooked in tomato soup), English Muffin pizzas, roast beef or roast pork on Sundays, ham, and hamburger patties with a strip of bacon wrapped around them. Our milk came every day from the milkman (we consumed vast quantities of milk) and my mother bought bread every other day from the bakery across the street (we also ate a great deal of bread.) When my mother went to Kohl’s Food Store on Fridays, she bought the ingredients for the week’s meals and a few treats for the family: some cookies, a box of Kohl’s Brand potato chips and six cans of pop. That’s six cans of pop for five children—for a week.
My dad had discovered a Great Deal on pop, at a bottling plant called American Beverage Company; there, he could buy pop by the case—glass bottles of pop in wooden crates that he could then return for the deposit. My father loved nothing better than a bargain. He was known to drive from Wisconsin to Indiana to get a good deal on cigarettes, and until the 1980’s he drove to Chicago to buy alcohol at a place called Twins Liquors; bourbon was the family Drink of Choice and Twins had a house brand that was not as expensive as the pricier brand name bourbons. He also knew of a shoe store in Chicago that had nice shoes for cheap and he went there for years, bringing both of my brothers. He was thrilled by the low price of American Soda; he didn’t drink pop himself, which explains a great deal. Strange as American Soda often tasted, though, it was plentiful and cheap, and much, much better than tap water.
The generic pop supply was steady but the name brand pop disappeared quickly. My eldest sister Marbeth loved Real Coke so much that she started to buy and keep her own supply in her bedroom closet. Woe to anyone who dipped into that private cache of Coke. Marbeth also bought her own lemon drops and artfully displayed them in a glass jar on her desk; when my sister Susan and I were feeling particularly bold, we would dash into Marbeth’s room (as the eldest, she alone had her own room), snatch two lemon drops from her jar, and run for our lives.
Shortly after we moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had my new friend Ellen over to play. Ellen came from a calm family, the sort of family who never fought—or even disagreed, as far as I could tell. Her house always felt like a museum; her mother had an extensive doll collection housed in glass cases, and every room was perfectly organized and arranged, like a slightly dusty model home.
On the first day Ellen came over to my house to play—a Sunday—the Chicago Bears were playing the Green Bay Packers on television. We were all pretty new to Wisconsin and so were collectively experiencing some significant homesickness. (The first time my mother saw downtown Milwaukee, she turned to my father, said “This is IT?” and burst into tears.) My father and brothers still identified with the Bears, of course, and despised Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. No doubt feeling festive about the football game, and not all that interested in having an American Soda Company version of “Coke,” my brother Johnnie had “borrowed” one of Marbeth’s Cokes from her closet.
Ellen and I had been playing—calmly–for about fifteen minutes when either the Chicago Bears did something regrettable or Bart Starr did something good. Whatever it was, my father and brothers started screaming wildly at the television set and pounding their fists on the living room floor. I was unfazed, as this was just another Sunday afternoon for me, but Ellen was instantly terrified and wanted to go home. My sister Susan and I managed to calm her down; after some minutes had passed, she was even smiling (albeit a bit tremulously). That was when my sister Marbeth ran past us, a screaming blur of rage wielding a baseball bat; she was hunting down my brother Johnnie and the Purloined Coke. That did it. Ellen was out the door and back at her house well before Marbeth caught up with Johnnie. From that day forward, Ellen always offered her house as our playdate destination, which was fine with me, since her mother was generous with offers of Name Brand Cookies and Choo Choo Cherry drinks.
Food, then, was a bit of an “issue” in our household of seven, and no food item was more controversial than cookies. Every Friday, my mother bought two packages of cookies for the week. Inevitably, one of the two packages would be a complete waste of sugar and shelf space. I never understood the reason why Salerno Butter Cookies even existed, much less why they absorbed any part of my mother’s meager Cookie Budget. The butter industry should have sued Salerno for using the name “butter”; at the very least, they should have called them Salerno “Butter” Cookies–And By “Butter” We Mean “The Paper That Butter Comes Wrapped In.”
Another anti-cookie pretending to be an actual cookie was the Nabisco Sugar Wafer These were thin strips of what tasted like very thin balsa wood held together by sawdust and microscopic bits of icing. Just looking at Sugar Wafers was enough to fill my mouth with dust. Then there were the truly execrable Coconut Bars, which could only have been produced and sold by someone who hated cookies, children and the entire Baked Goods Industry. I was a child who would eat just about anything if there was sugar in it, but even I was known to turn my nose up at Coconut Bars, which tasted like someone had collected the hair out of all the combs in the house, mixed it with flour, toasted and baked it. Finally, there were Pecan Sandies, a favorite summer time cookie for my mother. She bought Pecan Sandies so that when we went to the beach we could eat something whose taste wouldn’t be altered by being covered in sand. I am not making this up.
In addition to the Essentially Tasteless Cookies, though, there would always be a package of something wonderful, usually Oreos or Pinwheels. Pinwheels were the Platonic Form of cookie; for one thing, they were huge. They were the only cookie I could eat just two of and feel satisfied. Plus, Pinwheels had three delicious elements: a graham cracker base, a good deal of marshmallow, and a covering of chocolate. When they were fresh, I could bite into a Pinwheel and the chocolate would resist for just a moment before collapsing into a pillow of fresh marshmallow and graham cracker. Heaven. The only down side of Pinwheels was the fact that they only came twelve to a package. At least Oreos had three rows of multiple cookies, making it harder to keep count of how many were gone.
My family lived under a Cookie Honor System. No one was supposed to eat more than her/his share of the cookies, and it was expected that cookies would be available through Thursday night’s dinner for anyone who fancied one or two. The Oreos and Pinwheels rarely made it to midweek. Even the Tasteless Blond Cookies were always gone by Friday and often before.
I snuck cookies at every opportunity, knowing full well that there would be a Day of Cookie Reckoning in my near future. When no one was around and I was hungry for sweets, I displayed an astonishing lack of ability to weigh short term pleasures against long term consequences, and I would eat a good bit more than my share of the weekly cookie supply.
The dread would start in my gut right around Wednesday night after dinner, when my brother Jamie would go over to the cabinet where the cookies were kept. I swear that he never wanted a cookie at all until he was sure they were gone. He seemed to enjoy more than any cookie the drama of opening the cabinet and yelling out, “Who ate all the…..?” I would cringe, because it was almost always me and I was almost always in trouble for it, especially when I was on a diet. My mother was never happy to discover that she had been baking halibut for me while I was scarfing down Oreos on the sly.
It was my sister Susan (she sometimes got into trouble over Cookie Consumption, but not nearly as often as I did) who came up with a solution to our problem. One Wednesday night after the weekly Cookie Inquisition—and this time, Susan was the main culprit–she stomped away from the kitchen, taking me with her. “I have some of my own money,” she whispered to me. “Let’s go to Kohl’s and buy ourselves our own package of Oreos and our own bottle of milk!” Brilliant. My sister is a genius, I thought to myself. The best kind of genius—one with her own money.
Thus began a tradition of buying food in secret and consuming it in secret—unlike a candy bar here or there, we were talking entire packages of cookies, bags of chips, the large size candy bars. We did have the problem of spiriting these contraband goods past the eyes of my mother, but Susan and I solved that problem by inventing a pulley system whereby we snuck out the back door, down our side yard, across the Steins’ front yard and to either Kohl’s, Fessenbecker’s Bakery or Hayward’s Drugstore, depending on how hungry we were and/or how much money we had. Once we had the goods, we placed our contraband goodies in an old bicycle basket and pulled them up onto our little balcony with a jump rope.
For some reason, Susan moved on from this behavior after a few weeks. Perhaps she was weary of funding my prodigious appetite for sweets, or perhaps she was turning into a Normal Person; in any event, my silent partner in crime was pulling out. Not me. I developed a firm and pernicious habit of buying junk food and consuming it alone. Once in a while, Susan would still join me in the Search for the Sugar High; when there were no goodies in the house—or the goodies that did exist were a worrisome “Jamie will get us for this” trap–Susan perfected a recipe for our own “frosting.” She mixed butter with cocoa and powdered sugar and we would eat it straight from the bowl. It was actually pretty good, and just as importantly, we could make it quietly and fast.
When even the ingredients for Fast and Sneaky Frosting weren’t available or I had no money of my own, I was not averse to consuming Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup straight from the can, or—if we had them–poured over graham crackers. One night I was craving the Chex Mix I had tasted at a friend’s house, and I attempted to recreate it by guessing the recipe, limited of course to whatever ingredients were on hand in my mother’s kitchen. I poured Cheerios on a cookie sheet, doused them with soy sauce, and baked them for about thirty minutes. They were not tasty.
When my brother Johnnie got married in 1971, I was eager to hear from him what marriage was like. My sister Marbeth had married in 1966, but she lived far away, first in North Carolina and then in Texas, so I couldn’t ask her. About a week after coming back from his honeymoon, I asked Johnnie, “What’s the best thing about being married?” Without hesitating, Johnnie said, “I go to Kohl’s and buy the pounder bag of M&M’s. I bring them home, and put them in the cabinet. And then I eat as many as I want.” Made perfect sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get married.