Little Details (2/4/10)

Economy eating

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Food assumes a prominent place in my childhood memory. Growing up in an immigrant family with lots of kids and little money, we were economy eaters. Our relationship with food was flavored by our parents’ wartime experiences.

My mother was 6 months old when Germany invaded Poland and 6 years old when the war ended. Denied basic nutrients, she lost many teeth by her teen years. My father survived starvation rations as a teenager in Nazi slave labor camps. His daily diet consisted of translucent broth with root vegetables and a sliver of brown bread. He dove to the ground, competing with fellow prisoners, to pick up potato peels discarded by well-fed guards.

Food was not to be wasted in our home. Throwing away anything edible equated with sin. We were expected to eat what was placed in front of us — no protestations allowed. Plates at dinner had to be cleaned — not because of “hungry orphans in Africa” but because of our “hungry cousins in Poland.”

A well-stocked pantry was mandatory. I think it provided my parents a sense of security. Extra cans of baked beans and corn stood at the ready to feed their children — in the event of the unexpected.

Dad loved to grocery shop. I imagine the sheer abundance in America dazzled his senses. Mountains of aromatic citrus, fields of green lettuces in different varieties and meat counters brimming with beef, pork and poultry reminded him of the “good life” he worked so hard to maintain. Dad wandered the aisles, Muzak setting his pace, filling his cart with items from a grocery list penned in a Polish-English mélange. The Polish word for potatoes — kartofle — might reside next to the English word for broccoli. Dad liked a bargain and would proudly announce what he got on sale upon returning home.

If Dad bought a turkey, my mother used every part of that bird. There’d be roasted white and dark meat with giblet gravy — whatever giblets are. Bones transformed into stock for soups. The neck, long and twisty, was tossed in the freezer, extracted at some later date for a pot of turkey rice soup when one of us caught a cold. The long simmering process loosened otherwise hard-to-extract meat from bones.

Mom’s kitchen smelled of onions, cabbage and potatoes. She prepared fabulous soups — spinach, tomato, mushroom, cabbage, beet and chicken with homemade dumplings we called kluski.

Sunday dinners were special. Dad wore a shirt and tie after serving as an usher at Mass. A big hunk of meat was a common centerpiece. I remember roast beef with homemade mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes topped with dollops of butter. Ham, studded with cloves and pineapple rings, satiated our post-church hunger before morphing into pea soup on Monday. We ate corned beef accompanied by potatoes, carrots and onions for “boiled dinner.” Steak was a rarity — I guess it was too expensive. Remnants of our regal meal were transformed into sandwiches, soups and casseroles. Stale bread — if there was any left — became breadcrumbs or creamy bread pudding with cinnamon and raisins. Nothing was wasted.

I gleefully stuffed myself with starches and vegetables, accessing scant helpings of meat. I was a little put off by reddish meat “juices” and the intricate, dangly components hidden within roasted drumsticks. I wasn’t allowed to decline what was placed in front of me. It would be seen as being disrespectful or unappreciative.

The best part of Sunday dinner was dessert. Homemade, yeasty sweet breads with fillings of poppy seed or prune, Apple Charlotte and cheesecake topped with cherries made frequent appearances. On special occasions, my mom made packi, sweet Polish donuts filled with real whipped cream and strawberry jam.

The one oddity of our childhood larder was the small cabinet of “special” food — like chocolate and cookies — that my parents locked with a padlock. We received treats from this special stash only when my parents deemed so. To me, this was normal. I thought most everyone had a padlocked cabinet in their pantry. Only later, upon reading interviews with Holocaust survivors, I realized that hiding — actually hoarding — food was a commonly shared characteristic. Painful memories of hunger will do that.

In my own family, we cook from scratch as often as possible. It’s economical and usually tastes better. Cleaning one’s plate is not a requirement at our dinner table. Being thoughtful about selecting balanced foods to support health is.

Eating foods when they are, shall we say, “past prime” is a remnant of my childhood. I simply cut out the bad parts of a banana or a forgotten piece of cheese as my husband and daughter cringe. Old eating habits die hard.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or