One thing must be addressed first: Dinner was at noon. Supper was in the evening. One might go out to dinner in the evening or to lunch at noon, but those were special occasions, not everyday life. These days, some of us use “dinner” and “supper” interchangeably, but I never hear anyone calling the midday meal “dinner” anymore. It is the big meal of the day which, in the 1960s, was at noon.
A minor point, that. It does put in perspective all the differences between those days and ours. The patriarchy aside, more women were at home, and many men came home at noon to eat. There are many things to write about this week, but I’ve chosen this one because it seems to be an anchor and what I need just now.
First, the menu. It was very particularly designed. A green salad with iceberg and a sliced tomato, dressing either oil and vinegar, Italian, or French. (This will come as a shock to young readers, but there was no such thing as bottled ranch-style dressing, and it would be some time before even the Hidden Valley Ranch packets would show up. We had to make our own for years. Interesting enough history here.)
Fresh green beans were destringed and snapped; some people may still refer to them as “string beans” for that reason, even though the strings are mostly missing now. These were boiled with salt pork, a staple for flavoring. New potatoes were boiled separately.
Greens (turnip, collard, or mustard) were also boiled until tender, perhaps with a ham hock or salt pork; these had to be washed at least three times to get the sand out. They were cut fine and served with hot peppers in vinegar, which you can still buy. The condiment could also be put on the green beans, with finely chopped onion. Green onions were served on the side.
Corn on the cob was husked and desilked then, yes, boiled and served with butter. We called them red beans—really pintos—and cooked them with onions and salt pork. (I don’t know why we called them “red beans” but wonder if it had to do with some family moving to Texas from Louisiana perhaps.) Regardless, the two make a whole protein. Obviously,this meal is neither vegan nor vegetarian, however.
Cornbread sticks in the shape of little cobs were served with butter. If there was dessert, it was likely a Mrs. Smith’s apple pie. Our grandfather would take his with a slice of sharp cheddar: “Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze,” he’d say, and then lie down for a brief nap before heading back to the office. I expect my grandmother just collapsed for a few hours. A likely supper was cornflakes.
Some observations: True, that’s a whole lot of salt pork. It was delicious. I can’t justify it and don’t buy it, but trust me, it was delicious. Next, this meal was a whole lot of work, beginning right after breakfast and coordinated carefully to keep everything hot. It didn’t come around often but was perhaps the most favored meal plan of them all. Was it worth it? Yes. My grandfather was happy, my grandmother had her glory, and on life went. Finally, if it is such a beloved meal, why haven’t we continued the tradition? That question is hard to answer. I don’t know, really. Each part of the menu has been tried and tested, well, maybe not the greens, but they haven’t come together in over 50 years.
When I used the word anchor, I did so because it’s not an uncommon simile: Our traditions are anchors that keep moored throughout our lives. Here is a picture of a literal anchor. Of course, it must have weight to stay down, but that would be easy enough to design. The part of the anchor I didn’t have a name for is that hook that secures it. That word is “fluke.”
Usually we use the phrase “that was just a fluke,” meaning an unusual occurrence or bit of luck. (It is also a fish, a parasite acquired from undercooked crabs, and a company that makes electronic testing tools.) So that fluke is really what holds the anchor in place. For a simile to work, there must be a parallel between, so what is my hook to that dinner?
An attempt: My attendance at the work as well as participation in the accomplished deed may be more significant than any holiday dinner at which there was more excitement. It was a bit better than an everyday event because of all its specificity (see salt pork, boiling), though Thorton Wilder’s Our Town makes good use of our inability to appreciate the sweetness of everyday-ness. I learned it by doing it, I appreciated my grandmother’s willingness to teach it and to cook it. I think, finally, it was a way to love and be loved, unique in its own way, impossible to replicate. We all have losses; I know I have. This dinner memory is a fluke that holds it all together. I wonder if I have left flukes for mine youngers. If you have, please share.