Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My Dad's Strategy For Feeding A Family Of Eleven

Man, Kactus just brought back so many memories with this post:

Food stamp Chronicles: The Meat Deal, It's A Big Deal

This reminds me of when I was a teenager. There were nine of us kids in the house (a step-family situation) plus my parents. My step-dad had eight kids total. Five of them moved in with us when my parents married. The other four of us were my mother's kids from her first marriage. You can probably imagine how stressed the hell out my mother was trying to adjust to having twice as many people to feed every night, especially since my oldest brother is the one who used to do most of the cooking when she was a single parent. Still, she did want to do the "Proverbs 31" routine. Incidentally, if anyone ever wants to get an understanding of how those fundamentalist groups convince the women to go along with sacrificing any secular ambitions just to stay at home, home school the kids, and sew matching outfits for all the children out of ugly dollar-store bedsheets, just read those verses.

Anyway, my mom gave it a good try but it really was too much work for her to deal with. Eventually, she informed my step-dad that he could choose. Either he could have a wife who goes to work five days a week or he could have a wife that cooks dinner every night. He chose to take over the cooking duties. Even today he happily refers to himself as my mother's "cooking wench". It wasn't that hard for him since he was used to feeding the multitudes every night as a single father.

We didn't get any food stamps because my parents had good jobs but it was still really expensive feeding that many people. I remember really early in their marriage my step-dad introduced my mom to the idea of buying food in bulk. Before my mom got re-married, we had only ever made groceries at the regular stores like Schwegmann's and Winn-Dixie. A pound of ground meat was more than enough for a meal when it was just the five of us. That sure wasn't going to cut it once we added six more people to the list, so my dad introduced a couple of changes around the house. He bought a big deep freezer and moved it into the garage. At first my mom didn't think we really needed one and I didn't see the point of it either.

Not long after that, my step-dad took us for a ride to this little whole in the wall place off of Franklin Avenue just before you reach the Industrial Canal. It's not a horribly poor area. Many of the working-class people in that neighborhood owned their own homes, but it was still a very low-income part of the city. A big percentage of folks had lived in that area their entire lives. People tend to stay in the same area for generations here in New Orleans.

We pulled up to the store in the big raggedy van that was the only vehicle we had that could seat almost all of us at once. I used to dread getting out of that van because it was so beat up. And then there was the fact that there were just so many of us! I mean, a room could be nearly empty before we get there and as soon as we walked in, it was instantly over-crowded. Still, this place was crowded even before we got there.

When we walked in people were barking out orders and negotiating deals and paying for goods. It was a neighborhood butchery. I didn't even know there were butchery shops in New Orleans. I'm guessing that most other folks that I knew were familiar with this place either, but it sure was popular with the people in that neighborhood. The butchers seemed to know nearly every customer in the store, including my step-father.

My mother looked as out of place as any person could possibly be. I was totally aggravated because of the noise level. The loud laughing and talking made me wince. My dad walked up and grabbed one of those little paper tickets that you pull out of the plastic case on the counter. When his number was called, he carefully pushed his way up to the high counter that separated the customers from the butchers.

On the wall behind them, there were signs announcing the different deals available that week. It wasn't like the deli at the old Schwegmann's grocery store, which was long closed by then but, as any one will tell you, had the best selection of meats to be found in all of New Orleans. In fact, my daddy--the biological one--used to work in the meat department at Schwegmann's a long, long time ago. At the butcher shop, you couldn't really buy sliced meat. Well you could, but you had to buy it in bulk and then they'd slice it for you for free. But it wasn't really a problem because, for the price you'd pay for a quarter pound of ham or turkey at the grocery store, you could buy an entire pound at the butcher-shop and I mean, how could you beat that sort of deal?!

My step-dad started asking my mother which deal she wanted to pick and what combination of cuts she preferred. She was looked at the board so incredulously. I was surprised too. You could all of the common man's food like pig tails and pickled meat (both used for seasoning in dishes like cabbage or white beans) but they also sold every sort of t-bone and tenderloin steak that a foodie could wish for. You'd pay more for those cuts but I'm sure it was less than what you'd pay anywhere else. After a little bit of discussion, my mom and dad told the butchers what they wanted. They chose one of the bigger package deals so that it would last us for a while.

One of the nice things that I remember about that place was that they always threw in a little lagniappe. This place was a poor man's paradise. Besides the deal they picked, the butcher also sold my dad a 10 lb pork roast for five dollars. Can you believe that? Ten pounds of meat for five dollars! I wasn't sure whether I was remembering correctly, so I called my dad tonight to ask him about it and he verified what I recalled.

I don't remember how much my step-dad spent that day but I do recall that he paid for his order with a hundred dollar bill and got change back. All of the older kids had to help carry the bags to the car. I remember riding home that evening with the bag of meat on my lap, smiling and thinking about how good we'd be eating for the next month.

4 comments:

sly civilian said...

i once had a well intentioned TA try to give a feminist reading of the "woman of valor" passages in proverbs.

the whole class ate it up while she had women in the class read various lines as a dramatic finish to her lecture. i had a page full of questions about how setting a positive stereotype of a domestic goddess against negative portraits of loose women who are worldly is possibly feminist except by the thinnest of threads.

Funny what I've learned not to ask.

Veronica said...

Awww, man. Why didn't anyone tell my mom about the Butcher!! We had The Year of chicken and lentils and rice, when I was in the 5th grade. And, then in 8th and 9th, we did the "Fell off the truck" specials. A WHOLE CRATE of expired JELLO for 4 dollars! WOOT!

My family was one that had "good years" and "not so good years," heh. The not so good years were REALLY not so good, and the Good Ones RULED!

bint alshamsa said...

Sly Civilian,

Now that's just crazy! What the hell was that TA thinking? That passage sets up unrealistic expectations that most women could never achieve even if they wanted to. It's mostly used by men to make women feel like they aren't really worthy of any respect unless they are the domestic goddess.

bint alshamsa said...

Veronica,

My step-dad once told us a story about the days when he was in his first marriage and they had the eight kids to feed on one income. He was a garbage man at the time. The Kool-Aid company had to recall all of the pre-sweetened cans of drink mix because the sweeteners were later found to be carcinogenic in mice. The grocery stores had to throw away cases of cans because they couldn't sell them.

Well, when my dad and the other garbage collectors came to the grocery stores on their route, they took the cans of recalled Kool-Aid and brought it home with them. He said that those cans of Kool-Aid lasted them for years. When he told me that story, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.