Childhood Memories of Food in the 1940s

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Probably twenty years ago, I was prevailed upon by my (now deceased) cousin Peg Townsend, to record my childhood memories. At first I was reluctant, but finally I did it. The following ramblings are excerpted from those memories, and they concern what we ate on our farm during the 1940s.

Before the war, Mom made root beer, which we all loved. She bought Hires (I think) Root Beer Extract, mixed it with sugar and water, and sealed the concoction in Mason jars that were stored on a shelf in the cellar. Sometimes a jar would burst because of the carbonation, but most of them turned into excellent root beer. Unfortunately, due to wartime sugar rationing, she had to stop brewing her root beer.

For the same reason, we stopped using sugar in our iced tea; I still prefer my iced tea unsweetened.

Even though we had our own milk, Mom seldom churned butter. It probably just took too much time; once in a while she’d give me a half-gallon jar of milk and tell me to shake it until it turned to butter. It took a long time and a lot of shaking. We mostly ate oleomargarine on our bread. In those days, because of the dairy lobby, they weren’t allowed to sell oleo that was yellow colored. The oleo was dead white and came with a small cellophane packet of orange food coloring that you could mix in it if you wanted. Sometimes Mom would go to the trouble of mixing it, or make either my sister or me do it, but most of the time we spread our bread with white oleo. I don’t think it bothered us.

My sister and I ate a lot of what we called milk toast for breakfast. It was homemade bread toasted and buttered, and covered with sugar and milk. Our favorite snack was a slice of bread with oleo and sugar.

We also ate warm rolled oats, probably in the winter, and dry breakfast cereals with milk and sugar. I remember Wheaties and Jack Armstrong, the “All-American Boy.” We ate Shredded Wheat, and some kind of a Ralston cereal that was promoted by Tom Mix and his “TM-Bar” ranch. I saved box tops and, when I could either save up or con Mom out of the 10, 15, or 25 cents needed, I sent away for some of the great offers that were touted on the backs of those cereal boxes. I had a Jack Armstrong pedometer, a round metal gadget, about 3 inches in diameter, painted blue with a yellow dial, that you hooked over the top of your shoe or sock and it recorded how many miles you walked. I had at least one Tom Mix pocket knife that had the red and white checked colors of the Ralston Purina Company, along with the brand mark of the TM-Bar Ranch on each side. I also remember a “Secret Decoder Ring” put out by someone, probably Little Orphan Annie.

My favorite meal was meat, potatoes and gravy, and Mom’s homemade bread or rolls. I wasn’t much for vegetables, although I know I ate some of them, and we had lots of corn and tomatoes from our large garden. I would pull the soft inside out of a fresh, homemade roll, smear butter all over it, and gobble it down. Then I’d stuff the outer crust with meat, or whatever, and eat that. Really good!

I loved hot cakes. I had a child’s book called “Little Black Sambo,” in which the small hero ate stacks and stacks of hot cakes and Mom teased me about being just like him. She used a long black griddle that covered two lids on the coal range, and on which she could probably make 5 or 6 cakes at a time. After everyone had eaten their fill, there was usually a cake or two left over which our dog really enjoyed.

In the spring we often ate dandelion greens. Mom would pick the tender young dandelion leaves over which she’d pour a concoction of vinegar, crumbled bacon, and hot bacon grease. She also fixed leaf lettuce the same way.

We raised a lot of strawberries; several of the neighbors paid to pick them for themselves and we picked some for sale, while we ate tons of them while they were in season. I didn’t enjoy picking strawberries, but I loved to eat ’em. Mom sometimes made shortcake, but most of the time she just mashed the berries with sugar and I ate them with bread and butter.

For Sunday dinner we frequently had pork and baked beans, probably out of a can, I suppose because Mom could put them in the oven before church and they’d be ready when we got home.

In the summer, she’d sometimes pack a picnic lunch and after church we’d take off on a long afternoon drive, stopping along the road somewhere to eat. I only remember the destination of one of these drives; we went to the Allegheny County Airport near Pittsburgh and got to see a plane or two take off. I think we also once went to see Brady’s Leap on the Allegheny River northwest of Butler, PA.

We always carried our lunches to school in a tin lunch box with a Thermos bottle. I can’t remember what Mom put into the Thermos but I remember I often managed to drop mine and break the glass liner, much to my mother’s chagrin.

My favorite lunch sandwich was Velveeta cheese with Heinz brown mustard and leaf lettuce. We usually had carrots, celery, or cucumber sticks in the fall. Once, I was eating a cucumber and one of my small schoolmates, who didn’t speak too plainly, said, “Hey! Where’d you dit dat tutumber, tid?”

It’s fun to write down your childhood memories – I recommend that everyone do it. Not only will it bring back a lot of memories, but it will afford your kids and grandkids a lot of amusement.  

Detail from a 1940s magazine ad for the shredded wheat breakfast cereal made by the National Biscuit Company. We ate this with milk and sugar, although we usually tore the biscuits into chunks first.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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