My mom did most of the cooking—fried chicken, meatloaf, pot roast—but my dad fed me. The first Saturday morning after payday, he got me up before 10 to accompany him on his monthly grocery shopping trip. Our destination? Bakers, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly—three big-box, chain stores within a mile of our house on the edge of the suburbs. Armed with sale ads and cut coupons, we’d fill our cart with the best deals in the neighborhood.
Grocery shopping was high entertainment for me, like a carnival. You’d think I came from the other side of the world the way I marveled at the avocados and the variety of pasta sauces. Company representatives lined the aisles serving samples. My dad and I ate our way through—bits of hot dogs baked in crescent rolls, corn chips with cheesy jalapeno dip, Dixie Cups of Pepsi-Cola, mini vanilla wafers. We’d start where most grocery stores have you start, in the fresh produce. Then we’d move up and down the aisles methodically one by one, find the dairy in the back, the bakery on the far side opposite the freezers with the frozen pizza and popsicles.
My dad sent me on investigation missions to save time, although we took all the time in the world. Were the bananas ripe? Did this store have Oreos on sale? Or he’d have me help him find the best prices. If a 12 oz. can of orange juice concentrate made 48 ozs. of juice and cost $1.00, was it better than paying $1.20 for a 58 oz. bottle of premade juice?
We always saved the best shopping for last, Schlotzsky’s Deli, where they specially cut whatever we wanted to try—liverwurst, ham salad, havarti cheese, rollepolse. I’d eat anything except the blood sausage and head cheese. We’d go home not needing lunch.
My dad My dad grew up during WWII, a pastor’s son in Osakis, Minnesota, where he was always hungry and always happy to devour any leftovers set on his back porch by the church women after Ladies Aid meetings and Bible studies. The Midwest was just discovering pineapple and pimentos. He learned to love bite-sized cucumber on rye sandwiches, green olives on toothpicks, and egg salad on crackers, anything abandoned by more discerning and better-fed eaters. My grandma, who survived polio, arthritis, two miscarriages, and cancer in both breasts, was a health nut before there were health nuts. She showed my dad pictures of starving rats to let him know what would happen if he refused to eat his vegetables. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill anyone off with her underdone chicken, cooked rare to avoid destroying the vitamins.
“I vowed my children would never go hungry,” my dad told me once on the way to the grocery store. He’d buy me anything I wanted—Froot Loops, Hostess CupCakes, strawberry swirl ice cream. We lived on sandwiches of Spam/Velveta Cheese/Hormel Chili on soft, white buns broiled open-faced in the oven. We rotated meals of La Choy Chow Mein, tuna noodle casserole, and SpaghettiOs. Sunday night was reserved for frozen dinners and I’d stand in front of the giant upright store freezer for ages, debating between Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, peas, and cherry cobbler and cheese enchiladas with Spanish rice, corn, and a brownie. I knew my bologna’s first name was o, s, c, a, r, and I ate it for lunch with a slice of American cheese, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a smear of mayo on Wonder Bread, accompanied by a tall glass of cherry Kool-Aid.
After our huge grocery shop, we’d indulge for a week before the treats ran out. Once the goodies were gone, I’d play one of my favorite games at lunch. I’d sit on a blanket in the backyard and pretend I was Heidi living in the Swiss Alps with my grandpa and my goats. I’d rip hunks of hard brown rye bread straight off the loaf and heartily bite chunks of what I instinctively called “real” cheese, unsliced rounds of Wisconsin cheddar. This was the best meal, a slight tang to the bread and a saltiness to the cheese, mixed with the fresh smell of cut grass and dandelion stems. I washed it all down with a gulp of cold, clear water.
Rebecca Idstrom lives in the Bluff Country of Northeast Iowa, where she eats produce from her organic garden and refuses to buy her children anything made with artificial food coloring. She does occasionally enjoy a bag of Lays potato chips.