May 16, 2024
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May 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Interview: A Trip Down Memory Lane

While my mother, z”l, was alive, she was the one her progeny approached when they had an assignment calling for them to interview someone from a previous generation. Now that she is not here anymore, I suddenly found myself playing the role of the grandmother being interviewed. To some of the grandchildren I probably seem ancient. I have to reassure them that, no, I did not trek through the snow for two miles, carrying a metal lunch pail, to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. Nor did I have the trials and tribulations of my mother’s generation in Europe, where they went to public school all day and just had Bais Yaakov-type of instruction for a few hours every afternoon.

Recently, I was asked a series of questions by my seventh-grade granddaughter. Her teacher had a very creative approach. She actually gave the girls two series of questions. One was for the grandmothers who grew up in pre-war Europe—in “der alte heim”—and the other was for grandmothers like me, post-war children who grew up here in America. Yes, my dear child, we went to school riding in school buses. Our school was in a real brick building, though air conditioning in a classroom was unheard of. The heating system went down on an average of once or twice a month. Sometimes, the administration decided to send us home for the day, and sometimes they opted to have us sit in our coats. We learned in our coats, we played in our coats and we even ate lunch in our coats, and that was before washable coats were the norm.

The question that really threw me for a loop, though, was about foods and food shopping in “my olden days.” “Bubby, what was different about what was available in the grocery in your childhood?” My first response was that if you wanted egg salad or tuna salad when I was a child, you had to actually prepare it in your own kitchen. Further contemplation led me right down memory lane. One thing I am sure about: If there had been a Kosherfest in the 1950s it would have fit a space 10 feet by 10 feet with plenty of room to spare. There were supermarkets in America, most notably the A & P, but the kosher consumer had nothing like today’s Gourmet Glatt or Pomegranate.

A grocery sold groceries, meaning certain foods (more on that later), some basic cleaning supplies and if it was near a school it had a little glass case with a few pastries. Aspirin (Tylenol and Advil were still unknown) was bought in the local pharmacy, and while you were there you picked up any shampoo or hand cream that you needed.

You bought shoe polish at the shoemaker, or sometimes in a more fully supplied hardware store, where you also went if you needed any specialty cleaning products like silver polish. The butcher prepared cuts of meat to order. Except for whole salamis, nothing, not even chicken, was pre-packed. A newsstand belonged to the corner candy store, which also has a soda fountain and a tantalizing display of penny candy, most of which were of dubious kashrus. Paper cups were a luxury item. The toy store had them in the party section. We bought them only for rare special occasions, because, as I recall, 100 cups cost the astronomical sum of a whole dollar, the equivalent of at least 12 to 15 dollars in today’s money.

On Wednesday or Thursday, every balabuste found her way to the local fish store. Most households had a hand grinder, and if the fish man was accommodating he filleted the fish, saving her quite a messy job. A bit later, probably due to competition, the fish stores hit on the brilliant idea of offering to actually grind the fish, and some even included a packet of ground onion, making mixing gefilte fish a breeze. No self-respecting housewife of that era would have deigned to use ready frozen gefilte fish rolls.

Fruits and vegetables were sold by the fruit man, either in a little hole-in-the-wall shop, or from a horse-drawn cart. Fruit was only available “in season.” Though peaches and apricots grew in Chile in February, they stayed in Chile. If you wanted summer fruits during the winter, you opened a can. There wasn’t the variety that we have today. Mango, papaya, pomegranate (which we called Chinese apples) were Shehecheyanu fruits. Kiwis and star fruits were still growing somewhere in an experimental agricultural lab.

A relic from the pushcart days of the 1920s and 1930s, the appetizing store was where you went for a good piece of schmaltz herring. (The grocery only carried the jarred pickled kind.) There were also barrels of pickles of various degrees of sour, some sacks of nuts and a few boxes of chocolate sold by weight. The strips of herring were wrapped in old newspaper. The lox (smoked salmon in today’s vernacular) was considered a luxury item, sold in eighths (two ounces) and as such it merited being wrapped in clean, fresh waxed paper. Some appetizing stores also had a milchige counter where they sold sliced cheese.

Every grocery had a bread-slicing machine, and offered seeded (caraway) or unseeded rye. For pumpernickel, white bread, challos and cake, you made a stop in the bakery. Egg kichel, both plain and sugared bow ties, was also sold by the pound.

Milk was sold in quart wax-covered containers. If a sliver of wax was found floating in my cup, the whole cup went down the drain. No matter how much my mother tried to convince me that once she took it out with a spoon, the milk was fine, to me the milk was tainted. Only on Pesach did we have milk, and cheese and cream, packed in glass. The Mashgichim did not take chances, and couldn’t determine if the wax has a problem of chometz.

There was no Cholov Yisroel yogurt and leben was just something we heard about from our Israeli cousins. Once in a while the grocery would get a shipment of imported Swiss cheese with a reliable hechsher.

In the 1950s beans and barley were already sold in bags. So were noodles, but definitely not the variety and shapes available today. Quinoa, as well as spelt and gluten, were words on a Scrabble board, or an answer to a crossword puzzle clue. Multigrain, trans fat free and organic were not everyday words either.

As I am writing this, I am remembering more details, I am sure, though, that you get the picture of a simpler time, with fewer choices. Yet we were satisfied with what we had. While perusing the variety of products available today, don’t forget to thank Hashem for his bounty and to utter a prayer that we use what we buy in the best of health and that it comes “gringerheit” (easily) along with a healthy helping of Yiddishe Nachas.

By P. Samuels

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