I grew up in a household with two hard-working parents, both of whom were raised through the Great Depression and World War II, and they still live with the values they learned in their childhoods. My father, for example, is an inveterate straightener of bent nails. He keeps screws in an old coffee can, and he stockpiles coffee cans (they still buy canned coffee) in case he needs them for yet more screws. My mother saves the plastic liners from cereal boxes to wrap up other food. She is a quilter, so no scrap of fabric is too small to use. She hangs onto my dad’s old underwear for dusting and polishing shoes. And she has a collection of plastic and paper bags that would embarrass—oh, actually, anyone. They’re not hoarders. They’re scrimpers, savers, and that’s different.
But this tale goes back to when I was a child, the middle of five kids, and my parents were on a tight budget. We had to tread lightly, go easy. Mom sewed and patched our clothes much of the time, and we got boxes of hand-me-downs in the mail from our cousins in other states. I know that some years Mom and Dad bought our Christmas presents from saving up coupons and cereal box tops. We had the basics, nothing too fancy, and plenty to eat—or did we?
My mother coped with our open, hungry mouths by cutting things in half. Half a sandwich. Half an apple. Half an orange. Half a banana. My sister CJ and I used to split a fried egg—she’d eat the white and I’d eat the yolk. When my mom cooked breakfast, she cut the bacon in half. I didn’t know that bacon could be eaten in longer strips until I was visiting a neighbor in the morning and saw these lengthy pieces of bacon being frivolously waved about. Long bacon! Who knew? And orange juice—we drank it from the tiniest of glasses. Just 4 ounces. I saw our same neighbor drink a large glass of orange juice and knew an envy that burned like lust in my heart.
“Making the milk” was another cost-saving ritual. There was whole milk in the bottle (when we had a milkman) and in the carton (after Berkeley Farms stopped delivering). But it was too expensive to drink like that, so every night or two, someone had to “make the milk,” that is, stir up a half-gallon of nonfat dry milk, and then blend the two in a special milk pitcher. We were allowed to drink only the mixed milk, always with that sour tang of the dried milk flavor.
In my lunchbox, graham crackers were broken into squares (half). My mother sometimes shopped at the bakery outlet and brought home—not the Twinkies or HoHos we craved, no—but something called Banana Dreams. These were banana cake cups with creamy whipped banana frosting in the center. Not my favorite. But it was the closest to a bakery lunchbox treat we’d ever get. And we got half.
On long car trips, my mother packed lunch for the road, including powdered lemonade or Tang, apples and a paring knife (to cut them in half). At rest stops and in the motel, she’d mix up Tang and give us a Dixie cup serving (4 ounces). On the long stretches of Highway 5 or through the mountains, Mom showed us the big green pack of Doublemint gum as a treat, and meted out half-sticks to everyone. (A friend recently pointed out that this was technically only Singlemint.)
But the crowning glory of our half-life of special foods was butter. Not half a stick or half a slice. No—butter was for Sundays. The rest of the week we kids ate margarine, while the parents ate butter every day. I know now how much butter costs, and bacon, and real orange juice, and I know what it’s like trying to spread that seven ways. But for us as children, the butter-on-Sundays rule only made me burn for it.
And so I stole into the kitchen for food. My sisters and I snuck, late at night, for the Oreos or the pink and white Circus Animals on top of the fridge. We took handfuls of cookies or crackers back to our bedroom to eat in the dark. When no one was in the kitchen or the house, I drank right from the pitcher of juice; I swigged directly from the forbidden carton of milk. I crammed whole slices of white bread into my maw just to taste the fluffy softness of it fill my mouth, my belly.
My mother parceled out dinner plates at the stove, from youngest to oldest, and we each got a portion of stew or Hamburger Helper or macaroni and cheese. She also served bread and margarine, a serving dish of fruit cocktail or canned peaches, perhaps a bowl of creamed corn or carrot sticks, anything to round out the meal. If you didn’t eat what was put before you, you sat there as long as it took. Until it was cold and all your sour milk was gone and you couldn’t wash it down with even a glass of water. You sat there all night if you had to. One day, when I was about 4, we were out of “mixed milk,” and all that was left was the nonfat dry milk. I was too young to understand, but I sat in the chair from breakfast to lunchtime, yelled at to eat soggy Cheerios, not to waste it. I couldn’t do it.
On the rare occasions we had a guest for lunch or dinner, my father said aloud to the family, “FHB.” That’s our private code for “Family Hold Back”—don’t eat much. Leave enough for others. Go hungry, if you must.
If you wanted more—if you ate all of your dinner and asked for seconds, Dad said, “You’ll stretch your stomach.” If you didn’t clean your plate, you were wasting food, and if you did, he scolded, “Leave the design on the plate!” If you ate everything, “You’re a member of the clean plate club.” If you ate too fast, you were “piggy,” or “going to a fire?” With so much intensity around our food and our eating, it is surprising that none of us grew up vastly overweight in rebellion. Quite the opposite, in fact—for a while as a young adult, I was anorexic, weighing just 95 pounds, my clothes sagging off my frame. When I was a young single parent, struggling as my parents had, I was so ashamed to ask for food for myself and my infant daughter that I stole cans of vegetables and soup from their cabinets.
Butter on Sundays is a joke we tell now in our family, though I sense a slight hysteria under the ribbing. It was hilarious, it makes a great story—it was, perhaps, a tale of survival and endurance. But it all has a dark edge to it—of fear and control and miserly love, of scarcity and shame and envy over the goodies in others’ lunchboxes.
There isn’t one of us adult kids, says my sister CJ, who wouldn’t take another cookie now, who doesn’t want the biggest one, the first one and the last one on the plate. All of us have self-esteem issues, fear of authority, feelings of scarcity. I look into the refrigerators and extra chest freezers of my siblings, 40 years later, and I see food stuffed to the top, fine foods, delicious foods. We don’t cut the bacon in half. We serve full glasses of juice. We eat whole sticks of gum.
My parents, who still toil along in their 80s, cutting the bacon in half though they no longer need to, who say, “Whoa!” if you pour too much coffee in their cups—“I don’t want to take a bath in it!” They are a product of their era, of their circumstances, and despite the limited food and expressions of affection, they brought up five smart kids who all went to college and lead happy, useful lives.
In my own banana dream, I get the whole cupcake. I get the whole stick of gum. I get the last piece of cake and no one argues with me or calls me piggy. I get to eat a whole piece of bacon and drink a 12-ounce glass of juice, a HoHo and a Twinkie, and I don’t feel guilty or shamed about it.
I eat butter every day. And there’s always more in the fridge.
Julia Park Tracey has written most recently for Salon, Thrillist and Quill. She’s raised five hungry kids of her own. Follow her @juliaparktracey or Facebook/juliaparktracey.