Keeping Up and Cooking Up With The Joneses

Leave it to Julie...

For the past month, I have been lamenting that the well had run dry...that I couldn't remember any good stories to tell. A couple of times I even appealed to you loyal readers for no avail. And the proof of my dire straits has been revealed in the reading...slim pickings, indeed, in the New Year.

But, have no fear, Julie is tell you in her own words what life was like growing up in the Jones family. And, after reading her tale, you'll see that the girl COULD write!

Hey, maybe together, Julie and I will write "The Book" afterall...

Keeping Up and Cooking Up With The Joneses
By Julie Newell

The ten (10) children in my family were basically two years apart in birth. My parents had two boys, one girl, three boys, and four girls (in that order.) That meant that as the oldest girl in a family as large as ours, I was forced by circumstances and inclination into having to be "mother" for the younger family members. As long as I can remember, I have been called upon to help my mother take care of the younger family members, especially because my mother took a full-time (away-from-home) job when the youngest child, my sister Rebecca, was barely two months old. I can remember rocking my sisters to sleep across my lap (almost before I had a lap). I remember changing diapers and making bottles as soon as I was tall enough to reach the baby's bed. I remember washing dishes for our family in the sink, when I was still far too short to reach the sink, so I stood in a chair with a towel tied behind my waist for an apron. I also remember feeling somehow guilty for being alive, since I knew that each addition to our family meant that our meager income would be stretched farther and farther, when it was already past the breaking point. Perhaps that's why I felt almost compelled to help my mother in any way I could, to help make her "burden" easier.

Of course, as you can imagine, every penny brought in was needed to feed and clothe us. I can still remember the anger we felt as children, but could not express because our father refused to accept welfare ("charity" he called it). Mama tried several times to get him to sign up for it, but could never get him to the point that he would agree to sign the papers. She even went to the Public Aid office on a couple of occasions to see if she would be allowed to sign up on her own. But, since she was legally married and we all lived together, Daddy s signature was required as head of household.

Of course, now that I am an adult, I can only marvel at the strength of character it took for a black man in a small southern Illinois town in the forties and fifties to refuse to accept the helping hand of welfare. I know it bothered him to have us do without, but he felt that as his family, we were his responsibility, not someone else's. Daddy always said that as long as he was able to work, we would live on what he brought home.

Many times, I saw him leave a ten-dollar bill on the counter where he left the weekly money. That ten dollars was to buy groceries and any other incidentals our family needed for the coming week.

Many times, I saw my mother sit with her head in her hands, in tears because she knew that ten dollar bill would not stretch through the week. Our weekly menus, therefore, suffered from a lamentable lack of the variety that most families enjoy.

On Friday, Daddy got paid at his job as a laborer. He worked at a local soybean mill from 8 A.M. until 5 P.M. each day, loading hundred-pound sacks of ground soybean meal onto railroad cars for shipment throughout the United States. He would come home each day covered in yellow dust, as if he had stood in the middle of a yellow tornado. His eyebrows, eyelashes, nasal cavities, the hair on his head and arms, and his clothes would be completely yellow. My mother complained bitterly about the difficulties of getting that yellow soybean dust out of Daddy's coveralls.

On the Friday nights Daddy got paid, we usually ate meat of some variety, even if it were only seasoned hamburger cooked with onions and green pepper and served over rice, to make it go further. Mama made homemade biscuits and usually during the week, we didn't have dessert. On Saturday, we typically had locally-caught river fish.

Since we live at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during those years, local fishermen made a living by bringing their catches throughout each small neighborhood to sell fish to the local citizens. It was usual on most spring, summer and even winter afternoons to hear the local fishermen yelling “Fish! Fresh Fish!”, just as in larger cities, one might hear the bell and outcry of the ice cream man. The fish was kept on ice in the beds of their pick-up trucks, and the fish would be exhibited to the housewives, weighed and then dressed (scaled and cleaned) right before their eyes. Nowadays, of course, this would be considered totally unacceptable, because of the often unsanitary conditions, but I still remember the fascination I felt while watching the quick efficiency of the fishermen as they poked through the crushed ice to display freshly caught whole fish to their potential customers, then weighed the fish on hanging scales in the back of the truck. After announcing the price (of course, making a “special deal” for each particular favored customer), proceeded to decapitate, scale and eviscerate the poor carp, catfish, buffalo, etc. Because of the close proximity of the rivers, fish was extremely cheap, sometimes going for as little as 10 cents a pound. Boy, that was great eating!

Fried fish, hush puppies and fried potatoes with onions was one of the special treats for our family, even though precisely because it was inexpensive, we ate it with great regularity.

Sundays were chicken and dressing days. That was also the day we usually ate dessert, often cake or a homemade fruit cobbler. The rest of the week meant that we usually ate a stew or soup, where a little meat went a long way. By Thursdays, however, we almost always had beans of some sort, either great northerns with a small piece of salt pork for seasoning, or black-eyed peas and rice with cornbread, or lima beans, or navy bean soup, or kidney beans; whatever was cheap that week. You could feed twelve people with a big pot of beans or peas, and only spend 75 cents for a 2 lb bag of beans. And, too, by that time the money was so short that beans were all we could afford.

You'll notice that I haven't said a lot about breakfasts, because even as kids, most members of my family didn't eat breakfast. Especially after we entered high school, we gave up on breakfast. As children, it usually consisted of oatmeal, a big pot of which my mother managed to scorch every morning. It was inexpensive and it went a long way. However, to this day I cannot stand oats in any form—oatmeal cookies, bread, or even dry oat cereals bring back so many unpleasant memories, that I almost gag at the very thought of eating it.

Our family meals were often supplemented as children by the vegetable garden Daddy planted each summer. Even to this day, he still manages to grow a patch of tomatoes, cabbage, corn, lettuce and green beans from a handful of seed and starter plants.

I also remember one house we lived in had a huge pear tree, which provided fresh fruit the entire summer. The tree at the Pear House provided both summer-time shade and fun for us. The more adventurous of my brothers managed to climb that tree, which at that time seemed to be a mile high. While up there, they would shake the tree to provide us with pear-missiles to have fruit fights, and we could eat the spoils of war. I have some very fond memories of playing hide and seek in the tomato garden under the pear tree, and eating the sun-warmed fruit right off the vines.

Mama never canned foods, but my grandmother Stella did, so we ate fresh vegetables in the summer and home-canned vegetables and fruits in the winter, thanks to her. I can honestly say we never starved, although I will not lie by saying that we never went hungry. When the money did not stretch far enough, there were days when we ate biscuits and gravy for supper (gravy made with meat drippings or a piece of salt pork) with no lunch and oatmeal for breakfast. Or, we ate grease sandwiches, which consisted of two slices of bread fried in bacon fat, and slathered with mustard! (a Jones invention). Yum, Yum!

As an adult, I now enjoy nothing better than entertaining and serving friends and family members from my well-stocked larder. I collect recipes while traveling with my husband, and I also fancy myself a semi-gourmet cook. If I taste a particularly appealing dish in Maui or Los Angeles, I love to try to duplicate the recipe in my own kitchen. The results are usually interesting, and besides, I have the fun of eating my experiments. I'll bet Dr. Salk never said that!

My husband and I have hosted small intimate dinner parties of two or four special friends, and also large get-togethers where a hundred or more of the teachers in our school district (where my husband teaches and I work as a school secretary) mingle. One of my favorite recipes for smaller gatherings is Chicken Cordon Bleu. I serve it with fresh steamed asparagus in a lemon-butter sauce, carrot coins, and fresh baked rolls or croissants. With a light, fruity white or rose wine, this makes an elegant, yet fairly simple meal that makes your guests think you slaved over a hot stove for hours just for them! I always like to agree with them that this is certainly the case, but of course, they're worth it!

And if your appetite got whetted reading about Julie's cooking, it just so happens that she sent her recipe for you to try.

Unfortunately, this time, you'll have to cook it yourself...

POSTSCRIPT: If I heard the "Beans Story" once, I heard it a thousand times.

If you are reading this, then you know Julie...she was a very perceptive person. Guess that's how she seemed to always know what a person needed...a shoulder to cry on, a pat on the back, gentle words of encouragement, a kick in the a...butt.

Well, Julie could also use her powers of perception to detect your "Achilles Heel" if she so desired. I speak from experience...

Julie told me early on her story of "being raised a poor black child". (Maybe that was why Steve Martin's "The Jerk" was one of our favorite movies.) I interrupted her by saying that I was raised a poor white child. Without hesitation, Julie continued her story and quickly showed me that I didn't know "beans" about being poor. I apologized profusely...and Julie graciously accepted...and NEVER forgot.

In later years, Julie would come up with one of her ideas for adventure...traveling to exotic places, cruising the deep blue sea, eating in swank restaurants...all of which would carry what I felt was an exorbitant price tag. When I raised objection, Julie would drop her eyes, get a look of deep sadness, and pause. Just when I thought that I had "won" and we could explore a reasonable (i.e. CHEAP) alternative, Julie would tell me she was sorry...yes, it would be expensive...too expensive..."Guess I'm just trying to make up for all those years that we lived off beans..."

Well, you guessed it! Julie didn't have to talk very long...and I would be begging her to let me take her to exotic lobster and caviar. Anything...just stop with the "Beans Story".