My Artificial Life: A Retrospect on Questionable Supermarket Purchases in the 1970’s

wonderbreadEvery Saturday morning, Mom ventured out to the supermarket called Waldbaum’s right up the street from our house. We couldn’t wait for her to arrive home with the loot, since by Saturday we were all fighting over the only thing left in the house to eat, the hot mustard sauce left over from the previous night’s Chinese take out.

I often accompanied my Mom on these trips. One might think this is how we spent quality mother-daughter time, but the reality is I wanted to wield some influence to convince my mother that Keebler chocolate fudge covered grahams were my constitutional right.

Besides that, Mom needed my help. Back in the 1970’s virtually no groceries were bagged in plastic. You came to the supermarket with a shopping cart and the check out girls would pack your groceries in double bagged paper. Each bag was filled half-full with groceries and then another bag was inserted on top and the process continued until all the groceries were packed. Shopping for a family of five meant the bags could often be stacked well over Mom’s head and perched precariously like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. To complicate things further, there was a steep downhill between the supermarket and the apartment building and I served as navigator, since she could barely see where she was going.

Our shopping list generally consisted of the four food groups of the typical American family in the 1970’s: artificial flavor, artificial color, salt, and sugar. The food we ate was so laden with preservatives and chemicals that have since been outlawed, that a steady diet of paint chips would have been a vast improvement. And by the way, lots of kids ate them back then too.

So here are my top memories of supermarket purchases between 1973 and 1979. They may not have been good for us, but they are accompanied by some awesome memories.

  1. Jello. We always had Jello in the house and this served as dessert in a pinch once we’d eaten all the really bad cookies. On one occasion,  Mom managed to mess up the complicated preparation process (add water and stir) and the Jello set with some funky kind of film at the top. Convinced she’d bought defective Jello, Mom wrote a letter to the manufacturer explaining her disappointment. We were sent eight free boxes of Jello which meant we had to go without Entenmann’s for weeks.
  2. TV Dinners. How exciting to have a choice at dinnertime, just like at a fancy restaurant! However, the choice was always somewhat problematic because it was statistically impossible to select one dinner where you liked all four components of the meal. If you selected the turkey dinner, the meat was palatable because it was smothered in gravy, but the dessert was barely one step up from cranberry sauce. If you picked the fried chicken, you had to deal with peas and carrots that were as hard as pebbles. And if you picked the meatloaf, you had to handle the upset stomach from the acid in the sauce. But that dinner came with a brownie. And since I come from a family that only cares about dessert, I went with that one almost every time.
  3. Pecan Sandies. My father went through a Pecan Sandies phase that lasted about two years. They were one step up from really bad cookies, but not so bad that even he could barely stomach them. They always tasted like salt to me. I now wonder if Dad salted them himself to keep our hands off them.
  4. Cheez Whiz, Swiss Knight Cheese, and Kraft Singles. The only ingredient NOT present in these foods was cheese. Still trying to figure this one out.
  5. Coca-Cola. Every week Mom bought seven quarts of Coke until the late 70’s when we were all told that a switch to the metric system (which we likened to Armageddon) was coming and we started buying liters. We were only allowed to open one bottle per night and only at dinner time (probably so the sugar high in the evening hours and erosion of our teeth after our three-second teeth brushing regimen could be fully optimized).
  6. Hebrew National Bologna. We liked our nitrates just as much as the next family, but in a Jewish sort of way.
  7. Wonder Bread. Before there were dozens of varieties of white, wheat, rye, and gluten-free bread, we had white bread and crackers. And it’s impossible to make a grilled cheese sandwich with crackers. I made many a grilled cheese sandwich with Wonder Bread and when the packaging got a little too close to the frying pan, you could decorate the pan with blue, red, and yellow polka dots, kind of like your Twister board.
  8. Saltine Crackers. This is what you ate when you ran out of Wonder Bread and after you’d finished the Ritz crackers. Our version of really bad grilled cheese was saltine crackers with Cheez Whiz.
  9. Canned Salmon. When I grew up, it didn’t seem like we ate any fish unless the words Gorton’s or Arthur Treacher’s was attached to it. I don’t think you could get decent fish in the supermarket and there was no fish store nearby that I recall. The closest thing we came to fish was a dish called salmon loaf. It was made with canned salmon, white bread (Wonder!) and some other slop to hold it together like eggs, milk, and sour cream. The only thing worse than salmon loaf for dinner was salmon loaf for dinner with Jello for dessert.
  10. Hawaiian Punch. This was generally only purchased in the small containers that could be packed in our school lunch. This supplied the cheaper version of a sugar rush necessary before we could have our real fix of Coke later in the evening. Hi-C and heaven forbid, Kool-Aid never made it past our doorstep as they were not on Mom’s approved food list. She had her standards, you see.
  11. Haggen Daz. Like every other family in the 1970’s, we too were fooled into thinking this was some sort of imported ice cream from some exotic region of the world that began with Kaz or Frak or Guetten and ended with Stan. But by the time we realized it wasn’t manufactured in Kazfrakguettenstan, but in the Bronx, we were already hooked.
  12. Campbell’s Chicken Soup. This was what you were offered when you didn’t feel well and you usually got a few saltines with it. Not a feast of kings, but certainly better than the alternative, a temperature check with a rectal thermometer.
  13. Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Krispies, and Sugar Smacks. Frankly, any cereal that changed the original color of the milk to a radioactive-like hue would do. Cereal also served as the morning sugar boost before the lunchtime Hawaiian Punch or evening Coke.
  14. Raspberry Soda and Beer. These two beverages are grouped together because they were rarely bought and considered a special treat. Once or twice a year, Mom would buy raspberry soda and make us ice cream floats. We had these nifty straws with a spoon at the end that made this treat extra special. Mom was not much of a drinker, but once in a while she’d have a beer with dinner and she’d be three sheets to the wind by the time it was time to break out the Jello.
  15. Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee. This was almost always on the shopping list. Every morning with breakfast and every evening after dinner, Mom and Dad had a cup of Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee. It was the equivalent of brown water with stuff floating around in it, kind of like New York City tap water in the 1970’s. Perhaps this was the attraction. How much longer could it have possibly taken to make real coffee? Why didn’t they just drink tea? I’ll probably never know.
  16. Green Giant Frozen Vegetables. These were one part vegetable and five parts butter. We were never served a vegetable in it’s natural form unless you count corn on the cob which was slathered in butter seconds after it was removed from the pot.
  17. Hostess Cakes. No explanation necessary. Just read any of my 50+ blog posts and you’re bound to find the word Hostess in all of them.
  18. Pop Tarts. Imagine! Putting something in your toaster and having your entire home smell like a fresh strawberry pastry from a fancy French bakery. Must have been the 2% (or less) dried strawberries or the red dye that made them so authentic. We had English muffins too. We were truly global.
  19. TV Guide. Ok, this isn’t food, but it was an important weekly supermarket purchase. Before there was cable or Netflix or Hulu, we had to wait to watch our programs. TV Guide was a weekly magazine that allowed you to plan your life around TV and you could purchase it right at the checkout counter at the supermarket. With this magazine, you could see which shows were playing simultaneously and then you were forced to pick one, commit, and live with your decision, at least until summer when reruns were on and there was a slim chance you could catch the episodes you missed. Thank goodness the agony of those days is gone and I can binge watch The Brady Bunch whenever I want.

Zagat’s Guide to Tween/Teen Dining in Queens

Before we had easy access to sushi and Thai food and the closest thing the neighborhood had to ethnic fare was Italian ices, we frequented a few neighborhood eateries that were more often than not dives, but hold many special memories. Here are just a few.

Jahn’s. Jahn’s was an area ice cream chain that looked like an old fashioned ice cream parlor with booths with red leather and stained glass light fixtures. You could get an amazing ice cream sundae with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry and if you happened to be with a big spender you could grab a few spoonfuls of their Kitchen Sink, which was a trough of ice cream that could feed eight. It was probably a few dollars in the 1970’s, but the last time I checked the price it was $51.95. I don’t even have eight friends, let alone eight friends with more than six dollars to spend on an eighth of an ice cream sundae.

Jahn’s also had a party room downstairs and I had a birthday party there when I turned nine. In addition to the ice cream, I had live entertainment; my brother Jeffrey, who attempted to make animal balloons for our guests. He was shooting for dogs, but most of his creations ended up looking like huge phallus’. Fortunately, the ice cream made up for the lack of age appropriate party favors.

The Chow-Chow truck. The Chow-Chow truck was an Asian- influenced food truck that sold the best french fries in the world. I have no idea why french fries would even be on the menu with egg rolls and other Chinese food options, but I didn’t care and I would stop at nothing to savor a few of these grease-infused fries served in a cone-shaped paper cup. Usually by the time the Chow Chow truck made a stop by the school playground, we had already spent our money on ice cream. As an alternative to purchasing a cupful, we would stand on line near a paying customer and wait for some of the fries presented in the overflowing cup to fall out and into our waiting hands. We often missed and when the fries fell to the ground we applied the dubious five second rule…if we picked the fries up in five seconds or less, they were safe to eat. And we counted very slowly. Heck, let’s be honest; a few times people trampled on the fries that fell to the ground and we still picked them up and ate them. Yes, they were that good.

Alexander’s. In addition to being what I was sure was the largest department store in the world, Alexander’s had a full-service restaurant with pretty good hamburgers and great pickles served in a metal bowl. Most of my time at Alexander’s was spent in the record department purchasing 45’s (note to readers born after 1980: this was the 1970’s version of downloading a single song), looking at albums, or paying for toys I pretended my parents purchased for me, but occasionally I did get to eat at Alexander’s (usually when someone else was treating).

Queens Center Mall. The first real mall in the neighborhood opened when I was 11 and moving into prime shopping age. After browsing the assortment of tee-shirts from the popular Ancil House, a novelty store that pressed decals of various images onto shirts and added felt letters spelling out your name (the full name, not the initials; it’s totally different!) we worked up an appetite and needed to treat ourselves to some good eats in the food court. It was here that I got my first taste of all the crappy chain food that most New Yorkers are lucky enough to avoid, like Orange Julius and Panda Express.

Knish Nosh. Hungry but short on cash? No problem. Eat a knish from this popular eatery and enjoy the week and a half it takes to digest one of these things.

Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. Truly disgusting and not worth the trauma of crossing The Boulevard of Death to get there. Why would anyone want to imitate British cuisine anyway? Mom refused to bring home McDonald’s or Burger King, but this was on the approved foods list.

Jay Dee Bakery. The Jay Dee Bakery was generally reserved for special occasions like school birthdays, visits from our grandparents, and the appearance of other relatives in our house which generally only occurred on leap years. My grandparents would stock up on the prune and cheese danish from this Hungarian Jewish bakery on their visits and usually throw in a pound or two of bakery cookies that looked much better than they tasted. Up until the age of six, I seriously considered pursuing a career as counter girl at the Jay Dee Bakery because I assumed the job entailed eating whatever baked goods you wanted and occasionally serving a customer.

White Castle. Oh, the thrill of walking into a hamburger joint and being able to order burgers by the dozen. The hamburgers were so small that 12 of them was the equivalent of one Swedish meatball. But the real treat for me at White Castle were the shakes. They were so thick that if you attempted to drink them with a straw you could easily have a brain aneurysm, so you quickly grabbed a spoon and opted for a major brain freeze instead.

Wine Gallery. We started going here in high school even though we were too young to be served wine.  If we were lucky, we would hang out with some 18 year old who managed to score a pitcher of sangria.  I’m not sure what the appeal of this place was, other than that it was a step up from White Castle, but I remember thinking you were with the “in crowd” if you were hanging out here.

Shalimar Diner. This was another “place to be seen” in high school. Kids seemed to end up here after every major school event even though it wasn’t located that close to the school. But it was open late and the over 50 waitresses in their orthopedic shoes seemed to tolerate the nonsense and mayhem that only a group of teenagers can cause. I think most of the guys ordered hamburgers here and most of the girls ordered sweets. The muffins were the size of softballs and a piece of cake was so big it came with its own zip code. I remember the food being fair, but the company always made up for it.

The hot dog cart lady. Outside the school playground there was an old German woman who had a hot dog vending cart. After we had spent our money on ice cream and eaten trampled on french fries, we scrounged around for five cents between five kids and asked the hot dog lady if she would give us five cents worth of sauerkraut. One of my friends once asked for two cents worth of mustard and I think this is where she finally drew the line.

Jewish Chinese food. Growing up, I ate the same Jewish Chinese food that all the reformed Jews in the neighborhood ate; spare ribs, pork fried rice, pork egg rolls, pork-filled wonton soup, and egg foo young. My parents ordered Chinese food every Friday night and it was always the same thing. Once I left home and occasionally visited my parents for this Friday night tradition, I would attempt to order something “outside the box” like chicken and broccoli and my father would look at me in disbelief and pray that this was just a phase I was going through and hope I would soon return to my senses and chow down on something that had pork in its name. The last time I had a spare rib was 1981. Sorry dad.

The Lemon Tree. This was a disco (it was the 70’s people!) that was open to kids under 18 on certain days of the week and served non-alcoholic beverages. I assume they served food too. I wouldn’t know. I never went. Perhaps I was waiting to be asked; I don’t know. I defer to my hipper friends to recount tales from The Lemon Tree. I have none,  even though I perfected my “hustle” in gym class in the 7th grade.





You Call This Candy?

candyI don’t claim to be an expert on many things, but I do consider myself somewhat of a candy aficionado, particularly when it comes to chocolate. In the early days, before we were old enough to go to the store and get the family dessert on our own, my dad would come home with a candy bar for each of us. He would throw the loot on the couch (because the piano was already full) and we would get to select a Milky Way, Snickers Bar, Three Musketeers Bar, or Hershey Bar. He always brought chocolate and since then, I have always been a bit of a snob when it comes to candy. Once we were old enough to go with friends to the store to buy candy, I was often surprised by their ill-informed, non-chocolate selections (yes, perhaps I was a bit judgmental). Below are a few of their misguided choices.

Wax harmonicas. Play a little tune on the wax harmonica and when you get bored with that, chew on the flavored wax. Yum.

Wax bottles. These gems offered equal chewing pleasure, but before you chewed, you could down the putrid warm liquid inside the wax filled bottles that tasted like the liquid polio vaccines of the 60’s.

Candy necklaces. Fashionable. Functional. Edible. Kids would wear these necklaces and try to eat them at the same time, nearly chocking themselves while trying to get the chalky candy into their mouth.

Partridge Family Bubble Gum. While the boys were buying bubble gum with baseball cards, the girls were buying Partridge Family gum which came with a poster of one of the famed Partridges. Unfortunately, the coveted Keith Partridge poster seemed to only be in one out of every million packs, and after acquiring three posters of Laurie, one of fellow ginger, Danny, and one of that little brother who I’m sure never touched a real drum kit in his life, I gave up.

Red Hots. The kids who selected these candies at the store were the dare devils and the ones always challenging authority. By age 9 they were probably using heroin.

Lemon Heads. Same idea as above but these kids opted for Quaaludes (like some of the other candies on the list, Quaaludes too have been discontinued).

Good N Plenty. You already know how I feel about black licorice. 

Black Jack Gum. So now you expect me to not only eat black licorice, but keep it in my mouth for hours on end?

Halvah. I don’t remember any kids actually buying this at the candy store, but my dad bought it and kept it in the house from time to time. This was the family’s candy equivalent of really bad cookies. This actually did last in time for dad to claim it, because we would sooner eat really bad cookies than halvah.

Marzipan. I have no words to explain this. I just never understood marzipan.

Jelly Fruit Slices. These only made an appearance in our house during Passover, when we broke out the “religious desserts” which included Manischewitz macaroons in a can and these sorry-ass mouth-puckering excuses for candy.

Milk Duds. Yes, they were duds. On your first bite, the candy became lodged in your lower molar and stayed there until your next visit to the dentist.

Jaw Breakers. For the kids who had too much spare time on their hands and were willing to dedicate the muscle and brawn necessary to crack these things.

Candy Cigarettes. The packaging for these was frighteningly realistic and you could buy them in chocolate or bubble gum flavor. The bubble gum ones had a sugar-based powder on them that enabled you to pretend you were blowing real smoke. Oy.

Pretzel Rods. This is what you ended up buying when you didn’t have enough money for real candy. The rods were in a large plastic container at the front counter and you could pick your own ,which often entailed touching every single one to find the right one, which was delightful, because inevitably, the kid who picked his own before you had also recently picked his nose.

To my dentist’s delight, I still eat chocolate just about every day (fortunately, I gave up the chocolate cigarettes decades ago). And every time I have a piece of chocolate, I’m reminded of the happy sound of the thunk of those candy bars hitting the couch and the wonderful memory of greeting my dad with a big hug upon his arrival home from work.

Foods Mom Wouldn’t Let Us Eat

At first glance, one might guess this is a story about growing up eating a lot of wholesome, unprocessed food. “Perhaps they had their own vegetable garden,” you might be thinking or “Maybe Barb’s mom was some sort of animal activist who forbade red meat or pelted eggs at woman wearing furs coats. No, not at all. We were the family that only cared about dessert, and nutrition didn’t seem high on anyone’s list of priorities. Yet, my mom had a lot of rules about foods she wouldn’t buy. There was no rhyme or reason to the list; it was the equivalent of telling someone, “It’s fine by me if you down a can of lighter fluid, but for heaven’s sake, please don’t swallow paint thinner.”  Here were some of the rules we lived by.

  1. Boxed cakes were fine, but cake mixes were not.
  2. TV dinners were regular fare, but Kraft Macaroni & Cheese never once sat on our shelf.
  3. Deviled ham was ok, but the line was drawn at Spam.
  4. Hershey’s syrup could be used for chocolate milk, but Nestle’s Quik was banned.

See a pattern here? Of course you don’t. This list makes no sense. In addition, instant hot chocolate was never, ever an option (this is one of the few things mom insisted on making from scratch), Cheese Whiz was considered the same thing as cheese, and grape gum was never under any circumstances, allowed in the house (my mother couldn’t stand the smell of it and each and every time I sneaked it in, she sniffed it out like a police dog and forced me to confiscate it immediately). Both my parents considered yogurt vile and neither of them was willing to “spend good money” on it. I never even tasted yogurt until I went to college. They felt the same way about cottage cheese, but I think I was allowed to eat this once or twice sometime after I reached puberty.

In addition to the bizarre packaged foods rules, mom had some strange rules when it came to fruit. When she went to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping, she would buy five apples or five oranges, etc. Each person in the family of five got one piece of whatever fruit she bought…for the week. There was no limit on cookies, but fruit was rationed. Perhaps fruit was expensive, so she didn’t buy much, but in addition to there being very little fruit, trying to barter for or exchange fruit with your siblings was highly frowned upon. If mom caught you in a corner trying to bribe your brother for an extra apple, you were told to break it up and move along. Strangely, there was no such rule for bananas. Mom would buy a bunch and you could eat whatever you could get your hands on. Go figure.

Mom’s fruit distribution system became much more complex in the summer time when she was more likely to buy cherries or grapes. Each week she would take the fruit and divide it into equal amounts and place it in bowls with little slips of paper with our names on it. This actually worked to my advantage, as I would create my version of the fruit shell game, eating cherries from my brothers’ bowls and then switching around the name tags.

Perhaps I have my mother to thank for my love of fruit. But I may have swung a bit to another extreme. Whenever I buy fruit, it’s hard for me not to eat it all in one sitting. A pound of cherries can be gone in a heartbeat and I will frequently eat several apples, peaches, or whatever else is in season in one day. I still feel liberated and just a wee bit naughty eating that second piece. But there is one fruit I never want seconds of. You guessed it…bananas.

Dessert Anyone?

chocolate cakeIn  my home growing up, the family meal rarely revolved around stimulating dinner conversation or even the meal itself. In all of our minds, the main purpose of dinner was dessert. You could serve my father an old shoe basted in tar and he wouldn’t say a word. But if there was no dessert, he’d hit the roof. My two brothers and I each had designated days of the week for picking up groceries and one item that was always on the list was dessert. Being the shopper of the day was in some ways a coveted position because it meant you had the power to select the family dessert. My brother Jeffrey and I always went into a funk on the days our older brother Stuart got to pick the dessert because he always picked the Entenmann’s cake with the yellow frosting and coconut. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Entenmann’s; it made an appearance in our household so frequently that it should have been the fourth child. But that particular cake…ugggh! Stuart also frequently selected butter pecan ice cream, another dessert Jeffrey and I hated.

Jeffrey, being the clever one that he was, often selected the Entenmann’s six-pack cupcake assortment with two white and four chocolate cupcakes (I never understood why it wasn’t three and three). He picked this dessert for a reason. There were five people in my family and six cupcakes. Jeffrey would wolf down one cupcake and then go for the second. When we screamed bloody murder that he had already had his cupcake he would reply, “No, I already ate the EXTRA cupcake; now I am going to eat mine.”

On the days I got to pick dessert, I usually opted for the Entenmann’s chocolate cake with the chocolate frosting. I mean, really, is there any other acceptable choice? In my world, there is a social hierarchy for desserts and anything chocolate tops the list.

My father was so desperate to make sure there was always dessert on hand for him that he started buying what the family called “really bad cookies.” Really bad cookies were the equivalent of a generic version of Oreos. The cookie part tasted like cardboard and the filling tasted like sand. He viewed this as some sort of insurance policy; protection that if someone neglected to get dessert or finished whatever other treats were in the house, there would always be something sweet to dunk in the cup of coffee he drank every evening following dinner, But dad was sorely mistaken. We frequently gritted our teeth and held our noses and ate those cookies too, well before dinnertime,  so he was sometimes left with nothing.

When I was about nine or ten years old, a new pie shop opened in the neighborhood called Four & Twenty Pies. They made fruit pies and cream pies that were so high in fat content, they should have included the same warning label you see on a pack of cigarettes. The pies were packed in neon orange cardboard boxes with a repeating geometric hexagon pattern resembling pies. Mom had to pass this pie shop on the way home from work and she started buying one or sometimes two at least once a week. But after a steady diet of lemon meringue, graham cracker pie with pudding, and a peach or apple pie here and there, dad’s weight began to balloon to close to 200 pounds. Mom quickly put the kabosh on the Four & Twenty Pies routine and put dad on a strict diet. The pie store closed about a year later (probably due to a lack of business from us) but it really was the best thing that could have happened. If we had continued down the slippery slope of pie-eating gluttony, a neighbor would surely have found us all dead with remains of blueberry and whipped cream on our faces.

Dessert wasn’t limited to dinner. When mom packed us school lunches there was always a dessert, usually a Drake’s or Hostess cake like a Ring Ding, Twinkie, or a Yodel. Judging from the majority’s reaction to coconut, mom knew better than to throw a Snowball in there. Mom was pretty predictable; there was always only one dessert in the lunchbox. One day I opened my lunchbox and found three Ring Dings in it. I thought I’d hit the mother lode. Obviously, mom was preoccupied or under a lot of stress the day she made this monumental mistake. She was probably obsessing about her job or an important family matter and just wasn’t paying close attention to where she was putting each of those Ring Dings. But did I care? Hell, no; I had three Ring Dings and my brothers had none.

Growing up, my kids never had a Ring Ding or a Yodel. My father thought this was appalling and considered reporting me to child protection services. He was determined to put my kids on a path of processed confections and my parents’ house quickly became the place with all the good stuff.

Dad didn’t live to witness the Twinkie debacle and if he had, he would have been gravely concerned. And while I no longer eat Twinkies myself, I gave my dad a silent high-five when they were bailed out of bankruptcy. Dessert may have made dinner fun, but the love of the people surrounding me at those dinners didn’t hurt either.