Thoughts from the ammo line

Ammo Grrrll returns this week with a profile of THE THRIFTY MAMA. She writes:

A few weeks ago, this column featured our next-door neighbor, not for nothing called The Thrifty Texan. Oh, he’s good. Real good. But a profligate next to my Thrifty Mama. She wrote the book on thrift. (I once told Mr. Ammo Grrrll that “my middle name is ‘thrift’,” and he said, “Yes, but, unfortunately, your first name is ‘Spend.’” He can be quite the card, that guy.)

We have also previously discussed Mama’s growing up in the Dust Bowl in South Dakota during the Depression. Her family were sharecroppers when grasshoppers, Russian thistles, and drought destroyed what crops there were to share. Though Daddy made a fine living throughout their marriage, she just never got over being that poor as a kid. You can take the girl out of the Depression, but it’s hard to take the Depression out of the girl.

We knew to warn any friends eating over to watch the condiments for “thinning.” Any ketchup or mustard left in the bottom of a bottle would be swished with water to get the last drops. The unsuspecting could find their burger swimming in Lake Ketchup. We had many an exotic concoction of jellies and jams as she would combine dribs and drabs from several jars. “Anyone for Strawberry-Blueberry-Apricot-Orange Marmalade?”

She always bought chickens whole and cut them up herself which probably saved well over a dime a pound. As a young bride, I tried to emulate her thrift; however, I was both lazy and incompetent, a deadly combo. I learned early on that I was not going to be a surgeon. There was never a recognizable piece of the bird and for some reason, Mr. Ammo Grrrll found it important to know whether he was eating a leg or a wing.

Mother considered buying orange juice not from concentrate to be the highest form of waste. She was and is unfailingly kind to everyone, but the ladies in the neighborhood who bought cartons of pre-made juice would be spoken of in hushed but disapproving tones. We always had a juice pitcher and the kids would take turns being tasked with stirring the frozen orange mush into juice. She would sneak in an extra half can of water, too, to extend it further.

When I went to Northwestern – the first time I had been away from home for longer than a week – I longed for the simple food of home. Casseroles (called Hot Dish in Minnesota, of course), such as Tuna Hot Dish with Peas and a gooey crust of crushed Potato Chips. Or Chipped Beef in Cream Soups on Chow Mein Noodles, a dish which must have had 5,000 mgs of sodium per bite. We never had a cut of meat that didn’t have to be braised for 4-5 hours to get tender. My first meal at Northwestern, they served something called “Roast Beef Au Jus” which I believed was going to be my familiar Pot Roast, but which was a thin, rare piece of pathetic meat you could see through, sitting in the “au jus” which turned out to be, well, blood. Oh dear.

One day, long after I was a successful comedian, we stopped in to a shopping complex on the river and found a fancy truffle shop – chocolates, not the kind French pigs root around for. I asked her to pick out four truffles to be placed in a pretty little box to be eaten later. (The chocolates, not the box…) She kept asking how much they were and I kept assuring her that it didn’t matter. Reluctantly, she picked out four and the saleslady boxed them and tied a bow around them. The lady said, “Five dollars, please,” which I considered quite reasonable. Mother screamed. Literally. And told the startled saleswoman to put them back.

I said, “Mother, some things are just worth it. Now stop making a scene and let’s go sit on that park bench and eat one.” She nibbled at one but couldn’t even enjoy it thinking about the extravagance of a piece of candy that cost $1.25 when the rent on their farmhouse had been $8.00 a month. (One of their best friends, who had grown up equally poor but was now a millionaire South Dakota farmer, also refused on principle to pay $2.00 for a hot dog at the Twins game. Clearly, that price was some time ago. Now, he’d need a defibrillator.)

However, one thrift measure was a bridge too far even for her. We had bought an old chest freezer from a co-worker. On one visit, Mother decided she would clean out this freezer. And oh, the things she found! One was a broken package of meatballs, three years past its sell-by date, with the meatballs spilling out unprotected onto the bottom of the freezer. She threw the meatballs out onto the grass in the backyard hoping some scavenger would find them.

And indeed he did. My neighbor, Thriftiest-of-All Randy, suddenly single and also unemployed, and cooking for three adolescent children, saw her do it, scooped them up, picked the grass off, put them in spaghetti sauce and fed them to his children for dinner. With Taco Bell napkins. Beat that. Happily, everyone survived.