Los Angeles Food Culture During My Childhood

Dinner Table.
Dinner Table. | Original photo byVegar Norman /Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's Mother's Day as I begin to write this, that most fraught of holidays for childless husbands and motherless sons. I'm one of the latter and often I feel incomplete because of it. Nostalgia doesn't serve me very well, but I remember when I was a boy that my mother was the best cook in my neighborhood.

Sons often remember falsely that their mother's cooking was the best. But my mother's cooking -- which was actually commonplace -- really was the best that could be found on my block. I lived among families who had known the Depression and had fled the Dust Bowl, who had gone through wartime rationing and known meals that were only the opposite of going hungry.

Many of the husbands in my neighborhood still insisted on eating poorly because they had been poor when they were boys. Part of it was the exile of their young wives in the newly made suburbs that were so far from mothers and grandmothers. Only the scraps of half-remembered information from a high school home ec course might serve them.

On the tract house plains of South Gate, Downey, north Long Beach, Lakewood, and Bellflower, meals reflected what memories you stubbornly held on to. And if you ate to remember, as we often did, many of the memories were of loss.

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The future of food hadn't arrived when I was a boy. Maxwell House instant coffee (1946) had only just been introduced. Swanson sold frozen potpies (1951) not TV dinners (1954). Rice-a-Roni (1958), Carnation Instant Breakfast (1964), and Cool Whip (1965) were years away. Bigger grocery stores showcased an aisle of frozen food, but our Coldspot refrigerator had room in its freezer compartment for only one or two rectangular blocks of Birdseye peas.

The Helm's Bakery truck would come by with its smoothly sliding, glossy wood drawers. So did a guy who had converted a used bus with shelves and a propane cooler to bring cigarettes, milk, and cereal to the carless. People in Bellflower we knew kept chickens and sold the eggs to their neighbors.

Shopping was mostly done on foot then, and done often since most housewives either couldn't drive or didn't have a car. Hiram's and The Boys markets were at the distant end of my block. Their fresh vegetable and fruit displays followed the seasons. Heads of iceberg lettuce -- the only kind available -- dwindled in winter. Corn on the cob only arrived in July.

The Farmer John meat company pitched its products as "easternmost in quality" because the local beef had a poor reputation. There were times you couldn't get chicken, but you could get rabbit. Fresh fish was hard to find and harder to keep. In 1958, Cardinal McIntyre in the weekly Catholic newspaper The Tidings recommended "tunies" (tuna hot dogs) for Lenten Fridays. My family agreed that "tunies" were inedible.

As a percentage of average family income, food in the 1950s was expensive. But on a $100-a-week paycheck, you could still feed a family. The results were hardly memorable if all you knew was Wonder Bread and margarine, a roast cooked black and hard, canned string beans, plenty of mashed potatoes, and JELL-O for desert.

My mother made nearly the same meal, but the roast beef was savory, the side dishes were respectable, and there was always a salad (served at the beginning, which initially puzzled my New York-born parents; where the salad came last).

My mother cooked plain food almost untouched by the recipes in the womens' magazines she read or even in the 1943 edition of Irma Rombauer's "Joy of Cooking" kept in the cabinet over the refrigerator. She preferred a baked potato to Rice-A-Roni and anything simple to anything that technologized either the food or the experience of eating.

My mother cooked the same meals in weekly rotation for decades, punctuated by the obligatory dinners for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter when she used her wedding silverware. It was rote cooking -- measured out in cans of Hunt's tomato paste and pounds of stew meat -- but my mother treated the ingredients with enough respect that they always seemed more than just nourishment.

My brother's friends and mine -- tasting medium-rare roast beef for the first at my house -- fell in love with my mother. It was extraordinary how potent Lawry's Seasoned Salt was.

My family's food habits were unfamiliar in other ways. We ate together at 7:00 p.m. or later when everyone in the neighborhood ate at 5:30 p.m. My parents went through a martini-before-dinner phase when my sophisticated uncle Arthur lived with us. My mother and father drank red wine with the spaghetti and meat sauce my mother made on Saturdays (the sauce to be served on Monday over more spaghetti and always tasting even better).

Breakfast was always two USDA Grade AA eggs fried over easy in butter and served with two strips of overcooked bacon and buttered toast as my mother prepared her sons for school and a future of heart disease. It was the breakfast the Department of Agriculture recommended.

My family ate out, too, and it seems it me that we might have eaten out more often than some of our neighbors. We ate at local places, at the Clock coffee shop and at Clifton's Cafeteria and Hody's Family Restaurant in Lakewood Center -- caramel and tangerine stucco on the outside and walnut veneer and red vinyl in the half-dark interior. Hody's had counter service and car hops on roller skates. It was not exactly middle class.

We hardly noticed then, but all around us was an extravagant California of food. Backyards in my neighborhood delivered apricots, plums, peaches, pomegranates, nectarines, tangelos, guavas, and tangerines with casual overabundance. Only so much could be picked, eaten, or shared. Softball-sized peaches fell from the tree in my yard. The winey smell of fallen fruit could be overwhelming.

Those untended trees with so much fruit were all of what California could mean to refugees from colder, harder places. If only they had known what was being put in front of them. If only they had been satisfied.

A version of this essay originally appeared in 2009 in the Los Angeles Times.

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