Like other kids we knew, my four brothers, Johnny, BB, Curt, Paul, and I grew up with a steady diet of Vienna sausages, those half-sized, mystery-meat weiners that come in very small cans. They filled up our stomachs and tasted really good with bacon-flavored pork’n beans. It never dawned upon us that eating these fake weiners as well as on occasion the real “Oscar Meyer” type (though usually a lesser-known brand), essentially put our family in the category of poor, or “crackers,” or some other less-than-pleasant phrase. Vienna sausages were simply a stalwart staple of our weekly fare for most of our formative years.
These and similar items belonged to the culinary genre of “Vienna sausage and such,” the “such” including saltine crackers, rice, noodles, Jello, canned fish, and other belly-filling, but not too costly foodstuffs.
Bologna fell somewhere in the category. It was also some nondescript kind of meat that we could eat at any meal. My grandfather fried it at breakfast and called it “Georgia round steak.” It was good with a bowl of grits. It also appeared on sandwiches for lunch or dinner, always on that gooey white bread that had been stripped of any healthy nutrients. This rubbery “meat” was not one of my favorites, but I tried to camouflage its taste with lots of my favorite condiment, just plain yellow mustard.
MamaLu, our mother, stretched cans of salmon and tuna a long way in order to feed five hungry boys. She picked out all the bones from salmon and mixed it with various bread crumbs, such as old toast and crushed saltines crackers. She added an egg or two to keep the ingredients glued together. She shaped the mixture into patties, added lots of salt and pepper and then threw them into a frying pan. Sometimes we could actually taste the salmon—it depended upon the fish-to-crumbs ratio.
With canned tuna, MamaLu mixed lots and lots of noodles and a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. She then baked it in the oven and topped it with crushed saltine crackers during the last 15 minutes. They were “browned,” sometimes almost blackened. It was a meal to itself and was a standard for covered-dish suppers at churches, usually dressed up with browned potato chips in lieu of the Saltines.
Besides salmon and tuna, there was the baked fish stick, a weekly feature of our school fare. The cooks served them in recognition of the then “no-meat on Friday” practice of Catholic students. Many times they seemed to be more crust than fish. No one was able to identify the type of fish, and most of us just ate whatever it was, loaded with lots of ketchup, without any serious questioning of genotype nor phenotype. Some students who did not like them would fling them across the cafeteria at other students. The throwing took on the look of a battle between two sides, sometimes with at least 20 “missiles” in the air. Such battles became intensified when the school district received a large donation of government surplus black olives, occupying one of the five sections on every school’s cafeteria plates. No one had ever eaten them and, as a result, they joined the fish sticks as immediate weapons during lunch. The truth about fish is that my brothers and I would not have been able to recognize tilapia, cod, trout, orange roughy, salmon, tuna, nor any other fresh fish if it was laid out on a table in front of us. We knew of fish only in the encrusted or casseroled versions.
MamaLu turned a three-pound package of ground hamburger into numerous meals, most of them also in the “… and such” category. Since all of us like spaghetti, she fried the hamburger, threw in some onions and bell peppers, and then doused all of it with an ample amount of tomato sauce. She served it on a very large bed of spaghetti, creating a noodle nirvana. We could hardly devour it quickly enough. Meatloaf, like salmon patties, could be highly laden with bread or saltine cracker crumbs, glued together by an egg or two. Like the spaghetti, the bell peppers and onions were plentiful, and the tomato sauce topping off everything was delicious. A variation on the same theme was Spanish rice. MamaLu cooked the hamburger, mixed in lot of rice and tomato sauce, and topped it with a very orange cheese-like product. She made it in two iron skillets so that she could move it from the stove to the oven in order to melt the topping.
A little touch of mashed up hamburger was always saved to mix with chili powder and some ketchup to create hot dog chili. Throw in a little salt and pepper and there was no hot dog sauce as good. It could disguise the most off-brand of all weiners, especially if loaded down with mustard and pickle relish.
Finally, if there was some hamburger left, it was used in soup. MamaLu took a big pan and fried the leftover meat, and then put in all the leftover vegetables, canned or fresh, lots of water, and added tomato sauce. It was always tasty. The amount of water in the soup, the amount of rice in the Spanish rice, as well as the amount of crumbs in the meatloaf, or salmon patties, were always indications of our financial status. The watered-down issue was also present in our weekly soup from the Campbell’s selection. MamaLu never mixed just one can of water, it was always at least two, depending on the presence of one or more unexpected guests. We were not density experts but we did recognize that the tomato soup especially tended to be more pinkish than red on occasion. But, buttered and toasted Saltine crackers were always good with any soup. We knew to eat and to be thankful.
Chipped beef and gravy on toast was a dreaded meal, usually at supper. It had an array of aliases, including one from the military where it was referred to as “something on a shingle” – (use your alliterative imagination). The gravy was a glue-like substance of flour and milk and lots of pepper. The pink beef was so thin that it was almost invisible, and also tasteless. It came packaged in a small jar – and was stretched to its limits for my four brothers and me. We did not appreciate it in the least. However, it did meet the goal – to fill up our stomachs. MamaLu always tried to present it in a tolerable fashion, like cutting the toast into various geometrical designs, even spelling out the name of our youngest brother Paul; but she never fooled any of us. We ate it anyway.
We had fried chicken every Sunday, rarely the whole chicken itself; but more frequently, legs or wings. I liked both of them. MamaLu floured them and gave them a good dose of salt and pepper, then let them sit out during church services. When we returned home, she cooked them slowly until they were crispy, and she made delicious gravy to put on the rice. She had one bottle of Mazola oil used only for frying chicken (and salmon patties). All other cooking oil was bacon grease. It was essential because MamaLu used it for frying okra and squash, to flavor collard greens, green beans, and very large pots of pinto beans — and to make cornbread, always served with the pinto beans. Her large coffee can full of bacon grease was mirrored in all the homes we knew; it was just a common practice.
The very colorful Jello, also in the “such” category, occupied a position of importance in our household. Sometimes it was considered a fruit – lemons, limes, cherries. And on occasion it did include actual fruit such as apples or canned pineapple or pears. At other meals it became a vegetable, loaded with shredded carrots or cucumber slices, particularly tasty with the lime version. Any flavor with a small dollop of whipped cream on it was instantly converted into a dessert. It was a truly versatile component in our culinary universe.
On a daily basis, MamaLu prepared meals and served us the best Vienna sausage and such that she could afford. As children, we were used to it and ate it without question. It always seemed tasty, except the chipped beef, and we happily consumed it, many times asking for seconds. We knew of no other types of meals until much later in our lives.
As a new writer, Chris is honored that his work has appeared, or is forthcoming in THEMA, The Bitter Southerner, Broad River Review, Kestrel, JMWW, Tampa Review, Heartland Review, Valley Voices, Gravel ,Counterpunch and several other publications.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Mike Tidd; other photograph of MamaLu’s boys, courtesy the author