I have long thought that Government Cheese would be a great band name. Government Mule was used already by a very cool southern rock group that started back in the mid 1990’s. I’ve had government cheese, though, and it is not anything like cool. Government peanut butter is similarly uncool. Which brings me to the topic of food choices as well as hard times.
I know I am already blessed to have access as I do to tremendous varieties of food and drink as well as the wealth to buy them. During the current pandemic, my work so far has been active, but I know it isn’t promised or guaranteed. I know that everyone has a level of hardship today. This entry is not going to be about how hard it is for me. This writing must be, at least in part, a discussion of the differences between food as mass produced bio-fuel versus food as craftsmanship and even cultural expression.
Among the most ancient food products, bread has been made by all people around the world in some form through much of our history. The traditions have been successfully passed on without much loss of integrity in spite of all that we do that normally kills ideas– war, migration, irresponsible agricultural techniques, cultural oppression, etc. Bread is a living connection with our past. It is tied with life itself in religion as well as mythology. And the multitude of forms and varieties it can take on makes it versatile like few other foods. Bread is eaten by the rich and poor alike, though not always the same kinds. With bread, we have so many varieties to choose from, and all of them very different in qualities, prices, and overall goodness.
Growing up I spent many a summer in Germany with family and friends, this being where my mother is from. I would like to explain what the German bread is like, the kind that lives in the memory of my childhood, but comparing it to most American breads is pointless. It’s just too different. I will always remember my mom’s description of the bread she had to buy so often here; gluey-sponge-bread was the name she gave it. There is bread of fair or better quality that can be bought here, but Mom also had a financial proclivity for paying only what she thought something should cost, even if it means the quality suffers. She would never pay the five or more dollars it costs at a modern bakery shop such as Panera for a loaf of “artisan” bread. It’s funny how the stuff that was the simplest peasant food in the past has now become the gourmand’s treat. So she bought the gluey-sponge-bread anyway because it made better financial sense.
Now that I am here, however, before I am judged as a hopeless elitist food snob, I should say that the bread my mom was loathe to buy found its way onto many, many happy plates. There was nothing like the toasted white bread tuna salad sandwich I would make as an after school snack, usually enjoyed with Thundercats on tv. Sometimes that bread held together a BLT from mom’s kitchen. Amazing memories of those BLTs…. But when it came to what Mom wanted to have in the house, the kind of bread she knew in Germany and Europe in general, that was another situation. There isn’t anything else like fresh brotchen.
Brotchen in Germany are like mini loaves of bread in the style of a French loaf, but only about the size of a potato. Their crust is crunchy and the inside is soft. I have never found these simple treasures anywhere in the US. I have looked. The closest I came was in Bobak’s in Chicago, but theirs were not quite right. Something is different about the flour we have here, and this is enough to alter the final product too much. And now I find myself perfectly willing and happy to drive three hours to Chicago for one store’s offerings. I also buy sausages and other meats there when I go because they make it “right” when no one else does. When Pope John Paul II visited America, he would stop in Chicago for the chance to eat Bobak’s sausage. It reminded him of Poland. Actually, though, Bobak’s has closed everything down except for their catering and their direct-to-merchant sales. The other wonderful secret in Chicago was Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square. It’s closed now. A truly sad situation. This was the only place you could buy real veal liverwurst, another favorite from my childhood. I will now go to Andy’s Delicatessen in another area of Chicago. They are good enough for the special trip as well. And more recently I have found a couple of small shops far more locally who carry some of the same products as the Chicago retailers do.
But none of that extra driving or happy food searching has been going on during pandemic times. Lately the food trips are limited to Aldi and Kroger. Just the basics. With financial burdens everywhere, more and more people are relying on help from numerous places, including food pantries from churches and schools. I didn’t have to wear a mask back when I first learned about food pantries, but much is the same.
I really don’t know how often my parents got food from other sources. They left me and my brother out of it mostly. I think the government cheese that my brother and I ate at times when we were kids was a real turning point with my attitude about food. He and I joked about it even then. We knew why we were getting it. Back in the 1980’s, thanks to the deregulation efforts of Ronald Reagan, the trucking industry my dad worked for took a big hit. The company he had been with for twenty years was sold and shut down. Mom and Dad figured out how to supplement the pantry when money got scarce as it often did. We weren’t walking around with some deep awareness of being in need. We just knew that sometimes food came from different places.
We had a lot of fun regardless of the financial climate, and so we made jokes about the cheese or other bulk food containers that sometimes made it home. It was clearly different from other cheese. The plain, no-frills government label was like any other military type packaging. It was big, heavy, and very yellow. It wasn’t hard to make jokes about it. We also received on occasion fantastic packages of venison and other meats from my grandma’s freezer. Grandpa wouldn’t touch the stuff. His loss was our delicious gain. What I learned from the food was that the government was not very interested in providing great food to its people, only food good enough to pass the inspection. No awards for quality, just a blue stamp on the box.
Now when I buy groceries I usually shop like my mom did, paying attention to sales, buying off brands, watching the receipt, but not always. I will pay more for bread that doesn’t plaster the inside of my mouth. Cheese will sometimes be purchased at a premium just to give me or my kids something interesting and happy to eat, and to remind me that the waxy yellow blocks from Uncle Sam might show up again one day, so I should indulge a bit while I can. The pantries are open now, and really always have been. I have brought food home from church pantries before, and I will again as needed. It’s important not to have too much pride in these matters. It is equally important not to judge others who receive things that were meant to be given.
I am happy that my kids know about the varieties of food in the world. They know that foods have special and interesting names, and that cheese is not just known as yellow or white. My older daughter has had brotchen and other breads in Europe, but the other two have not yet had the pleasure. They will, though. I have pictures of each of them at various ages eating toast with Nutella, their smeared faces smiling with the brown cream in their teeth. Pirate teeth we used to call it. Arrrr!
Food is a daily necessity, and so you can’t go gourmet every day. Sometimes food has to be about bare necessities. My kids are not food snobs, but I want them to know that there are lots of things people eat that bring them happiness. Having a powerful connection to a food linked to memories of the past can be a wonderful thing. They also know that every population, every culture, has its own wonderful foods that are waiting to be experienced. You may not like them all, but a few of them may stick with you for life. Part of living life means experiencing new and different things, and one of the easiest ways to do this is through food. Seek those experiences out.