in American Culture/

WASTE MANAGEMENT

I was raised by Depression parents, and while lots of us Boomers were, not everyone got out unscathed. Even before the Depression hit in America, both my parents had learned about thrift. In a Big Way!! Both had been raised on farms in the Midwest. Both came from an economizing-conserving home life that also included a “waste not, want not” mentality. Thrift and not wasting things was an integral part of their value system. Enter the crash of 1929 and the decade-long Depression and they were equipped to handle it. That’s not to say they didn’t suffer some. Forced to be vegetarians by default at times, my grandparents needed to sell meat and poultry as opposed to eat their own livestock. By the time America was booming again and Mom and Dad were parents themselves, being thrifty was second nature.

Our father had a good job mind you, a respectable middle class income. Yet they economized. We always had a garden and Mom canned vegetables. During fruit season in Michigan, the whole family would go to orchards and self-pick whatever was ripe at the time. Why self-pick? Why can’t we just buy a bushel of peaches, I’d ask Dad. To save money, of course, he’d tell me, disgusted. I hated it! So tedious. So tiring. So, well, boring! If we complained, Dad would shame us by telling us about the Depression, how they suffered, and how lucky we were now and how fun this actually was. I bought none of it. I think Dad actually whistled in an effort to convince us how good we had it.

Honey Mommy Peaches

Honey Mommy Peaches

Of course after we had bushels of whatever we were picking, we’d go home, have some fresh fruit, and mom would begin canning, sometimes freezing “for the winter’ as if we were squirrels. This is just one way they economized. Is it so bad? Well, in hindsight, not really. We were organic before it was posh, Gucci, trendy. We always had a freezer filled with half a cow, maybe some pork, some chicken to eat off of during the winter. Again, it was so much cheaper to buy and store it.. Some of this thrifty behavior I didn’t really mind, not really.

Until we get to milk, cheese and homemade cookies.

Let me be brief! Mom used to mix up powdered milk and mix it with regular milk to stretch it, make it go further. She also used to buy Velveeta cheese because it was cheaper. We even had Spam sometimes. These things were bad enough, but homemade cookies? I viewed that as horrible, catestrophic even. Why, are we so poor we can’t even afford real cheese like Kathy Nelson’s house? Real milk? STORE BOUGHT COOKIES? Mom even made candy at Christmas time, although I must confess, the candy was terrific. In any case, I felt deprived, poor even, when we were anything but, living in our big 2-story house on a double lot. Why, we even took vacations in the summer! Out of state!!!

Entering Wyoming

Entering Wyoming

But let’s cut to the chase. I have not only come to appreciate how much of this economizing and thrift rubbed off on me in a good way. It has left me judging viciously some of my spoiled American citizenry who are disgustingly wasteful in my view! While I don’t economize in the same way as my parents did, I do have my own version of thrift. For example, I will use the last slivers of soap – slivers most people would throw in the trash – to lather up my legs for shaving. Why spend money on foam in a can when you can use those convenient palm-sized soap slivers?

I also can’t stand to throw out food. While I don’t eat half-rotten fruit like my sister Laurie does, I will consume whatever needs to be eaten in a more timely manner to “waste not, rot not”. In contrast, when I visit my youngest sister, Ann, I always end up throwing out half of her refrigerator. She’ll have food in there that is SO SPOILED, not only would Laurie be unable to eat it without risk of botulism, sometimes things are green that shouldn’t be. And the fridge smells, and I mean, bad!!! It kills me to throw this all away. As the last daughter to leave home, she had food privileges the rest of us did not have. Consequently, her perspective is different. I’m not sure Velveeta cheese has ever touched her lips!

Velveeta Box

Velveeta Box

Yes, yes, I know it’s all relative. That quart of green beans my mother canned from the summer garden that we would have for a winter dinner? It was split between the entire family of five, and then six once Ann came along. By the time the rest of us left home, however, as an adolescent Ann quite simply had more beans. But before that? When it was all of us? We split the quart with Dad served first (and getting the most,) and the rest was divided between us. It felt like never enough. Is it any wonder I became anorexic in my late teens? My memory is one of leaving the dinner table still hungry much of the time. It was only as an adult that our oldest sister, Roxanne, confessed she did too, that sometimes she would be so hungry still, that she’d grab a handful of dog food from the bag. I’m not sure Mom even realized from her perspective the impact this had on her children. She likely thought it was all fine since we had so much more than either she or Dad had growing up.

I look around at people now who waste like maniacs–from food in refrigerators, to letting the water run, to throwing away a half used bar of soap! Why oh why do people insist on washing dishes by hand when nearly all modern dishwashers are far more efficient with both water and electricity than hand-washing? And don’t get me started on recycling. Most people don’t know that it costs more money and consumes more energy to recycle in America than to make new products? In Europe it’s the opposite. Still, it’s the politically and socially “correct” thing to do. We feel better while, at the same time, we buy and consume and throw out all kinds of other stuff.
Still, people do what they can, and it is all relative, I suppose, how people choose to conserve. I’d give anything for some home-baked cookies about now, actually. If mom were here, I’d beg her to bake those chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. I’d eat a dozen!  I didn’t realize how good they really were until I’d satiated myself on store-bought cookies as an adult. No comparison. But I’d wash Mom’s cookies down with real milk now, not any of that vile powdered milk crap. Then I’d go take a shower and shave my legs with a sliver so soap for good measure.

5 replies
  1. Eric Cushman
    Eric Cushman says:

    Just thinking of how now orchards are creating the “experience” with a fair-like atmosphere at harvest time and it often costs more to u-pick (after paying for tractor rides and anything else the farmer is selling) than to just buy the product already picked… or, as in the case of my favorite blueberry farm, not allowing u-pick anymore because of liability costs.
    It can be very difficult to be frugal in our throw-away society; especially when working long hours. So it becomes an option, not a necessity. Similar with recycling. (I consider it a minor victory when I remember to bring my cloth shopping bags.)
    I think the biggest problem with throw away society is that it adds to the disconnection. Food becomes another aspect of life lacking in human touch, when it has potential to be a very communal experience.

    Reply
    • rosaliecush
      rosaliecush says:

      Yes, it’s a totally different world now. Mostly, I try to keep as small a footprint as I can but still buy and use plastics, though try to minimize as much as possible. I think the big bugabo for me is, I try not to waste food. I know people who buy food, don’t have time to even cook it, then end up throwing it away.

      Reply
  2. Roxanne Moermond
    Roxanne Moermond says:

    I always wanted new clothes too. Mom made almost all our clothes When school started we got new school shoes but that was it. Mom’s home made clothes were certainly better made than store bought clothes these days. I have been catching up on that missing food ever since then though and it has not been a benefit for me. Great article Rosalie!

    Reply

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