I would never have guessed that one of the by-products of doing live theatre in Jacksonville was the lard sandwich. That’s a fact. We recently did a show entitled, “The Boy from Fishhook, the story of Robert Earl Hughes.” Most folks around here know that Robert Earl was the heaviest man to walk the earth and that he lived most of his life right near us in Fishhook, Illinois.
In writing the play I got to interview many folks who knew the large man and one fellow said that he would often eat lunch with Robert Earl at school. He said, “Robert Earl would eat three or four sandwiches, peanut butter or egg, but so would I.” I wasn’t so much taken with amount the Fishhook lad ate, but what he ate. … day after day of egg and peanut butter sandwiches. He grew up in Depression era times and his family was extremely poor with a Depression or without. When I told this story to some of my friends I learned about lard sandwiches.
When we performed the play in Mt. Sterling an old gentleman told me that he ate lard sandwiches all through grade school. “Mom would fancy them up a bit,” he said, “but at the root of things they were still lard.” He said that this famous pig fat was the basis for many meals during those tough times. “We used all of the hog,” he said, “and the lard was the fatty part of the sow.” The fellow told me that his mother would mix in a sweetener such as honey, molasses, jam or syrup with the lard and to his mind there was nothing better. In the early 1900’s Proctor and Gamble convinced us that lard was bad for us and came up with a thing called Crisco. When I looked at that little guy from Brown County, perhaps pushing 90 and thin as a whistle, I had to doubt that lard had damaged his arteries too badly.
All of which reminded me of when my Lincoln Land students spent some time with Knollwood residents several years ago, quizzing them about their earlier lives. Food was very much a topic of discussion for every interview. Most of these delightfully retired folks also grew up in hard times and their mothers made due in some interesting ways. Among the dishes they remembered from their childhoods were sandwiches made from sugar and bread, mayonnaise and bread, plus ketchup and bread. One lady said that hot milk and rice was a staple in her Depression era home. Another gal talked about “One-eyed Sam,” a piece of bread with an egg over easy atop. Several of the Knollwood residents talked about bacon butter. Actually, it wasn’t butter at all, but bacon fat that their mothers substituted in place of butter. Other delicacies that I can remember from our conversations were creamed peas on toast, dandelion salad, potato soup with water instead of milk, and Hoover stew. In fact, many of the Knollwood eyes lit up with recognition when I mentioned the stew named not after the vacuum cleaner but the President. Hoover stew seems to have had several variations but most included macaroni, canned tomatoes, corn or peas, and sliced hotdogs. According to the gals gathered around the Knollwood coffee table, hotdogs and potatoes seemed to show up in most meals of their childhood when times were tough.
I’d never heard of Hoover stew and with the ugly thought of lard sandwiches in my mind I did a little digging and found that although Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked fancy dining, during the Depression he often asked to be served a humble seven-and-a-half-cent lunch. This meant deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, coffee, and prune pudding. He called this “an act of culinary solidarity with the people who were suffering.” When was the last time the White House tried that?
Eleanor Roosevelt did her bit to help us through the tough economic times by recommending that Home Economics departments in schools instruct young cooks on how to make spaghetti with white sauce. You cook the spaghetti until mushy then mix with boiled carrots. The white sauce was made from milk, flour, salt, pepper and perhaps a bit of butter or good old lard. I’ve always admired Mrs. Roosevelt, but then again I never had to eat that stuff.
I was born in 1949 and thus avoided the really tough days of the 20th century, but I do remember one holdover from my grandmother’s Depression culinary memory. If she had leftover mashed potatoes then we knew that potato pancakes were coming the next morning. I always urged Grandma to skip the mashed potatoes meal and skip right to the pancakes but she said something about that being outside the realm of God’s natural order. You don’t argue with a lady stirring hot grease.
I’ve always had an urge to try things that my grandparents lived with. … cranking a Model T, trading eggs for groceries, and having sing-alongs in the front parlor, but I think I’ll stop before I get to the lard sandwiches.