Starvation Rations

We were in a little restaurant in Grafton when I saw it on the menu. Corned beef hash. You can get this stuff in some restaurants but it’s not usual breakfast fare this far north of the Mason-Dixon line. Corned beef by-golly hash. I’d not thought of that stuff in years and I had no desire to think of it on that chilly morning. I passed. I will always pass on corned beef hash.

The year was 1968 or so and my cousin Mike and I had taken up residence at 1156 West Lafayette as Illinois College students. We had much more lint than money in our pockets and our food budget was meek. Night after night we’d reach into the cupboard and pull out a can of corned beef hash for supper. Bread and butter and the hash. If times were good it was bread and butter and hash and ice cream. That was our simple supper week after week. Lunch held no great variety. I’d get out of class at 11 a.m. and Mike escaped at noon so it was my job to rush back to our apartment and fix lunch. At least we called it lunch. Toasted cheese. Day after day toasted cheese and the reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies were our mid-day meal. When we were really flush we’d splurge and buy Velveeta.

Eating out was an option reserved only for special occasions and then we had to look for the bargains. The cost of a Big Boy sandwich on Morton was a bit beyond what we could afford yet we often splurged and purchased one of the sauce-dripping masterpieces. Sandy’s fifteen-cent hamburgers went off the menu just before we came to college, but you could make a good meal out of French Fries with the free ketchup packages.

Of course the real treat of the week was when Howard Johnson’s would feature All-You-Can-Eat fish, clams, cole slaw and fries. I’m not sure but the price was something around four blessed bucks including your drink. More than one IC or MacMurray student dreamed of these seafood nights and we absolutely waddled out of the restaurant. I claim these were Wednesday nights but my college roommate claims they were on Friday. Who cared as long as they kept the tartar sauce coming?

Sunday nights and Mondays were what we called the Feast Days as one or both of us brought aluminum-foiled leftovers from Sunday dinner at home. Our mothers knew two things for sure: 1) They’d better make extra of everything to make sure Mike and I had goodies to take back to college, and 2) this was the surest way to make sure your son came home on weekends. I think we were in the pre-Tupperware days, at least in Perry and Jacksonville, so by the time our mashed potatoes and noodles traveled the thirty miles smashed between our laundry and our boots, the foodstuffs were often hard to recognize. But. . .any port in a storm and any noodle when you’re hungry.

We lived across the hall from a trio of student nurses and our sexist sixties minds just assumed that being female they could cook. Not much these beautiful gals existed on salads and cans of mandarin oranges. I don’t remember them ever inviting us over for supper, but perhaps they didn’t have enough lettuce to go around.

Of course spaghetti is a staple of any college cooker’s diet and when times were good you could always add meat. Mike was pretty good at cooking pasta but I was clueless. . . still am. My contribution to the meal was shaking the can of mozzarella cheese over the top. I was a good shaker. In fact, I considered making it my major at I.C.

But in my junior year I hit the mother load of college eating. My roommate was a dark-haired little rascal named Newt who came from Peoria. I’m quite sure that he belonged to the mafia and that I heard him arrange several hit jobs over our apartment phone, but as a provider for our little family of two, the guy was a magician. Newt worked as host out at the old Blackhawk restaurant smorgasbord and just before he’d get off work each night he send a message back to the kitchen saying that the buffet line was out of fried clams. By the time the clams arrived the restaurant was closing so Newt would dump the still-sizzling mollusks into a bucket and every night at 10 p.m. we’d have a clam fest. I liked Newt.

Coffee was a luxury item in the late sixties but it was something that college students could not do without. Our rule of thumb is that coffee grounds could last at least two days and three if times were really hard. Every time I take a sip of espresso at Shirraz or The Soap Company Coffee Shoppe I smile a bit at the taste and aroma, satisfied in the knowledge that in 1969 that much coffee would have lasted a week.

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