When Leona Schwartz was growing up, nobody ever looked in the refrigerator and complained there was nothing to eat.
And it wasn't because they didn't have a refrigerator, either.
“There was always plenty,” the 96-year-old told me last week. “We always had big meals.”
I'd gone to see Leona, among the tiniest of my great aunts, to try to figure out how someone who grew up with 13 brothers and sisters during the Great Depression could have such a relaxed attitude toward food — whereas someone like me, who grew up in a prosperous era, has a tendency to treat every meal as if it might be her last.
From Leona's perspective, as kid No. 6, there was an obvious connection between their work on the Hoosier equivalent of a sugar plantation and the food on the dinner table, which they shared with grandparents and three cousins whose mother died of typhoid fever.
Their pies and apple butter were sweetened by “acres and acres” of sugar cane and sugar beets.
“The boys would go along first with the hoes,” Leona remembered. “Then we girls would come along behind,” crawling on homemade knee pads, leaving nothing but one healthy sugar beet shoot every 14 inches.
The beets were hauled by horse and buggy to Decatur, where they were processed into 100-pound bags of sugar that were stored in a metal bin on the farm to protect them from bugs and rodents.
The cane, which grew in stalks like corn, was cut and fed into a horse-powered mill that pressed out a liquid that would then be boiled down into sorghum molasses.
“The horse would go round and round, and the juice would come out,” Leona explained. “We did it for other people, too. They'd bring their cane on their horse and buggy. They'd even come from Ohio.”
The mill produced 2,000 gallons of sorghum a year, according to a newspaper clipping in an old family scrapbook. What they didn't sell went into the basement, along with home-canned meat, garden veggies and fruit.
“You should've seen our basement, all the cans,” she said. “And we had three big bins of potatoes, each the size of that davenport there.”
Leona can still remember who sat where around the big oval dinner table. There were always two heaping bowls of every side dish, usually noodles or potatoes and a vegetable, one for each end of the table.
There was always meat, too, though it was among their most labor intensive foods.
My daughter Colleen listened in horror as Leona described her childhood job come butchering time: scraping hog intestines with a table knife to help clean them for sausage casings.
“Didn't that gross you out?” asked the 9-year-old vegetarian.
Leona shrugged. “We didn't know any different. And that sausage tasted so good.”
When the day came that it was possible to buy ready-made sausage casings, “that was a big relief,” she admits. But like so many consumer products that later came into their lives — everything from electric stoves to rubber liners for their canning lids — it's a need she couldn't have imagined beforehand.
They had fun, listening to their father play the fiddle in the evenings and eating popcorn raised in their fields.
There was dessert every night. Generous servings, too. Pies were cut into quarters. They made 15 at a time every Saturday, along with seven loaves of bread made from home-grown wheat.
“But we didn't snack,” she noted. “We just never did. We had three big meals a day.”
It wouldn't have occurred to her to eat just because she was bored or tired or stressed out. She wouldn't have dreamed of sneaking food from the family's stores.
“Now,” she says, “they just eat whenever they want to.”
I wince, recalling how earlier that day the kids and I had cut into a marked-down pumpkin pie less than a minute after I'd brought it home.
I'd cut myself a thin slice, quickly followed by two more just like it.
Where does that urgency come from?
Inherited from other ancestors, who dined on Depression-era ketchup sandwiches and changed addresses every time they saw a chance to save $1 on rent?
Or from that “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” squawking bird I used to see on TV?
“You used to be heavy, didn't you?” asks Leona.
“I sure was,” I tell her. Ninety pounds heavier. Probably more than Leona weighs now.
Keeping it off takes a lot of work — of a far different kind than the labor her generation associated with food.