M. Jane Ross
“No more parsnips!” Bee Jay Gwennap’s mother Betty laid down that law in her twenties and stuck to it for the rest of her 98 years. Why? Because back in the Depression years of the 1930s, Betty had sent her new husband George out food shopping with the last $2 of the young couple’s savings and he’d come home with nothing but a bushel of parsnips. The story of how they lived for weeks on a diet of parsnips—baked, boiled, roasted, and stewed—became a family legend and Bee Jay shared this delightful tale in SCN’s Kitchen Table Stories cookbook-anthology.
Turns out, a bushel of parsnips is 50 pounds of this pallid, hairy, root vegetable. And $2 back in 1930 was the equivalent of about $25 in today’s money. So George got a very good deal for the $2 he spent: food to last several weeks for just 4c a pound. (That’s 50c a pound in today’s money.)
An informal survey of my local supermarket, a store that caters to plenty of low-income families, showed that it’s not easy to buy food for 50c a pound. To get that price, you have to buy in pretty hefty quantities: the 10 lb. sacks of rice and beans, the 5 lb. cabbage, the 5 lb. melon, the 10 lb. bags of flour and sugar, and you can forget about animal protein of any kind. And once you’ve bought just this—rice and beans, a cabbage, a melon, flour and sugar—your $25 are all gone, on just six items. I bet George was proud of himself for the amount of food he brought home for just $2, figuring quantity trumped even the slim variety that might have been available.
It’s over 70 years since George went out to buy those parsnips. He and Betty are now gone and with them George’s side of the story. I guess as the years went by, he quit trying to explain his rationale to Betty and the kids and laughed along with the joke. The details fell away and the story was boiled down to its essence to be recounted to grandchildren and great grandchildren. But in the lost details of such a story are the nitty-gritty realities of life in a simpler, tougher time, the very real struggle to stay hopeful and healthy when you’re down to eating just roots, down to eating as frugally and humbly as it’s possible to do.
When you’re in the middle of food insecurity, as many families are right now in the face of job loss, home foreclosure, and the near-Depression economy we’re in, there isn’t a lot of humor to be found. But the enduring lesson of Betty and George’s story remains. As Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa) wrote, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
Writing prompt: We may have experienced food insecurity ourselves or had times in our lives when frugality was the order of the day. Or we may have heard our parents or grandparents or other family members talk of the lean times in their lives. Write a story of lean or frugal times. What did you or your family members eat? How did you/they deal with the lack of variety; how did you/they create variety in the diet? What foods did you or they avoid after that? Were there any foods from those tough times that became family favorites?
Read Bee Jay Gwennap’s story “No More Parsnips!” in Kitchen Table Stories, the Story Circle Network cookbook-anthology, available from Amazon or direct from SCN.