No More Parsnips!


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. 

Still life with Parsnips. MJ Ross

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.

5 responses to “No More Parsnips!

  1. I remember eating mayonaise sandwiches if I got hungry befoe my parents got home at 5 o’clock. Daddy was teaching at the college and Mother was going to college, and fast food was in someone else’s imaginative future. I loved those sandwiches because my daddy told me that he ate them when he was a kid growing up during the Great Depression, and when I bit into one of those sandwiches I thought of my daddy and I felt comforted.

  2. Joyce, I remember eating mayonnaise sandwiches also! Candy and pop were rare treats so if my sister and I wanted something sweet we sprinkled sugar on a lettuce leave or on a piece of buttered bread. If we had a nickle between us we stood at the counter of the corner store for ages trying to get the most for our money! (Two for a penny versus five for a penny–we were definitely into quantity over quality!) I don’t eat mayo or bread very often these days but the memories are sweet. Thanks for bringing them back.

  3. Our favorite family Depression story was came down from my mother’s side. They were rural folk, living on small subsistence farms in NW Missouri. They had food grown on the farm–“garden truck,” chickens, eggs, milk, and pork–but no cash to buy sugar, salt, flour, coffee, tea.
    One especially hard year, though, a drought year, the garden failed, except for the Southern peas–black-eyed peas. The family had black-eyed peas three times a day for months, until my cousin Jim, burst out one day, “Ol’ eyed-peas, eyed-peas, I’m so sick of ol’ eyed-peas.” When I was growing up, a decade later, when I complained about eating this or that, my mother launched into this story, until I was as sick of “ol’ eyed-peas” as my cousin Jim had been. But Mom must have been sick of them too, because she never once cooked them for us!

  4. What a beautifully written story. It is so elegant and classy, I wonder how the author could possibly be a “Broad”?

  5. My mom was adamant about having a balanced meal: a piece of meat (even if it was meatloaf expanded with bread), a potato, salad, and yes, vegetables–usually canned peas or green beans. But when we were on hard time, usually before the end of the week pay came in and there were no groceries in the house, Mom was forced to turn to the box of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix she kept in the cupboard for economic emergencies. Yay!!!! We got to eat pancakes for supper and NO peas! In tight times, I served my own family a “pancake supper” many times, and I never even told them why. They were just as delighted as we kids were! I thought they never knew my budget secret until one day my own daughter called me. I asked how everything was going with her husband finding work, and she said, “Well, Mom, let’s just say we’re having pancakes for supper” In peace, Zaynab

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