I bought another pound of butter today. I thought we had plenty of butter but I wasn’t sure and, besides, it’s not like you have to wait for the last bit of butter to be used up before buying more. If you do that, then you risk being out of butter entirely and I am not foolhardy.
I use a lot of butter in my cooking. It is like riches to me, to slice off a quarter of a stick of butter before mashing boiled potatoes and then looking at them and knowing that the potatoes need more butter. They need sour cream and a bit of half and half and salt and pepper. But fundamentally, it is butter that is the foundation, the potatoes’ purpose. So, I add more.
My mother used margarine that came in sticks pretending to be butter. I didn’t know the difference since I started life in a margarine world and it didn’t change until I left home, married, divorced, had a baby, married again, and on and on to financial security. Then I went all in on butter, to the point that right now, there are seven sticks of butter in my refrigerator and one in the butter dish.
My mother would think my butter inventory excessive. Why do you need all that butter? she’d ask. I’d tell her that butter is really so much better than margarine and she would do a hard blink, shrug her shoulders, and say I never could tell the difference. My mother never put a ham bone in her navy bean soup, didn’t think it was necessary, since the boiled beans with salt and pepper had their own vague ham flavor and that seemed fine to me until I doubled up on ham hocks and sometimes added smoked sausage to my own bean soup. Riches.
My father would describe things that were broken or run down as being strictly from hunger. He said this sometimes about people’s behavior or attitudes, but it was mostly about things – junk cars, ripped sofas with coffee stains, Detroit’s streets, well, some of them. He knew the streets, ones he knew that were strictly from hunger because he drove them, making house calls to sell televisions back in the fifties. His customers were mostly Black and mostly living in parts of Detroit where the yards had no grass, just dirt worn down to grey pavement by years of no seeds, no mowers, no time. He would knock on doors, hustling folks on their front stoops to let him demonstrate the amazing Muntz TV, and if they said okay, he’d haul the TV out of his trunk and bring it in their house.
Right away, he’d make himself at home. He told me stories, not while he was selling Muntz TVs but later when I was a grown-up. He was a white guy at home with Black folks and it was because he grew up in a mixed neighborhood in the 1920’s, went to school that was mostly Black. Later, when he was a young man, trying to make a buck, he played the trumpet in Black bands. And so, I guess, he felt okay being in parts of Detroit that the rest of the world thought were dangerous, off limits, strictly from hunger.
My father told me that sometimes the family he was trying to convince to buy the TV would invite him to supper and he would roll up the sleeves on his white shirt, unclip his tie and put it in his suit coat pocket, and sit down with them. After supper, he’d sell them on buying the special silver tone tubes, told them they’d get a much better picture, and they sure wouldn’t be sorry. But all tubes were silver, he told me later, this was when I went to visit him years later after my mother died. He sat in his plaid recliner with his pipe upturned in the glass ashtray next to him. I was sorry to do it, he said, but it was money in my pocket.
It was a time when his day job was a failure. He’d moved our family from our small hometown to the big city chasing the dream of owning a dime store, but the dime store was failing. He was, as he said late at night to my mother, their whispering in the bedroom loud enough for me to hear across the hall, afraid we might go under.
We ate 29 cent chicken pot pies and bean soup with no ham bone and bread with margarine, which my mother called butter but wasn’t. She’d say if you’re hungry have a piece of bread and butter. So, that’s what we did. It wasn’t like we were ever really hungry, we were just eager for dinner, but that was the natural order of things. To be hungry for dinner, to not ruin our appetites, finding that middle ground.
My brother and sister and I made instant milk from a box. Not right away, but after the gallon of milk was gone. Then, we’d break out the instant milk which wasn’t bad if you mixed it and put it in the refrigerator for a long time. Instant milk has to be really cold to be drinkable. We drank it with our bread and butter and sometimes with Nestle’s Quik so it became brown, tan actually, but still flowed faintly blue, like mother’s milk.
When my dad came home each night after closing our store that might go under, we would eat our pot pies or bean soup or hamburgers in mushroom soup, which was a deluxe and unforgettable dinner, and sometimes homemade noodles with chicken gizzards which I loved although the name, gizzards, was unpleasant, like picking out the pieces of chicken heart to eat which was awful and delectable at the same time. After we ate, my dad would leave to go sell Muntz TVs and I wouldn’t see him until dinner the next night, he got up that early to save our store from going under.
When I was a single parent, I sold my senior class ring to buy groceries which sounds more desperate than it was since I had no deep affection for the ring. Still, it was emblematic of the time that the purpose of the sale was to buy milk and bread, the same things my mother kept in store, and margarine because I was still at that time convinced that butter was out of my reach. I also sold a small pin with several gems that a married man gave me surreptitiously, never suspecting it would be traded for canned goods. I told him what I’d done but only years later when the shame would be occluded by everything else that had happened.
In the years after the jewelry selling episodes, I finished college and found a decent research job. After much bumpiness, I found a new husband and we bought a big house which was somewhat too large for our pocketbook (my mother’s term for where she kept her change purse to buy margarine at Kroger’s). Because we often came up short with our mortgage payments, we instituted several austerity measures which included, of course, not buying butter, and sometimes squashing leftover vegetables together into patties which we would fry. This was a joke more than a practice but symbolic of our predicament. This part of our lives didn’t last long, and we never felt that we were going to go under, but it is a memory of coping which, at the time, seemed homey and familiar to me. Since that brief spare time, it has been butter all the way. Riches.
It seems odd to appreciate margarine and milk from a box as part of my life growing up, as if they tasted so good the memory won’t leave me. I don’t worship the past, make it seem cuter and sweeter than it was. Times were often plenty tough, the stress and worry of my parents heavy on us, our future being so deeply woven with a store about to go under. We lived on what felt like the brink for a long while although my mother’s bare bean soup and our milk from a box and my father’s TV side hustle kept us afloat. We knew how to patch it together from Monday to Tuesday and so on through the week, whatever else was happening. I still know how, if I had to, my affection for butter notwithstanding.