When I was growing up, the larder was usually pretty bare by the time my mother made her grocery list. Of course we still had the essentials, like bread, milk, flour and Quaker Oats but when we saw her scribbling on the back of an envelope or scrap piece of paper, we knew the good stuff was coming.
Back in those days, the good stuff was cookies, cereal, Kool Aid, Jello and junket (a package mix for homemade ice cream). Once a month, when Dad got paid, we could expect a six-pack of mixed soft drinks—one for each of us and one for Dad—and if we were lucky, there was a chocolate bar we could slice into five equal pieces.
Like many families in rural Quebec, we only had one car and even if Dad had driven Mum to the grocery store, shopping would have been impossible with the five of us in tow. For that reason, it was quite normal for Mum to order her groceries over the phone. However, I have a feeling she was not the typical caller.
“Do you still have those cans of small peas for 23 cents each?” she would ask. “I’ll take three.”
She studied the flyers so she knew all the prices and could have worked behind the counter without a scan machine, quite proficiently. The prices were noted beside each item on her list.
“If you don’t have cream corn I’ll take the niblets instead. How much are they?” Then she would adjust the price on her list.
To complicate matters, Mum didn’t speak French and the clerk spoke limited English so it was always interesting to listen to the call.
“Corn starch,” she would say, stirring into the air with her hands. “You know, to make gravy thick?”
Before she hung up, she verified the total with the clerk and prepared the cheque for the delivery boy’s arrival.
Enjoying watermelon on grocery day.
“The grocery man’s here,” we would yell and Mum quickly cleared the kitchen table for the boxes—boxes that always contained a few unexpected surprises. The corn starch turned out to be spray starch, the cocoa was actually shredded coconut and the raisins were fat, red grapes. Once they substituted three cans of Baby Beef and Liver Soup with three cakes of Lifebuoy Soap. That was the best! Mum would laugh or grumble depending on the importance of the item.
Baking was done from scratch so there was always a jumbo bag of flour, a 10 pound bag of sugar and lots of yeast and shortening. Very boring. Cereal was more my style—usually a big bag of puffed rice but if there was a special, we were treated to a boxed cereal that came with a prize inside, like a whistle or a plastic figurine. Groceries were definitely more fun in those days. Detergent had bright linen dishtowels or glassware buried in the powder and flour came in a fancy cotton bag that could be used as a pillowcase when the bag was empty.
The cookies were the best part—usually marshmallow with coconut on top. Because we would have devoured them in a nanosecond, Mum immediately locked them in the deepfreeze to be doled out later, at her discretion. After having the freezer key go missing a few times, she kept it on a ring that she clipped to her apron. Once in a while we would attempt to borrow that key while she was having her afternoon nap but she had a fine-tuned ear for such mischief and always snapped to when she heard it jingle.
So there we were with a house full of food again and somehow Mum made it last till her next order. Well, I have to run along now. Got to pick up a few things at the supermarket. What a drag!
Sandra Reed is mother of two grown children and a real estate agent in Markham, Ontario. In her spare time she edits and publishes her own unique community newsmagazine (www.cornellcrier.ca) but freelance writing is her favourite pastime. “My head is full of stories like this one,” says Sandra. “They allow me to savour the sweetness of the past while I take my readers on a walk down Memory Lane.”