Posted by: Hannah | 11/12/2014

on clementines, eggnog, and security

In the weekly grocery flyer today, 4lb boxes of clementines are five dollars.

Clementines are a sign of Christmas to me. When I was a kid, we always had one box of them, carefully-hoarded and not touched until December 25th. There were six people in our house, and so that box didn’t last long. Little piles of citrus peel were all over the house for a couple of days, forgotten next to comfy reading spots, piled up by the stove, teetering on plates next to the sink. Everyone ate as many as they could reasonably grab until they were all gone until next year.

This weekend – November! – I will swan into the grocery store and buy a box. Like I do every year. I’ll buy a box a week until the season is over. I’ll disperse them to dayhome kids and put two at a time in lunchboxes and eat as many as I want.

It feels decadent, and I’m grateful.

***

A lot of my childhood Christmas memories revolved around what my mom called “the feast”. Although we didn’t know the term then (I don’t even know if it existed), we experienced ‘food insecurity’ while we were all living off one tiny income. Supper was often just enough for each person to have one serving. Food wastage was absolutely verboten. We drank powdered milk. I distinctly remember once asking for blueberry jam on toast and not eating the crusts. Mom flew into a rage and smashed the plate on the floor while screaming about the cost of bread. In that kind of environment, the treats over Christmas week took on an even larger significance – even when the special holiday food was also carefully rationed.

So when I was very small we’d have a one-litre carton of eggnog that would be carefully shared out on Christmas Eve night, around the tree. One box of chocolates. One box of a dozen candy canes which did double-duty as tree decorations until the big day. That kind of thing. It was fine, and I don’t recall feeling deprived, but let me tell you something – when things improved, we started buying a LOT of treats over the holidays.

***

Yesterday we picked up a side of beef from our good friend – she raises a small herd and we were lucky enough to lock down a double share two years ago. We put aside a little grocery money each week so we can pay the bill each fall. We brought home 250 pounds of beef and started carefully packing it away in the freezer.

It was a restful exercise, for me. All that food. WE’LL NEVER GO HUNGRY WITH ALL THAT FOOD. Plus I had the fun of organizing it compulsively and counting it all twice, and sorting it by type into tote bags and just generally brooding and obsessing and poring over a year’s worth of meat.

I get the same sort of visceral satisfaction when I stock up on pantry items. Canned tomatoes go on for $1 each? Step aside, folks. I’ll just take a flat.

We do use everything we buy, and I don’t stockpile senselessly. I don’t buy more of something we already have lots of just because it happens to be on sale.

But still.

***

This is always a tough time of year for anyone who doesn’t have a whole lot of money to spend. Just once, just one Christmas, I’d like to spend whatever the fuck I want on all three of my kids, and my husband, and my nieces and nephew. I’d love to walk into a store and buy armfuls of decor for the house, inside and out. I’d love to just go hog wild and not count the cost. We don’t spoil our kids but it’s not strictly because of high-minded ideals.

It’s easy to choose austerity when you don’t have the means to choose profligacy.

I need to keep reminding myself that we are somewhere in the middle. We have enough. We are able to eat pretty much what we like. My clothes might be a bit worn but the kids are dressed appropriately. The cars work. Our debt is manageable. Compared to the circumstances of my life when I was the age that my kids are now… my goodness.

They don’t understand, not really, how inside my head food = security. Now that I have enough money to eat what I want, I’m damn well going to. All the things. It’s hard not to cram food in when it’s placed in front of me. There is still, after all these decades, the impulse to eat that first helping as fast as possible so that I don’t get left behind if there’s only enough left for half the family to get a second helping.

We are fortunate. We have worked hard. For every rough patch we’ve had a lucky break. Something always seems to present itself when it needs to. This is nowhere near the worst off we’ve even been, six weeks before Christmas.

Occasionally, I need to step back and remind myself of that.

 

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Responses

  1. We never quite lived in food insecurity when I was a child, but I do know that my mum worked hard to make sure every meal cost no more than 50p per head – it was over 20 years ago but now, 50p wouldn’t even buy you a chocolate bar. Even now, both my sets of parents have enough food stored to last them weeks if necessary, and I could probably live a fair while without shopping for anything (the cat might object though, she doesn’t like pasta). I think it’s good for children to grow up in that middle, if possible – poverty is not good for anyone, but neither is profligacy. I’m not being very articulate but basically what I mean is that I am glad I grew up unconsciously absorbing lessons on how to make do with what you’ve got and not be wasteful. Some of the people I’ve met who grew up well off or straight-up wealthy can’t budget or save, and I dread to think how they cope now that they’re adults in a recession-hit country.

  2. So much head nodding in agreement as I sit here with my kids at an appointment for car maintenance where money will once again be “outgo”, as opposed to income.

    I really enjoy your blog. Thank you for sharing this post.

    That side of beef is brilliant! I totally get what you are saying about organizing your safety net. Food = security. Yup! I get that.

  3. Spending my early childhood (until my mom went to work when I was 9) in a household probably at the poverty line still affects me in predictable ways over 30 years later.

    I tend to be cheap with myself. It has only been through my husband telling me for nearly two decades that we can afford better than the least expensive of everything that I have become relatively comfortable buying myself nice work clothing and good exercise gear.

    In contrast, because I remember really well what it’s like to be the kid with clothes from Goodwill in a school where many families had a lot of money, I tend to buy Oldest (who is in middle school) new clothes that have sport brand names on them even though he never asks for them. Youngest is too young to notice or care what other kids wear, but it seems likely I will do the same for her when she reaches an age at which that matters. I realize that makes me seem shallow and foolish, but the thought of my kids feeling like I felt in upper elementary and middle school is just beyond what I can make myself do.

    I chose my college major and ultimately my career based on a combination of what I thought I’d be good at and what I thought consistently paid a good salary. That whole go and find your bliss thing was never going to lead to hiking in Tibet or something because evidently my bliss = financial security.

  4. Thanks for this. I can use a reminder to be grateful right now.

    Maggie – that doesn’t sound the least bit shallow or foolish. The impulse to give our kids things we didn’t have is universal, and understandable, and this instance of it is completely sweet and harmless.

  5. I feel like our childhoods were very similar. My siblings were a lot older than me, though…adults and moved out, for the most part, by time I came along. Still, even with the relative small-ness of our family, food was often in short supply. Because of that I have some of the same attitudes as you toward food — nothing pleases me more than having a full pantry, knowing that no matter what happens, my family won’t go hungry. Having good food is important to me, more so than I think it is to a lot of people.


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