A New Age for Mister Boomer

This weekend marks the 14th anniversary of misterboomer.com. With high hopes and few expectations, Mister B embarked on this journey of boomer exploration in 2010. In that time, Mister Boomer has attempted to connect his experiences, and those of the boomers he knows, with the historical happenings of the day. Along the way, together we revisited the Space Race, the Cold War, food and fashion trends, car culture, TV, movies, technology and of course, music.

Now retired, Mister Boomer finds it is time to slow down, and that includes his many ongoing projects like misterboomer.com. Therefore, though “never say never” seems prudent, Mister B is hanging up creating new weekly posts in favor of reposting or rewriting existing posts from the past 14 years. Mister B would like to kick off this new chapter with this post from 2019 about frozen and canned foods.

Thank you for your avid readership! We hope you will continue to enjoy these remembrances of our boomer days!

Boomers Witnessed the Frozen Vs. Canned Debate

There was a deep divide growing among Baby Boomer households across the country at the dawn of the 1950s. Most parents of boomers grew up during the Great Depression, and were raised on a steady diet of canned foods. While Clarence Birdseye got his frozen food business going in the 1920s, it was the 1930s before his first frozen products became widely available. However, few grocers had freezers, or could afford them, so Birdseye supplied freezers to merchants on a lease basis. Still fewer people had freezers, so despite being affordable, the market for frozen foods languished until World War II.

The War brought tin rationing, which affected the canned goods manufacturers, and in the process gave a boost to frozen foods. Consequently, some parents of boomers, who had a refrigerator with a freezer, were served frozen fruits and vegetables during the 1940s.

After the War, several components came together at the beginning of the Baby Boom. Newly married couples were having children and establishing homes in the suburbs, and with them, the acquisition of refrigerators with freezers. Appliance manufacturers were expanding the size of freezers for these new families. Refrigerator sales were growing at a faster rate than that of television sets. It was all in the name of progress. Now these boomer households had a choice: canned vs. frozen. As one might expect, many factors figured into whether a boomer household was for or against one or the other, with most at least partially living on both sides of the debate.

In Mister Boomer’s experience, the major decision was economic. Most homes he knew of during those years — classmates, neighbors, relatives — had small freezers and limited budgets. Frozen food could cost more than canned goods, and was only a convenience if it was eaten within a week or two, lest it freeze solid, possibly locking the package into the ice building up on the wall of the freezer. Cans lasted what seemed like forever. Taste didn’t enter into the equation as much as cost and convenience, for Mister Boomer’s particular class. However, Mister Boomer’s spouse had the opposite experience. Her family was raised on frozen vegetables, simply because it was thought by her parents to be better tasting and more nutritious.

Consequently, Mister Boomer’s parents tilted heavily in favor of canned instead of frozen. Living in the Midwest, it was also prudent to have some food in storage just in case of tornadoes or blizzards. In Mister B’s house, the space below the basement stairs had been walled off and dubbed “the fruit cellar.” It was where cans of fruit and vegetables were stored, rotating upstairs into the kitchen cupboards whenever a huge sale happened at the supermarket.

In retrospect, Mister B finds it amusing to think that what the family regularly had on hand in cans during the 1950s and ’60s was very dependent on which parent requested the goods. His mother always had Libby’s or Del Monte canned fruit cocktail or peaches in the cupboard. For vegetables, she favored Del Monte green beans, corn or peas. There were other brands purchased, to be sure, but Del Monte was the default house brand. She also kept Contadina Tomato Paste and Tomato Sauce, and College Inn Chicken Broth. Mister B’s father was a real child of the Depression, and seemed to enjoy practically anything in a can. He loved Spam, so there was almost always a can on the shelf. Occasionally, he would purchase a can of cocktail wienies, which the kids found to be exotic “baby hot dogs.” There was a time when he was jonesing for Underwood Deviled Ham, in a can. Hormel Corned Beef Hash and Dinty Moore Beef Stew were also shelf regulars, as were Campbell’s Tomato and Cream of Mushroom Soups. His canned vegetable choices were a bit more expansive, though. He loved Green Giant canned asparagus and not only introduced Mister B to the vegetable, it was after his college years before Mister B tasted the vegetable fresh. Mister Boomer also recalls that he had not had a fresh green bean until the day in the 1960s when the family visited his aunt and uncle and she was canning a bushel of fresh green beans. Mister B helped his cousins prep the beans for his aunt, crunching a few raw in the process.

Mister B’s sister had a big influence on the canned products that were regularly purchased. For her, Campbell’s Pork & Beans and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni were two things she could not live without. She had a time when Franco-American Spaghettios were her major source of sustenance. The boomer brothers were more flexible on the subject, eating what their parents put in front of them. Nonetheless, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli had a place on the shelf more often than not.

1954 was a big year for frozen foods, since that is when Swanson TV Dinners made their debut. Within a few years, TV Dinners accounted for nearly a quarter of all frozen food sales. Mister Boomer has written before that his family rarely got the Swanson TV Dinners, but did, on occasion, get the cheaper brand versions. His parents did buy Banquet Chicken Pot Pies, though. They were cheaper than Morton, and when they went on sale, they were ten for a dollar. It was an economical way to feed a boomer family of five.

How about you, boomers? What role did canned or frozen food play in your family’s meals?

Boomers Remember When Memorization Was Important

There have been many scenarios cited about the seemingly lack of memory exhibited by Millennials and Gen-Xers — whether they were made up as jokes or actual occurrences. The scenarios go something along the lines of the younger person stating: “I don’t need to remember things; that’s what the internet is for.” To boomers that can be a frightening prospect, especially when paying with cash in a store, and the cashier does not understand how to give change. The initial boomer thoughts might be that therein lie deep generational differences. Mister Boomer has had these thoughts from time to time, but decided a deeper exploration of how and what boomers memorized compared to what is necessary memorization for today’s generations might be interesting.

In Mister Boomer’s anecdotal survey among his boomer friends and acquaintances about memorization, something came up again and again: home address and phone number. By the time boomers were heading to kindergarten, the need to know one’s home address and phone number was stressed whenever possible. As a result, many of those same boomers say that even now, 50-70 years after the fact, they can recite the address and phone number where they lived in their earliest days of school.

Once boomers began elementary school, the need for memorization increased dramatically, to the point that the line between memorization and learning were intertwined. Numbers and the alphabet had been firmly engrained in our brains, so the next thing many boomers recall in this stage of their memorization development was learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables. For that purpose, boomers had flash cards. Some went through the cards on their own, others had parents drill them daily, while others still went through the cards with friends or brothers and sisters.

There are many theories on how memory works, but most researchers agree that there are different levels of brain processing for short-term and long-term memories. Likewise, psychologists say memorization isn’t something that happens in one moment, but rather, is a process for the brain. However, throughout the decades researchers and educators have come upon techniques that work in helping people remember things. Two of these techniques that were vitally important for young boomers were repetition and writing.

As boomers saw with home addresses and phone numbers, and then flash cards, repetition is a proven way to assist in creating long-term memories. Many boomers will recall in high school and college, reading and rereading passages of text books helped them to first digest and understand the material, then to retain it.

Another interesting technique that boomers used for assisting memorization was writing things down by hand. There is something about that connection between the hand and the brain that assists the memorization process. Certainly boomers recall writing down their phone number again and again, and continuing with writing, by hand, notes in classes all through their high school and college days. Coupled with repetition, the hand-written process was a key to boomer memorization and learning.

Some researchers point to how the brain often remembers things by associating a memory with another sensory experience. Almost every boomer can tell you where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated, or when Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon.

So how have our generations changed? Many boomers recall that they were prohibited from using calculators, when they were available, until the 1970s. Tables, charts, slide rules and memory were necessary in math, engineering and science classes. Today, everyone carries a personal computer in their pocket. Answers to practically any question are a few seconds away, as long as there is a viable internet connection. Is that better than the methods that boomers experienced, or just different?

For Mister Boomer to draw his own conclusions, he went back to memories he had of stories told by his grandparents and oldest aunts and uncles. Boomers were in most cases the last generation who actually spoke with people who were born in the 1800s. What was necessary to memorize in the late 19th century was quite different than what was necessary in the mid-20th century. Mister Boomer’s grandfather delivered goods by horse and carriage into the early 1920s, before the automobile took over. As such, the memory of what was necessary to care for a horse, as well as link a horse to a carriage and drive it, became completely unnecessary a decade later. How many boomers ever held a buggy whip, let alone know how to use it? Is what is happening now in the 21st century similar to the shift in culture that happened as the 19th century became the 20th?

How about you, boomers? Do you remember the address and phone number from where you lived when you were in kindergarten? Did memorization of your earlier days play an important role in the adult life you led up to now?