How Did Boomers Learn to Cook?

As we age, we inevitably look back on moments, situations and circumstances and evaluate those that had a lasting effect on our lives. For Mister Boomer, one such situation was the experience of learning how to cook.

By the time Mister Boomer and his siblings reached the age of eight, his parents urged them to first watch them make a Sunday breakfast, then to prepare a breakfast on their own. Once Mister B’s younger sister reached age eight, the kids took turns taking on Sunday morning cooking tasks, with each getting their day to take the lead.

Decisions on what to make were made by consensus. The repertoire wasn’t much, but offered some variety. There were eggs (fried, scrambled and later, omelets); pancakes; waffles; and French toast. Sides of bacon or breakfast sausage would often be included.

The Sunday morning ritual in the Boomer household was in sharp contrast to the daily breakfast routine. Mister B’s father was the first out the door, around 6:30 am, while his mother slept in. Consequently, breakfast for his father was often as many cups of coffee as he could consume in his allotted time, and on rare occasions, a slice of toast with butter. When Mister B was in third grade, he and his siblings were responsible for getting themselves up and out to school. Breakfast in the early years was often cereal and milk, and later, Carnation Instant Breakfast or Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts became part of the routine.

On Sunday, the rules changed. Typically, the day started with early church attendance. Breakfast would wait for the family’s return. After changing out of their Sunday church clothes, Mister Boomer and his siblings would either see what was on TV (like Tarzan Theater), or head to the kitchen if it was their turn. The other two kids would be on dish cleaning duty after the meal.

Mister B and his siblings each had their preferred breakfast to prepare. For Mister B, it was French toast or scrambled eggs. Brother Boomer became adept at eggs over easy, basted with leftover bacon grease from the can kept on the stove, while his sister preferred pancakes or waffles since it was easy to make the batter from the box mix.

In the 1950s, Mister B’s father cooked breakfast as often as his mother. However, the contrast between their two cooking styles could not have been more different. His mother often opted for eggs — fried, scrambled or omelets — with bacon, while his father memorably added beer to the batter to make French toast. He also took a liking to creamed chipped beef on toast in his army days, and would prepare that. No one else in the family wanted to add that to the list.

And so it went until the Boomer boys began high school, and the regularity of Sunday family breakfasts were disrupted by part-time jobs and other things to do.

How about you, boomers? What were your first experiences with learning how to cook?

Grease Is the Word: Boomers Hit the Can

There are many things we boomers experienced that have since disappeared from the lives of most people today. One of these items is the kitchen grease can. While some may remember this utilitarian device with nostalgia, to others it was more like … “the horror! the horror!”

The idea of saving grease — namely, animal fat that has been rendered from meats in a frying pan — dates back centuries. For many cultures, it was an economical way to use and reuse every bit of an animal, especially in a time before refrigeration. At the time of the Great Depression, animal fat was the preferred method for frying. Lard, bacon grease, ground beef renderings, chicken fat and more were poured from cast iron pans into aluminum or steel cans designed for the purpose. You’ll find some of these simple, lidded cans in online auctions. The grease could then be reused directly from the canister to add flavor to simple meals and save budgets for cash-strapped families. When food rationing arrived during WWII, the process continued to be a necessity and the tradition lived on. By the time the parents of boomers established their own homes in the late 40s and 50s, it was natural for them to follow the ways their mothers had followed before them.

In Mister Boomer’s household, the grease can was most often a coffee can, usually a red Hills Bros. can. The Hills Bros. company had developed a method for vaccuum-packing coffee in 1900. Starting out in California, they pushed west into Chicago and the Midwest in 1920, so Mister B’s grandparents were probably familiar with the brand before his parents. He does not know, however, if his grandparents used the coffee can as a grease can.

Excess drippings — especially from bacon — were poured while still hot and liquid into the can, which was kept on the stove. As the grease cooled, it congealed into a shortening-like consistency, with a slightly yellowish-brown tinge. Mister B’s mother would scoop a teaspoon or two of the gunk into her cast iron pan before frying eggs on Sunday morning. Since the grease had not been strained, blackened burnt bits that had been suspended in the congealed stuff now ended up on the white areas of the frying eggs. Mister B is convinced that to this day, this visual, and knowing the process that created it, is what has contributed to his not liking fried eggs. The horror! The horror!

The grease can also had another practical side. After about a week, or when the can was sufficiently full, the entire can, with its congealed contents, could be tossed into the garbage. Very early on, people knew that grease and kitchen pipes were not a happy mix. It would be best not to pour the stuff down the drain. The repurposed grease can provided an easy, no-mess method of disposal. First, a used piece of aluminum foil could be stretched over the top. When the coffee companies started providing plastic lids to cap the can once it was opened, the lid could serve this purpose on the final journey of the grease can as well.

Somewhere around the mid-60s, the grease can disappeared from Mister Boomer’s family kitchen. He can only surmise that its demise coincided with two events in his home: his mother had returned to the work force part-time, and for the first time, paper towels were purchased and used in his kitchen. It’s entirely possible that it was a culture thing as well. After all, reusing grease had been a sign of austerity, and in the modern 50s and 60s, a housewife wanted to be thought of as contemporary and suburban.

So which is it for you, boomers? Does the grease can evoke nostalgic memories of flavor-added foods, or a horror that is best left in the past?