There are a number of ways to keep tabs on the amount of money you spend in these challenging economic times. Unless you fall in the two percent category, I know you are attempting to make sound decisions about your expenditures.
I suspect housing repairs are considered in lieu of purchasing a new home. While three years may have been the limit before purchasing a new automobile, you find yourself extending your automobile’s life span to five or more years. Your coats, suits, dresses and shoes last much longer than in the past. Vacations, if there are vacations, are close by and in driving distance; air travel must wait for another time. Going out for dinner does not occur as frequently. Monies that we once put away for a rainy day are being spent now, because today is a rainy day. Yes, things are different and improvements in our economy are moving along much too slowly. I thought about how my financial circumstances have changed in recent years and the changes I have made to cope with higher prices and stagnant incomes when I visited the cleaner’s to drop off my shirts last week. There was a time when I dropped off shirts once a week; now these trips occur every other week as I am managing in some instances to get two wears out of a shirt. These are shirts I may wear for two hours to church; or dark-colored shirts I could wear all day. I carefully check out the cuffs and collars. If the shirt is soiled, it goes into my hamper. I did not do this in the past, but the economic conditions of today have caused me to change my habits in many areas. So, in the name of saving money, I fondly resurrect things my parents and others did to make ends meet or to pinch pennies, back in the day.
While pinching pennies by wearing a shirt more than once may be a bit much, some other practices might work for you. I hope you do not throw away your socks once you notice a hole in them. Somewhere around your home is a needle and thread, and for some people, a hard-boiled egg, that extends the life of a pair of socks. People placed the egg in the toe of the sock if this was where there was a hole. It aided significantly in darning the socks. You may be old enough to recall when darning socks was a routine practice. Even nylon stockings did not go into the trash if runs could be stopped with clear nail polish. If your skirt or pants must be hemmed, you can beat paying a tailor. A straight pin or Scotch tape will do the trick, not just temporarily but over an extended period of time. When you were staying in a hotel and you did not want to pay to have your pants pressed, you neatly folded them, placed them under your mattress and awakened in the morning to find a nice crease. There is no shame in modifying one’s behavior to save a penny or two. Call it cutting corners, or being frugal, thrifty or cheap, pinching pennies is how our parents survived and provided for us, back in the day.
Some years ago, I wrote about the creativity of our grandparents and parents in being economical. I referred to a picture of me that hangs on the wall in my basement. It is a clear reminder of the things many parents did to make ends meet. The shirt I wear in the picture was not purchased; it was made with my mother’s own hands. Making clothing appears to be a dying art. Many of you can recall going to school, a dance, a prom or church wearing something your mother or a family member had made. Sometimes, it was something you had made yourself.
How many of you recall shopping in the basements of department stores such as Lit Brothers, Gimbel’s, Strawbridge and Clothier and John Wanamaker? Some will argue that going to outlet malls today is evidence of pinching pennies. This does not compare to cutting corners by shopping in bargain basements and those famous stores on South Street back in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Krass Brothers and Johnny Kohler men’s stores were two of the premier places to shop. But these were a step up for me. My father often took me to his favorite penny- pinching store on South Street, Big Hearted Jim’s. Big Hearted Jim’s was typical of stores on South Street. Salespeople would stand out in front urging customers to come inside to shop. They would also stand behind you and hold the back of the garment to make it appear to fit.
How many of you wear hand-me-down clothing today? As popular as this was in the past, this practice is slowly disappearing. When I was a teenager, I could count on visits by my uncle from White Plains, N.Y. While these only occurred twice a year, on each visit I usually received four or five hand-me-down suits. No one made a big fuss over this in the past. I hear awful stories from parents that attempt to get their children to wear hand-me-down clothing today. Their children refuse them even if they are from an older brother or sister. I am not ashamed to admit that I pinch pennies by finding my way into consignment shops, thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales for clothing and accessories as well as household items. Just last week I received a number of comments about a gray and pink bow tie I was wearing; it came from a thrift shop, something no one knew except me.
What were some of those other penny pinching things you did, back in the day? How many of you took your lunch to work as opposed to patronizing a restaurant? While brown-bagging was popular back in the day, some people, including yours truly, are doing this today. If you try it, I’m sure you will see that it is more nutritious and is definitely more economical. A barrelful of pennies can be saved by taking your lunch to work.
Let me mention a few other practices from the past for pinching pennies. Some have eliminated their landline phones and only use a mobile phone. Are gas prices driving you to the poorhouse? Some people have switched from the recommended high-test gasoline to regular gasoline. While you are able to pinch pennies on a short-term basis, you may encounter major repair costs in the long term. If while traveling you need shoes shined, it will cost you six dollars at the hotel shoeshine stand. In keeping with your penny-pinching philosophy, you smooth Vaseline all over your shoes. It gives you an instant shine without spending a dime. You may recall putting tape on the bottom of your shoes to repair a hole. You can also save more and avoid buying new shoes by replacing half-soles or full soles on your shoes. When your family had one of those early televisions that only had three channels and your antenna broke which destroyed the reception, what option did you have short of purchasing a new one? A clothes hanger was perfect for the job.
If you could not afford to get your refrigerator repaired, the outside windowsill was an alternative for keeping things cold in the winter. Placing bottles that contained liquids upside down would allow you to get the last drop. During your college dormitory days, when you had no hot plate, you could fill a teacup with hot water in the bathroom and add your teabag for a cup of tea. Do anyone in your household save used aluminum foil for reuse? Or do you buy your reading glasses off the shelf at CVS, Sam’s or Wal-Mart rather than use a prescription? Perhaps you take twice as long at the supermarket because you must sort through that stack of coupons held together with a rubber band to find the ones to use on that day. Things like this were done routinely, back in the day.
Until our economy makes a full recovery, perhaps you should tuck this column away and refer to it on a regular basis. You could seriously consider borrowing some of the practices I have shared with you and pinch pennies as many used to, back in the day.
I am disgusted. Not only am I disgusted, I am ashamed; I am embarrassed; and I am frustrated. Certain behaviors on the part of Black folk have made me feel this way for many years. I ask myself, what in the world is wrong with Black people?
My embarrassment usually surfaces at this time of the year as a result of some of our practices that should have changed long ago. As many of us have advanced into the good life of the so-called middle class, we have grown further away from what other races do. This is not something new for me. I have touched on this issue before. As I move beyond the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday and Black History Month, this issue behind my disgust and frustration becomes more evident, more pronounced. These special days bring many of us together at special luncheons and dinners to celebrate and acknowledge the work of King and the advances of Black people in America.
While none can argue about the significant gains of Blacks in America, we can agree that in some respects there have been far too many failures. What I reference is not endemic to these two annual celebrations for Black people. It occurs during the entire year. When we participate in affairs sponsored by our churches, fraternities, sororities and schools for class reunions, anniversaries, weddings and even funerals, we fork over thousands of dollars to facilities we do not own. In fact, many of these facilities fail to have people working in them who look like us. We are probably the only racial group in America that ignores that power of the almighty dollar. If my father was alive and I shared my frustration over this situation with him, he would speak with pride about how Black folk, due to the segregation and Jim Crow laws of his era, had places of their own, back in the day.
This is not the first time I have complained about my brothers and sisters when it comes to the economics of race. In 2007, the170th anniversary of the founding of Cheyney University took me on a venting spree. It had nothing to do with this fine university; rather my reaction was related to the venue where this celebration occurred. I pointed out that Drexelbrook Catering of Drexel Hill, the site of this celebration, is a fine facility for a first-class function. But,what I saw then is the same thing I observed during the King and Black History celebrations – the relationship between money and power.
This scene repeats itself whenever we require banquet facilities that can accommodate several hundred people. We spend our hard-earned money with businesses we do not own. We are the only racial or ethnic group in America that goes to places other than our own, “skinning and grinning” with no appreciation for the power of the almighty dollar. I really cannot blame white establishments that cater to the Black dollar but ignore Blacks in terms of sharing in the riches of their businesses. The blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of Blacks. In the 1980s, my siblings and I held a celebration for our parents‘ 50th wedding anniversary. We chose the Hyatt Hotel (currently the Crowne Plaza) in Cherry Hill, N.J. to accommodate approximately 150 guests. In negotiating the contract, we insisted that Blacks be visible in working this affair. Since money talks, Blacks did work at this memorable event.
We must support, 3801 Market St., one of the few Black-owned facilities in the Philadelphia area that can accommodate a large gathering. I occasionally hear people complaining about this facility. If there is something you do not like, such as atmosphere, food, service, parking or have other concerns, work with the facility to make it better. After all, those white facilities you patronize while wearing your minks and fine garments are not perfect either. How can this facility grow and improve without our support? At the same time, our brothers and sisters cannot take us for granted. They must give us quality service at competitive prices. If you must go to a white establishment, do insist, as we did for my parents’ anniversary celebration, that if there are no Blacks employed, that they should search the Internet; perhaps they will find a website called “Rent a Nee-gro.com” and hire a brother or sister, if but for the day. You will at least enable someone Black to earn a few dollars while at the same time enabling your money to circulate in the Black community, something integration forced us to do back in the day.
Fancy halls or hotel ballrooms were unavailable to us for our wedding receptions, birthday parties, dances, reunions, meetings and other gatherings in the past. Thus, places like Trott Inn, Ebony Lounge, Postal Card, Pyramid Club, Barber’s Hall, Reynolds Hall, O.V. Catto Hall, Tippin’ Inn and Loretta’s High Hat of Lawnside, N.J. and other Black-owned establishments, while not big enough for large gatherings, were the beneficiaries of the monies we worked hard to earn. However, along came integration; which destroyed our Black economic structure just as it destroyed many other things we used to control and that benefited us. You can include education in the mix.
You may also recall that when we did not go to a club or hall, our activities were held in the basement or activity building of a church. I have been giving much thought to the role churches should or could play in our economic development. A number of churches have facilities attached or associated with them that could accommodate banquets. My own church, Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, has a gymnasium-size room that is part of its Family Life Center. When renovations are completed, this room will be ideal for wedding receptions, reunions, banquets or other large gatherings.
But here is one major issue that Salem and other church facilities will face. You know there are problems with even raising the issue of serving alcoholic beverages. It is an absolute no-no. Whenever I hear this argument, I wonder if the God the Catholics and Jews serve is different than the God we Baptists serve. My fraternity has held some of its major events at synagogues where alcohol was served. Just last week, several Black alumni groups held an “Old School Cabaret” at the church-affiliated St. Raymond Hall. Why are such affairs okay for Catholic and Jewish facilities but considered taboo for Black church-affiliated facilities? Even if we leave alcohol out of the equation but include music and dancing, this is also off limits. Do we not serve the same God? As I debated this issue with an associate, regarding alcoholic beverages being permitted in church facilities, not in the sanctuary, he asked me to reflect on Jesus’ first miracle. This apparently took place on a hillside, so it is not on point with the issue I am raising; however, it does have a relationship. In case you’ve forgotten your Sunday school lessons, this is where Jesus, at a wedding celebration in the Galilean village of Cana with his mother and his disciples, turned water into wine. I know this is a sensitive issue, so sensitive that most churches have moved from serving wine during communion to serving a juice. Now, I have no intention of getting into hot water with members of my congregation, my pastor or some of my preacher friends. I know better than to try to argue in support of embracing alcoholic beverages in church facilities. Rather, in my favorite expression of President Obama, “I’m just saying …”
I do not want anyone to question where the funds would come from to build and support Black banquet establishments. D. Park Gibson in several of his books on the economics of the Black community made it clear that there is a great deal of money in the hands of Black folk. Just ask some of the companies where the difference between their profit and loss is the Black community. Since I have focused on Black churches, can you imagine what we could do if all Black churches went to the same bank in an organized manner and announced all of their deposits would be going to this designated bank starting in January 2014? Can you imagine the leveraging ability for economic growth and development, which could include a first-class banquet facility, if Black churches pooled their monies?
Every year I ask myself if I will live to see the day when we as a race will have a first-class banquet hall or a first-class hotel; a place where we can celebrate our Martin Luther King luncheons, our Black History luncheons, our wedding receptions, family reunions, cabarets, fraternal and social club activities and those many other affairs that require a large facility. I must admit that being in the fourth quarter of my life, the answer is most likely a painful “No”. It is indeed regrettable that in spite of our improved education; improved housing conditions and improved earnings we have been unable to continue in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents. There is no reason we should not be patronizing places that we own, just as our ancestors did, back in the day.
Every year since I began writing this column, I have paused in February to reflect on the Black experience. February is Black History Month and while I regret that too many of us only think about Blacks and their contributions during this month, I must admit it is better than not celebrating our Blackness at all.
Over the years, I have presented subjects that were educational as well as controversial. Whenever I write about where we were as a race, where we are today and where we may be in the future, I am reminded of words from my father. He would frequently remind me, “If you have no idea where you have been, it is hard to know where you are going and when you have arrived.” I have written about Tom Lynch and his strategies to control slaves; a strategy which remains evident and true today with regard to how we treat and interact with one another. A column in which I expressed admiration for Uncle Tom annoyed some readers, and my fondness for the “Amos’n’Andy” television show caused some to conclude I had lost my mind. Last year, I devoted my column to my own Black memorabilia collection. This year, I shall continue sharing things that are educational and also controversial by reviewing Black games from back in the day.
Some friends and colleagues were surprised that there were Black-themed games years ago. I suspect that some of you are too. However, if you think real hard, you probably will recall the “Sambo Dart Game;” which featured a metal board and a spring gun with rubber-tipped arrows. This dartboard showed a stereotypical image of a Sambo with targets and numbers surrounding him. I doubt seriously if you know of “Neddy N-------‘s Jigsaw Puzzle.” This typical racist game from the past is a jigsaw puzzle about the size of legal paper with a Black man with stereotypical features at the beginning of a maze. In the middle of the maze is a watermelon, and you must draw lines to show the Black man’s route from the start to the watermelon. Other jigsaw puzzles, neither of which I have ever seen, are “Chopped Up N-------s” and a 1905 puzzle entitled “Woozy Jig,” where Black men in formal evening clothes are dancing in a wild manner.
While these were offensive, some of the most racially aggressive games were found in carnivals, seashore resorts and fairgrounds. Can you believe that there were such games as “Dump the N-------,” “African Dip” or “Coon Dip,” in which hitting the target caused a plank where a Black person sat to be dumped into a tank below? There were also games with similar names except that a Black man or an image of one would stick his head through a hole on a painted canvas, usually with a cotton plantation scene. Players would attempt to hit him in the head with a ball or some other object. Now, just consider the names of some other games with outrageous names, like: “Garden Aunt Salley,” “Hit Me Hard,” “Rastus,” “Little Darky Shooting Gallery,” “Jolly Coon Race,” The Picaninny Toy Target” and the “Darky Tenpins.” There were also books as well as a game of the “Ten Little N----- Boys.”
Most board games were played with dice and paper money. They contained a beginning and an end with Black figures portrayed in an extremely derogatory nature. Most of these involved a chase of the Black person by a white person or an animal. As you would expect, the Black person always lost. Denis Mercier has addressed this issue in a web-posted document entitled, “From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of Black Imagery in Games.” He points out, “Games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected racial attitudes ranging from the benign to the aggressively violent. Although some of the games of the first period stereotyped African Americans as comical entertainers, many revealed an intense white hostility toward Blacks.” It is interesting to note that Mercier’s message argues that Blacks enjoyed the negativity directed at them; they felt no pain from the assaults because no real pain was inflicted. You may be troubled to learn that this negativity toward Blacks only started to disappear in the past 25 years, as Blacks invented and marketed games themselves.
As a serious collector of Black memorabilia, I have many Black games in my collection; many stereotypical. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase a pinball game at a local toy show. It was not your typical metal pinball machine, but one made of wood with Black images on the bumpers, targets and table section displays. The figures were both demeaning and insulting. It was not the price, but the size that caused me not to acquire this item. I questioned how I would get it home and where I could display it without taking up too much room. I. saw it only once and have never seen it again in my more than 30 years of collecting Black stereotypical artifacts. It is one Black collectible I wish I had purchased.
In 1970, Psychology Today published a board game, based on some of the concepts of the game of Monopoly, where you decide at the start whether to play as a Black or as a white person. The game, “Black and White”, is essentially a property-buying game. The races compete against one another in making economic progress, but the odds are clearly stacked against Black people by having different rules. Whites start out with $1million and Blacks with $10,000. The rules were similar to life for Blacks back in the day; Whites could buy property on any part of the board, but Blacks were limited to certain areas. If whites ran out of money, they declared bankruptcy. If you ran out of money while playing as a Black person, you went on welfare. It was controversial back then, but was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to understand Black life .
Another game in the style of Monopoly from the late 1960s is “Godfrey Cambridges’s 50 Easy Steps to The White House,” about a Black man running for president in 1968. Players move along the board to get to the White House. Stops on the board include “Sorry! The apartment is rented”; “Your son intermarries, go to Africa in search of your roots (identity), lose two turns”; and “You were seen lunching with Stokely, Go to Jail.” It was billed as “A great new game for discriminating people of all races!”
Are any of you familiar with the “Fat Albert” game? Or, what about “The Harlem Globetrotters” and “The Jackson Five” games? Then there is “The X Game” from 1991. It is a cooperative game in which players, rather than competing against each other, must cooperate to win. Everyone works together to achieve a common goal. The objective is to beat the system in order to win the game. This game is used to represent Malcolm X’s philosophy of Black nationalism. Negative images of Blacks in games disappeared entirely during the civil rights years as stereotypical images became too controversial for toy and game makers. In recent years, we’ve started to see Black Americans surface in games. Through their growing political and organizing clout, they could demand games that encouraged Black pride. So, in 1974, we saw games such as the one created by a mainstream manufacturer, ED-U-Cards, a division of KPB Industries of Bethlehem, Pa. which offered a flash card set, ‘Famous Black People in American History.” The game involves showing a charcoal portrait of a famous Black person, giving a clue and asking for that person’s identity. But, much of the change in focus and the demand to include positive images of Blacks in games was met by Black entrepreneurs. We did as we had once done; we did not sit around and beg others to do for us, we did for ourselves by creating and producing our own Black-themed games.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is clear from the “Little Black Sambo” games of years ago to games like the 1987 “Black American High Achiever” that things have significantly changed. In spite of where we are today, I believe we should always pause and revisit the tway things used to be. Some people argue that these negative games represent an era that should be left alone. Others, however, like me, do not want to experience the days when these negative games indicated the state of affairs in America, but also stress that they are things they do not want to ever forget. They believe, especially in rearing their children, that these negative games and other conditions played a major role in shaping the character of America and the state of mind of Blacks and all races and groups in this country. So, we must make visits to the past such as the one I have taken in this column. For in many respects, life today was shaped by much of what we did and what others did to us, back in the day.
Going out to work, school, church, dinner or a social event can occasionally be a real challenge. At times, some of us cannot go out while others will not, because of a condition that has put many of us in our beds or has frightened us into believing that going out and coming into contact with ailing people will make us stay home in our beds.
If you are clueless about the subject I am referencing, then think about those folk around you who are coughing and sneezing like crazy. Yes, it is that time of the year. Because I hear so many colleagues asking for suggestions to fight off colds, I would like to reflect on those old remedies from our neighborhood drugstores and those concoctions our parents and grandparents gave us to fight colds, back in the day.
I count my lucky stars that so far this year, I have not had a cold. Some friends and colleagues have not been so fortunate. I have been spared even though I have not had a flu shot. I know a serious cold could still come down on me before the flu season comes to an end. If it does, there is no doubt that I will resort to the first thing that enters my mind; a product that my parents turned to whenever one of my siblings or I had a cold. Our chests were rubbed down with Vicks VapoRub. Do you recall how your parents wrapped your chest with an old towel and then had you slip on an old tee shirt? I can still see my mother turn out the lights and close the bedroom door with the expectation that things would be better in the morning. No one could stay in the room with you, as everything ended up smelling of Vicks. Nothing could get rid of that smell! Your treatment might have required placing Vicks in your nostrils. Memories of my parents’ rubdowns more than 50 years ago still cause me to put a dab of Vicks on my finger and gently rub a little in my nostrils today. Just as Vicks VapoRub cleared my head back in the day, it clears my head today. It is funny how little things like this keep my parents close by even though they are no longer with me.
A colleague told me her mother swore that coughing could be stopped by applying Vicks VapoRub to the bottoms of their feet and covering them with socks at night. There was another use of this product that some of you may remember. Do you recall your mother placing her index finger containing a large scoop of Vicks on the back of your tongue? The taste was nasty and it was probably unsafe to consume it, but it seemed to work. You can still find Vicks VapoRub in drug stores. It no longer comes in the metal tubs in which it was packaged, back in the day
If Vicks was not your remedy in the past, tI suspect the next reliable treatment was chicken noodle soup. The idea that chicken noodle soup, often dubbed the “Jewish penicillin,” is effective in addressing colds dates back to ancient times. Some researchers believe that heat is the key factor, as any soup will work. The heat from the soup promotes airway secretions and has a calming effect on inflamed throats. In spite of the fact that it appears to work for many, scientists have yet to fully determine the reasons. However, as it relates to chicken soup, it is believed that the combination of fats, spices and water work best when it comes to breaking up mucus. I bet that even today, many who get colds still turn to chicken noodle soup as a remedy.
Growing up in God-fearing homes, some readers of this column were given a steaming hot cup of water, with whiskey and lemon. Your parents may have referred to this mixture as a “hot toddy.” My father was not a drinker. In fact, he forbade any alcoholic beverages in our home. That is, except for a bottle of rye whiskey, one of his back-in-the-day home remedies for a cold. He did not give this to the kids, but whenever a cold was on the horizon, a teaspoon of rye whiskey worked just fine for him.
Back then, garlic and onions were also held to be good home remedies for colds. While I have never tried this, I understand it helped to reduce mucous in the nasal cavities. Garlic is also said to aid in cleansing the blood. True or not, it has been said that if you cut several onions in half and place them around your home, you will not get colds.
Some believe a sure-fire remedy for a sore throat is to gargle with a strong solution of table salt and warm water. Have you tried Rooibos teas? What about a drink consisting of lime, salt and honey? I know of people who drink milk and a raw egg for a cough. Did your parents place quinine powder in the palm of your hand for you to lick in order to fight a cold? If you think these approaches to fighting a cold are unusual, consider what I was told by someone who grew up in the backwoods of Delaware. He said his father gave him a concoction containing kerosene to drink for his cold. He explained it was mixed with Karo Syrup and his father swore that it was the ultimate solution for a cold. There must be some truth to his story, as I found a second person whose parents gave him a teaspoon of sugar with several drops of kerosene to treat his cold.
Maybe your remedy of choice is the mustard plaster. Thist is a paste the color of mustard that a parent would rub into a cloth, and then fold the cloth so the paste did not come into contact with the skin. Finally, the cloth is placed over one’s chest or back. The mustard plaster smelled and it could possibly burn the skin, but for many it worked. There are those who still use this remedy today. Did you ever take a cold medicine called “666”? I can’t imagine anyone swallowing this bitter drink. I know some of you recall being told that you have to “sweat out” your cold. So, many of us would drink a cup of hot tea with ginger or lemon. Next, we would sit in a hot bath until we perspired and could no longer stand the heat. We would then climb under the bedcovers, and sleep until morning. Often, the next morning you would find the bed, soaking wet from your perspiration. However, the cold was gone.
If you grew up back in the day, that dark brown bottle with the white label should still be outstanding in your mind. It was Father John’s Medicine. It was promised to relieve coughs due to minor throat and bronchial irritation from colds or inhaled irritants. While originally made in 1855, a handful of people today that still rely on Father John’s to get them through the winter. My parents were not Father John’s users; my father was a big believer in castor oil. If I showed signs of illness, in particular, signs of having a cold, I received a spoonful of castor oil. My father even gave me castor oil if I cut my finger. The same was true for spirit of niter. I would start crying before my father poured it into the spoon. Both were the nastiest medicines I had ever tasted. Castor oil was claimed by some to be the most indecent kind of medicine that man could make; a medicine that must have been made by a demon that was guaranteed to kill. It appeared that if the medicine was nasty, then it must have been good for you.
The cold and flu season will be with us for a number of weeks. There is little doubt that many of you will be hit with at least one miserable cold. So I encourage you to engage in some advance planning and reach back just a little. Why not make up a checklist of remedies for a cold; remedies that are a lot less costly; a checklist that contains Vicks VapoRub, nasal sprays, garlic, kerosene, mustard plaster, Father John’s, castor oil and all of the other remedies that had much or even more success, back in the day.
My family members are often critical of my eating habits. They tell me I eat much too fast and have an enormous “sweet tooth.” Now, I recognize that I eat a bit faster than others and I cannot tell you why. Believe me: It has nothing to do with my not getting my share of food when I was a child. My parents always made certain there was sufficient food on the table. Thus, I did not have to compete with my siblings by eating fast, even though they all had big appetites.
With regard to sweets, I have had a love affair with desserts since my childhood. But habits that began many years ago are not easily broken. While my family indicates they have not noticed a more deliberate style of eating on my part, I have tempered the time I spend consuming food; but I doubt much will change with regard to cutting down on desserts. Today, I see many people frequenting Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Wawa or 7 Eleven stores to pick up their goodies. Watching them come and go brings back memories of what was available in the past but is limited today. Those from my era were able to purchase doughnuts, cakes, pies and rolls in places that were dear to most of us; often locally owned by people who looked like us. These places, where items were freshly made, took custom orders and prepared products indigenous to residents of the community. How many of you remember frequenting the bakery that was found in every neighborhood back in the day?
I am not including Hanscom’s, a chain of bakeries located throughout our city. Rather, I am focusing on places like the Trawick Bakery in the 4500 block of Fairmount Avenue, right in my own neighborhood, when I was a little boy. For a brief period, my family lived next door to this establishment. Thus, I was in and out of Trawick’s on a regular basis. It was like the bakeries in many neighborhoods. I know you recall the wonderful aromas you smelled as you walked near a bakery. Those aromas lured you in.
I can still recall begging my mother or sisters to take me in to purchase one of my favorite desserts. I can still see the large showcases with a wide variety of goodies. Glazed doughnuts were my favorite. Can you believe that five cents would get you one? I mean a huge one. These same doughnuts could be purchased the following day, two for five cents. Day-old doughnuts were a big thing back then. From my point of view, sticky buns, not any type, but sticky buns with pecans, ran close behind or perhaps even with doughnuts as a favorite of mine. Sometimes family members debated what would meet our fancy on a particular day. Would it be a chocolate iced doughnut or the crème-filled? Perhaps your choice was a cruller. Other enticing choices included the apple fritter, a bow tie or Danish. The debate did not include any prepackaged goods because everything in our neighborhood bakeries was handmade. We would make our purchase and simply ask that it be wrapped in the waxed paper typically found in bakeries. No bag was needed as the item went directly into our mouths as we exited the bakery. Biting into the doughnut and then licking our fingers was something we all did. Sometimes we would sit at a counter inside the bakery and have coffee, tea or a fountain soda. What memories I have of eating a cinnamon doughnut and drinking a vanilla cream soda! Although you tend to outgrow some food you enjoyed in the past, I still long for this type of doughnut and drink. Most of the time, your bakery items were bagged and you took them home. How many of you stop at these so-called bakeries today and take your purchases home? Not many, I suspect, as they tend to be hard and dried out within hours. They certainly do not remain fresh for a day or two, as they did back in the day.
Bakeries in the past featured baking on the premises.. Everything was made from scratch. While standing at the counters in most bakeries, you could look in the rear where the pots and pans were stacked clean, as most baking took place in the wee hours of the morning, long before most of us arrived. Some of you may recall showing up at the bakery early in the morning only to find that your favorite doughnut had not come out of the oven or had not cooled sufficiently. Do you recall waiting for something you had your heart set on, something that you could not imagine starting your day without, something especially enjoyable? So, what did you do? You waited, of course.
You must recall those items for special occasions. Birthday cakes were big sellers. Most boys and girls who had a cake from a bakery knew the decorations were special; candy cowboys and horses for boys and candy dolls and dollhouses for little girls. Other specialty items from the neighborhood bakery included cakes for weddings, anniversaries and holidays. I can still see my mother talking with the bakery owner about a cake that was extremely special for a member of the family and emphasizing the day that it would be needed. Would it be a plain pound cake with vanilla icing? Or, would it be a layer cake with chocolate icing? Then there would be that special touch given by the proprietor. There would also be that special “Thank you” when your mother picked up her order. The baker usually had some knowledge of individual customers, and this added to the special service received. Keep in mind that the cakes and other products were not prepared by strangers, but by people the customer knew and in businesses operated by proprietors who knew their customers. These neighborhood bakeries knew us so well they would regularly call to remind families of upcoming birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions where a cake was in order. This is something that made neighborhood bakeries so special, back in the day.
How many of you recall that special activity at bakeries early on Saturday mornings? Do you recall the long lines? People lined up to pick up their rolls for Sunday dinner. You must remember a similar hustle and bustle on the day before a major holiday. Then, the focus was not just on rolls, but those cakes and pies that had to be on every dining room table on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day.
As much as the thought of bakeries resurrects fond memories of freshly baked goods, no bakery could compete with what came out of the ovens in our mothers’ kitchens. Mothers were big bakers in the past. While the neighborhood bakery was a place neighborhood people went for their desserts, our mothers’ skills as bakers produced products that surpassed those sold in bakeries. What my mother did in her kitchen will always be dear to me. I clearly preferred the rolls, cakes, pies and other desserts that came from her kitchen over what came from any bakery. Making rolls and desserts occurred on Saturday evening for every Sunday meal, even when our mothers were ill. While rolls from bakeries had to be reheated for dinner, our mothers’ rolls came out of the oven piping hot and went directly to the dinner table. Just like the neighborhood bakery, mothers would also produce many of the desserts found in the bakeries’ glass cases. Just as the neighborhood bakery has seen its decline, the preparation of the pound cake, coconut cake, chocolate layer cake, layered jelly cake, apple pie, sweet potato pie, raisin pie, bread pudding and a variety of other types of cakes and pies that were found in the kitchens of many homes in the past have gone by the wayside. Baking, especially home baking, started with a clay mixing bowl, flour, eggs, milk, sugar and flavoring, appears to be a lost art; and bear in mind, no one used instant mixes in the past.
While most of us must find our way to a convenience store, a chain doughnut shop or a bakery in a supermarket for bread, rolls, cookies or other desserts today, you would have a memorable treat if you could experience the delicious taste of those items that came from those wonderful neighborhood bakeries or from the kitchens of our mothers, back in the day.