Inside the Brown Bag: The Menu

By Peg Brown

I have lived in Rhode Island for over four decades and been privileged to eat at what have been rated some of the country’s and (in one case), the world’s best restaurants. Within a two block area you can order Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese, Sicilian or Northern Italian, Mexican, French, fish, shell fish, clam cakes, Johnny cakes, vegetarian, gluten free, dishes all under 500 calories, and any pastry, coffee or other dessert concoction you can imagine. And that doesn’t include the mobile food vehicles, diners, hot wieners and just plain old American beef. The reason I offer this introduction is because growing up I don’t remember much diversity in food offerings. I do remember if you wanted Chinese food you could travel to Brockville, Canada, and I believe there was at one time one Italian bakery on Ford Street. In fact, to be honest, I had never seen a black olive before arriving in RI—I thought all olives were green, stuffed with red pimentos and only appeared at holidays in those little relish dishes or in egg salad between two pieces of white bread.

Starches were a pretty big part of our daily life. Almost all dinners included potatoes and bread and butter—oops, correction—margarine. (Either we couldn’t afford butter or our parents became used to the taste of “oleo margarine” during World War II rationing—I was never sure. I do remember that Grandma fried her eggs in bacon grease that she kept in a little cup on the sink.) There was a stretch when Mother worked on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Dad got home before she did to start dinner. Every night for more months than I can count we had home fries. Spaghetti and macaroni, the other main starches, were just that—spaghetti and elbow macaroni—not capellini, angel hair, linguine, penne, rigatoni, tortellini, ravioli, orzo or lasagna–and certainly not in different shapes or colors. An all-time favorite artery clogger was hot dogs, split lengthwise, stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and baked, with an accompanying side dish of macaroni and cheese where we always fought over who got the bigger portion of the crunchy top. It was a very good thing we had yet to experience cholesterol testing!

For most of elementary school, we went home for lunch. A favorite meal was macaroni soup—elbow macaroni (lots) in Campbell’s tomato soup and, if we were lucky, made with milk—whole milk, not skim, low-fat, 2 % or 1%. Another family favorite was grilled cheese made with that old favorite—Velveeta. I always asked for really thick slices of cheese–heaven on earth was that thick, gooey orange mass leaking between two slices of heavily buttered white bread. I must admit I did have another favorite sandwich, found much later in life. A close friend had an aunt who would, especially at camp, make us toast (two pieces), slather it with butter and peanut butter—and then add crisp bacon. These are the moments food memories are made of.

Food at camp in the summer was different—except when Grandma Cordwell was in charge. Almost every night at least eight or ten people would crowd around the central table, set with “real” plates, glasses and silverware. (Note: There was no running water in the camp; all drinking water was hauled in in jugs. All water for dishes was pumped up from the river, boiled on the stove and added to the dishpan. In the center of the rectangular oak table, along with the obligatory platters of corn, was always a bowl of boiled white potatoes. Grandma spent most of her meal time, putting potatoes on the end of her fork and peeling them for the grandchildren. When Mother was running the kitchen—paper plates and napkins were the order of the day.

Dinner at camp also often included the catch of the day (perch or bass), deep-fried in lots of Crisco, and burned hotdogs and hamburgers from the charcoal grill (no gas grills in sight.) Dessert was almost always burned marshmallows cooked over the campfire on those special forks that could be extended. The only way to get the goo off those forks was to shove them back and forth in the sand. For some reason, we also had bedtime “snacks” at camp—great bowls of cereal and lots of light buttered toast made in one of those early toasters with the drop down sides that required you to turn the slices over to toast on both sides. If we were really lucky, Mom would stop at that one bakery in town and get fresh bread dough, which she would then stretch, deep fry and slather in butter—it was only later in Rhode Island that I discovered they were known as dough boys—probably an apt name for all of us as we emerged from camp in September.

There were a few restaurants in town, but I honestly don’t remember ever eating out. When an “upscale restaurant” called the Gran-View opened, it was considered the height of fine dining. A more affluent friend once asked me if I had been to the Gran-View and I lied and said “yes.” She asked me what I liked best. After I stuttered my way through some bogus response, she asked me what I thought of the relish cart. The Gran-View had these little stainless steel wheeled vehicles that they brought to the tables with cottage cheese, relish, beets and assorted other choices. I had no idea. I was caught! The few times we did eat at the Gran-View were usually after the proms. Everyone ordered the open steak sandwich which came with salad and a delicious oily blue cheese dressing—needless to say, our taste buds took over and we did not worry about that good night kiss!

There was, at the time, virtually no fast food in Ogdensburg. No MacDonald’s, Burger King, Subway or Pizza Hut! Although Dairy Queen did open while we were in school, the closest thing we had to heartburn heaven was Wimpy’s, serving Ogdensburg’s version of Olneyville’s hot wieners, which was, as in Rhode Island, a favorite late night snack following an evening of “socializing.”

What we did have were lots of bars—but that’s another story!