family picnic, circa 1938
Among the treasures I found in my garage recently were two bank-issued datebooks from 1938 and 1939. They are embossed with Tony’s grandfather’s name and offer some introductory boilerplate pages of information considered essential for businessmen, from a 300-word description of the Statue of Liberty to “Fifteen Don’ts in the Use of the Flag” and “The Fourteen Errors of Life.” “Good Rules for Business Men” include “Make Friends, but not favorites” and “Stick to chosen pursuits, but not to chosen methods.”
These pages fascinate me, but I’m even more interested in the calendar pages of the book, which Tony’s grandmother took over and made her own daily journal. From January 1st until December 25th, she noted the day’s activities and the family’s meals (sometimes indicating different dishes for her daughter, eleven year-old Nancy, and her youngest child, Geoff).
Saturday, January 1st, 1938
Played in the yard in the morning
Ate lunch at Andersens on Wilshire Blvd.
In the afternoon went to Grauman’s Chinese to see “Love and Kisses” + “Checkers.”
Supper at 6:15 P.M. Bed at 7:40 P.M.
Tomato Juice (Nancy)
Orange sherbert (Geoff)
Choc. Sundae (Nancy)
Crackers and cheese
Monday, January 10, 1938
Nancy had her 17th French lesson. Geoffrey went to club.
Bed at 7:05 + 8:00 P.M.
Raisin bread toast
I skip ahead to April:
Nancy had a French lesson at 3:10 P.M. Geoffrey went to club.
Nancy getting her rock specimens ready to take to school for the “Hobby” department on May Day.
Cottage cheese – avocado salad
Jello + cookie
And then skip again to a Saturday in May:
Went to the children’s show in the morning at the Beverly theater.
In the afternoon played outside.
Nancy baked a lemon cake – very good.
Tapioca pudding (Nancy)
I learn about their haircuts and their play dates and their appointments at the dentist; I learn that Nancy had a pet guinea pig and Geoff was sent to bed early when he misbehaved.
But of course it’s learning about their meals that interests me. I’m intrigued by the ways in which they are not so very different from our own (cereal, juice and milk at breakfast) and the ways they really are (also bacon and toast with that cereal, juice and milk!) It’s page after page of hot lunches and meat + two (or more) veg dinners, with milk at every meal. It is very proper English eating, because Nancy’s mother was English, but clearly California eating, too, as they incorporate the local produce, especially avocados, and lots of grapefruit and oranges.
Its uncomplicated lists of everyday meals show how one family was being nurtured and nourished, and makes me glad of the record Lisa and I are keeping here. It makes me think about what I want my children to remember of their meals, and realize my aspirations are fairly simple: I want them to be satisfied and happy, I want them to enjoy cooking and eating our meals. I could emulate some of these 1938 meals today if I wanted to – you can still buy Ralston cereal, which has only changed to note on the package that it’s microwavable — but I don’t feel the need. It’s enough for me simply to read this completely unremarkable record of one family’s daily food life, notable only because it exists.