Memories of hard times, Thanksgivings past

By: Don Curto

The story below deals with the middle 1930s, a period of great trauma in the world, in the country and in Marquette. The Depression (we had not yet named it Great) was five years old, with the economy not much improved. People in Marquette were suffering.
My father had just gone back to work on the DSS&A railroad after being out of work for two years and eleven months. He had worked for a short time for Works Progress Administration (WPA) and for a company ripping up the streetcar rails. For this job, he got $16 per week.
Later we had a macabre joke that the rails were sent to Japan so they could make bullets and shoot them back at us. It seems a shame now that the Marquette Street Railway system has gone. It would be a boon in these times.
There was almost no government aid for families, and we depended a great deal on each other. Families and friends were never more important. We survived with the help of my grandparents. However, no matter how graciously help was given from one part of the family to another, there was a kind of sad “depression humiliation” tending to cloud the relationship.
It went unmentioned in our family, but my father always felt that he should not have had to accept aid, as a strong young man should be able to take care of his family. That was a duty. I was dimly aware of all of this, but as long as I had clothes, food and a warm place to live, the effect on a twelve-year-old was minimal.
There were times when I went food shopping with my grandmother that I was aware of how poor my parents were. I remember my grandmother saying in a grocery store, “Put this on Ruth’s bill. We’ll pay it next week.”
Despite the economic misery, everyone knew life goes on, things would get better and we did indeed have much to be thankful for. We were right, of course. Things did get better.
While things were getting better, we also won a pretty big war.
Perhaps we will be good to each other in the coming second—possibly great—depression. There should be a way to destroy the greedy before they get us into this mess.
As a last note, do you know of any one person who is worth $20,000 per week? That’s only a little more than a million dollars a year.
Give me a name. Maybe Einstein.

Thanksgiving
When you say Thanksgiving, I bring up a mental picture drawn sometime in the mid-1930s at my Grandmother Ida Tobin’s dining room table. It’s a big table, expanded with inserts to fill the dining room. The tablecloth and napkins are white starched linen. The napkins are big enough to serve as bibs for small kids. There are no paper napkins, ever.
There is a large sideboard and a china closet. Around the room near the ceiling runs a knickknack shelf filled with—what else? Knickknacks. The table is set with real English china and some French, almost paper-thin cups. I still have some of the French Havilland ware china cups, so delicate I worry about a fracture from hot liquid. But, they have held up for more than 100 years, which beats me by a few decades.
Incongruously, there was a Frigidaire with the condenser on the top in one corner of the dining room, simply because there was no room in the tiny kitchen. This was one of the first refrigerators in the neighborhood as I recall. Most of us still used ice. All of my ideals for the perfect Thanksgiving are built around this house, this family and this table.
Many years later, when all the older family members were gone, I somehow acquired the dining room table. Several years ago it became surplus, but not wanting to lose sight of it, that table now resides in the home of friends in Diorite. That home, also, is a warm welcoming place where good meals are served and I think the table is happy there.
My grandparents’ house was a strange mixture of outdated, overstuffed and overused furniture, which probably had never been in really good taste. Yet, for daily use, there was some of the finest cut glass, china and silver. If there was any art on the walls, I cannot recall what it was.
There was a very good upright piano, a fine Victrola windup record player and some lamps of distinction. I think early in their marriage my grandfather traveled some and bought the good items. The beautiful china and glass did not go with the house, nor did it go with Ida’s education and interests.
I think this all went with my grandfather’s idea and hope for a fashionable home, properly outfitted. But something went wrong in that marriage and this goal was never achieved.
Ida Beaudette was a Champion girl of French-Canadian bloodlines, with some Indian heritage. I don’t know how far her education went, but she had been sent to learn seamstress work when she was twelve, the family story said. (Her sewing skill saved me from trouble at home several times by a wonderful ability to repair a tear in clothing so that it appeared as new.)
Early photos show a very beautiful young woman and my guess is this was the attraction for John Tobin.
John Tobin’s father was one of the early settlers of Marquette in the 1860s or 1870s. He had been an alderman in the city (in charge of the water department at one point) and an Irish Catholic who left the Church when a Slovenian bishop (Vertin) was appointed.
Bishop Vertin dismissed a popular Irish priest at the Cathedral. Some say, but there is no proof, that some of the Irish were responsible for the fire that badly damaged St. Peter on October 2, 1879.
My grandmother’s kitchen was so small there was, in fact, no room for a second person. I think she liked this condition, for it kept anyone else from messing up her cooking.
For a woman with no formal training, her cooking specialties were everything. I have reviewed in detail everything I know about how she did things in the kitchen to try to determine why she was so good. The answer is I don’t know.
First, she never cooked without a hat. This was a regular street hat, not something special. It might have been the first chef’s hat in Marquette. Second, and perhaps the real reason her cooking turned out so well, time after time, she had an instinctive knowledge of mise en place, the French cooking rule of everything at its place.
She never began a recipe without knowing the location of every ingredient and every needed utensil. People who instinctively do this tend to be good cooks because they can concentrate where concentration is needed—on the recipe.
An expansion of the mise en place considers that the cook knows from study or instinctively just what the recipe will look like when completed and how it will look as each phase is reached.
My grandmother’s Thanksgiving turkey was a work of art. Its skin was brown and crisp. In order to keep the breast meat moist and tender, she placed two or three thick strips of bacon across the breast so the fat would seep into the white meat.
These were removed midway in the cooking, and getting one to eat was a treat. The bird was coated by hand with softened butter, also. This was a butter family, except for one period when money must have been very short, because we used margarine. But only for one time—it was awful then and it’s awful now.
Turkeys of this period had a quite different taste from the monsters we’ve created today. The breast was smaller, but a great deal tastier. I am guessing a fair taste comparison might be the wild turkey of today.
The turkey stuffing was always oyster dressing. During the holidays, Labonte’s food store on the corner of Third and Prospect streets—where high quality goods were sold—imported shucked oysters in bulk from Baltimore. The gallon cans were green with gold printing on them. Making the dressing was a task, and the only person I have ever met who did it so carefully was my grandmother.
First, one cannot get the bread today. It was whole wheat from Marquette Baking Company on Third Street. I don’t know where one could get the same kind of bread today.
It had a light crust and a coarse crumb. Four or five slices were taken, placed under running warm water and compressed into a wet ball. But first the crusts were removed. Several of these were put into a heavy frying pan, usually cast iron, along with some sautéed chopped onions and about a half pound of butter.
With the heat on medium low, an old butcher knife was used to chop the bread into crumbs as they toasted in the butter. This takes a very long time and a very tired hand to do it right.
When enough dressing was made, oysters were run through a grinder, using the coarse wheel, and they were mixed into the dressing by hand. Such an aroma, such a taste.
The menu always included mashed potatoes with lots of butter and cream, mashed sweet rutabagas with some nutmeg and butter. Homemade apple sauce, sweet carrots with butter and mint leaves.
In the late summer, we took green tomatoes from the garden, wrapped them in newspaper and put them away in a cool, dark place. It was a rare Thanksgiving that we did not have sliced red tomatoes.
The meal always included a fat baked potato for my grandfather, who kneaded the hot potato with his napkin before he broke it in half. His rule was that a potato cut with a knife was ruined. No, I don’t know where this came from.
Dessert was mincemeat pie, apple pie and ice-cream, often homemade.
A prayer was said before the meal (by everyone except my grumpy grandfather), and after the meal, a general feeling of comfort and happiness was present.
We were thankful for each other, thankful for the food, the warm house, one could flip a switch and have light, turn a faucet handle and have good clean drinking water, the doctor and hospital were only five blocks distance should we need services.
In the midst of a truly terrible economic time, we were happy with simple things…and we survived, all of us.
Happy Thanksgiving.
—Don Curto

Great Literature, lost by a single vote
It is not wise to think that a single vote is only of marginal importance.
This is a true story and the ramifications of the loss are enough to make me sad, even at this distance.
In 1947, I was part of a small group which established the first postwar literary magazine, Perspectives, at the University of Michigan.
It was published with the approval of the Board in Control of Student Publications, just as was the Michigan Daily, one of the nation’s great student newspapers.
I cannot remember how many issues of Perspectives were published, but some of the stories were a little bit racy for this period. I think the magazine had approval of five of the nine members of the board, which consisted of five professors and four students. The student members were elected by the student body.
Of the two students running for the board, one was against the magazine and one was in favor; we needed this one student to keep the five-to-four balance.
My friend Don Thornbury and I were on our way to vote with our student ID cards. There was a short line at the diagonal voting booth, so we said we would vote later.
But the Pretzel Bell, beer and camaraderie were too much and we never voted.
You know the rest: the “bad” student won by one vote. Not long afterward, the magazine was dead.
Because of one vote, how many potentially great writers never got that important first publication chance?
—Don Curto

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to vote on November 4. Marquette Monthly published a local voter guide in last month’s issue, which is available online, along with the statewide League of Women Voters Guide, at www.mmnow.com 1930s, a period of great trauma in the world, in the country and in Marquette. The Depression (we had not yet named it Great) was five years old, with the economy not much improved. People in Marquette were suffering.
My father had just gone back to work on the DSS&A railroad after being out of work for two years and eleven months. He had worked for a short time for Works Progress Administration (WPA) and for a company ripping up the streetcar rails. For this job, he got $16 per week.
Later we had a macabre joke that the rails were sent to Japan so they could make bullets and shoot them back at us. It seems a shame now that the Marquette Street Railway system has gone. It would be a boon in these times.
There was almost no government aid for families, and we depended a great deal on each other. Families and friends were never more important. We survived with the help of my grandparents. However, no matter how graciously help was given from one part of the family to another, there was a kind of sad “depression humiliation” tending to cloud the relationship.
It went unmentioned in our family, but my father always felt that he should not have had to accept aid, as a strong young man should be able to take care of his family. That was a duty. I was dimly aware of all of this, but as long as I had clothes, food and a warm place to live, the effect on a twelve-year-old was minimal.
There were times when I went food shopping with my grandmother that I was aware of how poor my parents were. I remember my grandmother saying in a grocery store, “Put this on Ruth’s bill. We’ll pay it next week.”
Despite the economic misery, everyone knew life goes on, things would get better and we did indeed have much to be thankful for. We were right, of course. Things did get better.
While things were getting better, we also won a pretty big war.
Perhaps we will be good to each other in the coming second—possibly great—depression. There should be a way to destroy the greedy before they get us into this mess.
As a last note, do you know of any one person who is worth $20,000 per week? That’s only a little more than a million dollars a year.
Give me a name. Maybe Einstein.

Thanksgiving
When you say Thanksgiving, I bring up a mental picture drawn sometime in the mid-1930s at my Grandmother Ida Tobin’s dining room table. It’s a big table, expanded with inserts to fill the dining room. The tablecloth and napkins are white starched linen. The napkins are big enough to serve as bibs for small kids. There are no paper napkins, ever.
There is a large sideboard and a china closet. Around the room near the ceiling runs a knickknack shelf filled with—what else? Knickknacks. The table is set with real English china and some French, almost paper-thin cups. I still have some of the French Havilland ware china cups, so delicate I worry about a fracture from hot liquid. But, they have held up for more than 100 years, which beats me by a few decades.
Incongruously, there was a Frigidaire with the condenser on the top in one corner of the dining room, simply because there was no room in the tiny kitchen. This was one of the first refrigerators in the neighborhood as I recall. Most of us still used ice. All of my ideals for the perfect Thanksgiving are built around this house, this family and this table.
Many years later, when all the older family members were gone, I somehow acquired the dining room table. Several years ago it became surplus, but not wanting to lose sight of it, that table now resides in the home of friends in Diorite. That home, also, is a warm welcoming place where good meals are served and I think the table is happy there.
My grandparents’ house was a strange mixture of outdated, overstuffed and overused furniture, which probably had never been in really good taste. Yet, for daily use, there was some of the finest cut glass, china and silver. If there was any art on the walls, I cannot recall what it was.
There was a very good upright piano, a fine Victrola windup record player and some lamps of distinction. I think early in their marriage my grandfather traveled some and bought the good items. The beautiful china and glass did not go with the house, nor did it go with Ida’s education and interests.
I think this all went with my grandfather’s idea and hope for a fashionable home, properly outfitted. But something went wrong in that marriage and this goal was never achieved.
Ida Beaudette was a Champion girl of French-Canadian bloodlines, with some Indian heritage. I don’t know how far her education went, but she had been sent to learn seamstress work when she was twelve, the family story said. (Her sewing skill saved me from trouble at home several times by a wonderful ability to repair a tear in clothing so that it appeared as new.)
Early photos show a very beautiful young woman and my guess is this was the attraction for John Tobin.
John Tobin’s father was one of the early settlers of Marquette in the 1860s or 1870s. He had been an alderman in the city (in charge of the water department at one point) and an Irish Catholic who left the Church when a Slovenian bishop (Vertin) was appointed.
Bishop Vertin dismissed a popular Irish priest at the Cathedral. Some say, but there is no proof, that some of the Irish were responsible for the fire that badly damaged St. Peter on October 2, 1879.
My grandmother’s kitchen was so small there was, in fact, no room for a second person. I think she liked this condition, for it kept anyone else from messing up her cooking.
For a woman with no formal training, her cooking specialties were everything. I have reviewed in detail everything I know about how she did things in the kitchen to try to determine why she was so good. The answer is I don’t know.
First, she never cooked without a hat. This was a regular street hat, not something special. It might have been the first chef’s hat in Marquette. Second, and perhaps the real reason her cooking turned out so well, time after time, she had an instinctive knowledge of mise en place, the French cooking rule of everything at its place.
She never began a recipe without knowing the location of every ingredient and every needed utensil. People who instinctively do this tend to be good cooks because they can concentrate where concentration is needed—on the recipe.
An expansion of the mise en place considers that the cook knows from study or instinctively just what the recipe will look like when completed and how it will look as each phase is reached.
My grandmother’s Thanksgiving turkey was a work of art. Its skin was brown and crisp. In order to keep the breast meat moist and tender, she placed two or three thick strips of bacon across the breast so the fat would seep into the white meat.
These were removed midway in the cooking, and getting one to eat was a treat. The bird was coated by hand with softened butter, also. This was a butter family, except for one period when money must have been very short, because we used margarine. But only for one time—it was awful then and it’s awful now.
Turkeys of this period had a quite different taste from the monsters we’ve created today. The breast was smaller, but a great deal tastier. I am guessing a fair taste comparison might be the wild turkey of today.
The turkey stuffing was always oyster dressing. During the holidays, Labonte’s food store on the corner of Third and Prospect streets—where high quality goods were sold—imported shucked oysters in bulk from Baltimore. The gallon cans were green with gold printing on them. Making the dressing was a task, and the only person I have ever met who did it so carefully was my grandmother.
First, one cannot get the bread today. It was whole wheat from Marquette Baking Company on Third Street. I don’t know where one could get the same kind of bread today.
It had a light crust and a coarse crumb. Four or five slices were taken, placed under running warm water and compressed into a wet ball. But first the crusts were removed. Several of these were put into a heavy frying pan, usually cast iron, along with some sautéed chopped onions and about a half pound of butter.
With the heat on medium low, an old butcher knife was used to chop the bread into crumbs as they toasted in the butter. This takes a very long time and a very tired hand to do it right.
When enough dressing was made, oysters were run through a grinder, using the coarse wheel, and they were mixed into the dressing by hand. Such an aroma, such a taste.
The menu always included mashed potatoes with lots of butter and cream, mashed sweet rutabagas with some nutmeg and butter. Homemade apple sauce, sweet carrots with butter and mint leaves.
In the late summer, we took green tomatoes from the garden, wrapped them in newspaper and put them away in a cool, dark place. It was a rare Thanksgiving that we did not have sliced red tomatoes.
The meal always included a fat baked potato for my grandfather, who kneaded the hot potato with his napkin before he broke it in half. His rule was that a potato cut with a knife was ruined. No, I don’t know where this came from.
Dessert was mincemeat pie, apple pie and ice-cream, often homemade.
A prayer was said before the meal (by everyone except my grumpy grandfather), and after the meal, a general feeling of comfort and happiness was present.
We were thankful for each other, thankful for the food, the warm house, one could flip a switch and have light, turn a faucet handle and have good clean drinking water, the doctor and hospital were only five blocks distance should we need services.
In the midst of a truly terrible economic time, we were happy with simple things…and we survived, all of us.
Happy Thanksgiving.
—Don Curto

Great Literature, lost by a single vote
It is not wise to think that a single vote is only of marginal importance.
This is a true story and the ramifications of the loss are enough to make me sad, even at this distance.
In 1947, I was part of a small group which established the first postwar literary magazine, Perspectives, at the University of Michigan.
It was published with the approval of the Board in Control of Student Publications, just as was the Michigan Daily, one of the nation’s great student newspapers.
I cannot remember how many issues of Perspectives were published, but some of the stories were a little bit racy for this period. I think the magazine had approval of five of the nine members of the board, which consisted of five professors and four students. The student members were elected by the student body.
Of the two students running for the board, one was against the magazine and one was in favor; we needed this one student to keep the five-to-four balance.
My friend Don Thornbury and I were on our way to vote with our student ID cards. There was a short line at the diagonal voting booth, so we said we would vote later.
But the Pretzel Bell, beer and camaraderie were too much and we never voted.
You know the rest: the “bad” student won by one vote. Not long afterward, the magazine was dead.
Because of one vote, how many potentially great writers never got that important first publication chance?
—Don Curto

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to vote on November 4. Marquette Monthly published a local voter guide in last month’s issue, which is available online, along with the statewide League of Women Voters Guide, at www.mmnow.com

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