Eating Your Way Through Depression

The first time my late grandmother Nettie Rukavina visited us on Prince Edward Island — I think it was in 1997 — we took her to North Rustico for a lobster supper.

At the entrance to Fisherman’s Wharf Lobster Suppers in North Rustico you select three or four entree options — lobsters of several sizes, scallops, steak and so on — and pay for your supper in advance, as most everything else is included in one price.

When Nettie saw that I was about to hand over $20.00 a person to eat supper, she was shocked: “$20.00 each for supper,” she exclaimed. And then she told us the story about how when she was a waitress at the Hoito in 1937 you could get a complete meal for 25 cents.

Once we got inside and seated, Nettie ate like a wolf, especially when it came to the desserts. If memory serves, she had a rum ball, a piece of pie, some squares and some ice cream. And perhaps a piece of black forest cake. There was no way, with $20.00 already spent and an “open bar,” so to speak, that she was going to leave food left uneaten.

There are many theories for why we North Americans are, as a group, so overweight. You hear talk of the transition from nomadic hunter-gather to sedentary suburbanite and how it’s changed our digestive system. You hear about the rice diet of our foreign cousins. Or the how the french drink so much wine.

But what seldom gets mentioned is the affect that the Great Depression of the 1930s had on our food consciousness.

Nettie wasn’t packing away the desserts at the Lobster Supper because she was hungry; she was eating because there was food on the table, and when there’s food on the table, you don’t walk away. Like squirrels in the fall, you gorge in times of plenty so that, in theory, you’ll be carried through times of scarcity.

This doesn’t play out in nutritional reality, I don’t think. But some lessons are very hard to unlearn. And those same lessons do pretty well at leaping through the generation gaps too.

This morning, having half a day to kill while waiting for brother Johnny to arrive and having lots of work to do, I ordered breakfast in at the hotel. As is the case at most hotels anywhere, the breakfast was horribly over-priced — $15 for some granola, a fresh fruit plate, a couple of sticky buns, and a glass of apple juice.

I’ve been eating very conservatively for the past month, battling a gastric ulcer in a toe to toe death match every day. So I knew enough to know that eating a sticky bun would probably be a Bad Thing on several fronts. Besides which, after fruit and granola and juice, I wasn’t actually hungry.

Nonetheless, it took considerable effort to leave the five dollar sticky buns on the plate. This wasn’t about sugar craving, or a need for carbohydrates. It was about feeling bad about food “going to waste.”

The irony in this is that as part a family that has, due in no small part to the sacrifices of my grandmother, achieved the sort of wealth that allows one to order over-priced sticky buns in the first place, could there be any greater statement that “the depression is over” than simply walking away?

Which is what I did.

I’m sending that sticky bun up to heaven, Nettie. Enjoy it.


Michel's picture
Michel on February 11, 2003 - 11:52 Permalink

My father has that exact same ‘eating disorder’ your grandmother had. Born in southern Italy in 1942, fled the poverty there when he was 17, worked hard all his life (still does), he can never leave anything edible on the tabel, fearing it might get thrown away.

I, however, have not inherited this behaviour, as I am more than happy to throw out perfectly good food that I don’t feel like.

Alan's picture
Alan on February 11, 2003 - 13:11 Permalink

My folks have the opposite. They had rationing in the UK from 1939 and 1956 and once they emigrated to Canada they kept it up. After a day at high school, I would always go to friends houses for a snack rather than take them to mine as my fridge tended to contain two eggs, half a jar of chutney and worchestershire sauce. Weetabix and tea in the cupboard. The possibilities were endless.