Take me back to bologna and ketchup

Every once in a while, it’s good to go back to your childhood and remember what it was like.

For me, that’s bologna and ketchup.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound too appealing, but bologna played a big part of my childhood. It’s cheap. It’s meat. (Does it ever go bad?) It’s the most unoffensive meat available, but for high-class eaters can be looked down upon as if it’s the deli version of Spam. Just about.

I was at my daughter’s house, and they had some bologna in the fridge. I haven’t eaten it in years, and so I committed myself to trying my childhood sandwich once before I left.

So I got two slices of white bread. (You can’t eat bologna on sophisticated bread. You need your standard, never-molding, soft as cotton, white as snow bread. The kind that makes you wonder how they ever made it in the first place.) I put ketchup on both sides of the bread, added two slices of bologna, put it together, and bit in.

It was everything that a bologna sandwich was meant to be. A money-saving, average-tasting, soft and easily digestible sandwich which would get me through the lunch room and back home without a hungry stomach. It worked.

It became an exercise in remembering how life used to work. In my day, I always brought my lunch to school. The bologna sandwich was the standard, but it would vary at times between the Velveeta sandwich (white bread and Velveeta) and peanut butter and jelly. Lunches were simple. Cheap. Efficient. Nothing fancy. That was out of necessity as we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. But I was also such a picky eater that I probably wouldn’t have wanted anything other than bologna.

It’s good to remember where we all came from – the sacrifices made – the pennies pinched – the love and care given to such a simple sandwich.

My kids have had it better than bologna sandwiches (on a variety and taste level), but can anyone ever beat a bologna sandwich for sentimentality?

I’m thinking not.

I used to eat out only once a year.

In my last post, I connected my past to the silly memories of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the course of my life. Those nostalgic Big Mac memories made me think of another fast-food chain which I loved for a very special reason. It’s name was Winky’s, and I ate there once a year. Here’s the story:

My parents always had a huge garden. When all of us kids were young, our big yard, where we played baseball, was only half the size of the garden, which my parents, especially my dad, cultivated to perfection. I always loved the years he would line the whole bottom side of it with tall majestic sunflowers. It was always in the running as garden of the year in our little neighborhood.

By mid-July the corn would be chest high and a mere few weeks away from harvest. By that time we already had many other vegetable seasons which had come and gone. My mother would spend mid-summer to early autumn canning everything from tomatoes to pickles to beets to beans. She would freeze corn and berries and would make loads of jam and sandwich spread. We had a fruit cellar stocked year round with home grown produce including onions and potatoes that would last until spring.

With home production at this scale, it is little wonder that we never ate out at a restaurant. I mean never. Ever. Except once a year. That’s it. Once a year. Are my kids reading this? Remember this the next time you are less than enthusiastic about heading out to eat, OK?

Once a year. What a magical day it was – the last day of school.

On that early June day, we would rush home with a summer’s worth of expectations in our heads. I couldn’t wait to ride bikes through the woods, play army with my friends, hit the ball, play in the creek, and just be a boy.

And the kickoff to each summer was when my dad would pile us in the car after leaving all books at school and drive us to the promised land – Winky’s!

Winky’s was a fast-food hamburger joint only in the Pittsburgh area. It was modeled after McDonald’s back in the 1960s and grew to be a popular local brand until it went bankrupt in 1982.

All six of us would trudge up to the counter and order our burgers, and since we didn’t do eating out very well, we would take our burgers to go and sit in the car and eat them down. I can still smell the food – especially the steamed buns and the glistening hot fries. It was magic in my hand and went down much too easily.

When finished, I would crumble the wrapper in my hand and say goodbye to my precious evening out that would come again in 365 days.

Once Winky’s was gone, we migrated to McDonald’s but for some reason it was never the same. I had grown up. I had a little income from working here and there. I had friends who had cars. We would go out and stop at McDonald’s or other places to eat. I got my driver’s license which enabled me to have more freedom on my own. Frequency lessens the special nature of things which touch us, and so too I became a mindless teen not really understanding how fortunate I was when I could only eat out once a year.

Now that I’m a father, I realize how different a life my kids have had compared to how I was raised. They have eaten out thousands of times in their young lives, a thousand times more than my parents have eaten out in their entire lives.

Times change, but I do wish I could have a large garden full of vegetables and a yearly trip to Winky’s. Now that would be something.