Whenever I get calls or emails from customers with questions, issues, etc., I always ask; “how did find us and what were you looking for?” This question invariably sparks a conversation about the deficiencies in the American food supply and or various issues that nearly everyone is dealing with related to diet.
These conversations were interesting enough for me to consider profiling our customers and delving a little deeper into the question of “how did you find us and what were you looking for.”
To begin this series, I spoke with my father, George Michael. In May, George celebrated his 100 birthday – an amazing accomplishment for anyone but sadly diminished by the corona-virus pandemic that kept us from a planned visit. To make up for that, we’ve been on the phone quite a bit and I have probed him for his thoughts on food and its evolution over his lifetime.
George was born in 1920 in Columbus, Ohio. When asked how food has changed, George explained that, his earliest memory of food was the icebox – a metal clad box that had two openings. One door on the inside of the house and one door to the outside. The outside door was for the ice man to lay in a 50 pound slab of ice.
That all changed in 1927 when my grandparents bought an electric fridge – a major advancement in home appliances and something that heralded the coming revolution in what food Americans could buy and keep fresh. And it coincided with a major shift in how Americans bought food. George remembers the milk man leaving glass bottles of whole milk with cream on top left on the front porch. “Nobody worried back then if the milk froze because the little paper caps were designed to pop off in the event of a freeze so the glass wouldn’t burst.”
Progress lurched ahead in 1933 when “Big Bear” opened one of the first modern supermarkets in the country just a few miles from my dad’s boyhood home. “You can’t imagine what it was like to see so many items on the shelves and the store was huge,” he said.
I myself can remember that store, still in business when I was kid, because it was converted from a roller skating rink and the wood floors and expansive beamed ceiling put you in mind of marathon skates and a different era. Sadly, the once prosperous and innovative Big Bear chain was picked clean by a wake of leveraged buy out vultures who ran amok in the 1980s. The new owners saddled the chain with massive debt, a situation it struggled with for years until it was ultimately sold off for its real estate value.
When World War Two broke out, George was a student at the Ohio State University and had wisely joined ROTC. That got him a commission as a first lieutenant serving in quartermasters (supply) when many of his high school buddies were shipped off into the infantry. George commanded a rear guard unit but still saw action as part of the Fifth Army as it pushed thru North Africa, Sicily and the liberation of Rome - June 4th, 1944 - 76 years ago today.
Back home, George married Nancy, who had also graduated from Ohio State, earning a degree in home economics. The two built the house that George still lives in to this day, and together they raised three kids. I came along last and was – so I’m told - the one that got away with everything.
Mom was a nutritious minded meal planner on a tight budget. She clipped scads of coupons and collected S&H green stamps so we kids could fill reams of books and redeem them for school supplies and refrigerator magnets.
George reminded me that in the seventies mom bought into the generic food movement to save money and I remember with anguish the day we replaced Kellogg’s frosted flakes with a plain white box and bold black printing. “The quality was not quite as good,” George admitted.
“They reminded me of military K rations.” Apparently, we kids protested and they eventually disappeared from our house and store shelves and faded into a never ending list of food fads that have come and gone.
George’s advice for long life is moderation and to stay active. He was a distance swimmer much of his life and continued to mow the lawn into his 90’s. A widower now for forty years, George has few, if any, contemporaries left to commiserate with but always makes new friends with every outing he undertakes. Before the virus, he made it a point to mingle at wine tastings at the neighborhood Giant Eagle and he hopes he can get back to that one day soon. He relishes a good night sleep, and says he’s looking forward to bing cherries just coming into season. Of the current situation he says, “I hate to say it, Doug, but the country is in one big mess right now.” I agreed and asked if he held any hope for the future. George said, “Yes, it will get better. I am absolutely sure of that.”
And I think I'll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.
Cartoon snippets by Doug
Portrait of George by Billie Michael - https://www.billiemichael.com