Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Travels Down Memory Lane vs. Diving Down the Rabbit Hole

My trip down memory lane began innocently enough. It was an afternoon of intense work at the computer, where you don’t want to stop what you’re doing for a full break, but instead “lunch” can be a snack from whatever is in the fridge. Peering into the fridge, I scored a yogurt, a pre-saved iced tea and a banana from the counter, so back to work at the computer I went.

If you know me well, you are laughing at me for two reasons, first because I don’t cook, and second because I call my ice box a “fridge,” that is when I’m not calling it an ice box. I rarely use the word refrigerator; mine is in good standing with AARP. Buddy’s Brazos Appliances really does sell quality products. Twenty-one years and holding—thank you Hotpoint. And from there…off I went, diving down a rabbit hole...or two.

Hotpoint…that brand has been around almost as long as my old Sears Kenmore “Commander” tank vacuum. More on that later. Remember the old Hotpoint TV commercials during the very earliest days of tv spots? Remember who was Happy Hotpoint?

Here’s Happy Hotpoint herself, the dancing elf of all appliances, Mary Tyler Moore, in her earliest role of national prominence. From there, her dancing skills would find uses throughout the rest of her acting career as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards.

Safely sliding down the rabbit hole, I remember a great snack I used to enjoy as a child, when I went to see my Great Aunt Emma.

Known for her ability to save, save, and save some more, she lived a superbly careful life without debt as an early widow who had no college education or prior work experience before marrying my Uncle Mitchell, a painter by trade. She used her skills as a seamstress to find a job at the St. Anthony Hotel (back then, they hand-repaired linens and uniforms, etc.) After we picked her up from work on Saturday, we’d go for brunch at Sea Island in San Antonio, a favorite place that was as good as it was affordable.

Then, we’d go to Kresge, over in North Star Mall, to stock up on a few items for the week that she’d select. As though it was 55 years ago all over again, there would be a Dak canned ham, at the time running for about $1.88. At home she already had the magic combo awaiting me for my evening snack as I watched TV and all the grownups talked and chatted in the kitchen.

Where was I going with this? Oh, the Dak canned ham. Ah yes. So, this fine product came to us from Denmark, and the vacuum sealed container could be breached using the small aluminum key that was affixed to the outside of the container. I felt very grown up at age eight, when Great Aunt Emma allowed me to be the key-bearer and open the ham. Adults have a wonderful habit of encouraging children and saying, “Good job!” to affirm the contribution of the youngsters as they make progress in household chores.

The menu was Uneeda Biscuits, Falfurrias Sweet Cream Butter, Homemade bread and butter pickles, and ice water. If you’ve never dined this high on the hog before, allow me to explain what you missed. Uneeda biscuits were an early offering of the National Biscuit Company, eventually Nabisco.

Uneeda biscuits had substance, thickness, proper taste, and just a tad of salt (although they sold the unsalted version as well). Their thickness is perfect because if you put a small amount of butter on a knife and apply it to a standard premium saltine cracker, the pressure will break it. Maybe that’s too much fuss over a cracker, but if you never had one…To this day I have not been able to find anything that comes close.

Falfurrias butter came from Falfurrias, Texas, and they're a Texas product since 1909, and it used to come in more spreadable tubs, but at least the butter sticks are still available today. They focused their marketing all over Texas, Louisiana, and into Oklahoma, and they have a tremendous market for their irresistable, tasty product.

The pickles were from a kitchen of a lady down the hall from my great aunt, as she lived in the apartment complex of rooms over the old Pep Boys garage downtown, with close proximity to take the bus to and from work. If her pickles ran out, Vlasic's bread-and-butter pickles would be great, or Del Monte sweet gherkins. Mmm. For those of you who enjoyed buying a dill pickle at the theatres to last you the entire movie, God bless you, but I am not in that group. At home, our popcorn was Jiffy Pop or made in our own 5-quart pan the hard way (not-so-jiffy). Premicrowaves, we all did just fine, I think.

The Dak ham purchase at Kresge’s in the Mall also started another rabbit trail…Kresge’s was the same as the Kress stores in various malls across San Antonio, if memory serves, and then ultimately S. S. Kresge founded K-Mart and after inventing the blue light special, off and running they went for many years. Then, a little business called Fed Mart opened in San Antonio and one even found its way to College Station.

By 1974, College Station’s property was being seen as valuable so a California investor managed a good deal price on the property and built a bowling alley there and a strip center for various other businesses. Once it was confirmed that President George H. W. Bush (41) would be bringing a Presidential Library to town, the bowling alley had gone kaput, and was sitting there essentially vacant. Someone had the bright idea of using that property as a storage facility for the materials that could be transported from DC up here until the library was actually constructed, again if memory serves. Nice donation of vacant property, too.

Once the Library was up and running eventually the property was sold and now Republic Steakhouse and Primrose Path now occupy the space, featuring tapas, wine and cocktails. I felt like I was from Hooterville when I asked restaurant expert Mike Green what a tapas was…or were…and he kindly said, “tapas, you know, tapas, little items you get to eat along with drinking your wine and cocktails.” I said, “Oh, snacks. I get it, snacks.” Of course the word in Spanish means small plates…it’s sophisticated cuisine. I’ll have to confess that I’m new to tapas and I have yet to patronize the place, although I’m delighted to have many friends who rave about the ambiance. Another rabbit hole, oops.

Now, I got tremendous affirmation from my mother for my vacuuming skills, and frankly, I was worth every amount praise she could muster, because my dad was responsible for the purchase and delivery of the Kenmore “Commander” horizontal canister vacuum. There were two different hose attachments (for the couch and other chairs), a brush attachment (for the curtains), and then the major vacuum piece itself with the rollers for the floors.

The Kenmore Commander weighed about 40 lbs all told, and at the time, I weighed right at 60 lbs, give or take a few. I lugged that thing all through the house, wanting to contribute to housework because I knew Mom worked hard from 8 to 5 and I wanted to make her to-do list shrink as much as I could. I also got a little stepstool and did the dishes each night, and foreshadowing a future interest in chemistry, I started exploring mixing different sink cleansers in the effort to have the most sparkling sink in the city. No, I didn't have any gaseous or toxic accidents. Guess I really was born to be a chemist. Sort of.

I blush at my early aspirations for greatness, but you have to dream big when you’re a kid if you want to make something out of yourself in this lifetime. Morning breakfast was a good place to start. Butter Krust bread was a hit in my home, and the billboard on Broadway Ave. gave me a reason to smile.

A schoolmate of mine about five years ahead of me was the model young lady for the famous character they used for years. The adorable blonde in the gingham dress was my friend, and her inside was as beautiful as her outside is. She and all four of her siblings had the most exquisite mother who could easily make Princess Grace look dowdy. Fortunately, all the children resembled their mom.

Butter Krust also gave out plentiful amounts of new #2 specially coated, smooth pencils and brown paper bookcovers to all of us, and a bakery tour each year kept all of us happy.

San Antonio was also home to Lone Star Brewery and Pearl Brewery, and schoolchildren loved being able to take the tour of the brewery, not with the hops and the process in mind, but for the complimentary root beer at the end of the tour. Just like Brenham's little Blue Bell Creamery not 30 miles away from here.

Things we remember. In the 1960s, a fellow graduate of my school became CEO of the brewery. Today, Pearl Brewery has been refashioned into a destination center with fabulous restaurants and a fun venue, Jazz, TX, where you can hear the best in live jazz. Word to the wise: Look for the Steve Soares Trio at least once a month at Jazz, TX, as the leader is Doris, my high school classmate's, husband.

Back to breakfast. There was Carnation Instant Breakfast for those on the run, Eggo ("Let go my Eggo!") Waffles, and much later down the road, Kellogg's Pop Tarts. Tang also made a snappy breakfast drink. Malt-O-Meal was a solid breakfast on a cold morning, too.

Afternoon snacks could be milk with Nesquick powder stirred in. Strawberry was a go-to flavor for me.

Speaking of dairy delights, Knowlton Milk was still delivered to the house in the 60s and a dear relative of mine used to drive one of the trucks. The Knowlton Creamery was also down the street from our school.

Our unique school that ran from grades 1-12 (later, K-12) was a series of old Victorian homes in San Antonio's historic district, where they had been remade into classrooms. Many of us had no idea what other school rooms looked like for years until it was time for driver's ed. We were in the middle of downtown San Antonio and so almost all of us were driven to school, and many took one of several school parents' station wagons to arrive for the day. Others would ride the city buses each day. One rarely thought at the time about the sacrifices our parents made back then to afford for us to obtain a special educational experience. I did, but I had plenty of time to think and reflect on "old days." Even back then, I enjoyed the concept of reminiscing.

One other special evening treat might be a scoop of ice cream from the Carnation Ice Cream Shop on San Pedro. They had more than 50 flavors, advertising that fact if only to irritate Baskin Robbins. There was a "Tower of the Americas" sundae, named in time for the Hemisfair '68 year-long San Antonio celebration. The sundae had 48 scoops of ice cream, syrups, whipped cream, and cherries. It was pricey back then even, probably about $20 or more, but if you could eat the whole thing, it was free to you. I only had one classmate who won their sundae that way and his metabolism caused him to gain zero pounds after that one episode, or ever, in his lifetime. Doubt he ate it a second time.

As I grew older, I recall the joy of discovering General Foods Instant Flavored Coffees—what a joy. Just fill your tea kettle with water and heat until it sings and then pour your cup and add two teaspoons of the powdered mix and presto, a delightful, tasty beverage to enjoy.

Now, what’s the perfect treat to go with?

Mom’s and my favorite tapas was 2 Stella D’oro cookies. Remember those? With the colors of the flag of Italy atop the packaging, each pack had 10 or 12 cookies and for $2.19 at Handy-Andy, you couldn’t beat them! I was Skyping with a dear friend the other day, lamenting that I couldn't find any of these "old-timey" cookies I used to love. She remembered them, when I said their name aloud! I brightened up. Someone remembered the same cookie I did! Then she countered with, "I never liked them." All I could do was laugh for three minutes. It wasn't a buzz-kill but her comedic time was perfect. Meanwhile...

I was delighted to see that Amazon could get them for me, especially since I have not seen them in any local grocery stores in at least 10 years. This time, they’re about $6.00 per package, but you can’t beat a walk down memory lane, so what the hey?

Speaking of grocery stores, I certainly do miss the trading stamps that a store would bonus for having grocery brand loyalty and frequency of shopping. Remember double stamp day? I don’t know where you grew up but we had TV stamps, the abbreviation for Top Value at Handy-Andy, then Texas Gold for HEB, and S&H Green Stamps for Piggly-Wiggly and selected Sinclair Shamrock gas stations (and you’d get a lovely Libbey glass and stamps with your gas that they pumped for you).

The duty of collecting stamps and pasting them in the various books and saving/organizing those books to keep an eye on the catalog to see what might be a future worthy prize to redeem was always fun. I won’t say that they exclusive items, but they certainly were not junk either.

Back to the road trip and the little Styrofoam ice chest for $1.99 or $.99 if there was a sale at the store, the reason you filled up your coolers with your own snacks was to avoid some of the temptations from the road. Take for example, Stuckey’s. Road trips with my grandmother and Aunt Sharon going from San Antonio to Houston or Galveston were not complete without Grandma reading each sign Stuckey’s had posted along the old highway every. darned. mile.

Not until I saw Billy Crystal and the actor who played his father in “Forget Paris” could I appreciate that sometimes people, when they are looking for something to say as a space filler, choose to read billboard or recite familiar jingles (“You asked for it, you got it, Toyota.”) and it’s quite charming, particularly when they’re no longer with you and you want to find something to recall to make you smile again.

Which reminds me…we took Grandma to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor when she and Aunt Sharon came to town, and they had two entertainers: Bob on the player piano and Curly on the banjo. Saturday nights would assure you a good affordable pizza, free refills on sodas and music courtesy and Bob and Curly.

Sometimes the patrons enjoyed singing and Bob and Curly would back them (not just anyone, you had to have some chops before they’d let you have the stage). And the music and singing along could get a little loud at times. One evening when we were on the way home, Grandma said, “Gosh I really enjoyed going to Shookey’s with you girls!” Aw, how sweet.

Today is another day, the 1st of September, and with a new month comes a clean slate. Maybe I’ll work a little harder at keeping a few tapas in the fridge. Or then again, Sonic has happy hour from 2-4 pm every day. Rabbit, rabbit!