When my Irish Catholic great-grandmother and my Jewish great-grandfather married, it was quiet a scandal. Thankfully, a great deal has changed since then, but it's hard not to be nostalgic for some things that have been lost.
My great-grandmother wouldn't have understood what the word "sustainability" meant but she lived an almost entirely land-to-table lifestyle. She rented some of the rooms of the house to make some extra money: her backyard hens laid eggs for the breakfasts of the borders. When my great-grandmother killed a chicken, its carcass had many lives—stock, meat, scrambled livers, salads. Nothing was wasted. A single smokehouse hog lasted the winter (bits of pork were used for flavoring, little else). I don't think my great-grandfather ever ate the pork but he loved his wife's chicken soup.
My great-grandmother got her milk in glass containers left by the milkman, who made his rounds in a horse-drawn wagon. She left the bottles outside when they were empty, where they would be refilled with more milk the next day: there were no recycling bins. The horse-drawn carriage left a low carbon hoofprint. So did the horse that pulled the wagon of the iceman, who delivered large chunks of ice to homes in the age before refrigerators, when everyone had "ice boxes" instead.
With six children and borders, the household drank a lot of milk. My great-grandmother made her own butter from a churn, of course, and grew her own vegetables.
My great-grandparents lived in a house that was located only several streets away from where I live now, in New Jersey, but their lifestyle is alien to my experience and to most people of my generation and location.
According to my mother, my great-grandmother seldom ate meat but more often used it as a condiment—old, frugal Irish immigrants habits die hard—my great-grandmother's favorite meal was boiled cabbage, potatoes, and a tiny bit of pork for flavor. Rather than eating multiple pieces of bacon, my great-grandmother fried her eggs in a skillet of bacon grease—grease she collected in a tin can on the rare occasions when she did make a fry-up.
Some of my great-grandparents' home remedies don't sound that inviting. My great-grandfather enjoyed drinking hot water with lemon for his "bowels" after his morning prayers. Neither of them really drank alcohol, except when they were ill—then, they'd take a single swig of whiskey, like it was medicine. But both lived well into their nineties.
I'm not as fond of boiled vegetables as my Irish ancestors, but I do like making "health salad"—a form of "kosher" coleslaw. What could be a more fitting tribute to the heritage of my great-grandparents than a deli salad made with cabbage? Health salad is often served at delis because the cabbage is marinated in oil and vinegar, which means it can be eaten with meat according to the Jewish dietary laws that prohibit mixing meat and dairy. The following is adapted from a famous New Jersey diner, the Claremont.
About the author: Mary Pagones (known as HeartofGlass) eats food, mostly plants, but still worries far too much what she is eating in New Jersey.