Food Stories from My Parents’ Generation

Do you feed your kids the way your parents fed you? I interviewed my parents today about the diet they grew up on, and how they fed my brother, sister and me.

My parents were both “war babies” born in 1940, one in Nova Scotia and one in New Brunswick, 400 km apart.

My mom grew up as the youngest of 4 kids. She lived in a larger town with two main employers. She remembers everyone she knew as having a similar standard of living. Her family had an ice box and the ice man came around every other day – until they got a refrigerator in 1952. The ice box was typically used for milk, eggs and butter. Her father worked nearby and came home for a large mid-day meal every day. On Sundays, there was bacon and eggs for breakfast, and a “Sunday dinner” with roasted meats that provided leftovers during the week. My mom remembers some local specialties such as “boiled dinners” of ham or corned beef and cabbage, fish cakes with baked beans, or a feed of mackerel. The family had relatives “out in the country” who would occasionally provide a meal of clams, lobster, fresh-butchered pork, or snared rabbit. But they were pretty much city folks. The family’s meal later in the day was a light “supper” of leftovers, soup or pancakes.

Mom’s mother went out to buy groceries at a small local “general store” every day and the purchases were put on a tab that was paid off on pay day, when a big grocery order would be placed and delivered: it would include canned goods and baking supplies. My mom recalls that they would buy “whatever meat was available” because the selection was limited, but they had meat, potatoes and vegetables every day. On pay day, her dad would buy a brick of ice cream and a bottle of Big 8 (soda) pop as a family treat for the 6 of them. My grandmother baked often, especially cookies and pies, and cakes or fudge for special occasions. She also put up mustard pickles, sour pickles, chow, pickled beets, and apple jelly. My grandfather kept a small garden with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, but preferred raising flowers! In their area, there was easy access to fish such as haddock, or buckets of salt herring. Apples and berries were abundant in season.

The family didn’t have a car, or take vacations. Mom says that her family had two very clear goals: to have good food and a warm house. By the mid-1950s, as the older children went out to work and left home, the family standard of living kept improving. The post-war effects on the economy wore off, and goods were more available. When I was a kid, I remember my grandmother having some convenience foods like Velveeta cheese and Viva Puffs cookies!

My dad was in the upper-middle end of a family of 7 children. He and his mom and two brothers lived with his grandmother while his dad was away at war. After World War II ended, 4 more kids were added to the family! Dad remembers buying dates and raisins as a treat during the war and post-war years when chocolate bars and Mackintosh toffee were hard to come by.

Before refrigeration, perishables were kept in an old covered well, or in a bucket in the ground. There were daily trips to the store for meat, milk and bread. Again, the local selection was limited, as well as constrained by money. The family had a cow for milk and cream, and they churned their own butter. They would sometimes butcher a heifer. They raised and butchered a couple of pigs every year, and used up all the bits in things rarely heard about now – such as blood pudding (sausage) and “potted head.” They ate fresh, rather than salted or smoked, pork. They raised and ate ducks and geese, and used duck eggs in baked goods. Granddad sometimes bagged a deer, and other game included partridge, pheasants, wild duck, and rabbit. It was also possible to catch 30 lb. salmon in the Miramichi River in those days! My grandfather kept a huge garden (50’ x 300’) with potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, string beans (yellow wax beans), radishes, lettuce, cabbage, Swiss chard, and later, strawberries.

For the most part, though, they ate meat or fish, potatoes and vegetables every day. Some typical main courses were sausages, pork chops, hamburger, bologna, cod, ling or smelts. As in my mom’s family, there was a Sunday roast and leftovers during the week. Dad remembers meat, fish and potatoes being sold door-to-door. He recalls eating more vegetables than most other families he knew. He remembers some kids trying not to let others know that their meals were just bread and molasses.

My grandmother baked every day: especially cookies and cakes, but also jelly rolls, cinnamon rolls, molasses cakes, raisin cakes, other cakes with boiled icing, and Washington Pie. (My dad relished reciting this list to me!) Whatever she made was consumed the same day by the family of 9. Other desserts were fresh berries in the summer and canned fruit in the winter. Gram also put up mustard beans, pickled beets, pumpkin preserves, and blueberry jam.

My dad remembers his father paying the grocery tab on pay day and having no money left over until the next pay day. When my dad started earning money, he paid off his family’s grocery tab, which enabled them to pay cash going forward – a big perk, as there were still 4 younger kids at home.

Listening to my parents talk about their family meals, two points came through loud and clear. Both families put a very high priority on having nutritious, real and abundant food every day, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. (For example, new clothes were a rarity). And, my parents and their families had a deep sense of responsibility around food: to buy wisely, to use everything up, to take advantage of what was local and in season, to grow their own, and not to change their habits much when money flowed more freely.

Next time I’ll post about how my parents decided to feed their family (including me!)

Photo credits:

Fish Cakes and Beans:

Pumpkin Preserves:

War Cake:

Neapolitan Ice Cream:

Corned Beef and Cabbage:

Fried Bologna:


  1. Oh my! Every picture at the end of this powt looks familiar! However, my parental units ate nothing like yours: one was dragged home by her grandmother, from her friend’s house, for eating hot dogs. The other’s favorite food was (yuck) calves brains and scrambled eggs.

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