Below is Chapter Ten of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.
To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/
Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER 10: ‘For another 15 cents you can have a desert of stewed prunes’
By KEITH BLACK
“MICHELIN HONOURS SEVERAL TORONTO RESTAURANTS WITH 3 STAR RATING!”
“TORONTO WOMAN WINS AWARD FOR MOST IMAGINATIVE COOKBOOK OF 1958!”
“FRENCH GASTRONOMES TO VISIT TORONTO IN 1955 TO VIEW CULINARY DEMONSTRATIONS!”
News stories from the Fifties? No. I made them up. They never happened.
Would you care to drop into a typical Beach restaurant of 2019 for a bite to eat? This menu item sounds pretty good; “grilled chicken breast, mixed greens, radicchio, julienne cucumbers and carrots, cilantro, crispy noodles, wontons, mixed nuts and peanut dressing…$16.”
Or, would you rather dine at a typical Toronto restaurant of 1955; “grilled pork chops including bread and butter, French fried potatoes—tea, coffee or milk…$1.45 ($14.in 2019 dollars). For another 15 cents you could have a dessert of stewed prunes. Yummy!
Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, who was raised in Flint, Michigan, once said that when he first visited a cosmopolitan city like New York, he learned a whole new vocabulary; words that he had never heard before; words like…. salad. Toronto in the 1950s was not a cosmopolitan city.
A friend of mine once said to me, “I didn’t know that my mother couldn’t cook until I left home”. He said that. I didn’t.
I am having some difficulty writing this chapter. I do not want to sound irreverent. Toronto was not known for its cuisine back then, and our home was not much different than most.
However, I can temper what I have to say a little by acknowledging that my mother was functioning with a few disadvantages, the first of these being that I was a very particular eater. I know that most kids are, but I was insufferable. Other than potatoes, peas and corn, I did not care for vegetables, I did not like fruits or berries, any meat that I ate had to be tender and totally free of any fat, and I was distrustful of fish; I couldn’t stand the thought of my teeth crushing a bone or worse, getting one stuck in my throat. And I didn’t like fish that tasted like….well, fish. But I liked most desserts except rice pudding and lemon pie. And stewed prunes.
She was also operating with a very limited budget. My father once told me that we were middle class but I now know that that was false pride speaking. We weren’t even lower middle class; upper poor may be more accurate.
Mother handled all of the household financial matters and she often bemoaned the lack of funds generally, seasonal price fluctuations, and all of the other factors that came along to specifically torment her. So she economized. That’s a polite way of saying that she bought cheap.
Kitchens in the Fifties were a lot smaller than they are today and even those in houses in the Beach would now be considered compact, but our apartment kitchen was tiny. We would now refer to it as a galley kitchen, a galley as in a boat; a very small boat.
The refrigerator which was only about four-feet tall was directly across from the small electric range; the door of one could not be opened when the door of the other was already open. There was one small sink and very limited counter and cupboard space.
What’s for supper? From Monday to Friday, the answer was always the same; “meat, potatoes and vegetables”. I cringed. Meat generally meant that we were having pork chops, liver, sausages, fish or some kind of ground beef concoction. The potatoes would be boiled or mashed, and the vegetable was frequently cabbage, spinach, turnips, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts. If none of the foregoing were available at a reasonable cost, then we would have canned peas or corn or (yuck) cream style corn.
Most meats were fried. I think that in the Fifties there was general agreement that meat had to be cooked for a considerable time to ensure that the animal (or fish) was indeed dead. It worked; there is no doubt that what was on my plate was deceased.
Similarly, it was decreed that all vegetables should be boiled until there was no chance that they would be firm. They weren’t. The spinach was particularly obnoxious. If the cauliflower or sprouts were purchased at a reduced price because they were becoming a little weary, boil them and cover them with something that could be said to somewhat resemble cheese sauce.
Mother would occasionally experiment with other dishes such as a creamed chicken concoction (somewhat edible), something called chipped beef on toast involving unidentifiable meat from an indeterminate origin (absolutely inedible) and a variety of casserole meals. Stews and casseroles are great but the result is dependent on the quality of the ingredients and, very importantly, the right combination of spices. We used spice, but in our home it was called pepper.
Later in the decade another “spice” was added to the rack, one which generated a great deal of enthusiasm with my mother and her friends. It was sold under the brand name “Accent”. It was monosodium glutamate.
I must be honest and report that virtually all research has concluded that MSG has received a bad rap; it is not harmful except to a very small group who may have a mild reaction. I didn’t have any reaction at all; my distaste for food remained unabated. It didn’t help that during winter months we were fed an appetizer consisting of a spoonful of Cod Liver Oil.
Occasionally on Fridays I would get a reprieve; we would order out for fish & chips. I was ecstatic. The batter had a nice crisp flavour, the halibut was firm, flaky and had a mild, pleasant taste and I never encountered a bone, and the fries were golden brown. I loved it.
I usually liked Saturday nights too; we often had a simple meal like hot dogs served with potato chips. That suited me just fine.
Sundays brought the big meal of the week, usually roast beef or roast chicken. Chicken I liked; it was the one dish that I sometimes wished there was more of. Compared to the monster birds of today they were rather puny back then and barely fed four people. But at least I looked forward to the meal. Not so with the beef! I have no idea what cut of beef it was or how many hours it had spent imprisoned in the oven. I chewed on a mixture of meat and gristle until my jaws ached and then I would literally gag on a piece of fat. I never ran away from home but I came close on roast beef Sundays.
Breakfast consisting of a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast was tolerable but a touch boring; the cereal was usually Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies because they were relatively inexpensive. Mother stayed away from the “aimed at kids” confections unless we convinced her to splurge because the prize in the box or the mail-in premium was exceptional.
As a result, we occasionally saw Sugar Frosted Flakes (the word sugar was dropped in 1983) and Sugar Smacks (56 per cent sugar) which was subsequently renamed Honey Smacks. We liked them. I wonder why.
Lunch was the only meal of the day which I actually liked. A bowl of soup and a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Perfect. In 1953 Cheez Whiz came along and I liked that in a sandwich too, but the cost kept it out of our home most of the time.
So I never actually ran away; I prefer to say that a couple of years after my mother passed away I removed myself from the premises. Several years after that when I was 20 I entered the business world and within a week or two was invited to a business luncheon which was held at the Savarin Tavern on Bay Street near Richmond Street. It had a large dining room that featured an expansive buffet with roast beef being the signature dish.
I was nervous. I should not have been. It was the best meal that I had ever had up to that point in my cloistered life. So that’s what beef is supposed to taste like! Look, it’s pink inside! I sampled numerous dishes and loved them all. I never looked back. They should have named the place Revelation.
I have loved food ever since and enjoy cooking. But I still don’t care for most fruit and my list of approved vegetables has not grown and I have not touched cream corn in 60 years. Do you remember what my friend said about his mother? I still haven’t said it; he did!
I must give my mother credit though; when new products were thrust at us via advertising aimed at children, she would generally give it a shot once with the sincere hope that both my brother and I wouldn’t like it.
The Flav-R-Straws of 1956 are a great example. These were straws that had been infused with flavour powders (chocolate or strawberry), the idea being that as milk was drawn through the straw, the taste of it would be altered accordingly. A massive advertising campaign touted the idea that kids would be encouraged to drink more milk. No doubt at our insistence, mother bought a package. The first suck on the straw produced a liquid that vaguely reminded us of something which almost tasted a bit like chocolate milk. As we continued to drink the glass of milk, the vague memory subsided and so did the taste. It was a flop. No more need to spend 33 cents per package. Flav-R-Straws died in 1961.
And then the War of 1812 was refought in the 1950s over flavour crystals (flavor? crystals); American Kool-Aid or Canadian Freshie?
My mother sold out to the Americans because of….cost! Kool-Aid was more expensive to buy but you simply added water and stirred. With Freshie it was necessary to add sugar and it required a lot of sugar to be as good as Kool-Aid. Sugar was expensive. Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, Tastes Great. Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, Can’t Wait. But, both Kool-Aid and Freshie were cheaper than soft drinks which we did buy from time to time.
I liked Coca-Cola; I preferred it over Pepsi. But my favourite was Wilson’s Cola. Charles Wilson Limited, whose logo was an image of a squirrel, opened in 1875 on Sherbourne Street and became the largest independent soft drink bottler in North America. I also liked their Cream Soda. Wilson’s remained a family business for over a century until it was sold to Crush International. But my favourite Ginger Ale was Vernors and the Root Beer had to be Hires.
Sometimes we would benefit from mother getting a sweet tooth in the evening. “Who wants a coke float?” All hands went up. I would run across Queen Street to Mike’s Variety Store to buy Coke and four vanilla mello rolls. Mello rolls were small cylinders of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) in a paper wrapper which sold for five cents. In the latter part of the decade they ballooned to six cents. One of these was put into a large glass which was then filled with Coke. Frothy, foamy and sweet; in short, coke floats were good. Mello rolls were also put into cones for a small and inexpensive ice cream cone.
Needless to say, my mother was not the only one with a sweet tooth. After all, I was a kid. I was generously provided with a weekly allowance of 25 cents. This princely sum was augmented by the results of always being on the lookout for discarded pop bottles (2 cents for regular bottles and five for family size), money that I picked up from neighbours for running errands and, of course, the proceeds from telephone booth fishing.
In addition there was the income from my various careers. I have already mentioned my newspaper experience; I also worked some Sundays in a little green concession stand on the Boardwalk near the foot of Leuty Avenue and also some evenings peddling pop and hot dogs at the Kew Beach ball park during games. As a result, I was frequently able to supply myself with goodies which usually meant chocolate bars.
When I started thinking about the candy that I most liked in the Fifties and did some checking, I discovered two surprising facts.
The first thing is that virtually all of them are still available today. My favourite chocolate bars were 3 Musketeers, Turkish Delight, Eatmore, Bounty, Malted Milk, Cherry Blossom, Coffee Crisp and Crispy Crunch (mother’s favourite). Of these, only Malted Milk is no longer with us.
The other surprise is that for some reason I assumed that most of the candy bars available then were from the post-war period. In fact, only Bounty originated in the 1950s (1951). The others arose mostly in the 1920s and 1930s with Turkish Delight going back to 1914 and Cherry Blossom to the 1890s. Who knew?
Lifesavers were a popular candy; almost every child at one time or another received as a gift, a Lifesaver “book” which opened to reveal six rolls of Lifesavers of different flavours. Presciently I liked the Butter Rum the most. They were developed in 1912.
Pez was also popular, but I’m not sure that we kids liked the candy that much; I think that we were more enthralled with the enormous variety of dispensers. Pez was invented in Austria in 1927. Both Lifesavers and Pez are still going strong.
Even cheaper candies such as Jawbreakers (two for a penny) and Black Balls (three for one cent) were first produced in the 1920s and 1930s. And everyone’s favourite chewing gum, Dubble Bubble which came with a small comic strip detailing the adventures of Pud and his Pals, appeared in 1928.
It seems odd that along with the Baby Boom, the Economic Boom, the Consumer Product Boom and the Automobile Boom of the Fifties that there was no corresponding Candy Boom. But at least there was one somewhat unique confection that surfaced in the early 1950s and it was Canadian. Lucky Elephant, the pink candy-coated popcorn; it came with a prize in every box. And it is still being produced by Poppa Corn Corporation of Toronto.
Before carrying on, there is one small issue that I would like to mention. When I was young, I would literally walk across the street in order to deposit a candy wrapper in a garbage receptacle. It would never have entered my mind to toss it on the street. I don’t remember ever seeing any of my friends litter. Sorry for the interruption.
Yes, Lucky Elephant popcorn still comes with a prize in every box. The same cannot be said about the granddaddy of confections: Cracker Jack. In 2016, Frito-Lay announced that they would no longer include a prize in a box of Cracker Jack. What’s the world coming to? No more “my boyfriend got my engagement ring in a box of Cracker Jack”.
Invented in 1896, Cracker Jack received a big boost in 1908 when it was mentioned in a song that continues to be sung throughout each summer, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. In the 1950s we continued to consume a lot of Cracker Jack. I liked the product’s mascots who were prominently displayed on the box; Bingo, the small dog with his master Sailor Jack wearing a spiffy sailor suit. They were calling me to go to sea!
To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:
To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Five, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Six, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/