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All you need is love, and soup

October 17, 2008|JOEL STEIN

If I must live through an economic depression, I want to make it the greatest, "Walton"-iest, "Annie"-est depression ever. Admittedly, I learned American history in a nontraditional way.

To find out how to get the most out of the inevitable long downturn, I called the only person I know who lived through the Great Depression: my grandmother. Mama Ann, 87, spent years 10 through 17 sharing a bed with her three sisters and, I assume, singing with them about how hard her life was.

Her first tip was to work on my budget, by which I assume she means writing down each expenditure in that cute little chart they put in my checkbook. I asked if I should sacrifice the wine pairings with tasting menus and just get a bottle instead. "You shouldn't be eating out that much. You should watch what food is on sale," she said. "We ate a lot of soup. All kinds of soup. Potato soup, cabbage soup. They gave you the bones free, the butchers. My mother made a lot of things with potatoes. Stuffed potatoes. Mashed potatoes, and inside was stuffed meat. I'm licking my lips." Gastronomically, you don't notice an economic disaster if your parents are from Eastern Europe.

I'd give up home heating before carb-loading like that, so I suggested substituting truffle oil for real truffles. "What the devil is that?" she asked. This lead to an unnecessarily long explanation involving truffle-hunting pigs and the limitations of infusing oil with flavor. "It's almost like cans, you mean? You should do that. You know what I had today at the Hadassah meeting? This woman who was a Russian refugee is a vegetarian, and she made a dish like a fish but she had beets and carrots and potatoes and scallions. It was out of this world. There was mayonnaise on the top of it and the cucumbers were like scales. It was so pretty you didn't want to cut into it." Apparently, the women of Palm Lakes Condos have been perfecting their Dow 8,000 recipes for 70 years.

Having already put off replacing our Duxiana bed with a Hastens, I asked Mama Ann how much more I could really cut back. She didn't think I needed to get rid of HBO yet, but her family did hold back on entertainment. "The movies were very, very, very spare. We didn't go unless it was an Al Jolson picture. And then you went to a matinee because it was cheaper," she said. It was oddly comforting to picture a 12-year-old Mama Ann giggling at Jolson's 1933 musical comedy, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" That's the kind of fun I'm hoping for.

Mama Ann thought I should resist buying an iPhone, thinking that it will go down in price soon because of the recession. My habit of drunk iTunes shopping, which has resulted in a surprising number of Billy Joel purchases, wasn't a concern. "You can do that. They have wine now for $2 a bottle," she said. Now she was sounding like someone who had seen a good depression.

I asked if this was a bad time to start a family. Mama Ann gave me a definitive answer that I'm pretty sure her neighbors also heard. "NO! You're getting older. You're a little late in starting a family. It's none of my business, it's just what I think," she said. "You don't have to have the best of everything. ... People still had babies in the Depression. ... And you don't just want one child. It's not fair." This went on for some time.

It would be OK, however, to immediately put these children to work, despite the fact that they'll be staggering around listlessly because of their all-potato diet. "My sisters worked at Klein's on 14th Street after school. I think my sister made more money than my father," she said. "My father didn't let my mother work, though. That's how they were. She had to be home to cook and clean and wash and iron." Times would have to get shoe-eating bad before I mentioned ironing to my wife, Cassandra.

But mostly, Mama Ann told me, as FDR told her, not to worry. Cutting back didn't make her childhood miserable. She has fond memories of sharing clothes with friends and of her mom baking an extra challah for worse-off neighbors. "Today there are people who are more into money and nice homes," she said. "But you never heard in the house anyone say that we didn't have enough. I don't think we had welfare then, and there was no unemployment insurance. But you know, if there's love in the family, you live through it."

And talking to Mama Ann, I felt very loved. Though not nearly as much as my unborn children.


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