Whey Back When

Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey!

Foregoing the part about the icky spider, one has to wonder how many people today even know what curds and whey are (or should that be, what curds and whey ‘is‘?) Anyway, having recently observed a college coed who could not read an analog clock, I feel certain that this nursery rhyme is quickly losing significance.

We, that is my wife and I, only recently began experiencing a new found liking for curds and whey, aka cottage cheese, which is, like so many things on the market today is supposed to be good for you.

Merriam-Webster defines whey as: “the watery part of milk that is separated from the coagulable part or curd especially in the process of making cheese and that is rich in lactose, minerals, and vitamins and contains lactalbumin and traces of fat.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get enough ‘lactalbumin’.

In my experience, a cup of cottage cheese that is coated a with light smattering of salt and lots of pepper on a plate with the wedges of a fresh juicy peach, is not only a healthy lunch, it’s quite delicious! Regardless, I believe the reason that I enjoy cottage cheese is because of my grandfather, John Matthew, aka “Pop” Eichenlaub and his odd, and at times, savory depression-era meals.

The Old House
Our home in 1952 @ 1410 9th Av. Altoona, PA. Old PRR row house.

Like so many post-depression era families, ours were ‘humble’ beginnings, which looked more like poverty than anything else, but I guess humble works if you like. It was the early 50’s and we enjoyed odd foods like coffee-soup, poor-man’s gravy, I even recall pickled pickled pig’s feet and other such delicacies. I call it sushi for the poor. Our diet was thin because Pop had a meager pension from the railroad, and our father had difficulty passing a barroom when he had money in his pocket. so food was often scarce.

In the early 50’s there was a “Government Surplus Food Program” or “Commodities,” as we called it, that helped keep us alive. A precursor of food stamps. Of all of the good and the bad to recall from that period, nobody can forget the huge blocks of government cheese that are still around today! According to some, it was once called “The perfect food.” My mother would hold my hand as we waited in line for our box of food that always included a five pound block of the perfect food; American cheese.

  • Cheese and dairy products
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Peanut butter, dried beans, jelly
  • Canned fish and various meats
  • Evaporated and nonfat dry milk
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Fruit juices and beverages
  • Rice, macaroni, spaghetti

That list displayed on the Internet is far more comprehensive than I recall ever receiving, but then, I was very young and may not recall all of it. But I do know that what we did receive often required a ‘tolerant’ palate, if you take my meaning. Even as a child who knew no better, the smell of the canned meat was nauseating; a very similar odor to today’s canned dog food. The peanut butter; a hardened mass of half ground peanuts beneath inches of yellow oil, when stirred long enough, became a tasteless, pasty goo that made the bread more filling. On the top of the box was that HUGE bag of puffed wheat cereal. Half the size of a bed pillow, the puffed kernels swam on top of the watered-down confectioners milk like tiny organic balloons that veritably disappeared like cotton candy on the tongue. A small child could consume the entire bag in five or six servings..

Better Than Butter

Although not mentioned in the list above, there was always a large sack of flour our mother used to bake bread. To put it in today’s vernacular, “OMG” was it amazing! We dared not let the smell of it baking to escape the house or we would have neighbors dropping by constantly; it was that good! Unfortunately, butter always seemed to be in short supply for some reason, but as a substitute, old Pop would come home with a tub full of cottage cheese which, for the two of us anyway, was better than butter!

Besides his cottage cheese, Pop also loved his canned tomatoes; i.e. whole tomatoes, peeled, uncut, and sweetened. Emptying the tomatoes into a bowl, he opened the cottage cheese and then filled our plates with a goodly portion of each. He taught me to coat them both with salt and pepper, and then taking the fresh baked bread slice, we would fork small bites of the cottage cheese and tomato onto the bread in succession, savoring each bite as we worked across the plate, rivaling even Marcel Proust’s savory description of petite Madeleines dipped in tea.

The bread served to provide a variety of meals;; like bits of fresh-baked bread soaked with coffee and covered with canned evaporated milk and sprinkled with sugar, which made our “coffee soup” (believe it or not, you can find ‘modern’ recipes for it on the web). Another was to fry bacon to an almost black char that was cooled and crumbled into the hot bacon fat, and then bits of flour are stirred in to form a thick, brown gravy. The gravy was poured over that same fresh-baked bread and sprinkled with apple vinegar to make a savory breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and sometimes all three. Probably the most unhealthy diet you can think of, but the memories of it all will always linger in the curds and whey.