KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Like millions of other Americans, my parents worked long, hard hours to keep their family clothed, sheltered and fed. When they moved into their first, new, very small house in the southern suburbs of Chicago, they took on a huge financial burden as my dad didn’t make that much money and my mom was a homemaker. When times got tough, my dad was forced to take a part-time night job to supplement his full-time day job while my mom took a full-time job working in downtown Chicago as an administrative assistant.
Once she began working outside of the home, her cooking was limited to Saturdays and Sundays. Our family was relatively small compared to most in our predominantly Catholic neighborhood—just four of us. Many of my friends had four to six siblings; one family, the Grahams, had 22 children and none were adopted!
Mom oftentimes would buy a big ham, whole chickens or a gigantic beef roast for Sunday dinner and we would enjoy eating leftovers for most of the rest of the week. My older sister and I would pitch in by following instructions to make the night’s meal that was left by my mom before she made the four-block walk to the Illinois Central train station on her morning trek to Chicago. I know some people who simply will not eat leftovers. They’ll dine out somewhere and if they don’t finish whatever they had for lunch or dinner, it gets tossed. If anything is left from what they make at home—it gets pitched, too. What a terrible waste. We never minded leftovers because back in those days it was either eating leftovers or nothing at all.
Somewhere in a box down in my basement is a very heavy tool mom used often to stretch out her meals: a small, manual, cast-iron meat grinder. It has a vice clamp on its bottom that you tighten onto the kitchen counter. The grinder’s input opening is on top. You simply push the meat into that opening with one hand, turn the hand crank (with a wooden tip) with the other and the rotating screw grinds the meat and extrudes it through the side of the grinder into a bowl. Although used extensively over the decades, it looks brand new and I think it once belonged to her mother. This grinder was made to last; unlike many of its electronic relatives today that may operate sufficiently for a year or two—if you’re lucky.
All meat or poultry was fair game for the trusty, old grinder: chunks of drying-out beef, chicken and turkey; hunks of ham; even corned beef were routinely brought back to life in some convenient, tasty form. She could make the best ham, beef, chicken and turkey salad, and many corn beef hash dinners were also made thanks to that grinder. My dad’s mom had the same type of grinder and would make a ground liver paté and even pheasant and rabbit paté you’d put on crackers around Thanksgiving, which tastes much better than it sounds.
Whenever I pass through the deli section of the local supermarkets my family frequents, I’m always surprised that delis don’t offer more prepared meat salads or patés. Whenever I get a craving for meat-salad on crackers, I’ll buy a small chub of Oscar Mayer Sandwich Spread or maybe even get a little ham salad from the deli. Although it’s good, it’s just not the same as eating home-made meat spreads. Half the fun of enjoying meat salads was in helping mom to make them. She never used a recipe; it was either filed away in her memory—or she simply made it up as she went along using ingredients she had on hand.
Once she was done using the grinder, my job was to wash it by hand, dry it off and then return it to its box in the basement that sat next to a bunch of old cigar boxes containing nails, nuts, bolts, washers and screws. In walking down the 13 stairs to the cold and damp basement, I’d always know when my dad would be working at the work bench as his three old, oval Budweiser neon wall lights with trout swimming in streams were softly glowing in the dark while he listened to a 78 rpm vinyl record of the Dorsey Brothers, Mills Brothers, Glenn Miller the or Ink Spots through a little wooden Zenith AM radio that was attached to an equally smaller RCA Victor record player via alligator clips. Nothing fancy, but just like mom’s meat salads always satisfied our hunger in a pleasant way, the alligator clips always did the trick in turning our old radio into a magical record player.
One day, I’m going to retrieve that old grinder, clean it up and just lay it on the counter and see what happens next. The last time I had it out on the kitchen counter decades ago to show my friends, they were genuinely puzzled and asked, “What the heck is that?” If that old meat grinder could talk, it would have some very interesting stories to tell.
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