Lily Rose, Aunt Cora Proved That Thrift Didn't Hurt At All

September 23, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

When I drop a credit card payment in the mailbox, I think, "This was not the way I was raised, the Baltimore way: no debts, always pay cash and, if necessary, do without."

When I observe a place that could use a coat of paint, I think, "Well, that's Baltimore maintenance. Stretch it out a little longer." I wonder how old-fashioned Baltimore shoppers are going to make do, now that Wal-Mart is putting an end to layaway buying.

OK. Enough preaching a strict, bare-bones economy. The truth is, adhering to a lean budget is not a grim exercise. The homemade economics I learned 50 years ago were fun - and still are.

I think my grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Aunt Cora, if they could, would have made their cornflakes if Mr. Kellogg didn't hold the patent. They seemed to create everything else, from homemade washing soap (not bath soap) to their own delicious ketchup. September was a busy production month for these two women because they were gearing up to an even busier October and fall housecleaning.

The homemade soap required a year's worth of kitchen fat, which they accumulated in heavy stoneware crocks. I think our neighbors (no secrets on Guilford Avenue) donated their old fat - and maybe received a block of finished soap in return. The greatest sin in my family's eyes was waste.

Some of my favorite thrift memories happened on a Sunday night, when we did not phone and order in from neighborhood restaurants. (A major outing would have been a trip to the old Horn and Horn on Baltimore Street, a wonderful eating establishment but hardly the Belvedere or Lord Baltimore.)

These cooks observed a rule of their own making: They would serve a bountiful, labor-intensive Sunday breakfast, but then take the rest of the day off from heavy labor. At least that's what they said.

About 4:15 p.m. Aunt Cora would appear in the kitchen and open the refrigerator. She and her sister fed a table of 12 with what she found. A little chicken became creamed chicken over homemade biscuits (flour, baking powder, salt and lard). Some leftover beef became a stew or hot roast beef sandwiches. Their ability to make tasty gravy from a glob of fatty leftovers was magic. Their Sunday meals were incredible.

Packed school lunches were also on the thrift plan, a fact that made me rebel and take a paying, part-time job in my senior year.

Regarding entertainment, it was movies at the nearby neighborhood houses. We weren't supposed to buy popcorn - my mother popped her own and individually bagged it for us. We were not encouraged to patronize the movie candy counter when the nearby Read's drugstore chain offered six nickel-size candies for 23 cents.

Lily made her own sarsaparilla or root beer. Cora splurged big time with store-bought Hires, and Lily always had a private stash of Pepsi and cheese crackers. There was always some elastic in their economies.

So what didn't they make? Wine and beer. Maybe it was their father's Methodist upbringing. Our immediate neighbor, Stewart Hoopper, also a Methodist, made his own wine during Prohibition. In fact, he made quite a bit of it - sweet, potent stuff. And, in good neighborly fashion, it made the trip over the backyard fence in oversize glass bottles bearing white labels with his perfect handwriting: "Dandelion 1922."

By 1980, it was still delicious, mightily intoxicating with no state or federal taxes paid upon this nectar.

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