What They Ate

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Clarence Critton with deer, c 1912

One of our readers asked what people ate “back then” and particularly about what children took to school for lunch.

The “White House Cookbook”, first published in 1887, has an extensive section using game which would probably have been one of the primary meat sources in this area. Professional hunters such as Al and Nate Stone and Herman Keene would supply the locals with fresh game. Venison was prepared in many of the same ways beef would be used, but with the caveat “see that no hairs are left dried on to the outside.”
It was also quite easy for ranchers and others to bring in small game, so the housewives needed to know how to cook it. The cookbooks all contained recipes for fried rabbit as well as rabbit stew and hasenpfeffer (rabbit stewed with onions, cloves and cinnamon). In the 1924 “Cook Book” put out by The Ladies’ Aid Society of the Piru M. E. Church, Mrs. S. L. Glaze recommended stewing the rabbit, making a gravy and pouring the meat and gravy over hot biscuits. Game birds, including geese, ducks, snipe and woodcocks would be roasted, stewed or baked in a pie.

If you either didn’t have or didn’t want meat, there were other alternatives for a main dish such as Boston Roast, a recipe given by Mrs. Frank Padelford:

“Three cups red or kidney beans, put through grinder or sieve; one cup bread or cracker crumbs; one tablespoon finely chopped or ground onion; one cup finely grated cheese; one and one-half teaspoon salt; one-fourth teaspoon paprika or pepper. Mix and add milk enough to make it soft enough to pack together. Bake in buttered pan or casserole thirty minutes in a slow oven. Serve with a tomato or onion sauce. It is good served plain.”

What They Ate

Charlie Brown on right, c 1920s

In the “People’s Home Library” published in 1920, Mrs. Alice G. Kirk of Cleveland, Ohio, gives extensive directions on how to prepare sandwiches for school lunches. A different kind of bread should be used for each day, or a combination of breads to relieve the monotony. She suggests the following fillings:

“Meat sandwiches. - Cold roast beef chopped and slightly salted, between slices of white bread. Chicken, cut very thin and salted; white bread. Boiled ham, chopped very fine, mixed with a very little dry mustard; brown bread. Roast veal, finely chopped, with a few olives mixed in; brown bread. One very thin layer of chopped ham and a slice of chicken; wheat bread. Corned beef shaved very thin; white bread.

Salad sandwiches. - Lettuce leaves on white buttered bread, with a very little French dressing made by mixing a teaspoon full of oil with few drops of lemon juice and a little salt. Chopped watercress on buttered bread, white or brown, with salt. Very thin slices of cucumber, with salt; white bread. Nasturtium leaves, with French dressing or salt. Lettuce with a little cream cheese spread on it, and salt or lemon juice. Watercress and cream cheese. Celery, chopped very fine and mixed with either French dressing or a little mayonnaise, or merely with salt and lemon juice; whole wheat bread. Chopped green peppers mixed with cream cheese.”

It is unlikely a housewife in the Santa Clara Valley sent her children to school with a sandwich of nasturtium leaves or finely chopped roast veal.

Bardsdale School “Congress of Mothers” (a forerunner of the PTA) was organized in 1925 or 1926. Soon the group noticed that many of the small children who walked to school each day arrived without breakfasts and sometimes with little lunch. They decided to do something about it. The mothers began to take turns bringing the children hot lunches which they prepared at home. After lunch two of the mothers would stay and wash the dishes. Soon they raised enough money with cake sales to purchase cooking utensils and hot plates. They cooked lunch in the hallway and served the children on tables built for that purpose.

At Sespe Elementary School in the 1950s and earlier, before there was a cafeteria, the children ate their lunches under the pepper trees at the west end of the school yard. This was the location come wind, cold weather or 100+ degree heat. The only time when lunch was eaten inside was when it was raining. Milk was purchased each morning by sending your lunch money to the office. Students vied to be the person collecting the lunch money. (Anything to get out of class for a few minutes.)

Graduation from 6th grade meant moving on to the Junior High School then located in the same buildings as the High School. Lunch was hot and in the cafeteria. The women employed in the cafeteria made all lunch meals from scratch, even the hamburger and hot dog buns.

We have come a long way from the early days of school lunches. Today the staff may not make every meal from scratch but every child who needs a lunch or breakfast will get one at school, even during covid when meals were still provided in a drive setting.

Bardsdale Class c 1925

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