All of those news media reports recently about the outbreak of food poisoning in Caldwell Parish made me realize how blessed those of us are who never encountered that awful ailment. Dozens of people in that part of northeast Louisiana ended up in hospitals and doctors’ offices after having jambalaya at a community fund-raising event. Our prayers were with them.
Many of us go to similar dinners all the time, buying tickets for gumbo, chicken spaghetti, crawfish boils and other meals to support some worthwhile cause. Food poisoning never enters our mind. I figure if I survived those sack lunches at school before we had a cafeteria, dinners on the ground at church and my dad’s fishing trip meals, I have used up most of my luck in avoiding the illness. We all took our lunch to elementary school in brown paper bags. It’s a miracle nobody ever got sick from those lunches that were often made the night before, tossed around on hot school bus rides and piled together in closets until time to eat. The school was not air-conditioned, so the strong scent of bacon, spam, boiled eggs, biscuits, syrup and every other food imaginable started wafting through the classrooms by mid-morning.
My sandwiches with peanut butter and homemade mayhaw jelly usually absorbed the taste and smell of somebody else’s pork chops. Food safety just didn’t seem to be a concern for people back then. Our milk was delivered to the front door by a local dairy farmer a long time before we woke up. It sat outside on hot summer mornings, and we drank it warm for breakfast. If there were expiration dates on foods and beverages in those times, I didn’t know anything about it. We used milk until the glass bottles were empty and ate every slice in a loaf of bread, including the heels, no matter how long it had been around. Bread didn’t last long at our house anyway.
My mother didn’t use wheat bread, store bought rolls, buns, fancy breads with seeds and grains in them or any other kind except white bread. We used it for sandwiches, toast and hamburger and hot dog buns. The best hot dogs I ever had were the ones my mother made by slicing wieners lengthwise, browning them in a skillet and putting them on white bread with mayonnaise, mustard, chili and onions. We had hamburgers on sliced white bread, fried bologna sandwiches, white bread with butter and sugar, fresh tomato sandwiches and just plain mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread. Our bread would never have expired even if it had a date on it. Looking back, probably the best chance for anybody getting food poisoning would have been at what they called those dinners on the ground at Calvary Baptist Church. Ladies brought potato salad, fried chicken and banana pudding, and it was some of the best food I ever had.
It sat on long tables outside all through Sunday School classes and long sermons even on hot days. There were not any of those fancy Yeti coolers back then for ladies to put their food in. But if anybody ever got sick, it was just from too much tuna casserole. My dad had no interest in cooking, but he supervised the preparation of the lunches we took on our day-long bream fishing trips to the mill ponds. He wanted potted meat and Vienna sausage sandwiches with a lot of that old fashioned, orange-colored sandwich spread on them. The spread came in jars, and I think it had mayonnaise, relish and some other stuff in it. It helped hide the taste of the potted meat.
Dad would put some Cokes in short green bottles in a washtub and chop a block of ice with his pocket knife to go over them. We never put the sandwiches in the tub, because the brown paper bags and the white bread would have gotten soggy when the ice melted. After fishing for a few hours, we would find a nice shady spot on the bank, have our potted meat and Vienna sausage sandwiches, open a jar of dill pickles, a can of sardines and a package of saltine crackers and have a feast. We washed it all down with cold bottles of Coke and Delaware Punch. I’m not sure if I enjoyed those fishing trip meals more or the church dinners with all of the pies, cakes and cookies for dessert.
My mother never used a meat thermometer to make sure her fried chicken for the church dinners got to the right temperature, and I don’t remember ever hearing the words salmonella, ptomaine poisoning or expiration date. All of that helped make those the good old days.