Felicia Knight of Scarborough with her father, Navy veteran Robert Knight, who died in 2016 at age 90. Photo courtesy of Felicia Knight

This will be my first Father’s Day without my father.

In past years I would ship him lobsters for Father’s Day because he loved them so much and ate as many as he could whenever he visited me in Maine. He was 92 when he died in May, one of the last of a generation of men who shared the unique life experiences of living through World War II and the Great Depression.

These experiences – along with the fact that many of these men grew up in a more rural America that preferred simple, regional foods over international cuisines or fancy, cheffy ones – shaped our fathers’ and grandfathers’ tastes, and, in turn, the dishes that landed on their families’ dinner tables. Most men of this generation have already left us – the last of them are in their 90s now – but their memories and their stories are still fresh, as evidenced by the many Mainers (more than 70 and still counting) who answered my call to share tales of their father’s favorite foods. As we lose them, one by one, we also close a window on their food culture.

Their stories were varied, but with some common threads. Many in this generation had iron stomachs and would eat anything, a trait born either of hunger or bad military rations. They didn’t like waste. They loved baked beans, meat and potatoes, and ice cream. Molasses was the preferred sweetener. Crackers or hard tack-style bread soaked in milk were favorite snacks. They fished and hunted, bringing venison and game birds home for the dinner table.

In Rolla Thompson’s case, the venison he shot went into his wife, June’s, mincemeat pies. Thompson, who was 89 when he died in 2004, was a sergeant in the Army in World War II and served in the Pacific, according to his grandson, Adrian Dowling of South Portland, who spent summers and the Christmas holiday with his grandparents at their home in Tremont on Mount Desert Island. Thompson was “famously quiet,” according to his grandson, but if something struck him as funny, he had an infectious laugh.

Rolla Thompson of Tremont, an Army veteran who fought in World War II, died in 2004 at age 89. Photo courtesy of Adrian Dowling

Thompson and his wife shared cooking duties. For big family gatherings, they would make American chop suey with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, the least expensive ground beef, macaroni, an onion, and salt and pepper.

“It was one of my grandfather’s favorite meals,” Dowling said, adding that it became a favorite of his, too, as a child. “He loved it. He’d eat it when it was made, and then the following day he would put it in a sandwich, inside two pieces of white bread.”

Thompson also loved baked beans, and was always roasting chickens and turkeys. The family grew or gathered most of their own food as “a matter of survival,” Dowling said. “Especially in that area of Maine, Downeast on the islands, you just didn’t have any choice. You grew or hunted your food, or you didn’t eat.”

Thompson devoured his wife’s pickled green tomatoes with abandon, and in summer he’d pick dandelion greens and cook them with apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.

“He liked all of his red meat extremely well done,” Dowling said. “And I mean well done. It was only maybe one notch below shoe leather in terms of how tender it was.”

Erin Bruns of Gray, who owns Bruce’s Burritos in Yarmouth, recalls her “Grampie,” Charles Bruns, who grew up in Portland – telling her of a game he and his friends played when they were little. If Bruns was eating an apple and a friend called “coresies,” he had to give the friend the apple core to eat.

Bruns and his wife, Margaret, raised 13 children after he got out of the Navy. He was a chief boatswain who took part in the Normandy invasion in 1944, served in Africa, then watched the atomic bomb go off while stationed in the Pacific, off the coast of Japan.

Bruns, who died a few years ago in his 80s, worked at the B&M Baked Beans plant in Portland, so he ate a lot of beans and brown bread. But he also loved peanut butter and ate it in some unusual ways – on a sandwich with cucumbers and tomatoes, and on pigs in a blanket.

Smashed saltines in milk was another of his favorite foods. Some version of this concoction appeared in many of the responses I got from my informal survey. In one household, it was rice pudding over saltines. For my father, like many southerners, it was cornbread crumbled into a glass of cold buttermilk. Food historian Sandra Oliver mentioned other versions, with toasted or stale bread softened in milk or cream, or shortening-based royal biscuits soaked in milk. In an earlier time, she said, this dish was called brewis.

“That’s definitely a Depression-era thing,” she said. “My grandmother and grandfather had it at least once a week. It was a great way to stretch the budget.”

The Depression fostered a lot of creativity in the kitchen. Felicia Knight, who grew up in Camden and now lives in Scarborough, remembers her father, Robert Knight, making something he called a “pup-gullion.”

Felicia Knight of Scarborough with her father, Navy veteran Robert Knight, who died in 2016 at age 90. Photo courtesy of Felicia Knight

“It was a kind of thick soup or stew that was never the same thing twice,” she said. “He would put anything in it, depending on what he found in the fridge or cupboard. As kids we would be fascinated by this, because our mom was such a fabulous cook and her cooking always had a specific outcome. Dad would take ingredients such as leftover pea soup, some hot dogs, a piece of cornbread, some curry, a can of corn – whatever – and he’d say ‘I’m making a fine pup-gullion if anybody’s interested!” My mother would be appalled and feign disgust, but we’d all eat it and pronounce it delicious.”

Knight, who died in 2016 at age 90, spent 30 years in the Navy, then went to college on the GI Bill and became a third-grade teacher. His daughter recalls he often remarked that, growing up on a farm during the Depression, he was lucky he never went hungry, “but he was poor enough to know to eat what was in front of him.” He often told the story of “the year of the carrot,” when the farm produced an abundance of carrots and the family ate them in everything.

Felicia Knight says that as a result of her father’s upbringing, she and her siblings were raised “to take only what we could eat, and eat all that we took.”

Growing up in a more rural America, or a part of the country with a strong regional or cultural identity, also shaped our fathers’ and grandfathers’ tastes. My own father grew up on a farm in middle Tennessee, where his family grew their own food, raised chickens and cows, and hunted and ate small game, even squirrels (which was common on Depression-era tables). He loved the southern staples his mother cooked and ate them all of his life – country ham with red-eye gravy, collard or turnip greens cooked for hours with a ham hock, grits, fried okra and fried green tomatoes, to name just a few.

Mainers’ tastebuds of this generation leaned toward smelts, fiddleheads, sardines, salt pork, salt cod and finnan haddie.

Louis Conley, born in Aroostook County in 1922, was one of 16 children. He was awarded the Bronze Star and died in 1999 at the age of 77. Photo courtesy of Dolly Sullivan

Baked beans were on Louis Conley’s table “breakfast, lunch and dinner” – sometimes as a cold bean sandwich – and usually along with a plate of biscuits and molasses, according to his daughter, Dolly Sullivan of Bucksport. Conley was born in Aroostook County, one of 16 children, and moved to the coast after he married. There, he developed a taste for pickled herring and pickled wrinkles – carnivorous sea snails that are a Downeast delicacy. His daughter still keeps a jar of them in her refrigerator.

“He wasn’t fussy,” Sullivan said. “He ate anything. We often said he had an iron gut.”

Louis Conley, an Army veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star, with his granddaughter Keely around 1994. Photo courtesy of Dolly Sullivan

Paul Bonnevie’s tastes were shaped by growing up in a large French-Canadian family. Bonnevie, who worked at the paper mill in Jay for 43 years, grew up in a family of eight boys who all served during World War II. (They also had a sister.)

“He would have a meal of things that we would say is just a side,” Jim Bonnevie of Cumberland Center recalled about his late father. “He could have a whole meal of just fresh corn on the cob,” or stewed tomatoes and green beans from the pressure cooker.

French-Canadian dishes such as creton and tourtiere were regulars on the family table. When Paul Bonnevie’s brothers came to visit, they would gather around a huge bag of raw potatoes.

“They’d spend time shooting the breeze, drinking beer and peeling potatoes,” Jim Bonnevie said. “Then they would cut them up and mash them, and make what is called poutine rapée. Essentially it’s mashed potato balls that have a piece of salt pork in the center.”

The potato balls are boiled in water, then cut open and served with maple syrup.

I knew that I was lucky having my father for so long. His doctor said he would get him to 100, and I always held onto that, but it was a promise that Dr. Garner just couldn’t keep. My father died peacefully in his sleep, of old age – the way many of us would like to go someday.

Portland restaurateur Jay Villani is still one of the lucky ones. His father, Salvatore Villani, is 96, healthy, and lives on his own in New Jersey. A first-generation American and Navy cook who raised his kids on Staten Island, Salvatore Villani and his mother (Jay Villani’s grandmother) hosted Sunday family dinners, re-creating dishes the Villanis have been making for generations.

Portland restaurateur Jay Villani with his father, Salvatore Villani, on a Florida golf trip to celebrate Salvatore’s 95th birthday. Photo courtesy of Jay Villani

Jay Villani remembers waking up at 6 or 7 a.m. on Sundays to the smell of frying meatballs. A pot of his grandmother’s “gravy” would simmer all morning, the aroma of cooking sausage mingling with the smell of the meatballs.

“Food would start coming out around noon,” he said. “It was an all-day event. Neighbors would come and go, and family would come and go.”

The kids drank ginger ale, but Villani’s grandfather would add a splash of red wine to their glasses “so we could feel like an adult at the table.” The day culminated with either falling asleep on the couch or watching football, Villani said.

“For better or worse, dinnertime at my dad’s house was very important,” Villani recalled. “Every kid in the neighborhood knew their father’s whistle cadence. We’d all be scattered to the four winds doing our thing, and you hear your father’s whistle and that was dinner time for us. In the middle of whatever you were doing, you had to drop it.”

Villani said his father cooked for the family all the time. He had a big vegetable garden and kept a few ducks for eggs. When the ducks outlived their usefulness, they would end up as dinner, and the carcasses were used to fertilize the garden. “When my father got really mad at us,” Villani said, “he would say ‘I’m going to bury you with the ducks.’ ”

Villani says his father’s pasta y ceci, a cousin of pasta fasul but made with chick peas, is “still the dish (by which) I measure all pasta fasul.” He and his older brother, Salvatore Jr., would have eating contests to see who could eat the most of their Pop’s food. Villani makes the dish for his own teenagers today.

Villani calls his father often, as he surely will today. He says the elder Villani has been undergoing a kind of transformation as he grows older, finally acknowledging all the injustices in the world. “For him, at his age, to be having those awakenings of sorts, I’m very proud of him,” Villani said. “I tell him I love him all the time.”

If your father is still alive, follow Villani’s lead and pick up that phone today. You never know when it will be the last time.

—-

JUNE THOMPSON’S GREEN TOMATO PICKLES

Makes 7-71/2 quarts

Rolla Thompson loved his wife’s green tomato pickles. Grandson Adrian Dowling says the word pickle is a bit misleading – it is more like a chunky relish to be spooned onto a plate. The tomatoes and onions should be soft and the liquid should have “a saucy consistency.” He isn’t sure what size package of spices she used, but notes that McCormick suggests using 2 tablespoons of spices for 6 pints of sweet pickles.

1 peck green tomatoes, sliced thin

1 cup salt

5 pounds onions, sliced

1/2 package mixed whole spices, tied in a cheesecloth bag

6 cups sugar

1 quart vinegar

Combine tomatoes with salt and let sit overnight. Drain. Add onions, spices, sugar and vinegar to the green tomatoes and cook until soft. Put in jars and seal, according to canning instructions.


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