Thursday, August 26, 2010


Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day for today is “Milquetoast.” I am not sure my children, all now middle-aged adults, are even aware of this word. But I’d guess that those of us whose families experienced the depression years would certainly understand.

Milquetoast, better-known to many of us as “Milk Toast” is the sobriquet of a timid, meek or unassertive person. We’ve all known people like that. What I didn’t know was where the word came from.

According to MW,
“Caspar Milquetoast was a comic strip character created in 1924 by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster. The strip, called “The Timid Soul,” ran every Sunday in the New York Herald Tribune for many years. Webster, who claimed that Milquetoast was a self-portrait, summed up the characters as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” (I am not sure any of my kids would understand this, either, but it made me laugh!) The earliest examples of “Milquetoast” being used as a generic synonym for “timid person” date from the mid-1930s.

So what is this picture of? A literal rendering of edible “milk toast,” a bland concoction of buttered toast served in a dish of warm milk. When we were kids did we eat it? You bet. Was it good? Well, sprinkled with enough cinnamon and sugar it certainly was. However, in my family’s repertoire of food it was not a breakfast dish; it was for Sunday night dinners. I don’t know that my folks ate it then, but us kids certainly did.

And all this reminds me of a few other things that we ate in our childhood.

One thing was a piece of bread torn into bite-sized pieces and slathered with gravy. Sausage gravy, chicken gravy or just plain milk gravy – it didn’t matter. I’m sure this evolved from the biscuits and milk gravy that my mother often prepared for dinner during the depression. According to the story she told me, often the neighbors living in the little court out on Dairy Avenue in Long Beach all brought whatever ingredients they had in their own apartment and together they managed to get a meager meal together for all. There may not have been meat on the table, but the biscuits and milk gravy were a staple. By the time my sis and I were big enough to sit at the table with the adults, the depression was on its way out, and the torn bread and a meat gravy became a delicacy for us.

Another thing my folks considered appropriate for a Sunday night dinner was a bowl of rice, topped with butter, sugar and hot milk. It was no different than a hot cereal, actually, but it was easily prepared and tasty. To be honest with you, it almost was rice pudding, and we all loved that. Getting to eat a “dessert” for Sunday dinner was a real treat!

If mother made a pie, she always took the left-over piecrust, rolled it out again, cut it into smallish pieces, dropped a spoonful of jelly in the center of each piece and baked along with the pie became “tarts” for my sister and me. There was always a tussle going on between us kids and our mom as to whether we could eat the raw dough or let her bake us the little tarts. We loved uncooked dough, and in spite of our mother telling us that too much dough would cause us to be constipated, we still tried to snatch as much of it as we could before it went under the rolling pin for the second time.

Another yummy treat was to put chocolate frosting between graham crackers. It was hard to let them sit long enough for the frosting to harden. If we happened to be caught without graham crackers in the house, my sis and I would implore mother to put the frosting between white soda crackers. She always reminded us that it wouldn’t taste very good, but we wanted them anyway. I do remember the taste, and it truly wasn’t very good. But that didn’t stop us from wanting more.

As nearly as I can recall, all I ever fixed of these things for my own kids was the graham crackers -- and probably the piecrust tarts. Certainly they never had milktoast. If I have forgotten about that, they surely will remind me. I'm afraid that they sometimes think my mind is getting a little addled, but at least my long-term memory is still darn good!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see your milquetoast and raise you a horripilation!