"You Kill It, You Eat It" and Other Lessons From My Thrifty Childhood

Jean Bethke Elshtain | Posted on 09/01/04

Those of us who were raised by male and female veterans of the Great Depression and World War II walk around with our heads stuffed full of injunctions calling us to thrift. In my own case, these injunctions take the form of my mother's voice enjoining me in a variety of ways.

"Jean, you're cutting off too much of the carrot top. You're wasting too much carrot."

"But Mom," I rejoined, "we've got a garden full of carrots and the part at the top doesn't taste as good as the rest."

"It's wasteful. Just do as I say. Waste not..."

"I know, 'want not,'" I would complete the nostrum, no doubt rather cheekily as I can recall my mother's pursed lips and frosty glare following a number of such exchanges.

.....

Habits of thrift extended to every single aspect of our daily lives. We gathered wild asparagus in season, clambering over irrigation ditches, mucking about in thorny underbrush, fighting off mosquitoes, in order to break off the succulent asparagus stems. You needed to harvest the wild asparagus before it went to seed. But even after it had gone to seed you harvested it, knowing the asparagus would be chewy and stringy as you ate it - but eat it we did. "Waste not, want not."

We gathered blueberries off wild blueberry bushes, and picked up black walnuts beneath the tree at our "Grandma and Grandpa in the Country's" home. My maternal grandparents, Volga German immigrants, lived on a farm. I lived in a metropolis, Timnath, Colorado, of one hundred eighty-five human souls. Timnath is in the high plains country of northern Colorado. It is an arid climate with a few registered inches of rainfall in a normal year. So you gathered and grew everything you could and as efficiently as you could. The growing season was short as the earth remained frozen well into spring given the severity of the Colorado winters.

My sisters and I possessed two pairs of shoes - one for everyday and one for Sunday school. These shoes were worn until they wore out. All our clothes - there were three girls in the family at this point - were made by my mother from flour sacks. Flour used to be purchased in bulk and came packaged in colorful cotton sacks. Once the flour was used, the cotton fabric was washed and ironed and out of it was constructed simple dresses. My mother was an expert seamstress so our flour-sack dresses often included bits of lace around the collar or other touches that distinguished our outfits. Girls in those days were pretty much obliged to wear dresses - certainly for school they were required. I remember my excitement when, at age ten, I came into possession of my first ever "store bought dress" - it was green, with a Peter Pan collar and short, puckered sleeves. I paid for it with my own 4-H club money that I'd earned from my vegetable garden.

What clothing wasn't handmade was usually hand-me-downs. I was spared a good bit of this as I was the oldest in the large crew of cousins on my mother's side of the family. My sisters, given the luck of the birth order, wore my hand-me- downs, or some from my cousins. And we in turn traded hand-me-downs with them. We were permitted shorts or slacks in the summer. In winter we wore leggings under our dresses and we covered our feet in rubber boots. It was a sin to get your shoes soaking wet as that impaired their life expectancy.

Our dog, Laddie, fed off table scraps. The notion that you would buy separate food for a dog, no matter how beloved the animal, was out of the question. We just had to remember not to give him soft chicken bones as they might stick in his craw and choke him. We got our milk from Grandma and Grandpa's farm. It wasn't pasteurized until pasteurization requirements of a legal sort set in. In the summertime, after tomato harvest, my mother, grandmother, Aunt Mary and Aunt Martha gathered - with their respective broods - in the canning cellar, sunk into the ground at Grandma's house in order to put up homemade catsup. I'd enter the cool of the cellar but before long, with the steam coming off the huge pot in which the catsup mixture stewed, little beads of perspiration formed on my forehead and my bangs got damp. The aroma was wonderful - tomato with a strong hint of nutmeg and clove, added to spice up the mixture. This homemade catsup wasn't as thick as store bought, but it was delicate and had a wonderful taste.

Grandma's cellar was also the site of sausage making. Cleaned and sterile pig gut was placed on a sausage-making device and the mixture of ground pork, beef, or chicken - all spiced up - was fed into the guts. Then the long strands were sliced into individual sausage segments and the gut tied off. My mouth waters to this day when I think of the liver sausage and German red sausage that emerged from these day-long efforts. Liver sausage with some of Grandma's famous rye bread, hot out of the oven and smeared with her homemade butter, was about as close to heaven as one could get in a culinary sense. (Although Grandma's butter balls, floating in golden chicken soup, and her black-walnut cookies made with real butter, of course, gave the sausage and rye bread a run for their money.)

We only resorted to the grocery store for what were called "essentials": flour, sugar, lard, toilet paper and Kleenex. You ate vegetables in season. This meant there was about a nine-month hiatus in between green salads, as you couldn't store lettuce in the root cellar. In my own family's case, this meant a corner of the basement - which also featured the coal furnace - that was piled high with dirt. Buried in this dirt, which remained cool but didn't freeze in the winter - were potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other root vegetables. These, in addition to whatever my mother had canned over the summer when they were in season - including string-beans, cabbage turned into sauerkraut, and sour-dill pickles - provided our vegetable supply.

Before home freezers were available sometime well after World War II, the meat supply was whatever you could keep in the one frozen food locker in town. This was a huge communal place where, for a rental fee, you stored freezable perishables - fish and meat. The fish were trout, blue gill, and sometimes perch. Carp were plentiful but they were "bottom feeders," and even for the thrifty were not considered fit to eat. Into the locker went butchered chickens - you butchered them when they had become fryers, though some were permitted to reach the roaster or stewing stage. Grandpa fed the animals until they were butchered and then we bought them from him. The meat was stored in the locker and my mother or my sisters and I would run down to pick up a package the night before it was destined for dinner.

We saved every bit and piece of string - a practice I challenged repeatedly as I didn't get the point of it. But each piece of string got wound into the huge string ball my mother kept. We saved every rubber band that came our way. We saved jars and lids. We saved paper bags. One way or another almost everything was used. When my two brothers came along, and the youngest turned out to be a kid who liked to shoot and spear things, my mother announced the rule: "You kill it, you eat it." This included rattlesnakes and squirrels. The frozen-food locker that my parents eventually bought for the house was the stuff of a Stephen King nightmare. Just about every creature known to northern Colorado humankind could be found in a frozen state within it. And, yes, even the rattlesnake was consumed. I was away from home by then so I didn't face the test of whether or not to try the stuff. Like everything else, it allegedly tasted like chicken.

Now, what sort of claims can be made from this sort of experience? One could simply expand on the descriptions I have already offered of a way of life now long gone and treat it as an exercise in literary memory, larded with nostalgia. Or one could recall with a moral purpose in mind along these lines: Can the lessons of the normal thriftiness of a half century ago offer useful and edifying tidbits for our understanding of thrift in the here and now? Can this be done without stretching the point - and without the moral one-upmanship that sometimes characterizes such discussions - that once we were good and now we've become slovenly or even decadent? How does this ideal of thrift embedded in the Colorado village of my childhood hold up in the harsh glare of the present? Is any of it recoupable or even desirable?

.....

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), offers as its first definition of thrift words that we do not think of ordinarily when thrift comes to mind, namely, thriving, prospering, prosperity, and success. That's the first definition. The second lists means of thriving - industry, labour [sic], profitable occupation. Way down on the list, at number three, is the definition that dominates our own cultural consciousness: economical management, economy, sparing use or careful expenditure of means, frugality, saving. Euphemistically, the OED continues, parsimony or niggardliness. One might think of an excess of thrift, or niggardliness, as the deformation of what is assuredly a virtue, analogous to the manner in which Aristotle articulated legitimate regimes, like monarchy, and then alerted us to their deformed manifestation, viz., tyranny.

So thrift is both prosperity and that sparing use and economical management that is conducive to prospering. Many would cavil at this as a statement of fact, of course, going on to insist that there are loads of folks who work from dawn to dusk but never prosper. We will not linger over that question because it is an entirely separate one involving debates about justice and equity that lie off to the side of our primary concern: what was thrift?

Often thrift is linked historically and culturally to the Protestant Reformation. Max Weber sealed this connection with his enormously influential book on The Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Capitalism. The book has been much debated by historians, but Weber's connection stuck in the popular mind. Protestantism, with its code of hard-work and self-denial - by contrast to late medieval Catholicism with all those saints-days, massive numbers of days off, and other practices that permitted people to slack off - was and is associated with those qualities that created modern economies, both economic in the strict sense and moral.

There is a particular moral economy attached to any understanding of an economy. The Protestant moral economy uplifted and underscored thrift in the meaning the OED lists third, namely, a form of good stewardship and of husbanding one's resources, and made that understanding dominant. It required postponing satisfactions, avoiding self-indulgence and romanticism, engaging in salutary forms of self-denial. There is no doubt that such virtues could degenerate into vice - the vice of niggardliness, of a cramped and cribbed, soul-killing spirit. One could never permit oneself a moment in which to slack off, to take it easy, to make oneself pretty (if one were a girl or woman), to drink a bit and to dance, to go to the movies. Or, more accurately, you couldn't do these things without incurring a heavy load of guilt.

I think about this often given my mother's internalization of the hard-working code of the German-speaking Protestant peasant. There is so much to admire in this that it is painful to think of the excesses of self-denial it also invited. Certainly the virtue of thrift held the Volga German immigrants of my childhood in good stead. They worked from dawn to dusk, they saved, they spent nothing on themselves. The entire family, including very young children, labored long and hard. One of the first surviving photographs of my mother is of a little blond-haired girl on her knees next to her mother, my grandmother, who is, at that moment, standing with a hoe in hand, as they thin sugar beets in a dry, rocky, sun-burnt field in the glare of a northern Colorado sun. She is no older than two.

The downside was this: my mother could scarcely permit herself a moment off. Not to be working was to be slovenly. Whenever she caught me reading a book during the day, she would say, "Jean, get to work." Or: "Jean, don't you have anything better to do?" I didn't, of course, but reading a book was not "work" in my mother's definition. It didn't contribute in ways that were palpable to the household economy and it seemed very, very close to sliding over the edge into that indulgence that was anathema to the moral economy. This habit of thrift served immigrants, like my maternal grandparents and all their children, well. They were able to own their own farms and, by the time the family got to grandchildren, like myself, the expectation was that you would not only complete high school but go on to college. This held for girls and boys alike.

World War II wasn't such a wrench to my mother as it no doubt was to the average middle-class householder because the savings, the Victory Gardens, the doing-without, the rations were already deeply encoded as her preferred way of life. World War II was just more of the same. The virtue of thrift was a constituent and necessary feature of both worldly success and moral achievement. The proof was in the pudding. Had the person backslid into self-indulgence, perhaps drink and laziness? If so, it would show. He (or she) would lose a farm, or shame himself before the neighbors, or drive his car into a tree. The children of such persons would be screwed-up and not know right from wrong.

And eternal life was definitely in jeopardy unless the person "saw the light" and came around. You do not understand the sort of thrift I am talking about if you try to sever it from religious faith. Thrift was an ethic that flowed from religious conviction. Religious beliefs, in turn, legitimated and secured the virtue itself. These religious beliefs were tethered to certain theological understandings, although I suspect that the vast majority who embraced the beliefs didn't probe too deeply into the theological underpinnings. Specifically, thrift, withholding, certain forms of denial, were linked to crucifixion. God's son made incarnate came to earth, practiced a form of self-denial (for he certainly had the power to take himself down off the cross) - all in order to redeem humankind from its sins. The second person of the Trinity figured most importantly in the theology of the thrifty.

If this was thrift, and in our very recent history, what happened to it?

.....

Thrift got a bad name in the 1960s. It was no doubt under pressure well before that given the unprecedented domestic prosperity of the immediate post-war decade, with pent-up consumer demand gobbling up everything the mighty engine of the U.S. economy, transformed from military to domestic use, could produce. People who never had things could now acquire them: home freezers, electric stoves, big refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, automatic washing machines and even clothes dryers - allegedly labor-saving devices.

Then came television and it exploded so remarkably that a decade after its introduction as a consumer item the TV set was a fixture in the overwhelming majority of American homes. People went to the movies in droves, with one third of the American population going to the movies every single week in the 1950s.

This was also the decade that saw a flight from the farms and villages and into the cities. Fort Collins, Colorado, the nearest "big town" to the village of Timnath, was a bustling town of ten to fifteen thousand when I was growing up. Its population began to explode in the 1950s: twenty-five thousand; then, suddenly, forty-five thousand. (Now it is in the neighborhood of one hundred thousand in the greater Fort Collins area.)

It was hard for the thrifty to grow accustomed to this new wave of buying in the '50s. The way they had done things, always, and continued to do them was to ask, "What do we really need?" And they never bought on credit. You did not get the new stove until you could pay for it outright. Such habits gave way under the relentless assault of advertising. In fact, buying on credit was extolled using the language of thrift: you were helping the economy overall and you could do otherwise immediately needful and useful things for your family with the cash available that would not otherwise be done unless you purchased items on credit. This was pretty intricate but somehow it worked for many. Also, traditional religious belief with its emphasis on the cross and its historic hold on the minds of Protestant Christians, underscored good husbandry and thrift, although the disconnect between this message and the wider culture grew wider and wider as the '50s came to a close.

By the 1960s, even the 1950s pretense of upholding thrift started to break down. Americans were told that it was stupid to deny themselves anything. Thrift was linked to unhealthy self-denial and repression. Herbert Marcuse preached the doctrine of letting it all hang out - doing what you want, the pleasure principle should triumph, not dour Sigmund Freud's 'reality principle' that insisted on a tough-minded realism about the world and one's role in it. Nature got romanticized as something we should get closer to, and those who wrested a living from nature - like all those hard-working Volga German immigrants - were represented as harsh exploiters of nature, somehow damaging the earth by using it rather than standing in worshipful repose before it.

Much of this was unintelligible drivel to the immigrant and immediate post-immigrant generation, like my parents and grandparents. I recall my grandfather's - and my mother's - ire when countercultural hippies began to effect the casual rural look by wearing long overalls with their bib tops and metal suspender snaps as they smoked dope and gyrated in serpentine configurations. (These were invariably the images seen on television.) My grandfather knew he was being mocked and he didn't like it. Those farm overalls represented hard, long days in the harsh sun and remorseless winters. They represented crawling out of bed at 2 a.m. when the water had come in and you needed to switch the rows being irrigated.

The mocking of old habits of thrift, then, took a popular cultural and a more philosophic form. The philosophic form was to insist that thrift made people mean, sexually repressed, and probably conservative. This was the Marcusian hypothesis of 'surplus repression.' The popular form I have already noted - living for the moment, getting high, hanging out, hanging loose, not getting hung up. Curiously enough, the hippie culture promoted its own form of anticonsumerism, but this didn't flow from a moral economy of thrift. Rather, it derived from a vague animus against "capitalism" and "the system." Acquiring got a bad odor but consuming triumphed. You could take anything in to your body but you should wear shabby or second-hand clothes, fashion your own, swap with others, and so on. The moral economy underlying such cultural habits was that of a particular form of self-indulgence.

There was also, in this era, lots of loose talk about the "greening" of America as part of the back-to-nature movement. Yet again the departure from the older notion of a human relationship to nature tied to the moral economy of thrift could scarcely be more striking. Nature was romanticized frequently as somehow offering an ethic that humans should get closer to. Environmentalism began to enter the popular mind and political discourse but in a variety of often conflicting ways. There were utilitarian approaches: we must conserve or we are all doomed. There were romantic, anti-Christian, pagan sources: nature vs. the machine, what is real vs. what is artificial. Deep ecology asserted an identity between human beings and nature that had somehow been violated along the way as we had become alienated from nature rather than remaining at one with it. None of these environmentalisms - although some of the tasks called for, like recycling, mimed what the thrifty had done a generation or two earlier - relied on the virtue of thrift, however.

The earlier notion of thrift was underscored, as I have argued, by a Protestant moral economy. The new notion of recycling played to utilitarian self-interest, cultural guilt (we are consuming more than our fair share of resources), and got heavily politicized as one feature of a generally left-wing political outlook. To some of us, tying right or left politics to whether or not one recycled cans and newspapers never made a lot of sense, but there it was. My point here is that, whatever one finds salutary or unconvincing or even reprehensible about the new environmentalisms, they are not the same as the classic, culturally realized virtue of thrift. The new "thrift" was not a constitutive virtue but the way all bien pensant folks did things. One could recycle and pat oneself on the back.

And what happened to Protestant Christianity all this time? At the risk of considerable oversimplification, it got political and went to protest marches. Christians were still called to responsibility but that took external forms - civil rights, Vietnam, other forms of "oppression" and "exploitation." (I use quotes because of the loose way in which such potent terms often were applied.) The inner moral formation of persons to certain habits, save a kind of "perpetual, flaming rage" at injustice - in philosopher Charles Taylor's locution - dissipated. Confirmation school classes got softer - less theology, more sociology.

Even the extraordinary rise of evangelicalism did little to abate this trend. Of course, many evangelicals are political in quite different ways from those manifested in traditional Protestantism. Contemporary evangelicalism tends to be a religion of the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is on the third person of the Trinity, on being seized personally by God and shown the light. But that light doesn't seem to have anything to do with habits of thrift in the old moral economy sense. One is still enjoined not to store up riches on this earth but I don't know of any solid evidence that evangelical young people are less consumer-oriented than young people in general.

The theology underlying thriftiness is gone and the wider culture eschews it in any case. Evangelical youngsters surely have their hands full trying to stave off the premature and hyped-up sexualization they find all around them, I suspect, and adding thrift to their list of "dos" and "don'ts" - unless one counts postponement of sexual gratification a form of thrift - is, or would be, too much to expect.

.....

Americans work longer and harder than any population of people anywhere on the globe, so far as our best sociological data tells us. Indeed, we work like dervishes but in a way disconnected from earlier habits of character. The Protestant part of the work ethic has been severed from the ethic itself. The good at which the work ethic aims nowadays is precisely in the direction of certain forms of self-indulgence, or what would have counted as such to the generations of the thrifty: a bigger house, a fancier car, a longer vacation, designer clothes, tutors for the kids so they get into an elite college, etc.

I am struck daily by all the McMansions going up in and around our neighborhood of modest, good-sized houses in Nashville, Tennessee. Some of these gigantic abodes have gone up on our street, looming in ungainly ways over the modest-size lot. A person looks at one of these massive structures and wonders if the family has, maybe, eight kids. But, no, there is the usual - 1.5 or two kids. Maybe a dog.

So what is this about? In his 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen spoke of conspicuous consumption, of displaying one's prosperity before one's neighbors. The big house is a status symbol - never mind the fact that most of the rooms will be beautifully decorated but go unused. Never mind that the hard-pressed resources we are supposed to be concerned about are stretched to provide water and energy to these homes. What is on display is not thrift but aggressive wealth. Narcissism, not thrift, is in the air these days.

Can thrift be recovered? Will the thrifty rise again? Probably not - at least not in the classic form I have described. We are too far removed from that way of life. But I do believe we might, as a knowing and explicit cultural project, retrieve some notion of what counts as "enough" - an ideal and virtue long ago lost when thrift went the way of the wringer washing machine. It doesn't seem to be beyond us as a culture to revivify an ideal of knowing how to stop, of resisting cultural and peer pressures as a good, old-fashioned act of American dissent.

But the thorny matter of what shall generate and sustain a new thriftiness remains. If the old thrift was rooted in religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, where will the motor of the new thrift arise? We cannot count on religion as it, too, has given way before the ethic of consumption. Save, perhaps, and interestingly enough in light of the history of thrift, within Catholicism. It is within Catholic social teaching that one finds currently the strongest case being made on behalf of what is reasonably called thrift as a theologically grounded virtue. But it will take a lot more than that for flour-sack dresses to come back in style.