The Cannery Cookery

(by Melanie Chartoff)


My mother was a so-so cook, but a top-notch clerical worker. So she alphabetized all the canned goods stored in our basement bomb shelter by my father. Except for the ones he bought at half price because they had lost their labels.


For those 20-cent mystery tins, Mom typed up tidy ID tags with the dates that Dad had purchased them. We'd have guessing games about the contents based on their sizes compared to the labeled ones. Flat, rectangular tins with their cute keys for opening were easy: sardines. Big round canisters with wind-around tabs: coffee. Mom made sketches of the possible contents of the identically shaped unknowns in colored pencils. She Scotch-taped this informational art on hundreds of tins and later on aluminum cans, most of which Dad bought panic-shopping during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And she’d rotate all of them often so the oldest purchased would be used up first. No can went rancid on my mom’s watch. She tabulated that our fallout shelter could keep our four mouths fed for three months and six days, with three well-rounded, square meals a day, no matter what. Then Dad brought home enough cases of anonymous rations to get us through another entire nuclear winter of creative labeling.


Boy, could my mother make us some meals out of cans, from A for anchovies to V for V-8 Juice. Boy, could she hand-crank cans open fast, and even got ambidextrous at it. My sister and I ingested Mom’s love and effort—always fresh with her humor and affection—with every bite, especially the bites eaten out of the illustrated vessels, as proud of her as if she had grown and canned them herself. We adored coloring in Mom’s outlines of vegetables and cling peaches in their own syrup. Unlike other kids’ pantries, ours was a library of organized shelves stacked with nutritious supplies bearing one-of-a kind works of art. That era made an artist of my sister, and a game show host out of me. "Name that vegetable!" Whoever blew it, ate it. And we laughed.

Breakfasts were energy-packed: B&M Brown Bread with raisins that came out of a medium round can got sliced and toasted. Cups of Nestle’s cocoa powder got mixed in boiled water with Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk, with an occasional marshmallow floating on top. Skippy Peanut Butter and Welch’s Grape Jelly on Wonder Bread kept us two girls in lunches, alternating with Starkist tuna sandwiches with Hellman’s Mayonnaise and sliced Vlasic dill pickles thrown in for texture.

I favored the Monday night Chicken à la King on toasted Wonder Bread with Durkee’s Fried Onions. If we were lucky, Mom might get an unlabeled can of Jolly Green Giant Peas on the first try and mix those in for color. Unlucky? We’d get asparagus, the worst canned vegetable that ever lived and died by overcooking. But Mom put it in the Mixmaster with a can of chicken soup, pureed it, added pastina and salt, and simmered accidental asparagus soup—which became a family favorite.

Since our suppers were usually only one- or two-pot, four-plate, four-fork affairs, there was never much for us girls to wash and dry. Efficient kitchen duty was the name of our game so we could quickly go back to our homework. My mother raised her girls to be modern working women too.

We were proud that we had a mother who helped support our family. We didn’t mind that she hadn’t time to bake and cook elaborate meals. On holidays and Sundays, our Daddy did, and every Friday night, he brought in Chinese or "apizza" from New Haven’s finest restaurants.

On Mother’s Day, 1965, Dad bought Mom an electric can opener, a miraculous time-saver, and gave her talented, 54-words-per-minute hands a break. And we fried her up some Spam and eggs with accidental asparagus soup for supper with a big side of love. Delicious.

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Melanie Chartoff is a stage, screen, and voice actor, singer, and writer who lives in Los Angeles, California. Her memoir Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories is available in print, eBook, and as an audiobook. She can be found at www.melaniechartoff.com.

My Mother's Mother's Potato Pancakes

4 large potatoes 1/2 white onion 2 eggs, well beaten 1/2 t. salt 1/2 t. baking powder 4 T. all-purpose flour Crisco or cooking oil

sour cream or applesauce for serving

Peel potatoes, and grate finely into a bowl of cold water. Grate onion in another bowl.

Mix onion with eggs, salt, baking powder, and flour. Drain potatoes, and press out the liquid with the bottom of a cup. Stir potatoes into batter, and mix well. Heat 1/2 inch Crisco or oil in a 10-inch skillet over a low flame for a minute.

Put a drop of water in, and when it bounces, the oil is hot enough.

Drop batter by tablespoons into hot oil, from a distance. Flatten into 3-inch pancakes, and fry slowly until golden brown and crisp.

Turn and brown on the other side. Arrange on paper on a plate to blot.

Serve with sour cream or applesauce.

Serves 4.