Monday, May 29, 2017

Government Cheese and Powdered Eggs

Commodity food humor never fails to crack me up.  

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Decorating Easter Eggs on the Rez like...
I THINK this photo came from this FB page: NativeHumour

Growing up, we always referred to the food that came in these boxes as, "La:san" or "Commodities".  I didn't know what those words really meant as a kid, and even looking for these images today caused me to stare blankly at the computer for a few minutes as I thought about what the common, English terms would be to do a google search.  

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Commodity Beef in a can

When I was in high school, I learned that what I had referred to as, "la:san" was just an O'odham-ized form of the word, "ration."  I had never given it a thought before in my life, that when I read books about the U.S. Government confining Natives to reservations and supplying them with "rations," that it meant the brown boxes that arrived in a huge truck once a month in our village. 

Growing up, we always looked forward to the day that the boxes marked, "USDA Food" came.  My Hu'uli-bat and my Hu'ul Ke:li-bat had the delivery date circled on the calendars.  Often, it was their cousin, An:gel (pronounced in the O'odham way, of course) who would take my Hu'ul Ke:li to the pick up spot in his truck. 

They would come back to the house with several boxes for each household.  The boxes would have names hastily scrawled on the sides in thick, red, crayon letters.  First name, last initial.

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USDA - U.S. Department of Agriculture
Commodity Food Boxes
We ALWAYS re-purposed these boxes after we emptied them.

Although we had "The Store" in our village (yes, they called it a trading post, but we only traded money, so, that's just a regular store.), food was more expensive there, and my grandparents often relied on a hand-written line of credit that was paid off as soon as they got their monthly social security check, and usually had a balance towards the end of the month.  The next largest grocery store, a Basha's was (and still is) an hour away, in Sells, Arizona.  Of course, traveling there meant that you needed a ride, if you didn't have your own vehicle and/or gas money to help out whoever took you shopping.  Also, gas in general was more expensive on The Rez too.  

In between trips to the "big city of Sells" or the even bigger (real) city of Tucson for groceries, we made do with the boxes of food that came off a truck and anything else we grew, harvested, hunted or processed ourselves.    

When I was a kid, the only two things we received that needed refrigeration was a block of cheese and a block of butter.  The block of cheese was heaven.  We were lucky because we lived close to The Store, which had a deli-slicer.  Sometimes we'd go in and get a good chunk of it sliced for sandwiches and the rest we'd painstakingly grate and try to stretch out for the rest of the month.  
The butter was kind of a pain in the butt.  I didn't know what a "stick" of butter was for a long time, because we got one big hunk of butter.  In order to bake peanut butter cookies, I had to force cold butter into a measuring cup.  You couldn't soften the butter or anything, because you'd ruin the entire hunk.  The wrapping didn't have markings on it like butter you get at the store, so I it was measuring cup or nothing for those cookies.    

Later, when my grandparents were older they'd receive frozen commodities: beef in a white sleeved tube, then later, buffalo meat, which was surprising.  Buffalos aren't Native to the desert.  The village I grew up in was named Pisin' Mo'o (Buffalo Head) for one skull that was found there.      

Each box typically had powdered eggs, powdered milk (which I hated), flour, lard, a loaf of cheese, a hunk of butter, apple, pineapple, tomato, grape, grapefruit and orange juice (which tastes exactly the same as the canned Donald Duck orange juice they sell in stores), canned corn, creamed corn, string beans, peas, potatoes (they were already peeled and in water), mixed veggies, peaches, pears, pineapple, fruit cocktail, condensed milk, canned beef, canned chicken -which was very much prized, as was the tuna, canned pork, "luncheon meat" (which is like Spam, only round and not as yummy), beef stew which my grandma really liked and "vegetarian beans" (which were like pork and beans, without the pork, annnnnd without the flavor.)

We'd also get a box of "dry stuff" like pinto beans, white rice (in later years, they gave my grandparents brown rice), mashed potato flakes, oatmeal, peanuts, corn syrup, honey that was thick and often crystalized and cereals that were the government equivalent to Corn Flakes and Chex.  The boxes were white and didn't have "fun" things written on them like other cereal boxes, but if you piled sugar on them, they were edible.  If you were using powdered of condensed milk, you'd be forced to choke the cereal down by your parents or grandparents who tried to convince us, "It's the same!" as regular milk... no, Mom... it isn't.  

The things that I was most surprised I had been getting cheated on all my life was with peanut butter and raisins!  Peanut butter came in a silver-lined, cardboard container (similar to the kind that Crisco comes in).  The top was a simple lid that snapped on (but without the snap) and the peanut butter came separated and hard.  You had to stir it pretty vigorously before you could get it to a consistency where it could actually be scooped out.  The first time I had Skippy peanut butter my mind was blown.  I had never understood the idea of people simply eating a spoonful of soft, sweet, creamy peanut butter.  We wrestled the thick, angry, peanut butter onto cecemait (tortillas) sometimes, we never bothered putting it on bread because it was too thick  and would leave your bread completely demolished. 
The first time I ever had soft raisins I was really surprised too.  La:san raisins came in a box, tightly packed at one end, so you'd have to pound the box on the table to get them out.  Sometimes you'd have to stab the raisins with a butter knife to get a handful of unappetizing clumps of raisins out.  I didn't know raisins were supposed to be soft and plump until I was in high school.    

I learned the same thing about prunes when I got one once as a sample at Costco.  I was shocked.  My mom made us eat hard prunes out of a crinkly plastic bag that didn't seem to keep out any air.  I hated them.  The one from Costco was an individually wrapped cocoon of deliciousness... turns out they were too spendy for my meager grocery budget.  

My favorite La:san food item will always be the farina.  My husband laughs every time I call "Cream of Wheat," "Farina," but the ONLY way I ever had it until I was an adult was from a white box, with a drawing of a baby wearing a green bib with that good ol' USDA logo on the side.  

I thought it was funny that there was a picture of a cow on front of the beef can, and a fish on the tuna and a chicken on the chicken... but for farina, there was a picture of a baby in a bib.  

When my mom and dad divorced, my mom kept my dad's truck, which somehow made us ineligible for commodity foods or food stamps (they counted the truck as income) but my grandma always had plenty of extra cans to give us, and we even had an aunt who would sometimes bring us the stuff her kids wouldn't eat.

Being a reader, I would spend a lot of hours pouring over the weird white packaging that our food came in.  I didn't know what the USDA was when I was a kid.  I didn't know what "food assistance" programs were, I just thought it was normal that our food would come delivered in boxes, off a truck.  

I would read the ridiculous recipes printed on the back of each box and wonder why they always listed recipes in two different quantities: for a family of four (too small) or for 200 people (waaaay too big).  

I often wonder if the recipes for 200 were originally meant for soldiers, but they just didn't want to spend time redesigning the packaging.  

If we've been eating like we're in a war zone all these years, the least we can do is laugh about it.  

Here's some of the la:san humor I've collected over the past year.  I'm sorry I can't credit whoever made these, either the links didn't work or there wasn't a credit listed.  

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I totally forgot about the plums in a can... because they were horrifying and disgusting and my brain erased their blobby, discoloured horror from my memory.  Thank you, brain.  

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Glorious commodity cheese
::singing:: cheeeeeeee-eeeeeeese::
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Powdered Eggs make the world go round
An O'odham delicacy

Mmm... now I'm kinda hungry.