Hominy & Hash
THE ROAR OF THE BACON, THE SONG OF THE COFFEE
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- There was a time when bacon sizzling in two inches of its own grease right up to your personal degree of crispness was the most inviting aroma in any house on any morning. Add to that the heady scent of coffee percolating the tune that promised satisfaction every time. They wrote songs about it. One, I recall, was "I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me; coffee and tea, the java and me, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup."
This time I'm recalling with such lip-licking glee was during World War II, and with rationing going on, coffee was fast becoming a lingering memory, not even a promise; those days were gone forever.
Or they would have been if it weren't for the occasional "mishap" down at the docks. Somehow, a crate might fall; somehow, slabs of bacon or sacks of coffee would break away through the ropes lifting them on to trucks for distribution to officially sanctioned stations. Sometimes a neighbor would walk home from the subway in his usual work-weary way - except for the brown paper package under his arm right behind the newspaper of the day.
Someone might have caught a glimpse of him climbing his front stoop. If it were summertime, the smell of sizzling bacon would waft in and out of the windows around the houses on the street. Oh, Oh, O'Brien's at it again.
Newspapers reported corruption on the docks, theft, murder, conspiracy, sabotage - and yet, the hard-working men who occasionally snagged a slab of bacon were met with a wink and a smile. You could claim guilt by association and I'd hate to be on a jury having to decide that because you would be right.
But those days on the homefront in World War II were somehow lived by rationalizations of the law rather than by the letter of the law. Well, didn't O'Brien have a son in the South Pacific, and Dennis only 18? A hard working man deserves a bit of bacon for breakfast - bad enough he can't get eggs.
And so it went, a slab of bacon here, a pound of coffee there. Everything about that bacon was saved - including the fat. It stayed in the frying pan, kept in the unused oven, until the family's ration of eggs made them available. Then, although there was no bacon, the sizzle that remained was used to baste the most beautiful and satisfying sunny-side-up eggs ever to slide onto a plate. There was no doubt about corruption on the docks. The longshoremen were battling for position as puppets of the mobsters pulling their strings. And, all out of greed.
But kids don't notice those things. We didn't have television news reports so we only knew what our parents told us and that was nothing. Nothing negative was spoken over our dinner table other than the fact of having to "make do," as my mother always said. We went from the Depression with no money at all to World War II when we had a little money but nothing to buy.
In each situation, making do was the way to go. Thanks to the kindness of the O'Brien's we occasionally got half a slab of bacon. In summer, without refrigeration and an irregular schedules of ice deliveries, we had to cook it up and eat it fast. In the winter, the neighbor's generous dole might last a week or more sitting on our freezing windowsill, covered to protect it from squirrels and pigeons.
During the war years, my father's firm transferred him to Chicago. In the stockyards of the world, butter was not a scarce item so he would package four pounds at a time in a newspaper-stuffed shoebox and send it to us. Mail was fairly slow but fast enough in winter to keep the butter cold. We'd slice a pound into quarters, share with the neighbors, then wait while Mama made a batch of buttery Scottish Shortbread.
All of this was good: the butter, the cookies, even the trade we might make with someone who doesn't need ration stamps for shoes but does need gasoline stamps for their car. We had shoes; we did not have a car. Good exchange. But none as satisfying as the aroma of bacon coming over the back fence and the blast of coffee in the air. Why was it so very satisfying? Was it the "forbidden fruit is the sweetest" syndrome? Or, perhaps the secret delight of ill-gotten gains?
No, I'm sure it was neither of those. I think it could be explained by another old saw: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." It had been so long since we had bacon, and the only coffee we had for a couple of years was ersatz coffee, a hot brown liquid with unknown contents - and certainly no caffeine. We were so ready for a taste of the promise in the air that we sat around salivating - waiting for the O'Brien's to invite us in for some - gesturing with us a wink and a smile.
There we were, knowingly guilty by association, loving every crisp bit of that bacon and washing it down with the finest coffee ever perked. Well, wouldn't you?