My family displayed loyalty in a variety of ways: to each other; to weekly TV series like “Combat!” or “Perry Mason;” and perhaps most importantly, to food. And when I say “food,” I don’t mean simply choosing ground chuck over regular ground beef, or using strictly white corn for creaming and yellow for gnawing off the cob, though none of us would have chosen or dared to do differently. I mean brands: brand loyalty.
For instance, my Dad swore that only a simpleton would choose Keebler or Sunshine cookies over Nabisco. His one exception to this rule was Sunshine’s “Vienna Fingers.”
“They’re much better than ‘Cameos,’” he’d say, referring to Nabisco’s brand of cylindrical vanilla sandwich cookie. But if you offered him a “Hydrox” instead of an “Oreo,” or if my brother and I talked our Mom into buying Keebler’s feeble substitute for “Chips Ahoy,” then we’d all get a twenty-minute dissertation on quality, freshness, and flavor, and most energetically, loyalty.
“We’re a Nabisco family. Don’t forget it!”
Of course, none of us could forget it, and though I don’t eat “store-bought” cookies today (except for the gluten-free oatmeal-raisin variety produced by Whole Foods), if I were to violate my code of digestion, I’d buy Nabisco; I wouldn’t think of straying even though my Dad has been dead for fourteen years.
It’s not just cookies; it’s everything food-related.
I’ve long passed the point where I smear ketchup on meat. Ok, sometimes I sneak it on a few French fries, for nothing weds deep-saturated potatoes and oil better than a sugary red concoction that drips from an iconic bottle. Today, instead of ketchup, I prefer hot sauce on burgers and hot mustard on kosher dogs. And I’d definitely never pour ketchup over fresh fried shrimp or fish, for I remember watching my brother be severely scolded by the manager of one of Birmingham’s finest Greek eateries when he foolishly spread his ketchup over a piece of fried red snapper. You might wonder why this culinary palace served ketchup at all. I don’t know. Why do people order Diet Coke to go with their three-piece KFC meal—the one with “mashed” potatoes, gravy, and all those rolls or biscuits?
But if I were to use ketchup, the only ketchup I’d consider buying—and if you know the distinction in the terms “Ketchup” and “Catsup,” you’ll know where I’m heading—is Heinz.
All because of Dad.
“Stokely’s is too runny, and Hunt’s just doesn’t taste as good. Besides, who wants something called Catsup?”
I mean, you could try to engage with him in this argument, but you wouldn’t win. Just as Woody Allen lamented that his fictional parents in Annie Hall would argue over which was the greater ocean, the Atlantic or Pacific, my Dad would willingly engage in any argument over, and indeed always have the last word in ketchup. He wouldn’t eat Chinese food largely because he couldn’t decide where the Heinz should go. So whether I use it or not, whether I need it or not, in my pantry right now is a bottle of Heinz. If, two or three years from now, I run out, I’ll buy another at our local grocer’s.
Another bottle of Heinz.
In fact, just last week I made a meat loaf for my Persian mother-in-law. I added a local barbecue sauce to the insides, but at the end, I topped it with Heinz. She and everybody else loved the meat loaf. And somewhere, I know my Dad is smiling.
* * *
My Dad, however, was just that first ingredient in our family’s brand-loyalty layer cake. He never cooked—except the occasional French toast for breakfast—so he had no idea of the proper ingredients for sauces, for desserts, for baking. That was my Mom’s province, and as a southern cook with ties to several generations of home chefs, she experimented with, decided on, and served up meals that are still talked about among her peers and mine.
The only brand food that Dad ever questioned her about was mayonnaise. According to Mom, you’re just a fool if you use any mayonnaise other than Hellman’s or Kraft. And even with Kraft, she’ll sigh and wonder just a bit about the universe your ancestors abandoned to get here. Every now and then, and I believe he did it just to make her pressure rise, Dad would claim that Blue Plate or Bama tasted better. It’s funny that he would brook no dissent on ketchup, yet he egged mayonnaise on her:
“Blue Plate? Echhh. You just don’t know what’s good!”
And he’d just laugh and walk away.
Remember, we’re talking about mayonnaise, not Miracle Whip or Smart Balance. But before you ask, “Who really cares,” query your friends and in-laws. I bet most have an opinion, and many will go to war over their favorite. For years, my in-laws bought Kroger brand, but then, they weren’t from “here.”
Recently, having lived in South Carolina these past twenty-seven years, I bought my first jar of our locally manufactured mayonnaise, Duke’s. But I’ll never do that again. I keep finding ways to use masses of it in tuna or turkey casseroles that I prepare for other people. From now on, it’s Hellman’s or nothing.
Aside from mayo, my Mom’s loyal favorites run the spectrum from flour—only White Lily—to cornmeal—only Jim Dandy. From canned tomato soup—Amy’s Chunky Tomato Bisque—to chocolate syrup—definitely only Hershey’s. And if you want an eighty-one year old woman to switch your legs, please don’t ever suggest that she have a Pepsi.
I rarely run afoul of Mom when it comes to her favorite brands, except for the time when I found myself trapped between grocer and mother. The time when I just didn’t understand that when my mother told me what to buy, she wasn’t giving me free will.
Understand: there is no free will when it comes to baking powder. There can’t be.
For only a simpleton, or a five year-old boy, would bring home anything other than Rumford Baking Powder for his mother’s angel biscuits.
* * *
“Buddy! Run down to Lorino’s and get me a can of Rumford Baking Powder. I need it for the biscuits I’m making tonight. That’s Rumford, you hear!” and she even wrote it out for me on the back of an index card.
“Here’s a dollar. That should be enough.”
Lorino’s was an old-style corner grocery at the foot of 19th Street, just a block-and-a-half from our house. It was one of those stores where the owners, if they wanted, could live in the back, as it faced 19th, but extended down Exeter Avenue with a separate entrance at the rear. The Lorinos were ancient to me even then, and I don’t know how long their store had been operating. Their son was a star running back for Auburn in the 1950’s, and his photo adorned the wall just behind the counter.
I thought Lorino’s was good for buying cold Cokes from the floor cooler and oatmeal cookies from the enormous glass jar sitting by the cash register. But Lorino’s was also disappointing in that while they sold any variety of bubblegum you wanted—Bazooka, Double Bubble—they never carried bubblegum cards. Not baseball, football, Beatles, Monkees, anything. Every time I entered, I looked longingly at the rows of candy and treats on display just behind the counter, and once, I thought I spied a glittering pack of football cards. But no. It was just a “WOWEE Whistle,” an orange, wax, and I think edible device to blow shrilly on and drive your parents crazy during Halloween season.
So the treats at Lorino’s were just as limited as the atmosphere.
As I remember it now, the large plate-glass window out front afforded most of their lighting. Surely, though, there were overhead lights in the store, and maybe they were fluorescent, but Lorino’s just didn’t seem that bright inside. And the floors were not polished linoleum, but rather hard stone, concrete, and a dirty euchre color.
The fact of it was that Lorino’s was one of those stores that presaged 7-Eleven’s and Quik Marts; where kids walking home from school bought their treats; where people like my Mom would run in if they needed one or two items that they had forgotten at the supermarket; and where the bifurcated white and black neighborhoods of our small Alabama town met, as 19th Street was the general segregating line on this side of Bessemer. Only those without cars would have done major grocery shopping there. But then those without cars back in this era would never have been able to afford much, would never have bought much. Could Lorino’s have made any sort of profit, or were the rumors true that the Lorinos were persuaded to move into this store by those who wanted their son to play football for Bessemer High?
Of course, I didn’t know any of these stories then. For me, any chance to go to Lorino’s was thrilling, especially if I were being trusted with an errand for my mother. So on that day of the baking powder excursion, I pocketed her index card and dollar bill, buttoned my jacket, and headed out the back way, down our pecan-tree lined backyard, across the alley, and over to the corner where Lorino’s sat.
Opening the screen-door entrance, I walked hesitantly up to the counter. Rather than falsely describing Mr. and Mrs. Lorino, since my memory of their faces has disappeared, I’ll simply suggest that you picture a generic Italian, Mom and Pop couple in their seventies: short, somewhat squat, very gray. And hairy. Overall, they were friendly enough, and maybe it’s just my imagination now, but whenever a kid or several kids entered, the Lorinos would huddle together, as if only in unity would they be able to fend off or sell canned goods to these threatening vagrants.
“Can I help you,” Mr. Lorino asked, as if he knew he couldn’t.
And in a voice that somehow knew that this experience was more doomed than not, I said, “Could I have a can of Rumford Baking Powder please?”
I don’t know how to describe the look of pure horror that passed over his face. It was equal to what I imagine he’d have expressed had I asked instead, “Would you mind if I steal a few cookies and bring in an older gang to help me?” In his shock, or dismay, or abject fear at my request, he must have covertly motioned for Mrs. Lorino to move closer to him. I never saw him make the motion, but in an instant, she did so. Putting his arm around her, protecting all that he held dear and safe, he said, not apologetically, but almost threateningly, “We don’t carry that brand. All we sell is Calumet.”
Calumet brand, like Rumford, was also baking powder and it also came in a red can. Only Calumet had an Indian on it, though I had no idea why. In any case, I surely didn’t expect this trouble. Maybe I had wondered beforehand if I had enough money, if I would lose the money on the way, or if I would even lose the index card. But I never figured that Lorino’s wouldn’t have the brand I needed.
The brand my mother depended on.
So with the two old people staring at me so intently, as though if I didn’t make a decision fast they were going to exercise some privilege only known to small Italian shopkeepers living in Bessemer, I blurted out what came first to my mind, “OK. I’ll take that one.”
Mr. Lorino proceeded to put the Calumet in a small brown sack, took my money—I did have enough—gave me back a nickel change, and sent me on my way home, thinking I had made the best and only decision I could have made.
Even now, I wonder what other decision a boy like me could have made: “No thanks, we only use Rumford?” “I’ll have to think about it?” “Could I use your phone?” Maybe other five year-olds would have been more thoughtful, more discerning, more inventive. But not me.
I picked up my bag and went straight home. I didn’t walk past the creek that ran beside Lorino’s, nor did I amble by the TVA power station, dreaming of the warning I had always been given to never think of touching even the outside fence for fear of being electrocuted.
But being electrocuted couldn’t have been much worse; in fact I think it would have been remarkably similar to what I experienced when I entered the kitchen where Mom was stationing all her biscuit-making equipment. Pulling the can of Calumet out of the sack, I stood it on the counter, right next to her mixing bowl.
“What is this? This isn’t Rumford! What have you done?”
“They didn’t have Rumford. This was all they had. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Here you might think my mother was about to soften, to tell me that it was all right, that I did my best. With a pat on my head, she would acknowledge that in unforeseen circumstances, making such a weighty decision was too much for a five year-old anyway.
But that wasn’t my mother, and since you don’t know her, you’ll have to trust me when I report that instead of the forgiving, reconciling scene above, what followed her “Well,” went pretty much like this: “…you’re going to have to take this back and get my money. This stuff is no good at all. It makes food bitter. I don’t want my biscuits turning out bitter. I only use Rumford. Now march down there and take this mess back right now!”
I must have gone, though if I did, I ghost-walked the Calumet to Lorino’s. I suppose that my mother went to the supermarket later, or maybe she borrowed the heaping teaspoonful of Rumford from one of our neighbors. But what I do know is that I never entered Lorino’s again without thinking of Calumet Baking Powder which, to this day, I’ve never purchased again, though I’m sure I’ve eaten it in baked goods since.
None, of course, from the hands of my mother.
On those occasions when a piece of challah or cornbread or angel biscuit leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, whether it’s true or not, fair or not, I think one thing: Calumet. Ugh.
In composing this story, I asked my mother to help verify the details. She did so, but thinking of the incident, of the Calumet, just got her stirred up again.
“I don’t know why people can’t taste the difference either. Why, my family has been using Rumford for generations. My mother and my Aunt Ann. When I was a little girl, no more than five or six, my mother took me to a friend’s house for lunch. The food was pretty good, but not the biscuits. When we were on the way home, I asked my mother why the biscuits tasted so bad. ‘It’s the baking powder,’ she said. ‘That bitter baking powder. They didn’t use Rumford!’”
My grandmother went on to explain that there were two kinds of baking powder: phosphate, like Rumford, and tartrate. Like Calumet.
“You just have to be a cook to know the difference,” Mom said. “I’ve never forgotten that day either!”
And now, neither will I.
As I rummaged through my mother’s pantry, conducting my research, I found her can of Rumford. She has no one much to bake for these days, as we all live hundreds of miles away. Maybe that explains why her can of Rumford was dated June 1999. In any case, she purchased it while Rumford still owned its own brand, based in Terre Haute, Indiana. On that can, Rumford, as if it were channeling my mother and grandmother (and even Aunt Ann) instructs: “Use double acting Rumford Baking Powder in the exact quantities called for in your favorite recipes. Rumford is an all-phosphate baking powder—this is your assurance against any bitter after-taste.”
When I went to our local Publix Market, I explored further. Rumford is now owned by Clabber Girl, another brand of baking powder my mother disparages. I examined the ingredients of both brands and saw that there are two main distinctions: the first, Clabber Girl contains aluminum (as does Calumet by the way); second, Rumford’s powder is certified non-genetically modified organic, something my old-styled mother could care less about. Neither Clabber Girl nor Calumet makes that claim. And while all claim to be gluten-free, it is easy to see that Rumford costs roughly twice as much as the other two. Which is also part of my family’s history of food-brand loyalty. “You pay for what you get,” my mother has always said. So true.
And another thing I know: as I continue to pass on my own foodways to my daughters, as I give them recipes in my own hand that call for certain ingredients, I always specify the brand: Crystal, Heinz, White Lily, and of course, Rumford. For my best and only intention is to leave a sweet taste in their mouths and in all of our memories.
Jo Ann’s Angel Biscuits
5 cups sifted flour (White Lily, of course)
3 tsp RUMFORD baking powder
1 tsp baking soda (Arm & Hammer)
2 tsp salt (Morton’s)
1 pkg yeast (Fleischman’s)
1 ½ cups buttermilk (Barber’s in Birmingham)
¼ cup sugar (Dixie Crystals, though I won’t complain if you opt for Domino)
1 cup shortening (Crisco)
2 Tblsp warm water (tap)
Sift dry ingredients and cut in shortening.
Dissolve yeast in warm water, then add buttermilk.
Add buttermilk and yeast mixture to dry ingredients. Mix well.
Place dough in refrigerator (Frigidaire).
When ready to use, roll out dough and bake as needed at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes.
TERRY BARR a professor of English and Creative Writing at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina. His essays have been published in such journals as The Museum of Americana, Blue Lyra Review, Sport Literate, Steel Toe Review, Thin Air, Iron Gall Review, and in the anthologies Hope for the Holidays and Half Life: Jewish Tales from Interfaith Homes. Also, Terry’s writing on music can be found at mass.com.
He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and daughters and is working on a collection of interrelated stories about growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. You can find Terry on Facebook.