My parents, like many others, survived the Great Depression by buying only what they really needed, wasting as little as possible and stretching the little money they had as far as they possibly could. Men saved nails and screws from old lumber and built new things from the scavenged materials. Women learned to sew and mend clothing, to recycle the yarn from old sweaters, socks and caps and to cook creatively with whatever ingredients were available.
Unlike the people who lived in larger cities during the Depression, Mom and Dad always had enough to eat. They grew up on farms in northern Wisconsin, so they knew how to grow vegetables, milk cows, raise hogs and tend poultry. Dad learned to hunt grouse and deer and both were experienced anglers.
Dad loved to tell the story of how he once earned a dollar fishing on the Namekagon River when he was a boy. The river flowed through Grandpa’s farm, and Dad had been taught to fish as soon as he was old enough to hold a “brush pole,” a stick with a string and hook on the end. In the 1920’s, the Namekagon was already a well-known brown trout stream, and trout fishermen from “the cities” were regular visitors to the Hayward area.
One day my grandmother sent Dad to the river with orders to bring home trout for supper. He dug some angleworms behind the chicken coop, grabbed his steel extension rod and headed for the river. The trout were biting so well that he started keeping only the larger ones, and it wasn’t very long before he had a dozen or more nice browns cleaned and strung on a stick.
As he walked along the river toward the logging road that led back to the house, he met a trout fisherman. Dad was impressed. The man had a bamboo fly rod, a fishing jacket with lots of pockets and a wicker creel. The only thing missing was trout. When he saw those trout on the stick, his eyes got a glint in them, and he offered Dad a dollar for the six biggest ones.
He could have gotten them for a quarter. When Dad agreed to sell the fish, the man made him promise not to say anything about their bargain to any other fishermen he might meet, as he had a “little bet” with his partners. Dad had to catch some more trout to take home, but he had a dollar for his trouble and was more than satisfied.
There were no trout streams near the farm where Mom grew up, but there were lakes within walking distance where she learned to catch bluegills and bullheads. She learned to garden and tend the chickens, ducks and geese that Grandma Hopp raised. She didn’t like to milk cows, but she did it when she had to, and she was an experienced poultry processor by the time she was a teenager.
After I was born, my father became an auto mechanic and my mother, like most women at the time, stayed home to keep the house and raise her family. When we lived in town, our house was on a large lot with a big garden plot. One of my earliest memories of it was watching the man plow it with a huge Fordson tractor. It had steel wheels with big cleats, and Dad and the man had to put down planks to protect the pavement when he drove across the highway to our lot.
When I was seven years old, we moved about four miles out of town, but I have never lived on a farm, except for my two-week summer vacations with Grandpa and Grandma Hopp. However, we had big gardens and a chicken coop which provided us with meat and eggs. For the first few years, the dairy in Hayward delivered to customers who lived out of town, so we continued to get our milk, butter and cheese just as we had in town.
When the milkman left the bottles on the doorstep in winter, sometimes Mom would give us a spoonful of frozen cream pushed out of the bottles when the milk froze. This experience may explain why I prefer ice cream made only with milk, cream and sugar.
Growing up with plenty of fresh milk and chickens probably explains also why I like baked custard. I suspect that Mom made it because it was a simple and cheap dessert. She would stir up a batch of custard a few minutes before the bread was ready to come out of the oven and pop the dessert in. By the time Dad was home from work, there was fresh bread and cups of warm custard to end the meal.
When she was baking pies, she would sometimes make a custard pie instead of baking the custard in cups. If you don’t want to take the time to make a pie crust, baked custard is the way to go. The custard is the same–delicate and not too sweet.
Here is how to make enough custard to serve four or five people.
2 large eggs
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups whole milk
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
Dash of nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 325º and bring a teakettle of water to a boil. Have the eggs at room temperature and warm the milk to about 120º in a microwavable bowl or over moderate heat in a small saucepan.
Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl until they are scrambled but not completely lemon colored. Stir in the sugar, salt and vanilla. Pour the milk into the eggs and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved in the milk and everything is thoroughly mixed.
Use a measuring cup or small dipper to fill the custard cups or ovenproof bowls to within a quarter inch of the top. The cups should be clean and dry but not greased. Sprinkle a little ground nutmeg on each custard. Put the cups in a baking pan and set the pan on a lower shelf in the oven. Pour boiling water into the pan so it comes about a third of the way up the sides of the cups.
Bake forty-five minutes, then check for doneness. A knife inserted near the center of a custard should come out clean.
Remove the cups from the oven and pan and allow them to cool slightly before serving.
NOTES: If you don’t have whole milk in your refrigerator, you can use reduced fat milk fortified with a couple tablespoons of butter or a quarter cup of half and half. Good custard needs a little butterfat to produce the classic texture and flavor.
The reason for having the the eggs at room temperature and warming the milk is to reduce the baking time and to make sure that the milk mixes completely with the eggs and sugar.
My custards in small cups usually take fifty minutes or a little more to bake. If you need to reduce the time, you can heat the milk to a higher temperature, but be careful to stir it in very slowly to avoid cooking the eggs.
Baked custard is good cold and even better when it is warm. Be sure to store any leftover cups of custard in the refrigerator as soon as they have cooled to room temperature.