A Kinder, Gentler Sort of Depression

I walked a mile to school in the snow when I was a kid growing up in Virginia. I really did. But it wasn't because we were poor; it was just what I did. I liked walking to and from school. Sometimes it happened to be snowing.

It was pastoral and pleasant in my hometown, which had a population of 6,000 and is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did not enjoy seeing the exact same people all the time. And, one other bad thing, which I didn't even recognize as a disenfranchisement: there were few restaurants. People cooked when I was a kid! Get off my yard. 

In fact, when I was very young the only restaurants were at the two local hotels (for all the people wishing to vacation in a rural factory town), in addition to a place called the Red Barn (of course), and not one but three drive-in restaurants, where a woman in stretch pants would come out to your car to get your order after she'd finished smoking a cigarette. Two of the drive-ins are still there; you can order corn dogs, cheeseburgers that have been flattened in a press and wrapped in wax paper, and Boston shakes (giant milkshake with a sundae on top) or lime flips (a lime sherbert milkshake). I wish I had one of those cheeseburgers right now. The Red Barn and one of hotel restaurants had Sunday buffets with all the thousand island dressing you could pile on your iceberg salad and green beans and biscuits, etcetera. I don't think I need to say anything else about that.

Anyway, whatever deprivations may have marred my childhood growing up in the South, none were nearly as as bad as those that marred my mother's childhood in the South, especially when it came to food. She grew up during the latter portion of the Great Depression. And like a lot of mothers from her era (and a couple of mothers I know today, who have it pretty easy) she reminded me and my brothers and sisters about her hardships more often than was probably absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, there's only so much sympathy a child of perfectly comfortable means can muster for anyone, their own mother even, if she serves Depression-era food to remind the child of the suffering that goes into giving life. 

Which in my case was cabbage--boiled cabbage and potatoes.

Rather than making me want to send her a thank-you note for all she'd endured on my behalf, this malodorous dish made me surly and resentful, and seemed, quite frankly, spiteful. What the hell had I done? I didn't ask to be born! ("It's a good thing--we would have said no," my father responded.) I can assure you, it did not make me appreciate my life of leisure. Otherwise, we lived in a household full of delicious food, which is a feat when you're cooking for five kids.

Needless to say, I grew up dreading two things: being poor and eating cabbage.

But it turns out that while a lot of childhood wounds can be difficult to heal, cabbageaphobia is not one of them, at least not for me.

I began eating smothered cabbage as comfort food, in fact. I discovered that rather than boiling it (why would anyone?) I could smother it (just like feelings, but with better results!).

For many years, I would chop up a couple of slices of bacon together with 4-5 cloves of garlic and some rosemary, sautee that in a large heavy pot until the garlic was golden and the bacon had browned, then throw in a whole head of sliced cabbage, salt, pepper and toss to coat. I'd turn the heat down low, put a lid on it, and let it cook until very tender, about 45 minutes, adding a half a cup of dry white wine at some point early in the process. Usually, I made mashed potatoes and turnips, and ate the cabbage on top. Very delicious.

But, recently, as we slid into a recession of our own, I discovered Jamie Oliver's red cabbage recipe. It's much, much prettier than my smothered green cabbage (which ends up a kind of drab military gray), because it retains its gorgeous garnet color, and the apple turns bright red, too. It's terrific with mashed potatoes, but I also like to serve it with chicken sausage. Most recently we ate it with a bacon wrapped turkey breast  (the cabbage is not bacony; so it's not like throwing a bacon festival), marinated in adobo sauce. This was so good (and cheap; it cost about $7) that I am going to give you that recipe, too, A.S.A.P.

Make this dish right now, though, and you will feel like happy days are here again.

Jamie Oliver's Red Cabbage with Bacon, Apple, and Balsamic
Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices of thick bacon, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, "bashed" (as J.O. puts it)
1 medium onion, peeled, halved, sliced into 1/3 inch slices
2 medium apples (I used Macintosh, but any good tart eating apple works), peeled, cored, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 red cabbage, cored, chopped into irregular chunks (in other words, don't just slice or shred)
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup good balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large heavy pot. Add the bacon and fennel seeds; cook until golden. Add onion and cook, with the lid on, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add apple, cabbage chunks, salt and pepper, vinegar. Toss to coat well.
  2. Cover, cook on low heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Stir in butter, taste for salt and pepper; sprinkle with parsley.


  1. i think too many people avoid cabbage for the exact reasons you feared it -- well, that and it can stink up your house. but i love it in all its forms, especially when you add bacon. thank you for posting this.

  2. This reminds me of that cringe-inducing yet totally amazing dinner stand-off scene at the heart of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I'm glad yours has a happy ending.

  3. My mother's Depression stories featured turnip, which I've always avoided. As a cook, she was formed completely by the Depression. Her meat loaf was 75 percent saltine crackers (and ten percent ketchup). Her cabbage, needless to say, was boiled. That red stuff does look delicious.

  4. Hi, Cate: I'm glad you could identify; bacon and cabbage may not sound good but people in the know eat it the way other people eat breakfast cereal.

    Emilie! I love that book, and now I have to go back and find that scene; it's been years, and that's such a nice compliment.

    And MJ: My mother's meatloaf, too, was one of her losing recipes, but I'd never tell her. Instead of crackers, she used 2-3 slices of wet white bread. What was that supposed to do?

    Thanks for reading my blog!

  5. Wait. What's wrong with "throwing a bacon festival"?

  6. Dear anonymous: there is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing a bacon festival, unless you are undergoing brain surgery at the time.

    In fact, I am about to post a really great bacony recipe.

    So: bacon people: forge on, with my full support.

  7. I linked this in 7 Links of Terror at Sky Full of Bacon, by the way: