MH is a third-generation Irish-American, originally from Battle Creek, MI. He splits his time today between San Francisco, CA and Pasadena CA, where his wife and 18-year-old son live.
MH talked about a ritual his family performed:
“My father was the head of New Product Development at the Kellogg’s corporation, which is why we were living in Battle Creek. He oversaw the development of cereals like…Sugar Smacks, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks and Rice Krispies…those were all his projects. We used to get to test new cereals, and they would come home in these white boxes so we wouldn’t be influenced by any packaging. He eventually became president of their International Division, so he had to travel a lot. At home of course we could only eat Kellogg’s cereal, but when he’d prepare to go out of town it was a ritual for us to decide what non-Kellogg’s cereal we were going to buy for while he was away. My mom usually tried to limit us to Cheerios, but my favorites were like, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I think my dad knew but he never talked to us about it…”
Family rituals that involve secrecy from a parent are common, and they usually seem to be invented to help the other parent bond with their kids. In this case, MH (who has 9 other siblings) thinks it brought his brothers and sisters together. With so many of them, meals weren’t necessarily a family event, but when they all got together to pick their contraband breakfast cereals, they spent some rare time as a whole group. MH says he and his siblings all buy Kellogg’s cereal for their families, but would look the other way if their spouses decided to give their kids something from General Mills.
“Basically, you take a piece of meat that’s probably pretty tough, but thinly sliced, you salt and pepper it, coat it with flour, brown it in a little bit of oil in the skillet. Um, you do this with as much meat as you’re going to cook. You put all the meat back in the skillet, barely cover it with water, and simmer it for as long as you have, an hour or two, ideally. Um, and the long simmering helps tenderize the meat and the flour forms its own gravy around the meat without any other extra work. And in Southern cooking gravy is always required. So, the classic recipe is kind of a hand-sized steak that, you know, is a serving for, you know, for each person. Um, by the time I knew about it, um, my mom had taken that recipe and changed it quite a bit. Uh, or in subtle ways, I guess. Uh, the salt and pepper became a classic, a family recipe of seasoned salt. So a special mix of, you know, herbs and spices, um, and the beef that was traditionally used for this, uh, we were hunters in our family and, uh, we started to use venison instead. And the deer in Texas are white-tailed deer that are smaller and so it’s hard to actually get many, um, large even hand-sized steaks out of a deer. Uh, so the pieces of meat became much smaller. Often bite-size pieces of meat. And often we would use the tenderest of the deer, what we call the backstrap which is the tenderloin of the deer, um, to, uh, make this recipe. Uh, and it was always one of the favorite recipes that my mom would cook for anyone, so, um, as I grew up and got married and started trying to cook this for myself, S and I would make our own modifications to it and the seasoned salt didn’t set well so we went back to salt and pepper and added some thyme in. Um, we didn’t have as much access to venison, being in California, so we moved back to either beef or lamb or, you know, that was pretty much it, but it works with just about anything. Um, and, uh, I guess that’s, that’s about the changes we’ve made. The other, you know, so that’s the basic recipe and evolution of it.”
The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. He is extremely interested in grilling and cooking and often cooks for large groups of people recreationally. His parents have owned various pieces of rural Texas land over the years, ending with a cattle ranch an hour outside of Austin. His mother grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, meaning “there’s a lot of both Southern and Cajun roots in what I learned from my parents.” The informant calls this a “class Southern recipe” that he used to make when he would help his mother in the kitchen. This is a recipe the informant learned from his mother and that he thinks she learned from her mother. He describes it as “an any-meal dish,” that he often has for dinner now. One of the biggest “three or four holidays” for his family growing up was “opening day of hunting season,” when they would go out hunting early in the morning. When they returned to the house, his mother would have smothered steak, biscuits, and eggs cooked for everyone. He describes this as a “traditional, kind of, fancy winter breakfast” for them. Of this experience, he says, “You just can’t imagine coming in out of the extreme cold, being out for several hours in 25 degree weather and coming in and having this meal.” He makes it because “it tastes really good” and it’s a dish that he has never seen anyone else cook the way his mom taught him to cook it, and when he cooks it for other people they are impressed by it. It “typically gets eaten until it’s gone.”
This recipe was collected while I was home for Spring Break and was told to me while I was having a drink with my father in our living room. I have had this dish many times throughout my life and it is one that is often requested by other families when my father is cooking a meal for them. I think one of the main reasons it is such a hit is that it really is amazingly tasty when it is done right, but it also appears startlingly simple to the casual observer. This is especially true in Northern California, where the emphasis in cuisine is on bright, fresh, and organic meals that are presented beautifully. Placing a large skillet of smothered steak next to these things can provide quite a contrast. I think all aspects of it appeal to people’s “rustic sensibilities,” by which I mean they feel they can indulge themselves and be Southern for a meal. I think the informant cooks it so much because it is fairly simple and because it reminds him of the ranch where most of his family still lives, 1700 miles away.
Informant: “…I’m sure you’ve seen me do this at breakfast. Whenever I order eggs, sausage, and hashed browns, I’ll cut it up and mix it all together in a kind of mash.”
Interviewer: “How long have you been doing that?”
Informant: “Oh um, ever since I was really little. That’s the way I’ve seen my dad do it throughout my life and I guess it just caught on. It wasn’t until high school when I got called out for it.”
Interviewer: “Called out for it? Why?”
Informant: “Well, when I was at boarding school… it was a pretty ritzy school, I had a scholarship to go there, but it was full of kids who uh, came from old money or whatever… But anyways, me and my classmates went out to breakfast one day, I ordered the usual – eggs, sausage, hashed browns – sliced it up and mashed it all together. I started eating, and my friend says to me in this judgmental way… ‘You know…that’s the way a poor man eats….’ I was really embarrassed… I didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought she was just being a bitch… so I kept mixing it all together. But… I was kind of offended. When I came home – it must have been during a holiday vacation – I went out to breakfast with my family, and my dad and I, we ordered our usual and started eating it in the same way we had always done… But this time, I told him what my classmate said and… you know what… he actually told me that she was right!”
Interviewer: “What? …Really?”
Informant: “[laughs] Yea, I know… I was surprised too, dude! So… supposedly, it’s a custom that came from the Great Depression. Mashing it all together, it was a way to hide rancid meat…
Interviewer: “No way!”
Informant: “Yea, my… great-grandfather lost his business and lived in one of those, those little shantytowns in the Midwest, so that’s supposedly where it all started. My dad said that that’s how his dad ate and how his grandfather – my great-grandfather – did too… I had no idea it was such a long tradition.”
Interviewer: “That’s pretty crazy… that just a way of eating can survive generations.”
Informant: “Yea, it’s pretty cool. And I don’t even care that it’s a symbol of ‘lower-class.’ Whatever… I think of it more now as a type of historical family custom…”
The notion that people were forced to eat rotten meat after losing everything during the Great Depression makes sense since they didn’t have the means to buy better quality meats. In some cases, they practically had to scavenge from the bottom of the barrel to survive. Whether or not her family custom of eating dates to the Great Depression, the tradition shows how behavior can also be treated as folklore since it can be passed down vocally and visually. This is also an example of nonsensical folklore, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because there is no underlying meaning to the action; it is simply done because that’s the way it has been done, “because that’s the way my father did it.”
The Snatch Breakfast- Well it was when I was younger, on my birthdays before any of my friends could drive so my mom would drive
to pick up all my friends. Then um they would all come back to my house and wake me up and then we would all go to breakfast
In theory its a really fun thing but in reality it was awful because I wasnt a morning person, and I wouldnt continue the tradition on with my kids if they werent morning people either because I hated it, but it is a family ritual that I went though, then my brother, and now my sister After recounting the family ritual of Snatch Breakfasts, Eric asked his parents where they had the idea of Snatch Breakfast and his mom explained that her parents had Snatch Breakfasts for my her when she was young. Eric is a 23-year-old USC graduate. He grew up in Beverly Hills and now continues to work in Los Angeles as an accountant. Eric and I were discussing childhood traditions and family rituals at my house with my roommate when we got stuck on the cycle of birthday rituals because every family has their own and they are always fun to share. Eric and I met his senior year of high-school so I was too late to be a part of the Snatch Breakfast but I have attended a few for his younger sister.
The Snatch Breakfast is synonymous with the their family so it was obvious that Eric would share this ritual with my roommate and I. It really is a part of their family and although he doesnt like being woken up by a room full of his friends, Eric does like idea of it being a generational thing and no matter how crazy everyone gets, there is no doubt that on a birthday morning there will be a Snatch Breakfast.
The Snatch Breakfast is the perfect example of a family tradition. It has been done for many years and Im sure it will continue to be done for many years. It provides a great story to share with friends and its fun to partake in.