By: Randy Tucker
Some would say we were a bit uncivilized; some would say a lot more than that if they’d lived with us in those dark days before microwaves, convenience stores, and ubiquitous fast food.
The constant hunger of a teenage or 20-something male is something that hasn’t changed with the passing generations.
What has changed is how that hunger is fed.
Apps on a cell phone bring food to you if you’re too lazy to get in a car and drive to a fast-food window. Franchise fast food fills the outskirts of every town, city and even tiny hamlets of population in the USA. It wasn’t always that way.
I come from the distant past, a time when even Ramen noodles were not available to a starving dorm rat.
We did have a few devices that now seem at best quaint, and at worst totally barbaric.
Does anyone remember the toaster oven? Except we didn’t use it for toast, or even frozen pizzas. The knuckle-dragging Cro-Magnons I called my friends used them to grill steaks, pork chops, or chicken pot pies.
At Safeway in the 1970s, you could buy a chicken or beef pot pie for 13 cents. Sometimes they had an eight-for-a-dollar special. When that happened we feasted like kings.
One night, the fire alarm sounded in Crane Hall, sending the entire dorm into the lobby. There wasn’t much fire to worry about. Steven Hollingworth’s toaster oven had caught fire as he tried to grill a steak he’d gotten from his future father-in-law’s ranch near Albin. The grease fire ruined the toaster oven, but he was able to salvage the steak.
My contribution to after-hours cuisine was an aluminum popcorn popper. It had a glass lid, but everything else was permanently sealed together with the heating element and the two-quart size aluminum container.
The meals in Crane Hall and Washakie Cafeteria in those days were less than gourmet quality. Most of the time it bordered on inedible, but there were unlimited seconds for those brave enough or with strong enough constitutions to handle it.
To top it off, none of my friends were getting much money from home. We were all paying our way through school on summer jobs. Yes, budgets were tight.
Canned soup was less than a dime in those days. The popcorn popper did a fabulous job of heating Campbell’s chicken noodle.
Another thing it did well was fry bologna. One of the guys had a constant supply of big bologna in uncut tubes that weighed about three pounds. Hack a couple of inches of it off with a pocket knife, brown both sides in the popcorn popper and you had a real treat. We ate fried bologna often, so often we considered it a food group.
My senior year I moved off campus with my friend Frank Schmidt from Rochester, Minnesota.
We had a garage apartment with a basement on Grand Avenue.
Mom and dad gave me one hundred pounds of potatoes, a whole hog, and a few dozen pounds of beef. Frank’s contribution was ducks, pheasants, sage grouse, a deer, and many dozen brown and rainbow trout.
We had a couple of pails of lard as well. Seasoning you might say — it gave everything we fried in it a nice healthy sheen.
We had a two-quart, aluminum saucepan we kept full of lard in the refrigerator. If we were hungry at any time of day, we put the pan on a burner on the stove set on high, waited a few minutes, and tossed in a couple of pounds of hand-sliced potatoes.
Frank’s mom had given him a king-sized bottle of Lawry’s season salt. A couple of pounds of French fries liberally covered with season salt, and you had a meal. We “borrowed” paper towels from dispensers all over campus to soak up the excess grease.
We noticed after a couple of weeks that the fries were taking longer to cook, and didn’t taste as good. Yes, you can wear out lard.
We scraped it out, replaced it with fresh lard, and it was back to quality eating on 9th and Grand.
We had friends who sometimes borrowed our plates and bowls. Yes, these guys were so poor they didn’t have any tableware, and usually too hungover to pick up four or five plates for a dollar at garage sales on Saturday mornings.
Dave or Andy always had girls coming over and needed tableware to impress them.
After one borrowing session, it was a couple of days later, and we still didn’t have our plates back.
Frank scored some spaghetti sauce. From where it’s best not to ask. I had the hamburger, and spaghetti is incredibly cheap, we just didn’t have anything to eat it on.
Frank had the solution.
We pulled out a couple of 33 1/3 record albums, choosing the ones with the thickest plastic covering.
That night we ate spaghetti on album covers. It wasn’t too bad if you held the album level, but the sauce would spill if you tipped it.
We rinsed off the albums, dried them with some “borrowed” paper towels, and they were good to go.
That was life at the cusp of the 1980s. The habits I picked up were quickly corrected a couple of years later as I entered the world of marital bliss.
We did have some high moments during those years of bachelorhood. Frank took a meat class in the ag college just so we’d have access to the university smoker. In went dozens of ducks and geese. They were popular at parties if we warned the crowd to chew carefully in case they hit a lead pellet. You’d break your teeth today with the new steel shot.
At Christmas, we picked up three weeks of work at the Riverton water treatment plant, but we were out of food and out of money the last few days before the semester ended.
I kept enough cash to buy gas to get us home, but that was it. A few potatoes remained, but nothing else.
We took 9th Street north out of Laramie past the old city dump site late one night, knowing it was loaded with rabbits. I held the flashlight, and Frank took four cottontails with a borrowed 22 magnum. The problem was we only had .22 long rifle shells. They would fire, but then jam in the chamber, requiring Frank to pry them out with his pocket knife. We survived on rabbit fried in lard and potatoes that final week.
Our finest meal is one I still cook on occasion, but with different fowl. We had several dozen dove breasts taken during the brief season north of Laramie. Doves’ breasts are tiny. We cooked some rice, layered a baking pan with it, added the dove breasts, poured in a can of condensed chicken soup, and topped the entire dish with broccoli. An hour later we had a feast. It was great then, and even better with pheasant, or if you have to resort to the mundane, chicken.
It wasn’t quite Grub Hub, McDonald’s, or a gourmet meal kit delivered via Fed Ex, but it was independence.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.