Elise Italiano Ureneck

Among my paternal grandmother’s most memorable qualities, her ability to make a Michelin-starred meal out of whatever she found in the pantry tops the list. OK, the star is probably far-fetched, as those require ingredients and utensils that would never have been familiar to the daughter of Italian immigrants, born in the early 1920s.

But the meal would have been balanced, filling and full of flavor. She was a master at stretching what she had — flour, eggs, cornmeal — to create feasts. Every Sunday dinner was a mini miracle of loaves and fishes.

To put too fine a point on it, my father, who as a child was responsible for tending the family’s chicken coops, recounted, “She used every part of the chicken — I mean, every part — for our dinners.”

Waste not, want not. It was the unofficial motto I learned while serving as a de facto apprentice in her kitchen while growing up.

This skill set and mindset was inherited — she hailed from immigrants seeking a more prosperous life in America than what their agrarian hometown in southern Italy offered. But it was also forged at a time of intense economic uncertainty.

My grandmother didn’t speak in detail about how difficult it was to be a child of the Great Depression. But the lasting effects on her were evident — she could never shake a scarcity mentality, even with steady income and a house of her own.

She and my grandfather canned vegetables like they were on an assembly line. When I’d take her grocery shopping, she would pick up each item, holding it in her hands for a few moments before putting it in her cart or back on the shelf. Whatever her internal calculus involved, it was painstaking to watch.

I’ve been thinking of these things as I hone the skills of home economics at a time of economic instability and high inflation. There are many people who are in a situation like that of my grandmother and her peers — food and housing insecurity are on the rise, people are working themselves to the bone to make ends meet, still others are making unthinkable decisions to provide for loved ones or pay down debt. I am a bit ashamed that it’s taken such difficult circumstances in the country for me to count my many blessings.

Yet like others, my family is experiencing pain points that necessitate ingenuity. I have found myself making more meatless dinners throughout the week and basing them around whatever vegetables our garden has yielded on a given day.

I’ve stretched my imagination to come up with games that my children can play in our yard or crafts they can make with whatever spare supplies we have in our junk drawer to save on gas and “extras.” I’m stitching more buttons and seams than I have in the past, and my husband and I are preparing to renovate our neighbors’ 20-year-old swing set in lieu of buying a new one.

These choices are the most prudent for our finances and have the added bonus of being sustainable practices, but they’re also bearing fruit in our family life. My husband and I are spending less time in front of screens and more quality time talking over do-it-yourself projects.

My children and I are exploring the contours of our yard, learning how to listen attentively and practice careful observation. And I’m reminiscing about my childhood, making dishes that stir up sweet memories of my grandmother through all of my senses.

All of this is to say that the past few years have forced me to focus on the essentials, both material and otherwise. Getting back to basics — spending quality, low-budget time with my husband and children, eating everything in the refrigerator before the expiration date hits, making crowd-pleasing meals from what I’ve got before buying more — it’s all hearkening back to a time when people recognized the difference between needs and wants, essentials and “nice-to-haves.”

If there’s a silver lining in these awfully stressful years, it’s simplicity. And while I hope things return to “normal” in every sense, I’d be all right if that stuck.

***

Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.