A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

Blink and you’ll miss this as it’s unfairly not often enough in best-ever lists.

Maybe that’s because the usual suspects like War and PeaceDon Quixote and yadda yadda yadda have been loitering longer. (Sphincter fix: a humble 77 jostling 151 and whopping 415 years.)

Join little girl Francie with her brother, mama and papa in the astonishing poverty of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century.

It’s tempting to skip through what they were eating, but pause and reflect on this before your next meal.

Here’s the girl’s Carollian innocent and enthusiastic view of the family living on a staple of stale bread.

…what amazing things Katie [mother] could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it into a paste, flavour it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

Clock the amazing and wide-eyed good, hot and tasty. And the sidestepping of destitution in an egg (if eggs were cheap), the half a cup of ketchup and the sliced thin for the next day.

Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin.

Note the contentment in a very fine bread pudding. That thin lingering again. The treat of a penny apple.

As for the bits of stale bread so stale that they usually would be thrown away, they were, for another meal:

…dipped into batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat.

The unremitting poverty in the repetition of the core ingredients of stale bread-water-salt makes one itch. 

And while they were frying, Francie would run down to the candy store and buy a penny’s worth of brown rock candy which they’d crush and sprinkle on top, which made it wonderful.

Wonderful.

And then there’s the head held high fortitude. There was always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip.

Remember, we’re feeding a family of four here.

In a world where if it ain’t stale, a leftover, sliced thin or usually thrown away, it’s likely ketchup.

I’m not going to complain about anything today.

Thanks for being here.

Buy A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (free delivery, cardboard wrapping)

Follow my I’m reading… blog:

Published by

Guy Nicholls

Writer and book bore.

2 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)”

  1. How they lived. My oh my what tough times. I’m new to Betty Smith but I will seek out a copy.

Leave a Reply