My stepfather, the one who had brought my mother my sister and me from Berlin to St. Paul Minnesota in 1964, was an engineer at 3M. One hot August weekend, he announced that we were going to the company summer picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect - a couple of blankets, a basket with rolls and cheese, badminton? Far from it – this annual event was an extravaganza of food and games. Blankets, chairs and picnic tables sprawled across a wide lawn; dozens of men, women and children were playing volleyball and horseshoes, tossing softballs and water balloons, swimming in the lake and diving off the dock. I was delighted. And amazed at the abundance.
Tables were lined up in rows, heaped with bowls and platters full of food. There were many dishes I’d never seen before: jiggly jello in rainbow colors, cole slaw, fruit cocktail with marshmallows, corn on the cob dripping with butter, potato chips. Beyond the tables, men in aprons worked the barbecues authoritatively: burger or hot dog? Ribs or chicken? People lined up with paper plates and plastic cutlery and selected whatever they wanted. Amazingly, everyone put salty and sweet food on the same plate: jello next to the baked potato next to the steak. In Germany, that would have been unthinkable – people ate food items sequentially and sweet always followed savory. I noticed at the picnic that most people didn’t finish the food they’d served themselves; they tossed half-full plates into giant trash bins and scampered off.
In one area, adults led kids’ activities. I’d played sack hopping and cat and mouse in Germany, but there were many games I didn’t know so I watched. Through a megaphone, a man announced what would be played next. “Egg toss,” he shouted, and people lined up in two rows facing each other. Each pair got an egg, one person flung it, the other caught it, back and forth, increasing the distance. When someone missed a catch, the egg fell to the ground. Splat. That’s when I realized the eggs were raw! Just like that, the kids were throwing eggs away, one after another. In Berlin, we’d bought eggs individually at the corner store. A boiled egg was a Sunday breakfast treat. One per person and I looked forward to mine all week. In our new neighborhood Red Owl supermarket, we’d started buying eggs in twelve packs and my mother often served egg dishes. But playing with them? I had conflicting feelings: was it careless and wasteful? Or was it a kind of freedom?
When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul. This is the fifth in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.