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 August, 2007


 A Fond Look Back at Surplus Cheese and Other Staples

Whatever Happened to Surplus Cheese?

By Al Owens
Surplus cheese! Now that was a taste tempting delight. Don’t act like you’ve never had it.

There were two groups of people in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s. Those people who had surplus cheese in their refrigerators, and those people who wished they had it.

60 years ago, this country must have been over-cowed. There was so much cheese they had a surplus of it. I used to wonder if General Motors made too many Chevrolets, would they give those away too. But they never did.

I wasn’t big on powdered milk, or powdered eggs – but there was something magical about that square block of government surplus cheese product that could enliven any meal. (Or become the entire meal, for that matter)

Nowadays, those people at Kraft Foods call it Velveeta. But it’s just not quite the same to me. I think because you don’t have to stand in long lines to get it – the way we did when I was a kid.

Maybe my memories of growing up among the near middle class have been enhanced by a bit of romantic nostalgia over the years.

Yet, I know I can put a smile on any of my contemporary’s faces with the two words – surplus cheese!

And I’m nobody, unless I can put a smile on somebody’s face.

There’s a prize in every box!” See, I’ll bet you’re smiling right now.

We had Cracker Jacks, and boxes of all kinds of cereal,\ that would be unceremoniously opened by kids all over the world, with hopes they’d find a 15 caret diamond inside.

Instead, all you’d get was an arm encrusted with Cheerios and a cheap plastic toy that broke seconds after you’d mine it from the box.

That hardly seemed to matter. I’d eat as much Cheerios as I could, so my parents would have to buy a new box of it the next week. The process was repeated every single week of my adolescence. I hardly ever eat Cheerios these days. But I do have a strong urge to stick my arm in up to my elbows - in boxes of it.

Pete’s Hamburgers! Around here, that’s sure to get people smiling and talking. I never knew Pete’s last name, but he was famous to every kid in Uniontown. He had a closet-sized hamburger stand right behind the State Theatre on Peter Street.

His hamburgers were probably the best on earth. (When I was 10 years-old, the “earth” only stretched from one end of Main Street to the other end)
Pete flattened his hamburgers until they got paper thin. He’d fill a pan with grease and, put a high gas flame under it. (There are people I know who swear he never, ever changed that grease!)

When the grease got so hot it could melt steel, he’d drop his little delicacies into it.

A hamburger would literally boil for a few moments and then Pete would retrieve it from the grease, place it on a bun, and you’d have to get out of the way - because Pete’s cuisine always drew hungry patrons from all over Fayette County.

All of that grease, by the way, wasn’t harmful back then, because the medical community hadn’t quite discovered arteries!

Hula Hoops! We all know they were the premiere craze of the 20th century. I had mine. I mastered it the day my father brought it home.

I had a simple red, rimmed model. Some kids were lucky enough to get the kind that lit up when you spun them around.

I could start mine down by my ankles and work it up to my chest. I often miss my Hula Hoop. It was my friend.
Although in the early 1990’s I needed to have back surgery. I think it was my old friend the Hula Hoop who contributed greatly to that medical procedure.
Party lines. Back in the 1950’s, all of Uniontown’s telephone numbers started with the word GE (which stood for GENEVA). That was really a way of saying 43. Enough with the background information.

All I’m trying to say is there were so few telephone lines back then, that people had to share their line with other people. So, when the telephone rang at your house, it also rang at other houses. Your ring was different from theirs. You were supposed to only pick-up your telephone receiver, when it was your specific ring.

No me! I was 10 years-old and a snoop. I used to love listening to the conversations of the other people on our line. The telephone would ring, and I’d pick up the telephone – regardless of the ring interval.
I’d sit there listening to people having arguments, and announcing births, deaths and divorces – all while holding my breath so I wouldn’t get discovered.

Once, I even heard a particularly proud woman happily tell a friend that her son had stuck his hand in a box of Cheerios, and that he’d found a 15 caret diamond inside.

Ah, the 1950’s they brought us all together, and then made us all collapse in envy!

I was, by the way, kidding about that 15 caret diamond discovery.