Before Air-Conditioning*

Later on, in the Depression thirties, the summers seemed even hotter. Out West, it was the time of the red sun and the dust storms, when whole desiccated farms blew away and sent the Okies, whom Steinbeck immortalized, out on their desperate treks toward the Pacific. My father had a small coat factory on Thirty-ninth Street then, with about a dozen men working sewing machines. Just to watch them handling thick woollen winter coats in that heat was, for me, a torture. The cutters were on piecework, paid by the number of seams they finished, so their lunch break was short—fifteen or twenty minutes. They brought their own food: bunches of radishes, a tomato perhaps, cucumbers, and a jar of thick sour cream, which went into a bowl they kept under the machines. A small loaf of pumpernickel also materialized, which they tore apart and used as a spoon to scoop up the cream and vegetables.

~ Arthur Miller, Before Air-Conditioning (The New Yorker, June 22, 1998)


  • *Inspired by temperature now in Dallas, TX: 103° F and Rising!
  • Photo: Radishes by El Oso Botas. “Madrid-based, Guatemala-born and raised, photographer, food stylist, chef and digital content creator. I’ve had a keen interest in art, colours, and shapes since I was a child.” More photographs here.


  1. I have a sudden craving for radishes now 🙂

    Love this post. And its time to confess. I haven’t read anything by Steinbeck. Only little bits and pieces here and there. The Grapes of Wrath has been on my night stand for months.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My mouth is watering for one of their lunch plates!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My parents grew up during the dirty 30s. My mom told many stories. One that stands out is walking 9 miles to town with a dime, buying a box of cornflakes for 9 cents and walking 9 miles back with the penny change. Mostly it was fried potatoes and eggs 3 times a day.

    Liked by 4 people

    • That just underlines what I say often: We have not a single thing to complain about with our micro-sorrows and problems 😉
      Yes, Beth, I second you too! So true. We had to pass via Great Britain and most certainly France to become FULLY and ACTIVELY aware of the fact of just HOW BLESSED WE ARE in comparison to the rest of the human race. (This also goes lately for political reasons!).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Amazing story…and I complain about having to drive 5 blocks to get Gelato.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Jeanne DeLormier says:

    Thank you for posting. Love Arthur Miller’s writing & this is such a gem! BTW I live in southeast Florida & really don’t use AC much but we are fortunate to live near the coast & generally have lovely breezes. Our neighbors are always astonished that we leave our windows open!
    My folks never had AC but used to hang damp sheets & blow a fan over it. This made me think of it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Jeanne. We lived in southeast Florida for 10 years (Miami). I couldn’t imagine not having air conditioning. Not sure how you do it. As to hanging a damp sheet over fan, what an amazing visual that is…thanks for sharing.


  5. we have not a valid complaint in the world.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. This reminded me (for no reason I can figure!) of a photo I saw of people sleeping on the grass around the Nebraska State Capitol on one hot 1930s night. I googled it and here it is:

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Arthur Miller writes so graphically–images so memorable…and also love radishes usually with sweet butter and dark bread, but now, I like the assortment and bowl of real sour cream. If we all lived near each other, we could share this for potluck lunch.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Like so many others, I loved this passage, DK. Brought to mind a visual of my mom and her father breaking for lunch on the farm, stopping their tractors at the end of a row and pulling out lunch pails that held fresh lemonade and ‘radish sandwiches’ — slices of my grandmother’s homemade sourdough bread slathered with butter and topped with sliced radishes from her garden. I never understood the allure, but those two certainly relished the repast.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nice post for a hot day. You’ll stick around for the 109 Friday, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Like Sawsan, I have not read any Steinbeck either… yet. I blame the fact I went to French school!
    And yum… that is my kind of lunch.

    Liked by 1 person

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