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Wednesday, April 9, 2008 11:50 am

Fun ’50s food

When cooks got creative with convenience foods, strange things started to happen

Untitled Document “. . . in this miraculous age it is quite possible — and it’s fun — to be a ‘chef’ even before you can really cook.” — from The Can-Opener Cookbook, by Poppy Cannon, 1952
The Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods features host Andrew Zimmern traveling around the world eating weird food. It can be interesting, but there’s definitely a gross-out factor; it almost seems geared for early-adolescent boys. Too bad Zimmern can’t take a time trip back to America in the ’50s.  Some people look back at that decade with longing, others with an amused condescension. Strangely, the two groups see the same picture: a simpler time idealized by TV shows such as Father Knows Best. Mom was at home serving meals (even breakfast!) with perfectly coiffed hair, discreetly tasteful makeup, and a crisply starched dress and tiny apron that was more decoration that protection. At the table sat her husband, in a suit coat, and her equally starched and pressed children — though the kids did get into mischief, those little scamps! Life was stable; any civil or familial discord or discontent was swept under the rug. One group finds that vision reassuringly secure; the other sees it as stultifying.
Of course, 1950s America was far more complex, no matter how uniform its façade. Even so, it was a time of wide-eyed optimism. Prosperity was in the air, and, as long as we could keep the communists from taking over, most people believed the promises of advertisers and the media that science and good ol’ American ingenuity would provide ever-brighter tomorrows.
Nowhere was that more true than in food and cooking. Convenience foods such as canned soup and Jell-O had appeared earlier in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the burgeoning food industry began intensely marketing such products to homemakers. The reason, according to Laura Shapiro in Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, was that “the food industry found itself confronted with the most daunting challenge in its history: to create a peacetime market for wartime foods. Manufacturers and packagers had put considerable expertise into . . . turning out an array of specially designed foods that could accompany the armed forces anywhere.”
Spam is a wartime product that survives and is joked about to this day, but, in their excitement about converting their facilities to products for home use, industrial food producers regarded anything as fair game. Tatonuts were potato tidbits that boasted “strong resistance to weather conditions.” Powdered orange juice was a wartime innovation, but now an engineer utilized that technology to dry wine: “sophisticated” diners would select powders of sherry, port, and Chianti; spoon them into their wineglasses; and stir in water and alcohol. The possibilities of freezing appeared endless. Initially, convenience foods didn’t take off as puzzled manufacturers expected. It apparently didn’t occur to them that their products didn’t taste good, but they kept up the advertising drumbeat of convenience and eventually their marketing blitz paid off. As Shapiro notes, “Factory conditions imposed strict limits on the sensory qualities possible in packaged foods, making them predominately very salty, very sweet, or very bland. The more such qualities were reflected in a family’s home cooking, the more acceptable they became.”
Moreover, the advertising made homemakers feel as if they had to use packaged convenience foods if they wanted to keep up with the times. Newspaper columns, “women’s” magazines, and daily radio programs hosted by such luminaries as “Harriet Hepplewhite, the Happy Housewife” assured their audience that cooking from scratch was hopelessly outdated. Paradoxically, even as they celebrated the joys of being a full-time homemaker, they were earnestly attempting not just to reduce some of the work of food preparation but also to reduce cooking to “heat and eat” and eventually eliminate it altogether. “Fresh produce for retail consumption is a thing of the past,” proudly proclaimed 1954 article “A Fantasy of the Future.” “There’s no such thing as a ‘kitchen’ nowadays,” says the article’s proud housewife. “Just freezer space, electronic cooking, automatic dishwashing. Life’s really simple nowadays — science has emancipated women right out of the kitchen.”
Even as use of their products increased, food industrialists became aware of another stumbling block: Many homemakers missed the satisfaction of preparing meals. The industry’s answer: Get creative with convenience foods. Advertising featured recipes incorporating packaged products, the food media took up the cry, and creative convenience cooking surged. It wasn’t entirely new. Even before World War II, “when a newly scientific and mechanized food supply began reshaping the nation’s eating habits, American cooking had been characterized by a blatant irrationality,” says Shapiro, citing as an example “Red Crest Salad,” a scary-sounding concoction of chopped pickles and tomatoes suspended in strawberry Jell-O. “One of the most distinctive features of packaged-food cuisine was the mysterious nature of many dishes that seemed to follow no apparent culinary logic. In large part this was a tribute to the commercial underpinnings of the cuisine: Each recipe was wholly in thrall to the product being promoted. Hence canned fruit cocktail was reborn as a cole slaw ingredient.”
Food writers emphatically believed the ’50s homemaker was fulfilled by the new “cooking.” “She may spend less time in the kitchen, and she may buy canned food,” said one, “but she makes up for it by greater creativity. Another cited modern women’s pride in creating “unusual combinations of canned foods.”
Unusual and creative they were, but some of the resultant dishes sound like surrealist nightmares, such as sliced tomatoes sprinkled with cheese, topped with bananas, covered with mayonnaise, and broiled. Snowball Sandwiches were“two-layer circular sandwiches, one layer of canned tuna fish and the other of crushed pineapple mixed with whipped cream, iced with cream cheese and topped with a maraschino cherry. “Glamourizing” food was an important goal, and canned pineapple was a sure way to achieve it in such marvels as a shredded-rutabaga-and-pineapple salad — but then Household magazine told its readers that canned fruit turned any mixture into “salad glamour for summer.”
Fire was another surefire path to glamour, and it was eagerly embraced by Cannon. Just about any food could be flambéed, including Flaming Cabbage, a large cabbage with a can of Sterno in the hollowed-out center. Guests toasted pieces of hotdogs on toothpicks stuck all over the cabbage. Dessert might be “The Snapdragon of Merrie Olde England” — bunches of sultana raisins on stems, doused in brandy and set aflame. “The idea,” she wrote, “is to snatch as many raisins as you can. Who gets the most is luckiest.” Let’s hope she had a supply of bandages. Some creations had unintentional implications. The woman who served a Christmas “salad” of half a banana centered in a pineapple ring with a peppermint Lifesaver stuck at the bottom and a dab of mayonnaise on the tip was mystified by guests’ poorly stifled laughter: it was supposed to be a candle in a holder, not something obscene. Fortunately, an alternative to the convenience food culture was beginning to emerge. Gourmet magazine, begun — incredibly — during World War II, was thriving. James Beard was promoting American food and regional ingredients. Julia Child was working on the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which would be published in 1961 and is still regarded as indispensable not just to home cooks but also to chefs. Good home cooking hadn’t died; it just  wasn’t getting much attention. The bizarre excesses of convenience food creativity were beginning to be the subject of sly humor. Take Laura Petrie’s famous hors d’ oeuvres on the Dick Van Dyke Show, “Potato Poopies.” After being served a salad of macaroni, pineapple chunks, peanuts, cabbage, marshmallows, and olives, bestselling author Betty MacDonald lamented: “I don’t know what is happening to the women of America, but it ought to be stopped.”
I’m glad we’ve moved beyond those days and that food, but if anyone has a recipe for Potato Poopies I’d be interested.

Contact Julianne Glatz at
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