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Thursday, March 19, 2015 12:01 am

1950s food fun



Reading Judith Jones’ newest book, Love Me, Feed Me, inspired me to reread her memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. Jones, an editor at Knopf Publishing, was responsible for recognizing Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a masterpiece and getting it published. Then her memoir made me revisit an Illinois Times column I wrote seven years ago about 1950s American home cooking.

I’ll be writing about Jones’ memoir and new book in upcoming weeks. But it’s worth revisiting what the state of American home cooking was like before Jones. Below are excerpts from my 2008 column. I’m particularly proud of it; shortly after it came out, I got a call from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, often referred to as the “Harvard” of cooking schools). I’d taken classes there, but this call was from the CIA’s librarian. They were installing a home cooking display delineated by decade and wanted permission to quote me. I was incredulous that anyone at the CIA would have even read anything I wrote, much less want to quote it.

“. . . 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.

Superficially, the 1950s and early 60s were simpler times, idealized by TV shows such as “Father Knows Best.” Mom served meals (even breakfast) with perfectly coiffed hair, discreetly tasteful makeup and a crisply starched dress and tiny apron more decorative than functional. At the table sat her suit-coated husband and equally starched and pressed children – though the kids did get into mischief, those little scamps.

Of course, 1950s-60s America was far more complex, no matter how uniform its façade. But wide-eyed optimism held sway. Times were prosperous, and, if we could keep the communists at bay, folks believed the promises that science and good ol’ American ingenuity would provide ever-brighter tomorrows.

Home cooking wholeheartedly embraced that shining future. Convenience foods such as canned soup and Jell-O had appeared earlier; but after World War II, 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 [a] most daunting challenge…: to create a peacetime market for wartime foods. Manufacturers and packagers had put considerable expertise into . . . specially designed foods that could accompany the armed forces anywhere.”

Spam is a wartime product that survives. Though still joked about, it has actually gained some respectability over time. But in their enthusiasm for converting their facilities to products for home use, industrial food producers regarded anything as fair game. Tatonuts, potato tidbits, boasted “strong resistance to weather conditions.” Powdered orange juice was a wartime innovation; now that technology was utilized to dry wine. “Sophisticated” diners would select powders of sherry, port, and Chianti; spoon them into wineglasses; and stir in water and alcohol. The possibilities of freezing appeared endless.

Initially, convenience foods didn’t take off as manufacturers expected; apparently they didn’t realize their products tasted awful. 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 compelled to use convenience foods if they wanted to keep up with the times. Newspaper columns, “womens’” magazines, and daily radio programs hosted by such luminaries as “Harriet Hepplewhite, the Happy Housewife” assured their audiences that cooking from scratch was hopelessly outdated. Paradoxically, while they celebrated the joys of being a full-time homemaker, those media were earnestly attempting not just to simplify 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 enthusiastic housewife. “Just freezer space, electronic cooking, automatic dishwashing. Life’s really simple nowadays – science has emancipated women right out of the kitchen.”

Food industrialists discovered another stumbling block: Many homemakers missed the satisfaction of preparing meals. 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 coleslaw ingredient.”

Food writers 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 perhaps, but resultant dishes often 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. “Glamorizing” 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 proclaimed that canned fruit turned any mixture into “salad glamour for summer.”

Eagerly embraced by Cannon, fire was another surefire path to glamour. Just about any food could be flambéed, including flaming cabbage, a large cabbage with flaming Sterno in its hollowed-out center. Guests toasted hotdog chunks on toothpicks stuck into the cabbage. Dessert might be “The Snapdragon of Merrie Olde England” – bunches of 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 bandages on hand.

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 into the banana’s base and a dab of mayonnaise on its 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 emerging. Gourmet magazine, begun – incredibly – during World War II, was thriving. James Beard was promoting American cooking and regional ingredients. Julia Child was working on the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which would be published in 1961.

Good home cooking hadn’t died; it just wasn’t getting much attention. The bizarre excesses of convenience food creativity began to be the subject of sly humor. Take Laura Petrie’s famous hors d’ oeuvres on the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Potato Poopies.” And 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 1950s complacency and crazy food “creativity. But I would like to try Laura Petrie’s Potato Poopies.

Contact Julianne Glatz at


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