October
3rd 2008
Retro recipie attempts at “the good old days”

Posted under: American history, art, childhood

Erica at the good old days has given another recipe of the American culinary past an (undeserved) try.  For some reason, every time I click on over to the good old days, I think that Rose at Romantoes would really enjoy this blog.  I have a feeling that we both grew up on the same cuisine, found mostly in 1950s, 60s, and 70s spiral-bound cookbooks assembled by church auxilliaries and women’s clubs.

This week’s treat?  Orange Velvet Pie.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Well, frankly Erica, I think there was a good reason that this pie was illustrated with a drawing that recalls the abstract expressionists (above left).  Because the actual pie?  Well, it looked like this instead (see the slice at right.)  Her verdict?  “The taste and consistency is exactly what you’d expect from orange juice, whipped cream, egg whites, and a bit of gelatin. But the amount of ingredients and work required for is crazy, considering that you would get the same result with orange Jell-O whipped and folded with whipped cream”  (Come on, Erica–Cool Whip would be more authentic!)

You’ve got to check out the rest of her entries under “retro recipe attempts,” which are mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, interspersed with a few very brave attempts at early American cookery from The Accomplished Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery, which went through at least two editions in seventeenth-century London.  (The earliest edition I found was 1660, and I also saw a 1685 edition cited–but don’t trust me, this information is just from a lazy google search of the non-peer reviewed internets.)  Don’t miss especially Erica’s attempts at “Jellied Boullion with Frankfurters” (see left–please tell me this is an artifact of wartime rationing) and “MOR cheeseburgers,” in which we learn that there was once a canned meat even more disgusting than SPAM.  Perhaps the strangest of all was a recipe for a sauce for New England boiled dinner made of canned creamed corn spiked with mustard, horseradish, and pickle juice.  Man, I want what those in-house Del Monte home-ec experts were smoking when they came up with that one!

Hey–wait a minute.  My department’s fall potluck picnic is tomorrow–where can I get my hands on a can of MOR?  I could dice it up and throw it in a crock pot with that “Swedish meatball sauce” made with a jar of grape jelly and a jar of mustard mixed together.  That would really impress the team.  (But I suppose the only place they stock MOR any more is in some undiscovered fallout shelter…)  Maybe I’ll bring the baba ghanouj and veggie tray after all.

What makes roasted eggplant dip inherently more appealing than canned meat?  Nothing, really.  I’m sure most Americans in the 1950s would have found baba ghanouj disgusting and/or too embarrassingly ethnic and connected to memories of family poverty.  It reminds me of when I made an offhand comment about historical dramas on TV and in the movies in a recent post, and how the costumers and makeup artists never get historical hairstyles right, and Sisyphus explained exactly what that is.  Ze wrote, “historical shows/films never use period-accurate hair if they want you to find the characters sexy. Hair is so tied to the vagaries of beauty and how really culturally specific they are.”  I think food is at least as freighted as hair as a vehicle for displaying a culture’s tastes and values–perhaps because it too has an even more intimate relationship with our bodies than purely external fashions in clothing, furniture, or architecture, for example.

My favorite essay on food, culture, and class is M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Social Status of a Vegetable,” originally published in Serve It Forth (1937), and available in a variety of reprints of her books and essays.

UPDATE, 10/5/08:  Rose at Romantoes has a post up about depression-era foodways.  She wasn’t kidding about her parents saving food products for decades (see her comment, below.)  Rose, you might propose a Hathaway House Museum of the Twentieth-Century!

21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Retro recipie attempts at “the good old days””

  1. Meg on 03 Oct 2008 at 7:49 am #

    I inherited my grandmother’s recipe file. It’s a really special heirloom, and it came with a lot of family recipes, but there were a few really special ones I had to throw out. Like the appetizer which included lemon Jello, canned corned beef and sour cream. Apparently, you make it as a loaf and serve slices.

  2. Profane on 03 Oct 2008 at 7:58 am #

    HEY! DON’T DISS THE POWER OF GRAPE JELLY IN A SAUCE! The best cocktail weenie sauce remains a half a jar of grape jelly along with a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce. But I digress. . .

    There is one highly treasured heirloom recipe in our family – for Swedish butter cookies. My great-grandmother used to make them WITHOUT a recipe, merely following what she had learned at her mother’s side. Eventually, we convinced her to write down the ingredients and directions, so the cookies have now been consumed by at least 6 generations in our family.

  3. Historiann on 03 Oct 2008 at 10:15 am #

    I’m not dissing the grape jelly sauce (much.) Maybe I’m misremembering the Swedish meatball sauce recipe–perhaps the “savory” ingredient was the chili sauce after all.

    Oh, and by the way, Historiann is going to sponsor a cookie baking contest. All of my readers can mail me a dozen cookies at Christmas time, and I’ll post photos and reviews of the first, second, and third prize winners on this fabulous blog! So your swedish butter cookies sound like they’ll be a great entry, Profane.

    And Meg, thanks for stopping by to comment. Those family recipes are treasures, even the kind of strange ones like your lemon jellied corned beef loaf. (I think I ate that once at a church supper in 1972.) Where I grew up, in Ohio in the 1970s, “salad” didn’t necessarily mean lettuce and fresh vegetables, it also meant any manner of fruit or vegetables (or even meats, as you point out) enfolded in gelatin and served cold. Even when the result was clearly more dessert like, it was called a “salad.”

  4. Erica on 03 Oct 2008 at 10:42 am #

    Hey, thank you for the link! It’s a great way to start the day, knowing your blog is not only read, but appreciated. (Especially something like a weekly poisoning of your family members…)

    The Jellied Bouillon recipe was from a 1941 cookbook — while it may have been an excuse to ration (“We can NOT let housewives have hot dogs and gelatin, it will destroy home front morale”), it was created pre-rationing. There’s really no excuse for it.

    I think your note about food being intricately tied to societal standards of the time is spot on. In some cases that is cherished, such as making haggis or pigs’ feet a treasured cuisine instead of “offal we ate when we couldn’t afford meat”. Many vintage recipes I’ve found are extremely lacking in intricate flavor (or, sometimes, any spice at all except “pepper to taste if desired). The creamed corn sauce was a bit potent, due to the horseradish and mustard, but it still wasn’t much. Partly this might have been food companies pandering to their audience and assuming anything beyond salt or pepper wouldn’t be in the spice rack.

    I also am intrigued by the social status of foods… my wannabe-WASP mother would never have served boiled cabbage, or sauerkraut, but we did have cole slaw. While there was never any direct statement that cabbage was “peasant food” or the like, I’ve retained a bizarre “ugh, cabbage” reaction to cabbage dishes (except cole slaw, which I adore). Despite logically knowing it’s often quite tasty, it’s just one of those ingredients I feel too good to eat. It was a lot like my attitude towards canned meat, “you only eat that if you’re desperate”; and while the sodium levels means I will only eat it again if I’m desperate, there’s nothing truly awful about SPAM or MOR. Maybe I’ll have to find a cabbage-based Retro Recipe for upcoming posts, just to show my snooty appetite there’s nothing bad about it.

  5. Historiann on 03 Oct 2008 at 11:59 am #

    I’ve got to post a photo of that hollowed-out cabbage with flaming sterno inside and skewered with meatballs on sticks! That’s a recipe that features cabbage only as a garnish/prop though, not an ingredient.

  6. Buzz on 03 Oct 2008 at 12:15 pm #

    The orange pie probably would have looked better (and more like the picture) if it had been flat on top. The thing is, we don’t own a 9″ pie pan, so the amount of filling appropriate for a 9″ pie got crammed into a smaller dish, leaving it unattractively heaped-looking.

  7. Eduardo on 03 Oct 2008 at 1:47 pm #

    In case you’re interested, I have recipes for Prune Whip and Suet Pudding. I call them revenge recipes.

  8. Historiann on 03 Oct 2008 at 2:05 pm #

    Suet pudding? I think they just call that Christmas Pudding in England! (Prune Whip is one of those recipes that make no sense whatsoever–but it tastes better than it sounds.)

    And Buzz–thanks for the explanation of the pie, but I just blamed it all on the recipe–are you saying that it’s Erica’s fault?!?

    A few years ago, I made a recipe for a lemon cake, but there was clearly about 3x as much batter as necessary for the pan I was filling. I’m ordinarily a very intuitive cook, but I don’t bake much & so just assumed, “oh well, it looks like this is too much batter for this pan, but the recipe is from Williams Sonoma, they know better than I, so full steam ahead.” Well, there was lemon cake a go-go, all over the oven, and it ended up sticking terribly inside the pan even after I cut away all of the spillover.

    That’s the last cake I made. It may well be the last cake I ever bake. (There’s a really good bakery in town–why not support a local business, right?)

  9. Buzz on 03 Oct 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    The pie looking bad wasn’t Erica’s fault. Particularly when working with a recipe that calls for canned ingredients like frozen concentrated orange juice, it’s not always worth the effort to try to size the recipe down by 20%. In this case, since the pie wasn’t going to be baked and there was no danger of overflow, we decided we might as well just put the whole recipe into the undersized pan.

    This happens all the time, including with pies that do get baked, overflow, and make a mess in the oven. In those cases, it’s usually me who tried to fit a 9″ recipe into an 8″ pie pan. Whenever this happens, one of us says, “We really should just buy a 9″ pie plate,” but we never actually do.

  10. Little Midwestern College on 03 Oct 2008 at 7:39 pm #

    Hey Historiann, great post, made me smile. The other day in my class on nineteenth century frontier women we read an 1850s text that referenced “mock apple pie” made of crackers, water, sugar, and spiced with cinnamon and cloves in pie crust (no actual apples at all), which horrified my students. I had to fess up to them that I’ve actually had it (made by my grandma, of course, who was very thrifty, from a mid-twentieth century version of the recipe using saltines crackers)–it’s really not that bad. But then we also liked the sugar sandwiches she made for us. . .

  11. Indyanna on 03 Oct 2008 at 9:50 pm #

    If you waited all year for something spectacular from, say, Cakewrecks, I think that orange thing (how did the slice end up being so un-orange?) would be a bit of a letdown. Those old church auxilliary community-gathered fund-raiser cookbooks were/are great documents, however. I’m remembering that that mock apple pie recipe enjoyed a surge of popularity back in the–well, it wasn’t the EIGHTEEN-fifties that I’m remembering!!–and, despite my eight year old skepticism, it was really quite good and convincing. I’m e-mailing my sister tomorrow (wait, she doesn’t use e-mail) for an old family recipe to take a run at that holiday cookie contest you announced, Historiann!

  12. Historiann on 04 Oct 2008 at 7:40 am #

    Little Midwestern College, as I recall (and as Indyanna suggests), “Mock Apple Pie” was a recipe on the back of the Ritz Cracker box in the 1970s. How interesting that that even-higher-carb “apple” pie recipe has such deep roots–I never would have guessed that! Thanks for the fun facts.

    And, Indyanna–the cookie contest was just a joke about trying to get my readers to do my holiday baking for me…but if you insist…

  13. Sisyphus on 04 Oct 2008 at 1:31 pm #

    Wait, I want my readers to send me cookies! Brilliant plan, Historiann!

    And I wouldn’t be able to eat any of the foods even from when I was growing up any more … mom hasn’t cooked any of them since she had to do on a low-cholesterol diet.

    But speaking of baking, I remember when she used to make pies from scratch and had a little extra lump of dough, she used to make “cinnamon sugar pie,” which was a thin little mini crust baked up with lots of cinnamon and sugar on top. Kinda like a cross between a snickerdoodle and a really crispy dessert quesadilla. Yum!

  14. Tom on 04 Oct 2008 at 3:07 pm #

    Christmas pudding made with suet is a long standing family tradition where I come from (though it seems to get ever harder to find good suet, most of which is destined for bird feeders, I guess). I love it, of course, but somehow Rose never seems quite as enthusiastic. And I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten the mock apple pie; another tradition on the old homestead is mock mincemeat, which I also love. Mockery, just generally, I guess, was an old tradition at home, now that I think of it.

    And maybe we’ll send you some Xmas cookies, Historiann, if you up the ante on the prizes to Historiann-logo T-shirts. Oh wait, I guess you decided against monetizing, didn’t you?

  15. Rose on 04 Oct 2008 at 5:20 pm #

    You’re right, Historiann–I *do* really enjoy that blog! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. As Tom notes, above, his parents still engage in some pretty retro foodways, but *my* parents actually have retro FOOD in their house. Seriously–stuff that no one’s seen on a grocery store shelf since 1967.

  16. Indyanna on 04 Oct 2008 at 9:17 pm #

    Historiann,

    I realized right after I hit send yesterday that neither of my ovens (@Philly or in Bituminosia) actually works, in the sense of heating up! So I might have had to “bake” these things on a sheet propped over an open fire in the backyard. Except that I also don’t really have a yard at either place. All that said, I would like to have a T-shirt for next summer; I even have a good design in mind!

  17. Historiann on 05 Oct 2008 at 8:20 am #

    Well, Indyanna, I guess you could offer colonial campfire cookies!

    And Rose, I’m glad you like “the good old days.” (Tom, you can still send Xmas cookies–I’ll have to work on the shirt.)

    I’m sure many of you have already seen the T-shirt that says, “More people have read this T-shirt than have read your stupid blog.” I think most of us academics could get T-shirts that say, “More people have read this T-shirt than have read my stupid book,” and that would probably be accurate, too.

  18. Indyanna on 05 Oct 2008 at 12:40 pm #

    Won’t even require monetizing (the shirts part, I mean). Everyone could design their own favorite shirt, “source” it locally, and send in the image for potential posting.

  19. the good old days » Blog Archive » Retro Recipe Attempt: Mock Apple Pie on 23 Oct 2008 at 7:35 am #

    [...] week’s retro cooking was inspired largely by comments on Historiann’s post about my Not-So-Orange Velvet Pie. I’d never heard of the Mock Apple Pie which was mentioned [...]

  20. Mock Apple Pie « Retro Recipe Attempts on 14 Jul 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    [...] Apple Pie This week’s retro cooking was inspired largely by comments on Historiann’s post about my Not-So-Orange Velvet Pie. I’d never heard of the Mock Apple Pie which was mentioned [...]

  21. Perdita on 14 Oct 2011 at 6:51 am #

    Just swung by and one thing that amused me was how in the USA, ‘ration’ food included hot dogs. Hot dogs would be a terrifying waste of precious meat to a British wartime cook! Retro recipes in the UK, from ration-book-times, are actually incredibly healthy and veg-heavy because you got so little meat, egg, fish, cheese and fat.

    Interestingly, people started to lose their sweet tooth and there was a recorded generational gap between wartime adults/babies (disliked excess sugar and fat, found things ‘rich’- as my gran did) and baby boomers (sugar un-rationed when they were kids so saw sugar and luxe foods as wonderful)… and attitudes to fat and sugar today.