Katy Burns: Time for a little retro food?

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/30/2017 12:30:03 AM

My goodness, coal mines are reopening everywhere! The blast furnaces in old steel mills are roaring back to life! Once again massive ore boats ply the waters of the Great Lakes! Or so we are told.

In no time, stoves and refrigerators will be tumbling off the new assembly lines in our reinvigorated industrial heartland, destined for tidy middle-class homes where each morning Dad carries his lunch pail off to a manly job and Mom – smartly attired in a neat skirt, sweater set and string of pearls – tends to the kiddies, the laundry, the housekeeping and the cooking.

So maybe – as we wait for some new Philco console TV sets to hit the stores – Mom ought to brush up on that cooking!

Fortunately for her, I’ve undertaken a bit of scientific research into the subject in order to advance our national interest in the food that fueled us back When America Was First Great.

“Research” in this case being defined as finding a couple of mid-20th century cookbooks languishing in the cellar – including a genuine Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (“Every recipe perfected for you in our Test Kitchen”), complete with “dozens of color photographs” and tips for “getting a head start with packaged, canned and frozen food.”

Well! Julia Child-fare its contents were not.

Take the appetizer section, with its plethora of cheese balls (one featured deviled ham, chopped stuffed green olives and cream cheese) and a raft of dips, including an intriguing hot cheese dip using cream of mushroom soup, rolls of “garlic flavored cheese food” and Worcestershire sauce.

Cream cheese was very big in all kinds of Father Knows Best era recipes, as were any number of canned condensed cream soups, Ritz and saltine crackers, stuffed olives, dried onion soup mix and Velveeta, which was first manufactured – yes, “manufactured” – way back in 1918.

BH&G offers a wide range of casseroles (also big back then), lots featuring ground beef or canned tuna or canned “luncheon meat” (Spam?) along with noodles or macaroni, cracker crumbs, canned corn and the inevitable canned cream soup. Campbell’s apparently churned out an infinite variety of condensed cream soups.

(If I sound too critical on the subject of bad casseroles, trust me. I know bad casseroles. The first time I cooked for my husband-to-be I served him a sausage casserole. I’d never made such a thing before and cannot imagine why I tried that time. It was sheer horror, tasteless and swimming in grease, and he gallantly choked it down. I knew I had a winner in the new beau if not in the recipe.)

There’s a whole chapter called Jiffy Cooking, celebrating Soup-Kettle Supper (cream of vegetable soup, cream of chicken soup, canned onion soup, canned corn, canned Vienna sausage and milk, presumably not canned).

Or perhaps you’d prefer a Crown Roast Dinner starring (as the crown roast) two cans of that mysterious luncheon meat, canned sweet potatoes, orange marmalade and canned pineapple slices?

All food is not jiffy, though. Something dubbed Chicken Parisienne involves covering four large chicken breasts with a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of mushrooms, a cup of sour cream and a half-cup of cooking sherry and baking the whole concoction for about an hour and one-quarter. Beef generally is cooked to a gray death, pork past death.

And so the cookbook goes, a tribute to canned, frozen and packaged foods, all chockablock full of salt, sugar and who knows how many preservatives. Fresh un-processed foods – most often real meat – make only fleeting appearances. The book captured the spirit of those post-war days when American technology was making miracles possible, including lots of canned soups

And there were worse recipes then. Especially in the vanity “cookbooks” that well-meaning organizations put out to raise money.

I’ve got one from a small community theater group that included a recipe for “antipasto” that included onions, peppers, carrots, sweet pickles and two cans of tuna, all cooked in the contents of a family-sized bottle of ketchup. And a “shrimp salad” recipe whose principle ingredients were celery, canned shrimp and canned crushed pineapple, held together with a great dollop of mayonnaise.

Yep, the good old days were really bad old days for American diners and the “foods” they ate. Just as they were often bad old days for American workers as well, no matter how much some politicians romanticize them.

Coal mining was a filthy job, back-breaking and hazardous work with, too often, black lung as the ultimate “reward.” And whoever celebrates the glories of steel-making has clearly never endured the hellish heat of a mill with blast furnaces roaring.

Assembly lines, as they were then, meant numbingly repetitive work, and movies celebrated the ideal offices, filled with regimented rows of desks stretching across the screen.

Women were stuck in occupations that came to be known as pink ghettos, and racial minorities were lucky to find work at all that didn’t involve backbreaking physical labor while their lives were constricted by segregation, de jure as well as de facto.

Medicine was primitive by today’s standards, with most childhood vaccines as yet undeveloped. And mentally ill people were warehoused in huge institutions.

Good old days in America were better? Ha! Not for the way we ate back then. Or much of anything else.

About the only good thing one can say about the America of the 1950s: It had no Twitter, no tweets.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)




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