Recently I was the grateful recipient of some delicious fruit salad left over from a luncheon at my sister’s company. I enjoyed the refreshing combination of grapes, watermelon, and blueberries all the more because someone else had done all the slicing and mixing!
As my palate welcomed this mélange of fruit, my brain began to recollect banquets from my formative years, community dinners with printed menus whose first entry was often a fruit cup – which turned out to be a small dish of fruit cocktail right from the can, as far as I could tell.
I also remembered the mother-daughter dinners we attended at church just before Mother’s Day, where we were served perfection salad topped with a dollop of mayonnaise. The green or yellow gelatin filled with shredded carrots or cabbage was new to me: at home Mother stirred fruit into red Jell-O and sprinkled miniature marshmallows over the top. I also seem to remember pear slices submerged in squares of green Jell-O on my lunch tray at school.
Coincidentally, my memories of fruit and Jell-O and food in general received reinforcement from a Facebook post shared by Katha Dill – one of those nostalgia pieces we Boomers love to pass on – entitled “Eating in the Fifties.” My head nodded and my mind clicked as I read culinary-based statements including: “Oil was for lubricating, fat was for cooking”; “All chips were plain”; “Tea was never green.”
I have previously written about Great Depression foods that ended up on my childhood plate, so I went a-googling to find out what else influenced the eating patterns of my youth.
I found a list of top foods from the 50’s with meatloaf in the first position. Continuing its popularity from Depression times as a way to stretch foods in short supply, meatloaf also seemed a shoo-in for the convenience category of the 1950 list. I mean, it was – and continues to be – a perfect entrée for weeknight suppers or Sunday lunch, with the added bonus of being a yummy sandwich filler for the next day’s lunchbox.
Another staple at home and school back then was Tuna Noodle Casserole. Actually, casserole recipes abounded in the 50’s. Does anyone remember Turkey Tetrazzini, Johnny Marzetti, and the green bean casserole we still eat at Thanksgiving in the 21st century?
The concept of casseroles was aided by the post-World War II dream of suburban homes with modern, time-saving appliances in the kitchen. There housewives could streamline meal prep by opening a few cans, dumping the contents into a dish, and baking the whole thing into a combination of flavors more delicious than their separate parts.
The folks at Campbell Soup added to the casserole movement by designing recipes spotlighting their products, even broadening the genre a bit with their versions of cream-based creations such as Chicken à la King, Beef Stroganoff, and Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast – known in the Scott household as dried beef gravy.
Returning soldiers, exposed to other cultures for an extended period of time, also influenced eating in America by bringing home an appetite for foods from new cuisines they had sampled along the way: lasagna, chow mein, egg foo yung, and – most importantly – pizza.
Another comment from Katha’s post, “In the 50’s we had never heard of yogurt,” then pointed me in the direction of eating patterns of the 1960’s. Indeed, I savored my first-ever cup of yogurt in Germany in 1969, promptly adding it to my list of favorite foods.
During the 60’s, those years of junior high, high school, and college for me, America transitioned from the conformity and tradition of suburbia to a more liberal – even radical – period. Times they were achangin’ – as were eating habits.
There was the health food trend that introduced granola, sprouts, brown rice, tofu, and my favorite yogurt into the mainstream cuisine.
We also experienced competing food customs as we became accustomed to instant foods: just add water. The likes of instant oatmeal, instant mashed potato flakes, and freeze-dried coffee entered the food scene. And, to my way of thinking, frozen pie crust and bread dough, Pop-Tarts, Cool Whip, and Shake ‘n Bake were practically instant foods, what with their level of readiness right off the supermarket shelf. Simultaneously, Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child exerted great food influence by popularizing French cuisine, with its complicated and showy cooking style.
Entertaining back then could be as fancy as salmon mousse at a swanky cocktail party or pigs-in-a-blanket at an informal Friday-night get-together. Any social occasion gave hosts at any level the opportunity to serve “finger foods” such as Swedish meatballs. We used French onion soup mix to make dip for fresh veggies and stuffed celery with peanut butter and cheese from a can, even as we fondued everything in sight: bread cubes and meat chunks, strawberries and banana slices.
With a television set in almost every home, TV dinners became more commonplace, varied, and tasty. And after NASA launched spaceships that left the gravitational pull of the Earth, we were all able to drink what the astronauts drank – Tang!
Now that my mind has strolled down the memory lane of menus and my taste buds are all in a tizzy for more fruit salad, I must share the final sentence of Katha’s post: “The things we never, ever had on/at the table back then…elbows/hats/cellphones.” So there you go…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.