The Generational Recipe Shift

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

-Who the hell is Governor Smylie?-

I've been going through my grandmother's recipe cards again, putzing through and looking for something that screams Old Americana nostalgia like a nifty casserole or a recipe that's so funky and uncool that it's cool again - a horrid jello salad with marshmallows in it would adequately fulfill this want. I think making that would be so deliciously retro it would revert time and space and the dish would become inherently cool again, like my dad's old clothes from 1960 that I enjoy wearing every so often. (Bell-bottoms and leather vests with fringe are so back in style.) Sidecar cocktails and women's magazine chop suey recipes are the platform shoes and luncheon gloves of way-back-when.

Still, there is one category of recipe which vexes me, the company made recipe. Recipes clipped from the back of a box of Vox (lard) or XLNT (chili beans) or other product that no longer exists. The problem is that the recipes aren't clear so I have no idea what the actual ingredient is. The instructions may simply read "Stir in (X-Ingredient)." However, since the company that made X-ingredient no longer exists I'm left with the words that haunted me throughout college and high school calculus courses: solve for X.

The Internet is also only so useful when hunting down something that hasn't been sold in stores since 1971. No one seems to be cataloging ingredients and food stuffs that were or weren't in vogue over 60 years ago. I'm left to rely on my own cooking knowledge to figure out what the most likely ingredient X was.

There's always a bit of a generational recipe shift when trying to translate these cards. Sometimes the recipe is straightforward enough and I can pound out the dish easy enough. Other times my grandmother, having committed the recipe to memory or having been familiar with it, wrote it out in shorthand leaving gaps for me to puzzle out. Missing baking times, cooking temperatures, or order of ingredients are common, creating sudoku-style recipes where I have to fill in the blanks based on the information given.

And, at times, isn't a lot of inforamtion given. Also, games of sudoku don't run the risk of burning or making your kitchen smell of failure. In some cases it's simply a type of dish I'm completely unaware of and, therefore, have no inkling as to what the final product should be.

But it's not all bad. I can trace out the history of culinary America, or a short period of it, through this box. History on note cards stained with love, time, and marinara. They reflect a time where convenience cooking is held in high regard. Sliced white bread. The intoxicating newness of frozen peas for a "Fresh Pea Soup." Canned corn that makes for a zesty "Southwest Salad," just be sure to add a few lashings of lime juice. And, lo' and behold, the glory and miracle that is the microwave which goes hand in hand with the frozen dinner.

The microwave also figures greatly into reheating. Recipes you can prepare ahead of time - effectively, homemade frozen dinners - are the rage for the new working mom. The novelty of it all! Gather up the kids and we'll all watch an episode of I Love Lucy! I hear Joan Crawford will be guest starring in tonight's episode!

It's amusing to say the least. But what's even better is when the card is noted as "old fashioned" and refers to some dish popular in the 1920's like a bully old appetizer of mushrooms stuffed with crab and cheese or big bowl roman punch.

-My mom and uncle say they hated this dish most of all. I, however, am quite curious to try it.-

I find it interesting to follow the food fads of the time. Curry powder was making a resurgence, indeed curry as the dish itself was huge. In fact there's a whole section dedicated to curry in the recipe catalog such as Hawaiian Turkey with Curry Sauce and Governor Smylie's Lamb Curry (using Smylie's brand prune chutney, of course). Lots of stuffed mushrooms for all those neighborhood parties. I don't judge this based solely on the box, but rather that many of these recipes are clipped from magazines and newspapers and glued to note cards.

Another big fad was Chinese food. It was HUGE in the 50's. Indeed every woman had their own unique recipe for chop suey. My grandmother has no less than five recipes in this box.

(Incidentally, chop suey when translated to Cantonese means "odds and ends." As Jennifer 8. Lee related in her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Americans in the 50's whet crazy for what they thought was the national dish of China. However, this would be like someone from China coming to the U.S. and asking for our national dish which they heard was called "leftovers." (There is much more to that story but you should read her book to get it.))

As adventurous eating turned to the many new Chinese restaurants popping up in the U.S. - dishes that were altered for American tastes using what ingredients were available - people wanted to cook these dishes at home. Pizza, curries, even miso soups are in this box. Of course, it helps that my grandmother was an avid traveler. In fact, she was one of the first Americans to set foot in China when the borders were re-opened to foreigners. When she came back she brought with her not only jade and ivory, but a taste for authentic Chinese cuisine. A cuisine, I imagine, that must have been hard to reproduce at the time.

There's also a huge section of recipes for "Liver / Kidney," the third biggest section next to "Salads" and "Grilled Meat." I assume this is one based out of poverty and of a time when people simply ate more offal before pre-packaged cuts of meat became so widely available and people were able to simply pick up mass produced choice cuts. Over time became separated from the odds-and-ends cuts of meat. Today the populous at large is disgusted by the food their grandparents happily grew up eating.

Anyways, it's an interesting topic to look at. How food and recipes have changed and stayed the same over the years. The food fads and trends (1980's goat cheese salad anyone?). I'll probably delve into the rhetoric of recipes sooner or later too after more research. Stay tuned.

Related Post: For the Modern Woman of 1965

-Authentic Chinese cuisine!-

This post was originally on my old other blog, The Rhetoric of Rhubarb. I've edited it and reposted it for the Vanilla Garlic audience. Furthermore, I yellowed the pictures a bit for a more old-time feel. I really like this post and hope you enjoy it. I would love to hear any comments you might have.


  1. Love this post. I too flip through my Grandma's old recipe boxes - I was the only one who wanted them - I love the handwritten and typewriter-typed ones. And yes, the yellowed cut-outs from the newspaper taped onto recipe cards. Sigh. I'm sad for the days when recipes were shared like this, although I wasn't even around then..

  2. I think I have a chop suey salad recipe from my grandmother as well. The thing that really stands out to me with most of her old recipes is that they almost appear to be shorthand compared to how recipes are written today... almost like it was expected that whoever was reading the recipe actually knew how to cook (go figure).

  3. Amazing read..I have rarely come across an article that is dedicated to the history of recipe boxes.. Wow!! You kind of sideline them and now and then many years later someone can actually catch a glimpse of what the middle class ate at that point in time..

  4. I love your blog Garrett. Old recipes like very old cookbooks are sometimes vague, but they sure are interesting.When I was little,I overheard my mom asking grams about a recipe she wrote.She took a look at the recipe and couldnt understand her own handwriting either. She told mom: "If your eyes deceive you, use your tongue"

  5. I wish my mother's recipes had been worth saving. I used to think she was the greatest cook in the world, and then I had food with *gasp* SPICES in it. I remember once having dinner at a friends house, we had chicken. The chicken had crisp skin. It was a revelation of what food could be. I asked her for the recipe, she said "I bake it." What? could that be right? My mother baked it too, and hers was nothing like this. "No, what else did you do to it" I queried. "I baked it uncovered." Aha! My eureka moment. Mom always covered her chicken. So if you want some nostalgia from West Michigan, go have yourself some steamed chicken, sans spices.

  6. Hi Garrett,

    I really enjoyed this post. I've studied some of this in sociology classes in university, and as an immigrant in a multicultural community (Toronto), originally from a place that's experienced major cultural exchange (Hong Kong) and of course as a fellow food lover, I'm fascinated by the history of our popular foods. Jennifer Lee's performances after General Tao's chicken, broccoli, chop suey - hilarious! And it's funny because that food's re-entered mainstream Chinese restaurants that cater to the Chinese community.

  7. Great post. I hunt for old recipe boxes (filled) at yard sales. Usually get them for a few bucks and find them loaded with gems. Tried recreating something called bishop's bread out of one once. Not bad, though no idea how close I got to what the recipe intended.

  8. This is a great story! I love the walnuts in the Real Chinese chop suey salad, and the Worcester sauce. I too am very fond of the old recipe collections, and hunt antiquairs and fairs for them. So revealing about food preferences in the 20ths century!

  9. you know, I read your blog very regularly and when you first had your fire my first thought after if you were safe was if you had your family recipes. I take it you do? I am glad. My family is Romanian and Portuguese so I can't imagine losing that cooking history if I had it...

  10. I'll make that kidney dish for you if you want. I cook lamb kidneys with some frequency...

  11. Hank - I may take you up on that. Every time I try they come out like rubber. =(

  12. I especially love the recipes that include Jell-O and Cool Whip ... and I still love the tuna casserole that my mom used to make. Everything out of a can - yes!

    I also have one of those old cookbooks that was put together by a church, complete with courier font and comb binding. It has a treasure of old recipes, complete with the name of the person who contributed the recipe - each of which starts with "Mrs."

  13. I love digging through old cookbooks and through recipe cards from my grandparents. I think it's a lovely way to understand our past and to get to know our relatives. I think understanding the food someone eats is highly important in understanding who they are as a person.

  14. If you have a large library nearby, check out their microfich (spelling?) collections of old newspapers. The grocery store ads and individual product ads are amazing. The prices are unbelievable. I like to read the food sections of the really old papers, especially the ones during WW II. (<-- New York Times)

  15. This is an intriguing idea--searching through family recipe boxes, and noting the rhetorical differences along with the differences in ingredients. I have a few of my grandmother's recipes and some of them feature the same kind of shorthand. There are a lot of potato soup recipes, and the baked goods assume the reader is into butter and brown sugar. But at family gatherings the jello salad (with marshmallows) was definitely plentiful...

  16. When my grandmother died, all I wanted was her recipe boxes. (Ok, that and some of her china.) I love looking through them, trying to figure out what Brand X is or why she has seven different recipes for chicken spaghetti and why not one of them serves less than 25 people. This is our history - familial, societal, cultural. These recipe boxes hold our grandmothers, and we are richer for having them.


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