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.
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
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.