Yesteryear’s recipes viewed with a new perspective

Entire websites and social media streams are dedicated to poking fun at recipes from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. It can be difficult not to chuckle when you see Spaghetti-Os and hot dogs molded with gelatin to form a ring. Many people have opined on why neon-hued gelatin salads and recipes such as casseroles featuring canned and boxed goods became so popular. Theories vary from Cold War tensions to feminine social norms to immigration. These hypothesis miss some important points, says Megan McArdle. She writes about the economic reasons for why people turned to this style of cooking after WWII.

McArdle finds that most theories ignore obvious answers such as “they liked it”; “they thought it looked pretty like that”; or “that was what they could afford”? She believes these were the real impetus behind the “endless parade of things molded, jellied, bemayonnaised and enbechameled.” She makes the case by offering evidence, like the fact that it was much more difficult and expensive to find ingredients that we now take for granted.

Another argument McArdle makes is that there were a lot of bad cooks. Eating out at a restaurant was not an everyday occurrence which meant that most meals were made at home. Not every woman (and it was almost always a woman) liked to cook. In fact, plenty of them only did it because they had to, so if a recipe used shortcuts like canned soups and vegetables, it was attractive to the meal makers. I think my own mother fell into that category. Cooking was a dreaded chore, so if she could open a box and pour out a meal, that’s what we were eating for dinner.

Photo of Grandma’s lime green Jello salad (with cottage cheese & pineapple) from Home Cooking Memories

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  • cookbookaddict2020  on  April 29, 2020

    This makes a ton of sense, especially the last point about how cooking was a giant chore when people didn’t have a choice about whether to do it. I consider myself a skillful and enthusiastic cook, but now that lockdown has me serving 46346 meals a week at home, I’m over it, and most definitely looking for shortcuts.

  • cookbookaddict2020  on  April 29, 2020

    where’s the McArdle article? Would love to read it. Thanks!

  • hillsboroks  on  April 29, 2020

    My mom was definitely a “I hate to cook” mother but with 5 kids she had to put something on the table. Cake mixes, jello, casseroles with pasta and various Campbell’s soups were some of her best dishes. When she ventured into real cooking the results were nearly inedible like the pot roasts put in the oven in an uncovered pan to roast until the meat reached the jerky stage. Her utter lack of interest inspired me to start learning to cook by exploring the old Betty Crocker cookbook and taking home economics classes in junior high. My younger brothers and sisters gave me lots of encouragement on the nights I was allowed to cook.

  • gamulholland  on  April 29, 2020

    We live in a 1963 split-level, with smallish bedrooms and small bathrooms, huge family room and living room for those baby boom families, and what my friend described as a “tiny, TV dinner kitchen”’until we took down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room and remodeled it. Hidden away from the rest of the house. Practically no counter space for actual cooking. An electric cooktop stuffed in the corner. But a double wall oven!! It was really a kitchen for people who didn’t like to cook. Even the houses were designed for that style of cooking.

  • darcie_b  on  April 29, 2020

    I added the link to the article.

  • KarenGlad  on  May 3, 2020

    My mother was and still is at 85 a great cook. And all 5 of her kids me included love to cook too. But she was known to use those convenience products occasionally …because that’s what they were…a novel and welcome shortcut for the generations before that grew up eating vegetables straight from the garden or home preserved and everything made from scratch. Have you ever thought about how gelatin was made before the powdered stuff in a box became available!?

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