Growing up in America in the 1950s was an adventure funded by story and myth. Most of the impetus for this came straight from films and comics, and by 1951-52 from the round television screen on my family’s first television set, a Dumont. America was more – so much more – than a geographical location; it took on the character one usually ascribes to fantasy, a place in which the good guys are constantly at war with the baddies, a place where the cowboys fight the Indians, and only comes to an end when your Dad whistles you home for dinner. That was what it was like for a lot of my friends and the kids I went to school with. When you’re five or six it’s difficult not to see it as real.
I was different, one of those curious, keen observers that asked too many questions, whose size made me look three years older than the kids my age and separated me from the herd. All of my senses were tuned in, from the smell of raked leaves in autumn, to the aromatic scents that drifted through the neighbourhood at dinner time. There was an absurd quality to everything, though I didn’t have the wrods then to artilate it. It was all around me, particularly in the weird advertisements with their odd characters – Buster Brown and his dog who lived in my shoes, Teddy Snowcrop lodged in the family’s icebox keeping company with the strange little man that turned off the light, and Bosco the Bear and his Liquid Milk Amplifier (chocolate syrup) – I thought it was some kind of medicine when I first saw the ad. It was frightening, the way the milk apmplifier turned the white liquid brown. A colour imagination in a black’n’white world. The first film I ever saw was Peter Pan shortly after it opened in the Roxy Theatre in NYC, so naturally the only peanut butter for me was Peter Pan. And even as I ate it I mused at the cheap make-believe; we were at the mercy of Mad Men, but how could a five-year-old know that?
Actually, the real “mad” ones were all around us. In time,I began to realise just how close they were, a realisation that came later rather than sooner. I was a late bloomer.
So what was the 1950s exactly?
It’s a complex and difficult question – one that has an infinite number of possible answers. But if you look at one aspect of it – the food that was considered “normal” and “good’ and nourishing, that was served up on a weekly basis on the tables of my friends and family, you might get some idea of the way we lived and the distance we think we have travelled since Truman stepped down and Ike took over.
Here is a selection of recipes and oddments from the archives of my mother’s and aunt’s recipe boxes. Not just their own recipes, but recipes that they must’ve liked well enough to request copies. If you want a fleeting insight into what life was like in those days, rustle up just one of these recipes and try it. It will tell you heaps about the life, the yearnings, and the naiveity of those of us that lived through it.
And, if you’re planning a 50’s party, you can’t get food that’s any more fifties than this. Just don’t overdo it.
This is one of those dishes that I had to endure throughout the 1950s. Mercifully it wasn’t a weekly event, and I could never understand why my mother persisted in making it when she knew that the mere thought of it filled me with horror. Why? I hated onions. I was a very finicky eater.
- 1-1/2 pounds ground beef (chuck is best)
- 1/2 pound ground pork sausage (seasoned or not)
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup cubed bits of stale bread
- 1 to 2 large cloves of garlic, pressed
- 1 cup diced sweet onion
- 1/4 cup diced green bell pepper (sweet capsicum)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 Tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
- 1 package dry onion soup mix
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste, divided use
- 2 to 4 strips bacon, cut in half (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine ground beef, pork sausage, eggs, bread, garlic, sweet onion, bell pepper, oregano, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, onion soup mix (most impotant), milk, and half of the tomato paste. Gently mix only until combined. Do not overwork the meat or it will become tough. Form into a loaf. Cover with the remaining half can of tomato paste. Weave the bacon strips over the top.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let meatloaf rest 15 minutes before cutting to serve. Yield: 8 servings
- 2 teaspoons grated orange peel
- 1/4 cup of orange juice
- ¼ cup butter
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds
- ½ cup sugar
- Muffin batter
Combine one fourth cup orange juice, two teaspoons grated orange peel one fourth cup butter, one half cup sugar, 1/2 cup sliced almonds and cook for five minutes.
Divide glaze equally into ten muffin cups.
Add favorite muffin batter and bake. Turn pan upside down on rack and let stand for a few minutes before removing muffins.
Bing Cherry Salad Mold with Coke
1 can Bing Cherries
1 can crushed pineapple
1 package cherry Jell-O
1 package cream cheese – about 3 ounces
chopped nuts (about 1/3 cup)
Drain juice from fruit, add water to make one cup. Heat and dissolve Jell-O. Mash cream cheese and beat into Jell-O. Put into refrigerator. When starting to set, beat with egg beater. Add Coke, pineapple and nuts. Arrange cherries around the bottom of individual molds and pour mixture over all. Then return to the refrigerator.
Cold Cut Pie
My mother notes – next to the recipe writer’s handwritten instructions: “Make ahead of time. All you need to complete the menu is a tossed salad or some sliced tomatoes, a basket of bread or rolls, a pitcher of ice tea and dill pickles.”
Prepare the filling:
1 pound potatoes (about 3 medium)
1/3 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
1/2 cup sliced celery
1/2 cup diced green pepper
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup pickle relish
3 hard cooked eggs, diced
1/2 pound boiled ham or 1 can (12 oz.) luncheon meat, diced
1/2 pound salami, diced.
Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until barely tender – still firm in the center.
Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients. Then potatoes are ready, peel, dice; add to filling mixture. Chill for 2 hours.
Fix the dressing and crust:
1 envelope unflavored gelatine
1/2 cup water
1 pound sliced bologna
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup commercial sour cream
Place gelatine and water in small sauce pan and let stand two minutes, then heat to the boiling point, stirring until gelatin is dissolved. Remove from heat. While it cools a bit, line a ten inch pie plate with bologna, overlapping the slices. Now, using rotary beater, combine the gelatin mixture, mayonnaise, and sourcream. Chill till gelatin is just slightly thickened – about 20 minutes. Fold in filling mixture; spoon into bologna “crust”. Chill at least 3 hours. (Store in refrigerator up to two days if you wish.) Serves six as a main dish.
Add one envelope unflavored gelatin to 1/4 cup cold coffee and let stand 5 minutes. Stir into 2 cups scalding hot coffee. Add 1/2 cups sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Cool. Refrigerate about 4 hours or until firm. To serve, spoon into deep sherbet cups. Pour over each serving one tablespoon sweet cream or whipped cream.
“P.S. Substitute Irish Whiskey for the vanilla (sometimes). Just any measurement will do.”
1 1/2 block butter
2 or 3 medium onions
1/2 bell pepper
2 or 3 ribs of celery
1 can tomatoes
Sauté above ingredients about 4 hours. Do no Add any water
Add 1/2 lemon
dash Worcestershire sauce
Parsley and 2 buttons squeezed garlic
Add: 1/2 to 2/3 cans mushrooms soup
Lastly add 1 quart and 1 pint – cleaned – shrimp or crawfish
There are some things you carry with you from childhood, memories of specific places and events, of things once loved then lost, the smell of the neighbour’s house, or one’s clothes. It’s strange – the things you remember, or choose to forget. Even as a 5 year-old everything in my environment seemed to emphasize that we were Americans, and that we lived in the greatest country on Earth. The flag was the embodiment of heroism and goodness. We weren’t simply one nation among many nations. We existed at the centre of the Universe. America was IT, and somehow and in some way levery other place was less important, less real, less human. It was a childhood fraught with unwitting danger, a danger I was not altogether unaware of. How was one to match wits the the Yankee ingenuity with which even one’s own being was imbued? This self-reliance was much more obvious in the 1950s than now, and is attested to by any number of home cures that many American families firmly believed. The pharmacy had not yet replaced the folk remedy, at least not in the homes of many of my friends. Here is a sample my aunt collected:
If disease is contagious, before removing the try from the room wrap all left-over food in paper and burn as soon as possible. Put the dishes in a pan large enough so they can be completely covered with cold water. Boil for 15 minutes.
1 tablespoon rice
1 cup milk
Wash rice, cover with cold water and let stand two hours. Drain, add milk and cook one and one-half hours in double boiler. Strain and season. Serve hot or cold.
1 tube Peptonizing Powder
1/2 cup cold water
1 pint fresh milk
Put powder into a sterilized quart bottle, add water, and shake until powder is dissolved; add milk, shake and place on ice. Use as needed, always keeping remainder covered on ice. Peptonized milk may be served warm by putting bottle in vessel of water (115 degrees F.) and keeping at the same temperature 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Soak Irish Moss in cold water, drain and pick over. Add 1 1/2 cups cold water, cook 30 minutes in double boiler and strain. Add lemon juice and syrup to taste to 1/2 cup liquid and serve.
White 1 egg
1/2 cup orange or lemon juice
Syrup to taste
Beat egg white to a froth, add fruit juice, strain, sweeten. Serve cold. Syrup for fruit beverages can be made by cooking 1 cup sugar and 1 cup of water twelve minutes. Albumen water is made by adding 1/2 cup water to the egg white, omitting the fruit juice and syrup. Albumenized milk is made by using 1/2 cup milk with egg white. Fruit drinks are made by combining sugar syrup, plain or carbonated water, and fruit juice.