What did you eat in childhood and has it changed?
In doing research for my memoir, Tasting Home, a book organized by decades and by the cookbooks that shaped my life, I struggled to get an angle on my mother’s cooking. In some ways, it replicated what we think of as the cooking of the 1950s and in other ways, perhaps, it did not. Although my mother owned The American Woman Cookbook (1947), I never saw her use it, and both The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, highly popular in the 1950s, completely passed her by. She’d learned to cook in the 1920s and 1930s on a North Dakota farm, and the only recipes I ever saw her use were those hand-written on the 3 by 5 five cards she eventually passed on to me when she moved to an assisted care facility and to a room without a kitchen.
In preparation for the memoir, I sorted those seventy-one cards into several categories and then counted them. There were six cards for hamburger-based dishes, many for casseroles, a fifties favorite. These included Spanish Rice, Heavenly Hash, Tamale Pie, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, and enchiladas (we lived in Southern California). Hamburger was cheap in the 1950s, and we had it often. But we also had beef spareribs, roast, and pot roast and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter the standard turkey, ham, and lamb. This meat-driven diet was often seasoned with nothing more than garlic salt, onion salt, and Worcestershire Sauce. To be fair, canned tomatoes and cheddar cheese appeared in the enchiladas, while Heavenly Hash required an actual onion along with noodles, potato chips, and two cans of vegetable soup.
I’m sure we had fried chicken as well, but despite the fact that we lived twenty miles from the ocean, we never had fish. The occasional frozen fish stick appeared on our plates (they were introduced in 1953) and my brother and I sometimes sat down with a Swanson TV dinner (1954) comprised of turkey, stuffing, gravy, peas, and sweet potatoes in front of the living room TV. (My parents ate in the kitchen.)
I found no recipes for vegetables and can’t recall eating them, except for potatoes—mashed, boiled, or fried. Though surely we must have had something green—frozen green beans? Iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing?
Forty-four of the seventy-one recipes were for dessert! Thirteen for pie, ten for cookies, seven for cakes, five for fudge (several containing those fifties favorites marshmallows or marshmallow cream), and nine for miscellaneous items such as peanut brittle, crackerjack, and donuts. Almost every recipe called for margarine or “oleo” (margarine outsold butter in 1957 for the very first time), including the recipe for pie crust recipe which combined oleo with Crisco. (My mother’s pie crusts melted on the tongue, but when I tried to duplicate the recipe, the results were disappointing. The chemical structure of margarine and Crisco, and quite possibly my brain, appear to have changed since the 1950s.)
How typical of the fifties was my mother’s penchant for oleo and sugar? I’m not sure and am half inclined to attribute it to farm living and to my mother’s Norwegian past. When you perform hard physical labor for ten hours a day, you need pies and cookies for cheap fuel. The same might be said for breads, the second largest category of her recipes. There were fourteen cards bearing directions for bran muffins, sour milk biscuits, Norwegian flatbread and lefse ( a mashed potato tortilla) and loaves made of zucchini, squash, corn, dates, bananas, prunes, or rye. In the 1950s, however, those breads were mainly for holidays. We ate soft white Wonder bread for every day life—for toast, for sandwiches, and for dinner, to sort of round out the meal. So red meat, fat, white flour, and sugar—all the things I try to avoid today–formed the basis of my 1950s Baby Boomer diet.
Like many others of my generation, I went on to cook from Julia Child in the 1960s, vastly expanding my repertoire of ingredients, following recipes that went on for three pages, and making sauces that required several days to prepare. But, to be honest, I had not left the fifties entirely behind. I spent most of my life cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, along with other books on French, Italian, Mexican and New Mexican cuisines. Many of the recipes involved red meat, white flour, butter, lard, and cream and, for special occasions, a ton of sugar as well. Nowadays, most of that is off the table (except on holidays), although the single greatest difference between the cuisines of my later life (beginning with Julia Child) and that of my 1950s childhood was the profusion of vegetables I learned to cook, crave, and consume.
Readers, what did you eat in your childhood and did it change? I want to write about it!