• 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.

    Spareribs

    Spareribs

    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?

    Iceburg Lettuce

    Iceburg Lettuce

    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.)

    Cherry Pie

    Cherry Pie

    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.

    Wonder Bread

    Wonder Bread

    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.

    Petit Pois

    Petit Pois

    Readers, what did you eat in your childhood and did it change? I want to write about it!



    • Meat, potatoes, salad and vegetable as I was growing up. Dessert were Mother’s Oatmeal Cookies and for a treat Fritos. I don’t ever remember my mom baking anything. Her motto, don’t make anything you can buy. I used lots of hamburger meat for my kids, casseroles and lots of Grape Nuts for dinner. They ate the best when it came our of the jar as in baby food. Later on they pretty much came home from sports and had big bowls of what I thought were better cereals, Grape Nuts, Raisin Bran and for a real treat fruit loops. I did cook but limited. Not ever my finest attribute.



    • Salad and vegetables both?? Wow!



    • Yes, a basic salad and frozen vegetables. 🙂



    • When my Italian grandparents lived with us, we had gourmet Italian food nearly every day (Grandpa was an excellent cook). But, when they weren’t there… we got a lot of Hamburger Helper and Shake ‘N Bake, and TV dinners. Mom worked, and cooking wasn’t her bag. All that said, I did develop a love of having greens (spinach, chard, kale) with dinner, and we rarely ate bread at dinner. Those two habits have stuck with me!



    • AND…. we got a lot of Dinty Moore canned stew when my grandparents weren’t living with us!


      • Jesse Loren

      • September 30, 2014 at 7:05 pm
      • Reply

      My mother was never interested in cooking, nor was her mother. Both were the most undomestic, free spirits I have ever met. Mom would rather buy a new lipstick than spend more than 5 minutes in the kitchen. The only from scratch item she made was potato salad, and it was good. We had cereal for breakfast. My ability to pronounce complicated, latinate words comes from reading the ingredients. Lunch, balony sandwiches or PNJ. Dinner: Fishstick or mac and cheese Fridays. Pancakes and can of mixed fruit Thursdays, Dinty More stew Wednesdays, Tuesdays, Chicken Pot Pie (5 for a dollar) and occasionally our local Mexican food. Mom had two things she cooked, Sweet and Sour chicken (white rice, boiled and picked apart chicken mixed with a can of sweet and sour sauce) and some crappy steak in red sauce I think she called swiss steak. All veggies cooked to death, except wedge salad. Occasional spaghetti with Keilbasa. No snacking allowed. No snacks available during the week. Dad got day old Hostess about once a month from day old place. Nothing worth salvaging from that menu!



    • This is so interesting. I’m seeing a pattern here. Writers with moms who did minimal cooking. My mother baked like crazy (always three kinds of cookies on hand and pie), but the cooking was minimal. I forgot that we also had mac and cheese from the box. She was a stay at home mom during the day (with a side business in recovering Victorian sofas) and worked seven nights a week as a square dance teacher with my dad.


      • Maya North

      • September 30, 2014 at 9:55 pm
      • Reply

      When my mother’s cooking was good, it was very very good and when it was bad, like the little girl with the curl, it was horrid. Good was her lentils and smokies — actually magnificent, heavenly, yearned-for all come to mind. Bad was cheese grits made with Velveeta that had little cold shrimp sprinkled on top or persimmon whip made with raw egg whites, persimmons and sugar (barf). Good was her angel pie — a lemon meringue pie with a meringue crust, her sausage rolls and her magnificent, home made waffles. Here’s how to do Veva Drake Spier’s lentils and smokies (she used a pressure cooker, but just slow-cooking on a stove works fine): For each package of lentils (soaked overnight and rinsed), use one package of smoked sausages (I have yet to find a vegetarian variety and really wish I could), one large carrot (peeled or unpeeled) and an onion (if it’s big enough, just one for the batch). No salt is required — it’s in the smokies. Dump in all the ingredients, then run enough water in there to cover it with an inch or so of water. Bring to an enthusiastic boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer (just a little bubbling). Cover most of the time, stirring occasionally until it’s all tender (including the carrot); the onion should essentially be gone. Take off the lid and let the liquid steam off until it’s a thick soup or stew, stirring frequently because this is the stage at which it can burn on the bottom. Eat with corn bread (best) or fresh Italian or French bread, but not garlic bread because it’ll interfere with the perfect taste. Chill the rest and reheat the next day when it’s even better. My mother used to put ketchup on her second-day bowl, but I always thought I couldn’t possibly improve on that taste. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she was also very involved in politics and even ran a national congressional campaign for a family friend. She had her Bachelor’s in Anthropology — my father was her professor.



    • Interesting history! I remember smoked sausages. Somehow we had them on hand. I may have to try this lentil dish. So you, to give me the recipe!


        • Maya North

        • October 2, 2014 at 11:11 pm
        • Reply

        I hope you love it as much as we did! If you do like it and ever want to publish or print it, if you could just keep the name, that would be cool. Otherwise, it would be great if people everywhere could experience our bliss! 😀 <3



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