EAT WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I ATE: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of my Youth

Two more links of ring bologna and we've got the Olympic symbol, or turn it upside down for a ring bologna heart!

At any given time I’ve got several ideas for a book floating around my mind.  Recently I’ve been trying to flesh out a book of recipes and observations centered around what those of us growing up as white, middle-class baby boomers ate from roughly 1955 – 1975, the first 20 years of my life.

 A good working title is “Eat What I Say, Not What I Ate: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of My Youth”.  Yes, I know it’s too long; that’s why it’s called a ‘working title’.

Green salads were a wedge of iceburg lettuce covered with Thousand Island or French dressing, Blue (not Bleu) Cheese being too expensive in my home.  Romaine lettuce existed only in fancy restaurants as part of a Caesar Salad and mixed greens were still somewhere over the culinary horizon.  Chicory was occasionally found in fancy coffee and maybe our Italian neighbors knew about arugula but we surely did not.

Jello – and I know I’m supposed to write Jell-O® or gelatin but the hell with it – made up a whole salad classification which no longer exists.  Plain Jello, Jello surrounding cut up fruit from a can (pears being my favorite), and  Jello somehow blended with Cool Whip for holidays.

A holiday dish containing three major food groups: Jello, canned peaches and Cool Whip.

Jello, I’m convinced, was a key component of the white middle class’s culinary and financial survival strategy.  In my household we weren’t rich and during significant stretches were closer to lower- than to upper-middle class status.  Jello was cheap, it looked nice, kids would eat it.  What more could any parent ask for?

Cholesterol concerns?  Nah; at least not until the end of that era.  Ring Bologna and Calves Liver were served regularly and just as filling as more expensive meat dishes.  I hated calves liver but always had to try at least a few bites – drowning it in catsup increased its tolerability – and now I’ll occasionally order it when out to dinner.  Go figure.  Parents cared a lot less about whether or not their kids liked a particular dish in those days, the operative philosophy being something like, “Here’s some food; don’t eat it if you don’t want to but that’s all there is.”  We usually ate enough to get through the night – there was always Jello – and our parents weren’t heartless: dads were known to look the other way while moms slipped us a small bowl of cereal or a piece of peanut butter toast before bedtime on Calves Liver Night.

Finally there was the casserole, another largely-disappeared food group now found almost solely at church potlucks.  Provided by the blue-haired widows of the congregation, there is the very real danger that the casserole recipes of my youth will be lost forever once my parents’ generation is gone.

Let us sing the praises of the casserole.  Casseroles are the perfect vehicle for using left-overs; indeed, casseroles can stretch left-overs into even more left-overs.  Casseroles are inexpensive, an important middle-class culinary survival strategy.

Most importantly, casseroles provided the balanced nutrition so vital to our intellectual and physical development.  I still marvel that one dish could provide so many servings from the basic food groups: 1 can Campbell’s Mushroom Soup (Sodium), 2 cups cubed Velveeta (Saturated Fats), French’s Shoe String Potato Sticks (Hydrogenated Oils), etc.

There was often no telling what lay beneath a casserole's cheesy exterior.

I could go on about the cuisine of my youth, but now I’d like to hear from my readers . . . both of them.  What dishes do you remember with fondness, and which with disdain?  And remember, kids: eat what I say, not what I ate.

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3 Responses to EAT WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I ATE: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of my Youth

  1. Sue Skala Seaglund) says:

    You brought back memories of the dented jello ring mom used to make her jello recipes, usually red jello and mandarin oranges. That would be dessert for a Spam casserole, tuna fish casserole or spaghetti with Wonder Bread, butter, and strawberry jelly. To this day, I can’t eat spaghetti and meat sauce without a side of Wonder Bread!
    Thanks for the memories!

  2. Jerry Miccco says:

    Joseph –

    If my mother was serving us kids lunch during the week, iceberg lettuce wedges were more likely to appear on the table; my father would not tolerate this lettuce and insisted upon romaine, curly endive and/or escarole greens. If he had been out in the country, dandelion greens would sometimes appear as well. No arugula. Olive oil and wine vinegar was the dressing. No bottled stuff.

    Wonder bread was used to make toast. We could also make nifty doughballs out of the stuff, which were used to wage war at the table. Alesci’s bread was preferred for everyday eating and sandwiches. Most of the adults in our family loved the ends of the bread. My brothers and I would save stale ends and put them in the bread basket at family dinners, then wait for the grownups to grab them and almost break their teeth on the hard, stale bread. Oh, the humanity!

    Once, my mother attempted to serve sauerkraut and kolbasi for dinner. My old man had a spasm, declared the meal unfit for consumption and threw the entire dinner out. We kids were aghast – we would have eaten the meal – but he would have none of it. Luckily, there was frozen red sauce and we had a spaghetti dinner.

    No casseroles (unless lasagna was counted as a casserole). We weren’t fond of Jello, either. But my mother would make Junket for us when we were sick. No one liked Junket, but it was part of the healing ritual in our house.

    Of course, after marriage I became acquainted with all of the things in your post through my mother-in-law, who delighted in serving Jello molds, iceberg lettuce and all of the other culinary wonders your post described.

    It was all good!

  3. Patrick B says:

    Joe, you are my brother from another mother! All the foods you listed brought back fond memories… except for liver. Mom didn’t even try to get us to eat that! My faves included Mac and Cheese (with thick slabs of Velveeta), Swiss Steak and mashed potatoes, Pot Roast, and, not nearly often enough, Pork Roast. I also remember lots of frugal dinners of pancakes or grilled cheese. Those were favorite meatless meals for Friday nite. About the only take-out food we had as kids was fried lake perch from a joint called Quality Fisheries. Man, that was good!

    Good stuff, Joe. Thanks for the memories.

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