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.
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.
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.