Do you ever wonder what kind of meals people ate a few generations ago? The 20th century saw the introduction of the first wave of processed foods, miracle ingredients like gelatin and mass-produced mayonnaise. It was a time where everything was new, and food makers had to come up with unique recipes to convince the growing middle class to buy their products. It’s no surprise that some of these early recipes didn’t survive to the present day.
If I mixed together turkey meat, nuts, whipped cream, pineapples, and mayonnaise, and tried to serve it to you, would you eat it? No? What if I spread the whole mixture on a tray and stuck it in the freezer for a while, waited until it was a solid mass, and then cut it into squares, would that change your mind? Still no? Well, it’s a good thing that there aren’t any time machines around, because if you accidentally went back to the 1930s, you might find yourself out to eat only to be confronted by exactly what I’m describing above. It was called Turkey Supreme, and according to The New Yorker, it was a supremely popular buffet dish. “What’s wrong?” everyone around you would ask why you’re not digging in, “Is there a problem with your Turkey Supreme?” Your cover as a time traveler would probably be blown.
In the classic retro culinary tradition of throwing-a-bunch-of-random-stuff-in-a-bowl, nothing makes me scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking quite like ambrosia. In this case, you take a bunch of fresh fruits, mix them with an equal amount of jarred and candied fruits, and then finish the whole “salad” off by immersing everything in a chilled, pale medium of whipped cream, sour cream, or cottage cheese. There are also marshmallows, and coconut … I think the recipe is pretty lenient in regards to the amount of oddball ingredients this dish can absorb. My dad always tells this story about how his grandmother once brought over a homemade ambrosia to Sunday dinner. Deathly afraid of being subjected to the inevitable taste test, he and his brothers famously hid the dish outside under the snow. Yet apparently resistant to the elements, the ambrosia was still there, undestroyed, when winter thawed months later.
3. Jell-O Salad
If there’s one constant I’m noticing in retro recipes, it’s this idea that you can get away with throwing basically anything into a dish by calling it a salad. That’s true even if the end result doesn’t resemble anything at all what a salad should look like. Nothing illustrates this point better than the Jell-O salad. While no one knows exactly who came up with the bright idea of taking a perfectly good Jell-O mold and letting it set around hard chunks of food, there’s evidence that early Jell-O salads were popular as far back as the 1900s. What was going on here? Was Jell-O hoping to sell more gelatin by advertising its novel ability to suspend cubes of boiled ham? Or were moms hoping to get their kids to eat more vegetables by hiding green olives and peas in a lime green mold? All I know is, if someone asked me, “Would you like some salad?” and I said yes, and then I was served a slice of vegetables trapped in a layer of Jell-O, I’d be disgusted and pissed off, in that order.
Have you ever said to yourself, “Man, I’m so hungry right now. I think I’ll make a sandwich. But wait a second, I’m probably going to want something sweet for dessert, like a piece of cake. But do I have time for both a sandwich and cake? I don’t think so. Rats. If only there were some way to combine both sandwich and cake into a single dish. But that would be crazy, right?” you’re not crazy, and do I have news for you. Apparently sandwich cakes were really popular at parties in the sixties, because why even bother to have your friends and family ever want to come back over you place again, right? Just serve them a piece of what looks like cake. Then watch them take that first bite. Their expression will betray a range of easily predictable thoughts, like, “Wait a second, this isn’t cake, it’s bread. And the filling, is that chicken? Are there hardboiled eggs? Are you kidding me? Is this frosting just cream cheese and mayonnaise? Come on!” and then they’ll struggle to swallow that really gross cake-sandwich bite, all while promising to never, ever come back to one of your parties.
What’s wrong with just regular potato salad? Why do a lot of these vintage recipes insist on putting everything in some sort of a weird mold? Maybe I’m just having trouble relating to a previous generation, but I can’t see any reality in which a slice of potato salad loaf covered in a weird, hard, mayonnaise/gelatin hybrid shell sounds at all appealing. In fact, I’m trying to think of a situation in which any human being could actually say the words, “Look everyone, I brought a potato salad loaf!” and not be immediately exiled from the community. Well, I guess maybe if there were some sort of a post-apocalyptic doomsday scenario going on, and food is super scarce, maybe in that situation a potato salad loaf wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But that’s a pretty far-fetched scenario. And under those circumstances, where would that person get the supplies to make such an obscure meal? Yeah, I think I’m going to take that back.
I’m not trying to take a cheap shot at liver here. I know that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but liver actually has a pretty decent flavor, if you can get past its odd texture. Still, I had to do a double take when I came across this recipe for a liver sausage pineapple. See, if it were my job to get someone to taste liver for the first time, I’d maybe try to keep it as simple as possible. My go-to preparation wouldn’t necessarily involve sculpting a football-shaped liver statue using an empty jar as the scaffolding. I definitely wouldn’t then frost the whole concoction in that gelatinized mayo that, despite my having mentioned it several times by now, still hasn’t changed my mind in regards to its palatability. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t carve the frosting to make it look like a pineapple, or cut the top off of an actual pineapple and stick in on top of my liver pineapple. Because what’s the point here, to make something disgusting look like a pineapple? What does a pineapple have to do with any of this? Are you trying to simultaneously turn people off to livers and pineapples?
7. Shrimp Tree
I’m actually starting to feel bad making fun of all of this retro food. I mean who’s to say modern cuisine is any better? Aren’t we the Lunchables generation? Aren’t we all but lined up and waiting to be ridiculed by Internet writers of the future? But then I come across something called the Shrimp Tree, and I know that there’s no way we’ll ever be as crazy as they were in the seventies. Basically, you’re supposed to make some sort of a Styrofoam tree core. Around that you have to weave ribbons of parsley, all to support pinned-on shrimp cocktail. So it’s really just cooked shrimp, and the rest of the recipe concerns setting up this elaborate tree-shaped receptacle. I don’t know, I can’t really see shrimp and trees being a naturally associated pairing, but this recipe was published in Bon Appétit, which is a pretty big deal, so what do I know, right?
Surprise: here’s another salad that’s not really a salad. Also, it’s shaped into a loaf. What’s the twist here? Instead of using gelatin to keep its loaf-like shape, this dish is frozen. That’s right, frozen cheese salad. Which, don’t get me wrong, I’m still having trouble picturing myself spooning a chunk of icy cheese into my mouth, but I can almost see where they were coming from when they developed this recipe. I mean, ice cream is a frozen dairy, and everybody loves ice cream. Why couldn’t they replace the milk with cheese and substitute the sugar with salt? Well, I don’t know why, but apparently history decided that this was one piece of collected wisdom not worth sharing with future generations. And even though I want to keep an open mind, I’m kind of glad that I’ll never have to say to a host, “No thank you, I’d rather not try your frozen cheese salad.”
I guess retro food always wound up coming back to gelatin in some form or another, even if it wasn’t overtly clear. Take this seafood mousse for example. You take some seafood, probably shrimp or lobster, you boil it, chop it up into little pieces, and then throw it on a blender set on high with gelatin powder and mayonnaise. There’s probably a little more to it than that, but when the result is the same identical mystery ring mold, does it really matter? I don’t know how the previous generation managed to get us where we are today. Did they eat anything besides gelatin and mayonnaise?
10. Steak Puddings
I don’t know what to say about these steak puddings. They don’t look like steak. They only kind of look like pudding. I’m having trouble imagining a world in which these little steak puddings aren’t crawling around on their own, waiting for me to turn my back so they can latch onto my spine, using my body as a host to raise a family of little baby steak puddings. Remember that post-apocalyptic starving situation I was talking about earlier? I’m not sure even that would cut it to get me at all interested in these steak puddings. What were they thinking?