THOMPSON: Take a culinary trip down memory lane to the 50s and 60s | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: Take a culinary trip down memory lane to the 50s and 60s



Those of you who grew up in the 50s and 60s will get this, because like me, you lived it. Others, well, you’ll either use Google to discover my nostalgic reminiscences are actually things and be mildly amused, or perhaps you’re already scrolling Instagram.

A lot of things happened during those two decades, momentous events that changed the world. But nothing in this column deals with any of that. Rather, think for a moment about what we ate in the 50s and 60s. There were foods that defined those years, so much so that name a dish, and I can probably pinpoint their arrival on tables within a year or so.

Let’s start with these three words: Lime Jell-O salad. I didn’t keep records, but between 1958 and 1972, I attended about 103 dinners, pot-luck affairs and picnics where one - and often two or three - lime Jell-O salads showed up. There was never a morsel left at the end.

Of course, the 50s and 60s saw more creative use of Jell-O than any period in human history…or at least since 1897, when the stuff was invented. I’ve seen everything in a Jello-O salad: strawberries, raspberries, peaches and virtually every other fruit you can name has been suspended in Jell-O at some point.

The weirdest Jell-O salad ingredient might have been…ham…which I love between two slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and mustard. However, suspended in gelatine…really, it should have been a first-degree misdemeanour.

Nonetheless, there were a plethora of Jell-O salads…some layered with different fruit. Jell-O salads were made in round molds…Bundt cake pans…and 9” x 13" pans. I’ve seen an entire picnic table covered - end to end - with these salads. One reason for the elevation of Jell-O salads on American and Canadian menus was the growth of home refrigeration in the 1950s…Jell-O had to be cold to set.

Not a salad….but every bit as ubiquitous in the South…was a heaping bowl of banana pudding…homemade custard, bananas and a box of Vanilla Wafers. Again, never was there any of this dish left at the end of a picnic, wedding, funeral…you name the event...that involved feeding people.

Often cultural events or innovations - like the emergence of television - dictated a food’s popularity during this era. TV dinners, for example, emerged in the 50s and as Americans and Canadians bought TVs…they changed the way we ate.

In 1954 Swanson sold 10 million TV dinners in the U.S….a year later they sold 25 million. Dinner moved from the dining room to the living room for millions of folks in the mid-50s. People bought sets of four TV tray tables on a wooden rack. You popped them up…gave everyone their favourite TV dinner - Salisbury Steak anyone? - and watched Gunsmoke, The Honeymooners or Highway Patrol.

In 1960 you could buy five large grocery sacks worth of food - more than you could carry - for $40. Chicken was 29 cents a pound…six ears of fresh corn was a quarter…sirloin steak cost 89 cents a pound. You could even grill that sirloin steak…because it was then the same quality as what passes for “Prime” beef today.

If Jell-O ruled the world when it came to fruit salads…casseroles reigned as the way to serve vegetables. Most moms - and in that era it was almost always moms who were in kitchens - loved casseroles because they usually used inexpensive canned goods and once combined with cheese and noodles…you could feed a hungry family.

Tuna casseroles, macaroni and cheese, a variety of chicken casseroles - like leftover chicken, Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and rice - were popular because they could feed an army and, again, were cheap. For instance, two pounds of chicken, two cans of mushroom soup and rice…were barely more than $1. A beef and noodle casserole - with ground beef, cheese and noodles - was just as popular…and almost as inexpensive.

Green bean casserole - with Campbell’s mushroom soup and a can of French-fried onions - graced the tables of millions of Americans and Canadians during those years. Squash and even canned pineapple appeared in casseroles, as well. Moms who had more time - and money - made things like Turkey Tetrazzini, stuffed peppers and escalloped potatoes.

There was, of course, three-bean salad, which inevitably gave way to bean-inflation and the five- and seven-bean salads.

Rice-A-Roni was tremendously popular by 1962…and who as a kid didn’t sing the jingle, “Rice-A-Roni…a San Francisco treat” as they pretended to ring a cable car bell? Cocktail and dinner parties featured so-called Swedish meatballs…usually floating in a jar of Welch’s grape jelly…Weiner-stuffed crescent rolls or  “Pigs in a Blanket”, asparagus rollups, ambrosia, and, of course, fondue. There was, too, a variety of infamous cheese balls…the size of a regulation softball…that somehow seemed to grow in the refrigerator.

I was probably luckier than most kids…my mom made a lot of things from scratch…no Chef Boyardee spaghetti from a can. In the South, of course, it was pronounced Boy-Ar-Dee with unusual emphasis on the first and last syllable. As other kids ate frozen chicken pot pie…my brother and I ate homemade chicken and dumplings.

Dining out in restaurants was a special occasion and the number one dinner in finer restaurants nationwide by the 1960s…Surf and Turf…a big steak and lobster tail…usually preceded by a chilled shrimp cocktail.

The nostalgia can be overpowering, and while not always fancy, the food of the 50s and 60s was pretty darn good. The idea for this column came as my wife, Bonnie, and I reminisced about family dinners 60 years ago, and it even inspired her to look for some old recipes.

In fact, this weekend our kids and grandkids will get a taste - for the first time - of what Bonnie, and I ate regularly back in the day. Anyone for Lime Jell-O salad?

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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