Top Ten 1950s Dinners
Ten common family dinners from the 1950s that are now considered exotic fare.
I canned the first bushel of so of tomatoes and peppers from our garden today.
The garden didn’t do so well this year, so it didn’t take long. It was cold and dry all summer; the coldest summer on record in this part of Michigan.
That’s fine by me (I hate the heat!), but the vegetables didn’t care for it. We got tomatoes. We got peppers. We got radishes.
Everything else: Not so much.
Anyway, I was in the kitchen in my 1950s farm-wife apron working with hot Ball jars, when it hit me that so many of the foods that were common when I was growing up are things that nobody eats anymore. I was flooded with all these memories of hot summer kitchens putting up produce with my mother and grandmother.
Then, while the tomatoes were processing, I cruised by the HP forums and saw someone had posted yet another a spammy thread promoting their spammy affiliate marketing site, and I thought to myself, “Hey, nobody eats SPAM anymore either!”
Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you.
I got to thinking that a hub on defunct 50s cuisine might be kind of fun. Why not channel this strange nostalgic moment and do something productive with it?
I realize this will only appeal to readers ‘of a certain age’, but hey, we read too!
Anyway, if I don’t record these dinners for posterity, who will?
1. Grilled Spam & Pineapple Sandwiches. Spam (which began as a clever abbreviation of the words ‘Spiced Ham’) was a canned meat-like substance popular during WWII. The popularity of this product fell off a lot post-war (wow, who’d have expected that!?) so Hormel kicked off a recipe campaign to save it. This sandwich was its hallmark. Basically the sandwich is a slice of grilled Spam with a ring of grilled pineapple on a toasted hamburger bun with mayo. I know, now you want one, don’t you? (Don’t you?)
2. Chipped Beef on Toast. White sauce was as necessary to 1950s cuisine as arugula is to the Obama White House. Any leftovers could always be dumped into white sauce and served over toast or biscuits. ‘Chipped beef’ was a very thinly sliced form of corned beef (or something that somewhat resembles and tastes like corned beef) that was found in the lunchmeat section in little plastic packages. The chipped beef we used to buy was made by Buddig. Make up a white sauce with butter, flour, and milk, dump in a package or two of chipped beef. Heat, pour over toast. Dinner is served.
3. Chicken a la King. Every other 50’s luncheon party featured this dish. You start with lots of white sauce (of course), add some peas, carrots, and chicken chunks, pour it all in a casserole dish, and then layer biscuit dough on top. Cook until the biscuits brown. Serve with the white sauce/chicken/pea goop ladled over the biscuits. So elegant!
4. Tuna Casserole. I’ll bet some of you still eat this. You don’t have to admit it to me, mind you, but know that I’m on to you anyway. My kids used to love this stuff, especially if I made it with wagon wheel macaroni. For those of you lucky enough to have never eaten tuna casserole, here’s how it works: Take a can of cream of mushroom soup, several cups of cooked pasta of any kind, a can of milk, and a can of tuna fish. Mush it all together and top it with crushed potato chips or bread crumbs. Bake for half an hour at 350 degrees. Eat by the plateful it if you’re really, really hungry or 17 years old and male. (OK, same thing.)
5. City Chicken. Does anybody remember this food? You can still find it in some grocery meat departments. I always wonder, who still eats this? Someone must, or they wouldn’t be selling it, would they? ‘City Chicken’ is basically comprised chunks of veal and pork threaded onto a pointy wooden skewer. You bread or flour the skewered meat stick, then cook it in hot oil in a frying pan until brown. Serve with mashed potatoes and gravy (made from the pan drippings) on the side and some kind of grey canned vegetable cooked to death. Canned corn is good. Pick up the stick and eat like a chicken leg.
6. Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes. I’ll bet some of you still eat this too. Every so often I get the urge to make meat loaf, especially in the fall when it first gets cold. It makes good sandwiches too, hot or cold. I make it with several kinds of ground meat, tomato sauce, dry onion soup mix, catsup, breadcrumbs, and a beaten egg. Tastes better than it sounds. Thank God.
7. Swedish Meat Balls. My Mom loved to make this dish even though nobody in the family really liked it at all. It was very popular and I think it seemed elegant to her for some reason. When we were kids we used to call these things ‘porcupine balls’, because my Mom made them out of hamburger, breadcrumbs, and raw rice. The rice never really cooked all the way through; hence the porcupine part. The meatballs were simmered in a white sauce (yay! white sauce!) with nutmeg, which was weird, but that’s what made the meatballs Swedish as opposed to Armenian or something. Serve these over hot buttered egg noodles, rice, or the bottom of your trashcan.
8. Chop Suey. Chop Suey in the 50s had four ingredients: Pork chunks, sliced celery, sliced onion, and soy sauce. Dump all the ingredients in a saucepan including the entire freaking bottle of soy sauce. Cook it to death. Serve over rice with crunchy chow mein noodles on top. This dish has enough salt in it to kill at least four adult men, but it’s surprising tasty. ‘Chop Suey’ is Mandarin for “geez Americans are morons.”
9. Pot Pie. Most of us think of those frozen pies filled with tiny tiny bits of mystery meat and mixed vegetables when we think of ‘pot pie’, but my grandmother made a different dish called by the same name. She layered sliced potatoes, sliced onion, flour, butter, and thin pork steaks in a 2 quart saucepan. Pour cold milk to cover the whole thing, then cook on medium-low heat until it’s all tender. Hint: The flour, butter, and milk blend during cooking to make a white sauce. Actually, again, it tastes better than it sounds.
10. ‘Hot Brown’ Sandwiches. When I first waited tables right out of high school everyone knew what these were. In some places they were called ‘Manhattans.’ First you make a sandwich with white bread and hot sliced beef or turkey (no mayo), then you slice the sandwich in two pieces on the diagonal. Place the sandwich on a plate with a scoop of mashed potatoes between the two halves. Now slather gravy over all of it. The cheaper the white bread the better–if the bread is too good it won’t soak up the gravy and the meat juices, so don’t go all Paul Prudhomme on this thing. I sold SO MANY of these hot lunches when I first started my working life. They fill you up cheap and were enormously popular. Now you see them nowhere.