Yam ice cream, pineapple chunks and pimentos: dinner’s ready in 1971

It’s finally happened. I can finally feel confident speaking with some authority about the Good Old Days. I had to listen to my parents and their friends go on about how easy we had it growing up compared to their early lives. Part of their chagrin was very real: my mother grew up in England during the war, and my father spent his early years scratching out a childhood on a depression -era prairie.

No, where my gotcha meter now kicks in is when I’m reading about food. Specifically, cooking. Everything in my childhood home was made from scratch, I get told by critics and pundits and foodies and social commentators. The reason we were able to scoot around outside from dawn until dusk is because my mother put only nourishing seasonal vegetables and grain fed meat and homemade bread into us.

Anybody ever seen those recipe cards from the 1970s?

A friend of mine publishes them regularly on her Vintage Recipes website. She is careful to choose only the truly nasty ones, but it isn’t hard; with names like Crusty Salmon Shortcakes, Ham and Bananas Hollandaise, and Fonduloha, how could you get it wrong? Every card features something suspended in Jello, pasted with cream of mushroom soup, or nestled on a bed of ground beef. Many are a big fan of having an olive stuck on top with a toothpick. Presentation was everything, and you have never seen more creative uses of garnish.

A few years ago, she would scour yard sales for them; now, people send them to her and they are huge sellers on eBay. They have become collector’s items in the same way medieval torture devices have: you gape at them and think, someone actually used these?

Betty Crocker was an early adopter. Every single recipe – and there were hundreds, if not thousands – featured boxes and cans and packages. This made perfect sense: Betty Crocker was a heavily marketed brand name of anything that could possibly be dehydrated and revived, or put in a box with a promising picture attached. I probably have a Betty Crocker cake mix in my cupboard. It’s probably been there 6 years. It’s probably still edible.

The thing is, we had a huge garden and did eat what was in season. My mother would sneak turnips into the stew in winter, and I learned early on that my kids would devour a vegetable platter if it looked like it was for company. But I also remember my mother discovering scalloped potatoes in a box and they became a stubborn mainstay for their ease of preparation. I was amazed that a sad bowl of unsalted potato chips (I tasted one; I’m also the kid who bit a tulip bulb thinking it would be an onion) could be revived with milk and margarine and the oven.

My mom was a good cook and an amazing baker. She still reveled in her Christmas Jello salad (Jello was another repeat offender in the horror food Olympics) with its festive green, red and white layers. It was gross; my sister still says she misses it.

I saw this stuff at friends’ houses. Potlucks were more common back then, and how better to impress than by showing up with a Crown Roast of Frankfurters? My friends laugh that I only bring a veggie platter, but at least you can identify every item on it as occurring in nature.

Do too many of us use too much take-out? Probably. Just stop telling me we’re all going to hell because we don’t cook like they did in the good old days.

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21 responses to Yam ice cream, pineapple chunks and pimentos: dinner’s ready in 1971

  1. Lisa says:

    Oh the memories! My sister had her own Betty Crocker cookbook for children. She’s over 50 now and still has it. She bought a copy for my daughter. I wanted to hit her with it. When my sister was about 8, she decided to make dinner for the family from a receipe in the book. I believe it was called “Hawaiian Surprise”. It consisted of Spam with pineapple rings on top. Surprise!! It was revolting.

  2. Sandy says:

    I have a tiny little ring binder that belonged to my grandmother and it is full of recipes that she either cut out of the paper, copied from somewhere, or wrote out of memory.
    It is priceless to me. Some of the pages are stained, stuck together and faded but I can remember her writing in it. I can never remember her actually following a recipe when she was cooking or baking and as all four of her granddaughters have tried to replicate her biscuits, none of us have managed to. We all baked them at her side, she would talk us through the whole thing, and bake her own at the same time. Hers would melt in your mouth, ours could be used to stop floodwaters.
    As for the horrors, most of the things in that book I would never make, there is lots of jello, most things contain lard, there is instant milk powder and more things than you ever thought you could do with cabbage.

  3. Beth says:

    My father immigrated from Malta just shy of his 18th birthday. If you are unfamiliar with the history of the country, it was the most heavily bombed place on earth during the Second World War due to its strategic position. Needless to say, there were times when food was scarce. My grandparents did not immigrate to Canada until the mid sixties, after their three sons had already arrived and started families. I was fairly young when my grandfather passed away but “Nana” survived until she was 98 years old – picture that my father was 74 when he buried his mother. Nana and I were always close and I think my favourite memories of her are helping her in the kitchen when she was baking all sorts of wonderful Maltese delights. She never needed a recipe and it was all so good, except for the time when I was about 10 and she wanted me to try octopus. Having to make due during the war meant nothing was ever wasted and improvisation was the key. I can still get emotional when I walk into one of the Maltese bakeries on Dundas Street in Toronto and pick up my beloved pastitsies. Being in Ottawa is torture when my cravings are bad as there is nowhere here to buy them and none can measure up to Nana’s. Thanks for spoiling me, Nana.

  4. Bill says:

    Ah yes, I remember well the Jello with green peas, diced carrots, and whatever in it.

    • Pat says:

      My Mom still has her pre WWll Good Housekeeping cookbook. Most of the baking recipes start with a pound of butter or lard (for that flaky pie crust). It’s a wonder our little arteries didn’t burst from all the saturated fats.
      One thing Mom made at Christmas, that I loved was Bavarian creme. Oh man, was that good stuff. Or french cream custard with lady fingers soaked in rum. But I hated the Christmas cake. The things always weighed about ten pounds and were like cement mixed with fruit.I truly believe there are only ten Christmas cakes left in existence and people just keep re-gifting them to each other.

  5. Kerry says:

    The onlky things we got in jello were trifle . Yummy .

  6. Rich says:

    I wrote you a long and fascinating comment. But I didn’t notice the captcha, so when I went to post it I got an error page saying please fill in the form. So when I used the back arrow to do, my whole reply had been wiped out.

    That was an hour’s work gone. Please strangle the web designer responsible. Slowly and painfully.

  7. Rich says:

    OK Lorraine, not sure why you use wordpress, but others like the phpBB I use for my site are far from perfect too. Still, they could have warned us!

    The main point is, your generation is simply spoiled rotten. It’s not that long ago that humans lived only where stuff grew year-round because there were no modern preservation methods. After all, you couldn’t count on a mammoth to just wander by every time the tribe was looking for dinner.But any sort of food cultivation only dates back meaningfully about six to eight thousand years. And when I was a kid, more people were still using iceboxes than refrigerators they couldn’t afford in the Depression-ridden economy.

    Food choices and cookery are cultural, derived from experience and availability of ingredients. My family emigrated from Wales to take up farmland at the end of steel in what later became Manitoba in 1885 – my grandmother would tell anecdotes about hiding in the root cellar to avoid marauding tribes if Indians during the Second Northwest Rebellion. My father was born before the first airplane flew – when he grew up and married, guess what food my mother would expect to satisfy him at dinner? And thus what cuisine I grew up with? Add to that, I was born when George V was our King, and Herbert Hoover was halfway through his presidential term in the U.S.

    For our Depression kitchen – and my father had a good, steady job – it was a blessing when Hormel started marketing Spam. It was cheap, nourishing, taste-appealing and convenient; my father would accept it and I and my younger brothers liked it. And while gelatin per se had been around since the 1400s and jelly moulds were a Victorian treat, the powdered form wasn’t invented till 1845 or commercialized till nearly 1900. The idea of adding fruit flavours and the discovery it could be packaged to resist spoilage for some time only came in the 1920s – it was introduced in Canada in 1934. Given our monotonous diet in those times, cooks jumped at it – wouldn’t you?

    Sure, now you have airplanes to bring garlic from China to drive local growers out of business. When the trucks that bring citrus from Florida and California come to the end of their seasonal load, new supplies come in from Israel, Peru, or Morocco or South Africa where the seasons are longer and for some reversed.

    By the way, what do you plan to do (since you’ll almost certainly live to see it) when global warming emissions stop the tracks and trains and planes, and all these exotic foreign foods can reach your table no more?

    Remember the Betty Crocker cookbook developed and flourished during the Depression year years and wartime shortages. My wife, who learned her cookery then, says it’s still great for baked goods, especially if you cut the sugar in half. Same basically with the early, Rombauer, editions of The joy of cooking. Don’t get too dismissive – you, and your offspring, may yet grow up to find them very suitable for your own life circumstances.

    Some sophistication is fine and will last. It was an Italian university buddy who introduced me to pizza, then all but unknown in Toronto. And Italian cuisine uses mostly things we grow here, or for which adequate substitutes are available. There are lots of exotic Asian and tropical plants that we may find can be grown here and so keep them in our diet. But don’t get too addicted to live lobster flown in from Nova Scotia!

    Man is an omnivore. If it’s edible we’ll eat it, and if it isn’t – well, we’ll try and see if it can be made edible. But just as there have been technological limitati0ons in the past, I suspect there will be environmental limits in the future. Keep Betty Crocker, and a few packs of Jello, around. The time may come when you’ll be glad you did.

    • Pat says:

      Great reply Rich. A history of 20th century food in a few paragraphs.
      Men and women are omnivores, we are also highly adaptive and clever. I recently visited a hydroponic farm that grows vegetables in abandoned mines under Sudbury. I don’t think the problem is going to be how to produce food, but as you suggest, will we be able to breathe the air or drink the water.
      The earth is, by agreed calculation, some 4.5-5 Billion years old. “Modern” man probably 50,000 years on earth. My guess is that if we don’t smarten up in the next 50-100 years, mother earth will sweep us away like any number of other species that become extinct on a daily basis. Will the intellect of “man” save us from ourselves? Will the greed of a few cause us all to be doomed?
      Have a nice day!

    • Roz says:

      Hi Rich.

      Not to be rude or anything but how old are you? Interesting history lesson. I remember my dad talking about the depression out west (Sask.) and complaining about potato ice cream. Eeeewww.

  8. Tanya Weigelt says:

    My parents, being immigrants from Germany, had ideas about food formed after WWII. Wiener schnitzel was not allowed to be made in our house, and my father would call it poor people’s food!!! Lol and in an effort to be creative my mother would often make white bread toast topped with canned mushrooms, 2 strips of bacon and a Kraft cheese slice. Cooked under the broiler to a lovely brown sheen. Mmmm now that’s poor people’s food!

  9. Sandy says:

    My mother in law used to throw lobster sandwiches in the garbage on her way to school because it was considered poor peoples food in NB.

  10. Mitch says:

    My Mother was an English war bride….among many items of English cuisine!! Toad in the Hole was a staple. Because my Dad was in the Canadian Army for over five years he swore that we would never have lamb aka mutton in our house ever, and we never did. For some strange irony though, Spam and Bully Beef, aka canned corned beef, were also staples. Growing up in Northern Ontario in Marathon in the fifties a favorite at Christmas were Japanese oranges wrapped in green tissue paper packed in wooden boxes that were well used as carriers on our bicycles. Lorraine you bring back so many memories.

    • Kerry says:

      My friend married a Newfie gal and she made corned beef hash . A can of corned beef and a chopped onion mashed together with boiled potatos . My Irish father put green onions in mashed potatos . I believe it’s called chump .

  11. rich says:

    Hi Roz – I’m an 83 year old male and I happen to enjoy Lorraine’s column. I got a big kick out of Lorraine’s work when she was writing for wheels.ca – back in the years when we were building Mosport (I bought a share and a bond) I did freelance writing about auto racing too. Then I stumbled across a Motherlode column with an intriguing headline, read it, found it was good writing and got hooked. I’ve been following it here ever since.

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