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.