Holiday Cooking with Recipes of the Past (by Michelle Larime)

It’s that time of year again! While last month we touched on all the great shopping for the holiday season, this month it’s all about holiday cooking. Everything from cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, main courses, cookies and desserts, December always seems to be a good excuse to just pig out. What are January resolutions good for anyway, if we don’t have a little extra weight to work off?

Food today, especially in Las Vegas, has become somewhat of an art form. The culinary industry has branded itself over the last decade with celebrity chefs, cooking show contests and unique flavor combinations. Most foodies would turn away at the idea of pre-21st century cooking. A historical look into our country’s foodie past, however, reveals that experimentation in cooking played a key role in shaping our culinary landscape. As we look towards planning holiday meals and parties, what better time to reflect on the histories of cooking than right now?

One of the biggest changes in American cuisine came after World War II as various technologies and wartime foods sought ways to keep their companies in business. As Laura Shapiro explains in her book “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America,” World War II spurred an industrial food boom, introducing many new technologies and products to keep foods fresh longer. After the end of the war, big business food companies began to reach out to the domestic market, making mid-century cooking one of the most experimental culinary moments in American history. Food companies worked to convince consumers – the housewives of the late 1940s and 50s – to purchase wartime products and incorporate them into their existing cooking regimes. As Shapiro writes, new ideas about eating were forced onto the public to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” Frozen foods and dinners, an increase in canned food varieties, and powdered and boxed mixes all gained popularity during this time.

Another factor that seemed to define mid-century cooking was convenience. While still rooted in traditional values, the housewives of the 50s and 60s were becoming increasingly more interested in activities outside of the kitchen. This made the convenience of post war food products an attractive alternative to the time consuming recipes used before the war. The food industry emphasized points of convenience through marketing campaigns for new technologies and food products, all aimed to make like easier. Food brands such as Lipton and Campbell’s Soup took to publishing recipes as part of their labels to encourage households to experiment with their products for everyday dinners and parties. The ever popular, cocktail appetizer French Onion Dip was a quick and easy favorite, introducing powdered french onion soup to the American consumer. Cocktail parties and finger foods gained popularity within the American suburbs, and the ease of these new powdered mixes made tasty appetizers like this affordable for everyone. New technologies in preservatives also brought many new products to the shelves, and cocktail mixology become a way to show off to friends and neighbors. Retro Rachel’s blog gives a nice look into some of the more popular cocktails of the time.

Perhaps the best known cooking phenomenon of the mid-century was the success of Jello. Becoming a staple ingredient to mid-century cooking, Jello was marketed for convenience and fun. Although Jello was available to the public pre-World War II, the marketing campaigns of the early 1950s significantly contributed to the popularity of Jello in the American household. Not only was it easy enough for even the children to make, but it became a medium for food artistry and presentation that had never before been possible. Jello showed up in just about every dish imaginable, from appetizers, side dishes, main courses and desserts. Jello salads and Jello molds became neighborhood competitions, and with both savory and sweet flavors available, dishes included anything from Old-Fashioned Perfection Salad to tasty Frosted Cranberry Squares. At the time, a fancy edible centerpiece or dessert was the epitome of class, and Jello afforded even the most common households a chance to create something extra fancy.

While some mid-century cooking is admittedly a little strange, one tradition that never loses edible fashion is that of baking and cookie making. Nothing evokes the feeling of the holidays quite like the aroma of fresh cookies baking in the oven. When it comes to cookie making, there is one tried and true source, Betty Crocker. With the war over, sugar was no longer rationed and baking regained popularity in the American household. Originally published in 1963, “The Cooky Book” features recipes, baking hints, photos and even historical tidbits for cookies throughout the ages. A cookie just isn’t a cooky without Betty Crocker guiding the way. To quote Betty Crocker, “happy the home with the full cooky jar.” Featured as the “Best Cooky of 1945-1950”, the Holiday Fruit Drop is one of the best loved and easiest to make.

Food today no longer features jello centerpieces, and discourages canned ingredients. But, the history and trends of post-war cooking has no doubt influenced the culinary industry. The post-war culinary era brought about changes in food and technology that introduced and encouraged creativity in cooking, paving the way for the unique cuisines that are so common place today. Whether you are planning a cocktail party or an elegant multi-course meal, chances are the menu will feature aspects of mid-century cooking in some way.

For more mid-century recipes including tasting commentary, I encourage you to explore Retro Rachel’s blog site Mid Century Menu.


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