Making, and Eating, the 1950s' Most Nauseating Jell-O Soaked Recipes

February 26th, 2013

Poring over vintage cookbooks and food advertisements is equal parts intriguing and repulsive: People willingly ate things like “Shrimp Aspic Mold” and “Chicken Mousse”? Unlike the menus on contemporary food blogs and in best-selling recipe books, mid-century cooking seems guaranteed to make you gag, thanks to its mismatched flavors, industrial ingredients, and gelatin overload.

Top: A classic cookbook cover from Clark's collection. Above: Decked out in mid-century modern garb, Clark poses with a sour cream recipe book.

Top: Shrimpy, gelatinous, mid-century bliss. Above: Decked out in mid-century modern garb, Clark poses with a sour cream recipe book.

Often the strangeness of this era’s food stemmed from innovations being tested on our nation’s taste buds. World War II spurred an industrial food boom, introducing many technologies to keep foods fresh longer, from freezing to dehydrating. As Laura Shapiro explains in her book Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, at the war’s end, packaged food companies realized they had to convince domestic consumers to purchase their wartime products or risk shuttering their businesses.

As a result, during the late 1940s and early ’50s, a new crop of ideas about eating were thrust upon the public as the industry tried to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations,” writes Shapiro. Hence the debut of frozen airline foods and canned meat products like Spam.

Today, foodies typically look back on this era with an upturned nose, preferring to mock its foods rather than eat them. So when Ruth Clark took the obvious, and daring, step of actually making these retro recipes for her fascinating website The Mid-Century Menu, it’s not surprising she received a bit of hate mail. Clark typically cooks one vintage meal per week, which she documents through scans of the original recipe, photos of her re-creation, and detailed tasting notes (often featuring amusing photos of her husband, Tom, attempting his first few bites). Her blog is an everyday cook’s version of the Julie & Julia project, featuring the food that real people made in mid-century America.

Clark recently gave us her experienced take on the marvels of mid-century eating, and the lessons contemporary cooks can learn from it.

A shelf full of mid-century cookbooks from Clark's personal collection.

A shelf full of mid-century cookbooks from Clark’s personal collection.

Collectors Weekly: How did you start the Mid-Century Menu project?

Clark: My first blog, No Pattern Required, started in February of 2009, and I was looking for something to flesh it out a little, and also to be a bit different than the other mid-century blogs out there. I was talking to my husband and I said, “I have all these cookbooks, but I don’t just want to scan pictures and show people the recipes. I want to make these.” And he thought it was an excellent idea, so Tom’s been on board the whole time.

Collectors Weekly: How would you categorize mid-century food?

Ann MacGregor displays the diversity of edible freezer options in a 1957 image from her “Cookbook For Frozen Foods.”

Clark: Experimental. They were trying to get housewives to try these new products and use all these new techniques to make your life easier. Make a cake faster, make a soup faster, or use frozen foods for shortcut cooking. The mid-20th century saw an explosion of changes in all of American culture. People were testing out these new things discovered in World War II, like foods from different cultures, and also changes in technology, like frozen foods, that made more food available to more people.

People were experimenting with all these things they had never seen or used before, and they didn’t quite know what to do with them. If you watch that show “Chopped” on Food Network, I kind of think that’s what the mid-century cook felt like: We have all these weird ingredients, and what are we going to make with them? Well, let’s try this.

The other side is that many of the crazier recipes came from brand-specific cookbooks produced by companies trying to put their products into every single part of your meal. That’s easy to do with some stuff, like salt, but when you’re talking about things like cans of condensed tomato soup or ketchup, it’s a little more difficult to put those into a dessert.

Collectors Weekly: I always assumed food from this period was boring and bland.

Clark: Well, it was blander, because people used spices a lot less than they do now. Surprisingly, back in the ’40s, people used a lot of curry powder, but they would only use an eighth of a teaspoon of curry powder. Or a recipe for chili might only have a quarter teaspoon of chili powder in it. People considered ketchup spicy. There was definitely a change in palate in terms of spices, which I think is why people consider it to be a bland type of cooking.

“When you’re talking about cans of condensed tomato soup or ketchup, it’s a little more difficult to put those into a dessert.”

People think the proliferation of food blogs has made our tastes more diverse, but I actually think it’s the reverse. I think they’re becoming more of the same. People won’t accept food unless it’s a certain kind of food, and I think that going back to the mid-century cookbooks is opening up—well, especially mine and Tom’s world—in terms of what we can eat and what’s really out there. There are so many more options for everybody. It might not turn out perfectly, but there’s so much out there that we have to work with.

Many 1950s recipe books were sponsored by major processed food businesses, like the Campbell Soup Company's "Cooking With Condensed Soups."

Many 1950s recipe books were sponsored by major processed food businesses, like the Campbell Soup Company’s “Cooking with Condensed Soups.”

Collectors Weekly: Do you come across ingredients or techniques that modern cooks would be completely unfamiliar with?

Clark: Yes, sometimes. Probably the most common issue is products that no longer exist. A great example is the Pillsbury “Tunnel of Fudge” cake, since one of the main ingredients is a frosting mix that’s not made anymore. Jiffy brand still makes a fudge frosting mix which I substituted, and it turned out pretty well. But often there will be spice mixes or bottles of salad dressing that longer exist. I have to look them up online and guesstimate what was in there, and then try to re-create them.

As far as the techniques, some things are a little bit difficult to re-create, especially if you’re doing it from a manufacturer’s cookbook or an appliance cookbook. They’ll say things like, “Take your ‘number five super iron’ and do this with it.” I’m like, well, I’m just going to put this in my frying pan and hope that it turns out.

Collectors Weekly: What common modern dishes got their start in the mid-20th century?

Clark: Casseroles were a big trend, and continue to be popular. For example, my husband has this tuna casserole that he loves with crushed potato chips on top, and I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that recipe in vintage cookbooks.

Cooking with a broiler was really popular, so a lot of that stuff has stuck around, this idea of the broiler dinner. And the Lipton onion soup mixed with sour cream, the California dip, that started during that time period, too. The idea of the cocktail hour with appetizer dips came into being, which I think is still with us.

Casseroles and dips were both burgeoning food trends during the mid-20th century.

Casseroles and dips were both burgeoning food trends during the mid-20th century.

Collectors Weekly: Do people often make personal connections with the recipes you post?

Clark: Some people email me saying things like, “Thank you so much for posting this recipe! My mom used to make it, and I’ve been looking for it forever.” And it’ll be a terrible recipe, but as a child we eat things no matter how gross they are. You have this nostalgic feeling around certain foods, and you want to taste them again. Twinkies are a great example.

These people will be really excited by my posts, while others will be like, “How can you do this? It’s a waste of money. This is really stupid.” I’m surprised by how much hate mail I get over recipes!

I remember when I first started doing this project, I was featured in my local newspaper. I think I had made a ham loaf, and some lady came on the blog and ranted at me about how it was a waste of space, how I should post “good” recipes, and how nobody wants to hear about things that don’t work, and on and on. Really? Because this is our culinary history.

The table of contents page in a promotional cookbook produced by the American Dairy Association.

The table of contents page in a promotional cookbook produced by the American Dairy Association.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have a personal connection to the food of this era?

Clark: A little bit. My grandmother gave me a box of cookbooks when she was cleaning out her apartment in Chicago. She said, “Here, I’m not going to use these ever again.” I was like 14, and I started reading them like they were novels. I would just sit up at night to read them; they were just fascinating to me. I was like, “Mom, look at this.” She said, “I know, right? I ate that stuff.”

Then my parents started bringing them to me, and then after I got out of college, I started buying them on my own, and all of a sudden I was finding them everywhere.

A sampling from Clark's cookbook collection, which started with a stack of hand-me-downs from her grandmother.

A sampling from Clark’s cookbook collection, which started with a stack of hand-me-downs from her grandmother.

That’s also why I started making lamb-shaped cakes. I remember when I would visit my grandmother in Chicago, she would take me to this bakery in her neighborhood where they had lamb cakes during Easter.

I’m not exactly the lamb cake guru, but I think they came from Eastern Europe. I know that a lot of Polish Catholic churches and a lot of German Lutheran churches had them on Easter. Originally, you’d bring in a basket of food and have the priest bless it and inside you’d have the lamb. But I think bringing a hunk of meat became an issue, so it was better to bring a cake, which could sit around all day covered in icing.

My theory is that they became really popular during the mid-century because of the new aluminum molds. Before they had been cast-iron, which was very expensive to buy, but the aluminum ones were cheap. You could buy one in a five-and-dime. And everybody loved these molded foods in the shape of something else.

Left, Clark’s vintage lamb cake pan in action. Right, one of her many recipe tests in its final form.

So my grandmother made a lamb cake, and I was always obsessed with it. I would be so excited every Easter: We’d go to her house and cut the lamb’s head off, and everyone would stare at it on the plate and pretend to be afraid. It was really a tradition in our family. I remember the exact taste of it in my mouth, and I’d just yearn for it when I got older.

“I’m sorry I spat on your pork cake.”

I started trying to re-create it, and my mom said that she used a boxed cake mix, but I kept trying pound cake mixes and none of them would quite come out right because, of course, cake mixes have changed over time. Eventually I began digging around in my cookbooks and marking recipes to test for Easter. I had my grandmother’s aluminum lamb pan which made the lamb-shaped cake, but I didn’t have any instructions with it, so I was fumbling my way through it.

Then last year, I was mentioned in an article in “The Wall Street Journal,” and I got so many recipes and tips sent to me. It was amazing. And I think the second or third one that I tested tasted exactly like my grandmother’s recipe, so maybe she didn’t make it from a box all the time. Maybe she made it from scratch sometimes. It was definitely that familiar taste. The one that was closest to my grandmother’s was like a spring cake, so it wasn’t really super moist or dense. It was very well structured.

Tom in a state of gelatin overload.

Tom in a state of gelatin overload.

Collectors Weekly: Why was Jell-O was such a big deal during this time?

Clark: I think there are a couple different reasons for that, kind of like when you ask someone, “Why did the Civil War start?” There are lots and lots of reasons. I think the main appeal of Jell-O was convenience. You could pour boiling water in it, add cold water, and then you have dessert.

Advertising was also a big part of Jell-O’s fame. I think it was in the ’30s that Jack Benny started talking about Jell-O on his radio show. He did the “J-E-L-L-O” thing, which became famous because everybody listened to Jack Benny. He also put out a Jell-O cookbook.

Left, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone's 1937 Jell-O cookbook helped kick off the craze. Right, early Jell-O ads positioned the product as a suitable ingredient for all parts of a meal.

Left, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone’s 1937 Jell-O cookbook helped kick off the craze. Right, early Jell-O ads positioned the product as a suitable ingredient for all parts of a meal.

I think there was such a proliferation of advertising that it created this mindset that, hey, I can use Jell-O as an easy dessert or an easy lunch. I don’t have to mess around with it a lot. If you’ve looked through any stash of vintage cookbooks, invariably there’ll be at least one Jell-O recipe book in it because everybody owned one.

It’s really hard to say why the savory Jell-O salad became something. I was talking to my dad about this the other day, and he said it became this crazy thing in his family where every holiday, all my aunts would try to outdo each other with these fantastic, multi-layered gelatin molds.

Collectors Weekly: Were these served as desserts or side dishes?

Clark: They were everything. Some came as desserts, some as side dishes, and some were main-course stuff. It was freaky.

Presentation was a major feature of many mid-century recipes for entertaining, as showcased with these cracker kabobs a la grapefruit.

Presentation was a major feature of many mid-century recipes for entertaining, as showcased with these cracker kabobs a la grapefruit.

I really think at the time, their idea of food artistry was very different than ours, which is evident in all of the pictures from that era. I think that at the time, this fancy centerpiece was considered the epitome of class. I don’t know if you’ve seen Charles Phoenix’s weenie tree? Basically you take a Styrofoam tree, wrap it in tin foil, and stick little hot dogs on sticks into this tree and your guests were supposed to pull the hot dogs off and dip them in the sauces and eat them.

Think of things like the lamb cake or the gelatin mold. The idea of having this big, edible centerpiece was really popular back then, which I notice in a lot of cookbooks.

I haven’t really heard a lot of food historians talk about this, but I’ve found that food mixed into Jell-O stays fresher much longer than if you have it by itself.

Collectors Weekly: Whoa, how long are you talking about, like weeks?

Clark: Like days. For example, Perfection Salad is basically coleslaw inside of lemon or lime Jell-O, so it’s got cabbage and carrots and all kinds of stuff. But the cabbage will stay fresh for over a week. If you take a bite of it, it’s still crunchy. My husband, Tom, tries all this. He’s a chemist, so he’ll keep tasting it long, long after I’m done with it. But if you make regular coleslaw and put dressing on it, the cabbage becomes soggy after three days. And after five days, you’re not going to eat it.

We’ve done a lot of different Jell-O stuff and noticed that freshness is basically extended when you encase things in Jell-O. We’ve done cakes covered with gelatin, and the cake would still be moist after a week and a half. We made sandwiches with gelatin, open-faced sandwiches with flavored gelatin poured over the top, which was supposed to be like mayo. I thought it was going to be disastrous. Tom wolfed them down. He’s like, “These are really good and the bread isn’t soggy.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Two days later, they were still edible.

I don’t know if being frugal and using up leftovers was part of the Jell-O trend, putting them in gelatin and then trying to force them down that way. But that’s my theory.

An advertisement for various "salad" flavored Jell-O products, which are no longer in production. Clark has rediscovered the preservative effect of Jell-O on encased foods.

An advertisement for various “salad” flavored Jell-O products, which are no longer in production. Clark has rediscovered the preservative effect of Jell-O on encased foods.

Collectors Weekly: Have you tried any of the savory Jell-O flavors?

Clark: They don’t make them anymore, unfortunately. If they did make them, I would love it, because the thing I hate the most in the world is taking a lemon gelatin and putting vinegar in it to try and make it savory. It’s disgusting. I’d much rather start with unflavored gelatin or savory-flavored gelatin than sweet. Knox still makes their classic plain gelatin, and you can put whatever the heck you want in it. So thank God for that.

Collectors Weekly: I can’t even imagine what egg Jell-O would taste like.

Clark: Pretty bad. We made jellied eggs one time where it was hard-boiled eggs encased in gelatin, and Tom gagged.

Collectors Weekly: Does Tom actually enjoy the taste-testing?

Clark: He does in a weird, masochistic kind of way. I think he really does. Sometimes he’ll whine about it; he especially hates American cheese. So with anything that has American cheese, he’s like, “Do I have to eat it?” I’m like, “Do it. You promised.”

This unfortunate-sounding lime Jell-O concoction with avocado, grapefruit, and mayonnaise actually turned out quite tasty.

This unfortunate-sounding lime Jell-O concoction with avocado, grapefruit, and mayonnaise actually turned out quite tasty.

Collectors Weekly: What are the strangest recipes that you’ve tried, whether good or bad?

Clark: It really varies; we’ve had both extremes. For a gelatin contest, we had a recipe with lime Jell-O, avocado, grapefruit, and mayo on top. And it was good. I couldn’t believe it worked. But then for the same contest, we made a pineapple olive salad with lemon Jell-O, which is basically what it sounds like, and it was horrible.

We made a Black Magic Chocolate Cake, which is basically chocolate cake with a can of condensed tomato soup inside. It’s like, “What? What?!” But seriously, it was amazing. It’s the only chocolate cake I make anymore because Tom won’t eat any other chocolate cake. It was nuts; you have to try it. And it was really easy to make. You just dump everything in the bowl and stir it up. It’s so weird.

A surprisingly delicious recipe for Black Magic Chocolate Cake includes a can of condensed tomato soup. From left to right: Ingredient assembling, Tom cleans his plate, and the final product.

A surprisingly delicious recipe for Black Magic Chocolate Cake includes a can of condensed tomato soup. From left to right: Ingredient assembling, Tom cleans his plate, and the final product.

Then we made a pork cake, which basically means you take un-rendered pork fat and you stir it into the mix instead of butter or anything like that. You put it in the oven for four hours, cook it down, and then eat it. And that was interesting. It wasn’t bad, but there were pieces of pork fat in it, which is a little disgusting, but it tasted OK. It tasted like gingerbread. When I was on the radio in Wisconsin, I mentioned that it was kind of gross, and we had so many calls from people who were pissed at me.

Collectors Weekly: Because they use that recipe?

Clark: Because they love pork cake! They’d say, “Oh, my grandfather used to make this pork cake, and it’s really common.” I’m like, okay, well, I’m sorry I spat on your pork cake.

This spread featuring "Pork Cake" shows the variety of cakes that mid-century cooks were familiar with.

This spread featuring “Pork Cake” shows the variety of cakes that mid-century cooks were familiar with.

Collectors Weekly: What is the absolute most disgusting thing you’ve tried?

Clark: The liver pâté en masque. It was basically a dare with some other food bloggers and myself. Another food blogger sent the recipe to me. She’s even braver than I am because she cooks vintage Weight Watchers recipes, which are always disgusting. It’s not even real food; it’s just made-up food. The recipe she gave me was liver and canned green beans folded into a mold, and then it had this light sauce made from gelatin, pepper, and no-fat buttermilk that you were supposed to pour over the top. And it was the worst thing ever. Tom normally chokes down at least his serving, but he only had one bite. He couldn’t even do it.

This liver pâté en masque was possibly the most offensive recipe Clark has ever tasted.

This liver pâté en masque was possibly the most offensive recipe Clark has ever tasted.

Collectors Weekly:  The chicken mousse recipe also really weirded me out.

Clark: That was bizarre. If I remember correctly, it actually tasted pretty good if you were trying for a chicken pâté. The seasoning was good. But it was the form: It was ice cream. It was chicken ice cream. And it had gelatin in it, so when it thawed, it didn’t melt. It stayed the same. It became this spongy, weird—it was really bad. We tried to give some of it to my cat, and she wouldn’t even eat it.

The person who sent the recipe to me said it came from a book of frozen desserts. And I’m like, “What the what? Was there an appetizer section?” And she said no. It was just crammed in there with chocolate ice cream.

Chicken mousse might look tasty, but the flavor and texture didn't match up.

Chicken mousse might look tasty, but the flavor and texture didn’t match up.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have any foods that are off limits?

Clark: No. We’ll eat anything. I even cooked a tongue. It was so horrible. Did you know that when you cook a tongue, you have to peel it? You have to peel it! I remember talking to my mom about it, and she was like, “What do you think hot dogs are made of? Just cook it and eat it.”

Collectors Weekly: Many of the recipes in your “Best” section seem to be desserts. Why is that?

Clark: Well, I think all areas of cooking have changed quite a bit, but I don’t think that there’s as much variation in baking today as there used to be. You walk into a bakery now, and you pick from chocolate and vanilla cake with white or chocolate icing. Most of the time, the icing is all chocolate butter cream, and not even fudge icing. But if you look into a mid-century cookbook, you could pick from 15 cakes with 15 different icings. There’s peanut butter and malted milk and candy bar, just all these different kinds that people made by basically boiling sugar, the way you make fudge.

The cover of the "Festive Foods" edition from 1965, one of the cookbooks in Clark's collection.

The cover of the “Festive Foods” edition from 1965, one of the cookbooks in Clark’s collection.

I think that dessert recipes tend to be better because people were better bakers back then, to be honest. It was a time when people were just getting used to boxed mixes, and a lot of the recipes in contests where people would submit their own recipes, like the Pillsbury bake-offs, are amazing. The recipes are for these huge layer cakes that people made from scratch and perfected for this contest, and they were just regular people cooking in their home kitchen.

Collectors Weekly: What has this project taught you?

Clark: The main thing I’ve learned from retro cooking is to be adventurous, because sometimes things don’t end up like you think they will. Sometimes, of course, you’ll fail, because everybody fails, but most of the time you’ll succeed and it’ll be amazing. Before I started this project, I didn’t know how to make a white sauce and now I whip them out like crazy.

(All images courtesy Ruth Clark’s Mid-Century Menu.)

56 comments so far

  1. Betty Pettit Says:

    …and sixty years from now people will be hard put to imagine how we ate some of the things we eat now.

  2. ringo Says:

    Aspic was used before Jello, and “jugging” as a storage technique was used before aspic. All take advantage of the fact that gelatine prevents air from getting to the food.

  3. Marissa Says:

    this was such an interesting read! Totally going to try the cake

  4. ant knee Says:

    Oh. So it’s pretty much the same thing as The Gallery of Regrettable Food published almost 13 years ago? Cool! Topical!

    Actually, it was a nice article despite the fact that similar articles have been written a thousand times over in the past 12 – 13 years about James Lileks, the author of the above titled text. It’s like you channeled him. And then mugged him.

    Nice that you kept it going. Though so does he at his website… And he’s really funny. And seems a bit more original. And… So…

  5. Ken Says:

    Another reason gelatin was popular was that it allowed you to show off the fact that you had a refrigerator. Rural America was still getting electricity up until the fifties, and having a fridge was a status symbol for some.

  6. Hunter Says:

    @Ant Knee – Lileks’ site is hilarious, however the focus of this piece is not just weird vintage food, but actually making and eating it. Thanks for reading!

  7. rizzo Says:

    My grandmother(Polish)made the lamb cake too, but I never ate it because it was covered in coconut and coconut makes me puke involuntarily. I have fond memories of it on the dining room table during Easter though.

  8. Claire Says:

    I cannot believe that with all the fun & effort you put into this that people feel the need to comment in a backhanded or critical manner, either in these posts or via letters/radio. I also grew up pouring over my Grandmother’s collection of those exotic ‘brochure’ cookbooks (which I have since inherited), and cannot stop buying new finds in thrift shops. But to actually take the time to make them & taste ’em–those savory jellos, aspics & mouses always looked scary– certainly deserves a bravo! Next maybe a hosted cocktail party video taped for your blog, outfits & all?!

  9. Stefanie Says:

    What an awesome article, Hunter! Great interview. I loved Ruth Clark’s bravery in trying so many of these recipes. I have a fair number of vintage cookbooks and booklets, plus tons of old mid-century magazines featuring many ‘exotic’ recipes, and mostly they look pretty nauseating to me. Seems like everything is covered in mayonaise or cocoanut! It’s good to know many of these recipes are actually tasty!

  10. Kathy M. Diewald Says:

    I love the sugar free lime jello combined with canned crushed pineapple and large curd cottage cheese from Von’s market, the only place I can find it in Costa Mesa, California. When I was growing up in Hollywood….this combination of lime jello, cottage cheese and pineapple was in every major supermarket in Los Angeles. KMD

  11. Cooker Says:

    I used to in a supermarket quality control lab 20 years ago. They used to have these cookbooks from the mid-40’s to late 50’s. I read them like novels as well.

    I don’t understand why cooking with Jello is confusing to people. It is a classic technique to first year culinary students.

  12. renos gronos Says:

    just wondering if amongst your cookbooks you have the 1963 pillsbury ‘new convenience in foods ‘ book….where every recipe calls for 17 pounds of monosodium glutamate….

  13. Brian Says:

    Wow, I never saw anything remotely like those recipes while growing up in Pittsburgh. My Mom, aunts, and Grandmother were sooo good at cooking Polish food, and simple common items like pasta or hamburgers, they had no reason to experiment with what sounds like faux food. Our food was delicious and flavorful, even though the only seasonings I remember in the cupboard were salt, pepper and celery salt – Mom’s secret ingredient.

  14. Lev Lafayette Says:

    Although but an opportunistic red meat eater, ox tongue is certainly an acceptable dish. I hope you tried it cold as well as hot. Pressed tongue sandwich with mustard is very tasty. You may also wish to try ox heart with orange and pommes à la Dauphinoise .

  15. Jim Gillen Says:

    Enjoy your site. I cooked tongue just to try it out. I liked it. Makes great luncheon meat. Of course I will eat/try a lot of “strange” foods.

  16. Kelly Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. First off, I do have to say that what Ruth is doing is nothing at ALL like “The Gallery of Regrettable Foods” which has the sole purpose of making fun of vintage recipes, ads and photos. What Ruth is doing is taking our culinary history to task – yes, sometimes the recipes can yield humorous or interesting results but she is still doing the hard work behind the recipes by curating the cookbooks, choosing the recipes and creating them in her own home. As she said in the article, she often has to do a lot of detective work to make the recreations as close to the originals as possible. Unlike the Lileks material, she isn’t mocking our past but is exploring it and bringing us the results. They are two completely different things – and there is room for both in our world. So there is no need to be rude to Ruth about her passion just like we wouldn’t want anyone to be rude to US about OUR passions.

    I admire what Ruth is doing and love reading about her processes and results. To me, she’s a historian and a curator and one hell of a lamb cake maker. I am a follower of Ruth’s blogs but even so, I learned some things about her processes here – as well as some interesting facts that I didn’t know about Mid-Century recipes. I love thinking of a time when ketchup was “exotic”. : )

  17. AdmNaismith Says:

    Plaon gelatin orAspic was a component of food for royalty and such for hundreds of years. It was rare, expensive, and hard to use and fairly reserved for the upper classes. When Jell-O came along, a middle-class cook could make a meat or vegetable salad in aspic with the greatest of ease. I don’t think anyone ever liked eatimg food in aspic, but there you go.

    If you can find the eps, a British series from a couple of years ago called ‘The Supersizers Go…’ has a couple living and eating their way through various time periods- fascinating and entertaining stuff. 3 eps cover 50s, 70, & 8stuffIcky stuff.

  18. Linda Donley Says:

    I still have my “Joys of Jello” recipe book. I saved Jello boxops and a quarter and sent a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) for it, in about 1960. I remember my big brother teasing me about it, even then.

  19. yinzerella Says:

    I have made the “Mustard Ring” in the 6th photo!
    Although mine was a star because that’s the mold I had. And it was Christmas.
    And, Ruth’s blog is pretty magical.

  20. Sandy Says:

    Enjoy your site. I cooked tongue just to try it out.

  21. cara Says:

    I looked through the recipes and the photos of the cookbooks with dread; fearing I’d find one of my cookbooks. That I still use on occasion.

  22. Matthew Says:

    I know of the lady referred to regarding the inedible pate. She had a website with some of those ’70s Weight Watchers cards and later wrote a book with (I think) all of them. It is hysterical to read them (and yeah, get grossed out…I’ll mention “Marcy’s ‘Enchilada'” and let you wonder)!

    Thanks for the great article! Tom is a braver man than I. :)

  23. Suzanne Says:

    I have always loved a molded salad for Thanksgiving. My mother would make the same one every year–lime gelatin with shredded carrots and celery. This year for my 35th birthday, I made a red, white and blue Jello fruit salad with help from a vintage Jello recipe booklet . Everyone loved it and it looked as good as it tasted.

  24. tara dillard Says:

    At the exact same time, and for the same reasons, WWII chemical companies began promoting their products to women to protect their children from ‘BUGS’ in the yard.

    Birth of the mono-culture lawn. Too bad they are still with us, and their toxic chemicals.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  25. Leah Trappett Says:

    I found an old WWI returned soldiers cookbook at a garage sale. I threatened the kids I would cook the tastiest recipe in it. Sheeps Head Fricassee. the looks on their face was priceless. It is a very interesting read.

  26. Rita P. Says:

    What fun! I’m visualizing a mid-century themed dinner party…formica table, tv trays, vintage linens & dishes. Bring on the lazy susan & wienee tree!

  27. aLFREDO Says:

    I am a fervent collector of ads for the foods zi loved as a child: Jello, Spam, Campbell soups, Green Giant peas, Cream of Wheat, Crisco.
    I love the fact that advertisements always came with recipes. I still make fruit mousse with unflavored gelatin . . . and ReadyWhip!

  28. Kat Says:

    Wow—-brings back memories!! I still have my Joy of Jello book— free with Jello box tops. My mom used to make her Preacher Salad— a must when traveling preachers came through our area— it was lemon jello, shredded carrot , finely chopped apple, and finely chopped celery. It was a treat with her fried chicken made in the electric skillet!

  29. Kat Says:

    First, it’s crazy that the last person to comment before me has my name. I don’t see many Kats. :)
    Second, I truly enjoyed this read! I stumbled upon it while searching for why jello molds were so popular in 1950s cooking after seeing a Buzzfeed article. I find what Ruth Clark is doing to be extremely interesting! This interview not only answered my question but also taught me some things. I will definitely be trying the chocolate cake, tomato soup recipee!

  30. Sue Monty Says:

    Mock apple pie. Made with Ritz crackers. My Grandma would make this instead of real apple pie – there were never any shortage of apples on the tree in the backyard.

  31. kathy engel Says:

    There used to be a certain spaghetti package in the 60’s that came with the dried spaghetti and a can of sauce and we thought it was terrific. It was made by Clarke brothers maybe and had little sailor cutouts on the packageing. Spaghetti still never seems as tasty as that package of spaghetti and I wish I could find it today.

  32. mike Says:

    wow! very impressive job.

  33. EmilyAnn Frances May Says:

    Ten years from now young children and teens will look at the food of the early 21st century and say the same things some are now saying about food from the past. For my personal choice, I do not like some of the current combinations like bacon in chocolate cake. Because of the prolonged recession, I have many friends (and myself, too), who have cut down or eliminated going out to eat and experimenting with cooking. For us it’s all about fresh, simple and nutritious. There is a lot of emphasis today on flavors and combinations of unusual flavors but we have to always consider are these dishes worth the money to make or buy and will they provide needed vitamins and minerals for our bodies.

  34. Sandy Moore Says:

    I still make the black magic cake, although my childhood family always called it tomato soup cake . Delicious.

  35. elizabeth Duckworth Says:

    I had to laugh when I saw the recipe for Pork Cake I had never heard it call that before. It’s a lot like the recipe for Suet Pudding in the UK, it’s served on or around the holidays. You don’t really taste the meat product (fat). And it was usually served with a Hard Sauce, very sweet tasting. As a child I never really cared for that sort of thing, it would be the equivalent of getting your children to eat a slab of fruitcake….I don’t think so.

  36. Lai-Lai Says:

    My mom was raised on the unholy combo of jello, cheap meat, cream cheese, olives, & mayonnaise live well into the late 60s.

  37. Michael Scott Says:

    Hmmm. Young Whippersnappers. Granted, I’m pushing 3/4 of a century along but I still remember and long for many of your recipes.

    A few comments: Tongue? Yes, they have to be peeled. Properly cooked, tongue is one of my favorites. Especially tongue sandwiches…with horseradish and mayonaise. Jello? I agree with most of the explanations for Jello’s popularity. However, there was another: it was cheap. Folks today simply don’t realize that abundant food is a recent experience. We ate Jello (lots of it) because it was cheap, tasty, fun and, especially, cheap. And no, we did not have a refrigerator, we had an ice box and Jello would hold up just fine in the ice box.

    Now, as for Avocado, Grapefruit and Mayonaise. I’m a Californian. Avocados are sacred. One does not mess with Avocados. Yes, I do remember getting paid to clean up the Avocados from under the trees (about 1 penney each). Now they cost $1.00+ in food stores. That is not progress. I’m not sure I will ever mix Avocados, Grapefruit and Mayonaise. I’ve got a shot at heaven and I’m not about to blow it.

    Finally M’am, you got a keeper in Tom. I’m sure you already know this but to have a genuine Chemist and food taster in one package? That’s priceless! I wish you both great happiness and success in all things you do.

  38. Susanne McCaskill Says:

    Loved reading all of this . I miss the Perfection Salad my Mother made in the 50’s . Would you please share this recipe ? I have tried others but it isn’t right . If you have a cookbook I would really like one . Thanks ,
    Susanne McCaskill
    Pob 219
    Montreat N.C. 28757

  39. dakota Says:

    I was just trying to explain Perfection Salad to my husband, but we never had a name for it. I described it as Cole slaw inside lime jello with the salad dressing (I think it was just miracle whip) on the side. It sounds horrible, but I loved it!

  40. Randy Deuel Says:

    … great read, brings back so many precious memories … My dear “Pennsylvania Dutch” Grandmother also made “Mock Apple Pie” with Ritz crackers, she loved serving it to unsuspecting guests and have them try to guess what it was made with … she would also bake me a “Tunnel Of Fudge” cake every year for my birthday, a whole cake just for me! … she continued the tradition up until her passing, sending me one each and every year through the mail while I was off to College and after I had moved to the Midwest.

  41. Cindy Baillie Says:

    I am looking for a recipe that my 54 year old husband had as a child. It was on a jello box and contained pineapple and gram cracker crust. The jello was whipped with something. Please let me know if you have any ideas.


  42. Judy Rhea Says:

    Have Googled forever looking for Jello Supper Salad recipe – includes lemon and lime jello, rice, mayo, peas and don’t remember the rest – family scarfed it down as a main dish on hot summer evenings, a double batch for family of 4 had no leftovers by bedtime – please help me locate, thank you. PS – made this in early ’70s, and had both Joys of Jello books, but don’t remember which had it & Kraft’s site Limited on recipes :)

  43. Mary Jo Says:

    Thank you for your nice article. My mom LOVED jello and made it almost every Sunday and holiday. For Christmas I remember and liked a cherry jello mold she made that had cherries and little balls of cream cheese. I have never been able to duplicate it, although it seems pretty simple. She frequently made the carrot/celery/lemon jello with mayo, and I could never bring myself even to taste it. There was also Royal and other brands of boxed-gelatin dessert, so maybe some of the obscure recipes are in one of their company-produced cookbooks.

    I remember my mother telling me a story about my grandmother regularly making glorified rice (rice, lemon jello, pineapple, whipped cream) when the minister and his wife would visit on many Sunday nights in the 1930s, since they drove past on their way to and from the church. She said my grandfather would always say, “Please pass the sanctified rice.”

    About 45 years ago, another relative served a cucumber lime jello salad that had an opaque appearance. We were not a family of picky eaters, but NO one liked it, and it continued to be a topic of discussion for a very long time.

    Just recently, though, I was introduced to rhubarb jello salad, and it is scrumptious.
    3 c. diced rhubarb
    1/2 c. sugar
    1/4 tsp. salt
    2 small pkgs strawberry jello
    2 c. cold water
    1 c. diced celery
    1/4 c. lemon juice
    Bring rhubarb and sugar to a boil (no added water). Remove from heat. Stir in sugar, salt, jello, water, celery and lemon juice. Pour into 11″ x 7″ glass dish. Refrigerate until firm.

  44. EmilyM Says:

    I agree with the above explanation of the Jello fad, as being inexpensive. I am deeply grateful to my mother for not buying into it, although I did suffer through her meat loaf and also hamburgher “pinwheels” with gravy (remember them?). I do recall all-too well suffering embarassing gag moments as a child with those jello molds though (especially the creepy milky looking ones), when we went to visit friends.

    I think what people tend to forget, is that people from all socioeconomic groups back then were unbelievably frugal about everything.
    On Fridays my mother’s very affluent best friend would take all the leftovers in her fridge, and layer them into ONE casserole. Oh yeah. It was a fate worse than death having to go to her house on a Friday.

    And as far dining sophistication, into the late 60s, 70s, and even 80s, a “foodie” meant watching Julia Child, and maybe trying out a “European” recipe or two, like maybe *Quiche Lorraine* or *fondue*, lol.
    People didn’t travel much back then. An exotic ethnic dish was at a “pizza parlor”, or maybe Lay Choy in a can. Add to that this was not the time of much accepted diversity in our country.

    That said, it was a simpler time, and despite a lot of bad bland food, it was a good time to grow up if you were lucky enough to be a white middle class American kid like me.

  45. Connie Says:

    Tongue-We ate it a LOT. My mom would cook it in the pressure cooker, skin it, let it cool and boy was it tasty as a sandwich. Yup, heart, kidneys, liver, ox tail stew, it was all cheap and she could make cheap so well. Ox tails are now a delicacy, I saw them recently for $8/lb. We also drank powdered milk cause we couldn’t afford the real thing. “Milkman” whole milk powder was our fave but mostly we could only afford Carnation. I’m forever grateful to my parents for teaching us to be grateful for what we did have and to eat whatever was put in front of us. Although I still hate scrambled eggs with peppers which we had every Tuesday when eggs were 10 cents a dozen from the egg farm. Thanks for an enjoyable & hilarious trip down memory lane.

  46. TheManFromTaco Says:

    There was plenty of excellent food in the mid-century era.

    For the best mid-century dining, you should really ignore all those nasty gelatin dishes and instead look at what the fine dining restaurants were serving… dishes like Steak Diane flambeed table-side, Lobster Thermidor, Caesar Salad made from scratch table-side, flaming meat skewers, planked steak, bananas foster flambeed table-side, etc. That was the the era when up-scale restaurants such as the Forum of the Twelve Caesars and the Four Seasons were thriving. Peter Moruzzi’s book “Classic Dining: Discovering America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants” covers a lot of this stuff extremely well.

    If you want to serve retro food, then serve the good, high-end stuff like those places served, not some disgusting spam and aspic jelly concoction. YUCK.

  47. Douglas Says:

    I’ve started making some of these salads as well; great for hot weather. And as a way to recall my sweet grandma, who made these “delicacies” for church pot-lucks in Kitsap County, WA, in the long-lost sixties. All the ladies made them! BTW, love this cook’s North Star china. We found a whole set for our 1965 house at a yard sale many years ago and still use it. Thanks for the article.

  48. Cindy Lott Says:

    Please help my grandmother used to make a pie for us when we were children called Hollywood Pie it had Jell-O on it my sister and I have been looking for this recipe for many years my grandmother has long since gone my sister is sickly and I am in my 60s if you can help with this recipe please do and I thank you appreciate it again thank you. I would love to make it for my sister

  49. Jim Says:

    Hence the debut of frozen airline foods and canned meat products like Spam. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Spam had been around since the ’20s and only became “famous” as a go-to option in the 30s and of course as a military ration. Frozen foods were available since before WW1, though of course they required a freezer, rare at that time. They were also used as military rations. Post-war, frozen meals were seen as hi-tech, the 40s equivalent of gastronomy today (another fad our kids/grandkids will be laughing at 50 years from now.) As far as Jello molds, only ones I remember were fruit salads, which frankly were pretty tasty.

  50. Kris Says:

    Don’t knock mayo on your Jello till you try it. It is awesome. Just had some Cherry Jello with mayo. Yum.

  51. Fran Says:

    I found this site when I searched for a lime jello mousse made with mayonnaise. Have not found one exactly like it yet…my aunt made it when I was a kid and I loved it. What a treat to find this site and remember all the things we had years ago!! We grew up in the 50’s, so many, many of these recipes make me smile! Tunnel of fudge cake was late ’60’s, believe you would need the specific frosting mix to make it now…it was soooo good! I plan to share this site with friends!

  52. Julie Says:

    I barely made it out of the 60s having to eat this inedible crud. The stuff my mom made me eat should be served at Guantanamo Bay! Those guys would give up everybody in a day!

  53. jak Says:

    My mom used to make a lime rice mold in a bunt cake pan with little marshmallows in it. Sounds gross but I actually liked it. Youth. Jello. Summer.

  54. sue good Says:

    I love green Jello with pineapple and cottage cheese.I also like orange Jello with carrots and pineapple.

  55. mel Says:

    Lamb cakes are very popular in Buffalo, NY thanks to our sizeable Polish population. They’re everywhere, complete with red candy or cherry eyes.
    You need to make a sour cream pound cake for the lamb to hold up. Modern box cake mixes are too airy.
    And yaaas to Lipton soup mix and sour cream. It’s addicting.
    We ate (and still do) eat a fair share of recipes that mix jello and cottage cheese. My grandma used to make that red and green jello dessert with cottage cheese and pineapple. Delicious.

  56. Ash Says:

    I’m completely enthralled with this stuff. I was just looking at Thankgiving food in Google images and found the shrimp Jello monstrosity.

    Challenge accepted!

    I’m going try inventing these gelatinous beauties:

    Brats N’ Kraut Aspic
    7 Layer Taco Mold
    J E L L – Pho

    I might even try a Gelzpacho…

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