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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.