It’s Labor Day here in the US and for most of us, that means kicking back with the family outside around the grill: hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans, potato salad, ice cream and apple pie or some variant of the above.
That’s what we’re doing later this afternoon.
Recently while researching appetizers and desserts of the 1950s for a book I’m writing, I fell into a strange rabbit hole, however. The bizarre and inexplicably terrible desserts of the 1950s.
I have theories as to why and how these monstrous creations came into being. After WW2, many young wives moved out of the cities with their families into the new suburbs. Gone was the ready access to older generations of women who could explain why your cookies didn’t turn out the way Grandma used to make them. Betty Crocker came into her own during this time period. Previously created as a means of answering customer support questions for what was to become General Mills, Betty Crocker as a cultural icon rose to prominence in the 40s and 50s, first with a series of cookbooks and then radio and television shows. I myself grew up with the “church ladies” cookbooks created by the women of my grandmother’s church and sold as fundraisers. Make sausage balls with Bisquik and cheddar cheese? Sour cream cake? Green bean casserole? Pecan pie? The recipes were in that cookbook. I was devastated when my mother loaned our only copy to someone and couldn’t remember who had it.
Deprived of my granny’s best old-time recipes, I turned to era-authentic cookbooks to see what I might find.
I am no cook. Not by a long shot. But these cookbooks consisted of recipes that even the most hopeless chef could follow, relying largely on staples such as Campbell’s Soup and other pre-packaged goodies. I think therein lay their appeal to the young housewives of the fifties, looking to serve decent yet elegant meals on a shoestring that reflected well on their household management.
That’s the other factor I believe is behind some of the strange dessert combinations I found: thrift.
Coming off a World War where economy and rationing was paramount, and supplies for many things in short demand, cooks got creative in making recipes that relied on whatever they had on hand. Flourless and eggless cakes being prime examples. So when I started my search for the typical desserts and appetizers that might be served at a 1955 cocktail party, I ran across some old favorites such as 7 Up Pound Cake and Flourless Chocolate Cake.
But then I ran into the outright bizarre…
The Fifties were frequently about comfort foods, such as meatloaf and ways to extend leftovers. Casseroles were extremely popular. But leftovers as dessert? To me, desserts are delectable sweets to finish off a fine meal. The best part of the meal. Sometimes, the only part of the meal. 🙂 But these desserts I found posted on Pinterest and vintage cooking sites just boggled the mind. Meats and fruit in strange combinations. Everything you could think of in gelatin molds. I mean, seriously, tuna fish and jello? What were they thinking?
One recipe I ran across (but failed to save the link) was for making beanie weenie Popsicles to serve as a frozen treat at those hot summer gatherings! Delight your friends! Show off your inventiveness to your neighbors! Open a can of Beanie Weenies and pour them into a Popsicle mold–or take it another level by slicing your own Vienna Sausages and add them to pork and beans! When I went searching for the link, all I could find was a site recommending this as a “gross” Halloween party appetizer.
But I found myself compelled to make it. It couldn’t be that bad, right?
Um. Yeah. It is. I don’t recommend offering this to your friends. Not only did it taste nasty, but I couldn’t get it to come out of the Popsicle molds in one piece, so they are messy, too.
One of the recipes that didn’t make the cut because the cookbook came out in 1967 was a recipe for beef fudge. Yes, you read that correctly. Beef. Fudge. Two words that should never go together. But somehow they did. You MUST read this post about one woman’s attempt at making it. Utterly delightful. The best part is she says the beef fudge turned out better than her regular fudge!
One thing the author said that stuck with me was how the cookbook was filled with little details from the creators along the lines of “I came up with this recipe when the power went out and we had a freezer full of beef…”
In RetroRuth’s own words: After reading through the book twice, I can kind of see where this recipe came from. I mean, I would have never, ever, ever thought of this on my own, but maybe if you are the wife of a rancher and you have beef coming out of your ears, you think up ways to use it. Any way to use it. The book is crammed with recipes like this, with beef in everything from bread, to fudge, to cake and brownies.
And in an era where we used to think nothing of tossing out leftovers and dashing off to the store to buy whatever we want or need, perhaps in this time of the pandemic, we need to be a little more creative with our food. Waste not, want not, and all that.
Beef Fudge, anyone?
Think I’ll pass on the popsicles, lol. I do remember that my sister won a Girl Scout Bake Off in 1962 or 1963 with a No Egg Chocolate Cake recipe that was a relic of our grandmother’s depression era and wartime baking. I still have the recipe somewhere and it’s a goodie.
I think as a “gross” Halloween treat, the popsicles fit the bill! And I bet your grandmother’s recipe is fantastic! In the right hands, inventive bakers got around all sorts of issues. In my hands, it would be a case of leaving out a key ingredient by mistake and then taking credit for it if it turned out to be edible! 🙂
I’d often wondered why the recipes from this era could be so odd. Your reasons make a great deal of sense.
Although I don’t think I want to try those popsicles either. Haha.
Right? I confess, if I owned a meat grinder, I’d be seriously tempted to try the Beef Fudge…
I wonder if this pandemic will see us writing equally strange recipes to make do with what we have.
I’ve been wondering the same! I’m making a LOT of banana bread because I keep buying bananas that go bad on me. Made me realize why the first enterprising baker did the same! I was surprised, too, how much better made-from-scratch banana bread is than store-bought mix! (Shhh, don’t tell Betty Crocker! 🙂 )
I grew up in a household that didn’t have a lot of money. I very rarely waste and always find creative ways to use what is available.I watched my mother do amazing things with so little. My kids always said they couldn’t understand how I made better meals when the pantry was sadly lacking than on shopping day. She taught me.
I think today we are too quick to take things for granted and perhaps the pandemic has taught us a little humility and a greater appreciation of the generations before us. I like to think so.
Argh! I drafted a long, lovely response to your comment and then my computer glitched and restarted, erasing my draft! I’ll do my best to recreate it here…
You are fortunate to have had such a wonderful role model. My mother was an appalling cook with food issues; traits she passed on to her children. I understand her a bit better now than I did then: she worked long hours at a demanding job and had little patience or energy for putting food on the table. She thought if a little heat was good, a lot was better, so dinner was often burned on the outside and raw in the middle.
I have also allowed work demands to take precedence over almost everything else, and I struggle with making better food choices as well as work/life balance. But at the same time, I recognize that we as a generation have come to expect certain things and the general sense of entitlement is quite strong in some people. It’s why I don’t understand how some people believe their individual rights trump the community or population as a whole. I’d also like to think there are lessons here in this pandemic if we heed them. 🙂
I’m very much not a foodie, so I find weird foods much more interesting than something I might actually like. Which makes historical food research all the more fun, I think. Great post!
I’m not a foodie either–I’m fairly picky because I react to a LOT of things–which is why I’m surprised I find myself wanting to try beef fudge. It’s practically a compulsion now! 🙂