In doing research for my memoir, Tasting Home, a book organized by decades and by the cookbooks that shaped my life, I struggled to get an angle on my mother’s cooking. In some ways, it replicated what we think of as the cooking of the 1950s and in other ways, perhaps, it did not. Although my mother owned The American Woman Cookbook (1947) , I never saw her use it, and both The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, highly popular in the 1950s, completely passed her by. She’d learned to cook in the 20s and 30s on a North Dakota farm, and the only recipes I ever saw her consult were those hand written on the seventy-one 3 by 5 five cards she passed on to me when she moved to an assisted care facility and to a room without a kitchen.
In preparation for the memoir, I sorted those cards into categories and then counted them, thereby refreshing my fading memories of what we ate. There were six cards for hamburger-based dishes, some for casseroles, a fifties favorite: Spanish Rice, Heavenly Hash, Tamale Pie, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, and enchiladas (we lived in Southern California). Hamburger was cheap in the 1950s, and we had it often. But we also had beef spareribs, roast, and pot roast and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, the standard turkey, ham, and lamb. This meat-driven diet was often seasoned with nothing more than garlic salt, onion salt, and Worcestershire sauce. Canned tomatoes and cheddar cheese appeared in a few of the dishes, while Heavenly Hash required an actual onion along with noodles, potato chips, and two cans of vegetable soup.
I’m sure we had fried chicken as well, but despite the fact that we lived quite near the ocean, we never had fish. The occasional frozen fish stick appeared on our plates (they were introduced in 1953) and my brother and I sometimes sat down with a Swanson TV dinner (1954) comprised of turkey, stuffing, gravy, peas, and sweet potatoes in front of the living room TV. (My parents ate in the kitchen.)
I found no recipes for vegetables and can’t recall eating them, except for potatoes”mashed, boiled, or fried. Though surely we must have had something green”frozen green beans? Iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing?
Forty-four of the seventy-one recipes were for dessert”thirteen for pie, ten for cookies, seven for cakes, five for fudge (several containing those fifties favorites marshmallows or marshmallow cream), and nine for miscellaneous items such as peanut brittle, crackerjack, and donuts. Almost every recipe called for margarine or oleo (margarine outsold butter in 1957 for the very first time), including the recipe for pie crust recipe which combined oleo with Crisco. (My mother’s pie crusts melted on the tongue, but when I tried to duplicate the recipe, the results were disappointing. The chemical structure of margarine and Crisco, and quite possibly my brain, appear to have changed since the 1950s.)
How typical of the fifties was my mother’s penchant for oleo and sugar? I’m not sure and am half inclined to attribute it to farm living and to my mother’s Norwegian past. When you perform hard physical labor for ten hours a day, you need pies and cookies for cheap fuel. The same might be said for breads, the second largest category of her recipes. There were fourteen cards bearing directions for bran muffins, sour milk biscuits, Norwegian flatbread and lefse ( a mashed potato tortilla) and loaves made of zucchini, squash, corn, dates, bananas, prunes, or rye. In the 1950s, however, those breads were mainly for holidays. We ate soft white Wonder bread for every day life”for toast, for sandwiches, and for dinner, to sort of round out the meal. So red meat, fat, white flour, and sugar”all the things I try to avoid today– formed the basis of my 1950s Baby Boomer diet.
Like many others of my generation, I went on to cook from Julia Child in the 1960s, vastly expanding my repertoire of ingredients, following recipes that went on for three pages, and making sauces that required several days to prepare. But, to be honest, I had not left the fifties entirely behind. I spent most of my life cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, along with other books on French, Italian, Mexican and New Mexican cuisines. Many of the recipes involved red meat, white flour, butter, lard, cream and, for special occasions, a ton of sugar as well. The single greatest difference between the cuisines of my life today and that of my childhood is the profusion of vegetables I learned to cook, crave, and consume with a good deal of pleasure.
Fellow Baby Boomers, what did you eat in the 1950s and how has that changed?
Editor’s Note: Huffington Post Food blogger Judith Newton is Professor Emerita at UC Davis and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. On March 1, She Writes Press released her culinary autobiography, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.