A couple of days ago I was on my Medium site doing something and I happened on a blog that interviewed Ruth Clark, a Millennial, who writes about “Mid-Century Cuisine.” This young woman had a great idea which was to take old cookbooks, cook from them and write a blog about the food. These days people have an interest in food that I don’t understand at all, but there it is. You can learn more about her here.
She posited theories about “Mid-century Cuisine” that big businesses were trying to create need (clearly a fan of Mad Men). It seems not to have occurred to her that for the first time in more than twenty years people had food with which to experiment and the US, in the fifties, was, for the first time, NOT a primarily agrarian nation but had become an industrial giant because of the war. She also misses the point that the kind of cooking experimentation SHE’S involved in Mid-Century People were involved in, too.
She also doesn’t consider (or realize? or ask?) that among the numerous recipes she has between the covers of all her grandmother’s cookbooks are only a FEW that actually made it into the daily diet of “Mid-Century People.” I got bitched off at this Child and posted responses in a bitched off tone of voice, comments I’ve since deleted, such as, “Why don’t you wait until the Mid-Century people are all dead before you make these sweeping and inaccurate generalizations?”
I believe I also commented that since we’re still around, she could interview us rather than come up with absurd theories… (I’d love to be able to interview medieval people for my own projects, but the dead tell no tales.) This Child has a great opportunity to ask questions such as, “Did you ever prepare liver Jell-o?” But apparently her interest in her project (and her market) is in showing how disgusting Mid-Century food is, and that is what she is setting out to prove — so we have chicken ice cream.
She has written about what she described as an obsession with gelatin. She made many gelatin recipes and expressed surprise that any of these Jell-o concoctions tasted good. Uh, as far as I know, people have always liked tasty food.
She described a Jell-o concoction that was common in my life because my Aunt Martha made it often. Clark describes it as “coleslaw” and says it was named “Perfection Salad.” It was lime or lemon jello with pineapple, cabbage and carrots. Why did my Aunt Martha make this all the time? Well as this child pointed out, things stay fresh when they’re “encased” in Jell-o.
“Clark: 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… We’ve done a lot of different Jell-O stuff and noticed that freshness is basically extended when you encase things in Jell-O.”
The Child actually expressed surprise and wonderment at this? (No Child Left Behind, what monsters you’ve made!) Isn’t it obvious that Jell-o keeps the veggies moist because, 1) Jell-o is mostly water, and 2) it keeps dry refrigerator air away from the cabbage?
My Aunt Martha (born in 1919, grew up in Montana during the Great Depression, worked for the OSS during WW II) worked for the government. She worked 8 hour days with a 1 hour drive RT. She got home late, lived alone and Jell-o meant she only had to make ONE salad for the week. My Aunt Martha was brilliant, beautiful, funny and an extremely successful public servant who was awarded a medal by Congress even though she, unlike the Child, never attended college. This is because Mid-Century adults were well-educated in high school. My Aunt Martha KNEW why Jell-o kept the cabbage fresh.
The Child also wrote about the “elaborate molded desserts” and how Mid-Century Women “competed” to make the fanciest. At this point, I wanted to slap her. My Aunt Martha’s contribution to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner was Jell-o. She could make it ahead. Even a person of leisure (is the Child such a person?) can have a busy life and many Mid-Century Workers worked a full day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My Aunt Martha started her Great Jell-o Project Tuesday evening, did the next step Wednesday after she got home from work, and finished it at our house on Thanksgiving morning. She was mocked for the persistence of Jell-o by her married sisters, but the fact is, the fancy layered salad was good. It had a layer of raspberry Jell-o “encasing” cranberries on top, followed by lime Jell-o “encasing” pineapple and the bottom was cream cheese and walnuts.
I actually made it for Thanksgiving last year and while the reaction of people at the table was, “Oh my I haven’t seen Jell-o in years,” once they tried it they wanted more. It never occurs to the Child that people might have liked Jell-o because it is a cool and refreshing change from the heavy dishes of a holiday feast. In any case, most of the Jell-o salad I made for Thanksgiving was gone before the end of the meal.
The Mid-Century Fourth of July Picnic of my Mid-Century Childhood? Here you go.
Billings, Montana. My aunts and mom come out to the back yard bringing the food, fried chicken, potato salad, a yellow Pyrex mixing bowl filled with red jello mixed with fruit cocktail. There is bread and butter, pies. In the house is an angel food cake. The edges of the table cloths flutter in the breeze. Early evening golden light slides sideways through the tall grass in the pasture. Fence post shadows stretch across the field.
I would like to tell this Child to keep going with her project but to collect some stories around the recipes and to ask us if we ever ate Chicken Jell-o. She’ll find that Mid-Century People were probably as disgusted by it as she is. If she needs proof, she only needs to look forward in cookbooks from the 60s and 70s and see what recipes survived the red pencil of time (and digestion).
P.S. Someone just wrote a very hostile comment to this post. (Get a life?) In response 1) everyone is biased; a bias that is in contradiction to your bias is no more biased than yours, 2) shut up. This is my blog. Go write your own.