Vintage Cookbooks

If you’ve ever had occasion to flip through a vintage cookbook—let’s say something on the order of a 1969 Betty Crocker ‘Red Pie’ Cookbook, a standout among retro food prep guides—you’ve probably felt that heady rush of nostalgia when you’ve landed on a recipe that your mother used to make for your family on a regular basis.

You know what I’m referring to: a food concoction you might have enjoyed at dinner nearly ever week and even hated at the time, but, with hindsight, brings pangs of longing to your famished older self. It’s a safe bet that, somewhere in your family’s culinary past, there was a baked ham studded with cloves and pineapple rings; or perhaps a creamy chicken a la king reposing on homemade biscuits; or even that ubiquitous, gravy-drenched Swiss steak that made us wonder if they really ate that sort of thing in Switzerland.

And the parade of former food fads moves on: marching in lockstep across our dining room table of yesteryear were scrumptious pigs in a blanket, fondue, Swedish meatballs (what was it about the Swedes?), tuna noodle casserole, crepes suzette, chicken Kiev, and, for dessert, Jell-O-encased fruit or that hallowed be-all and end-all, baked Alaska. Oh my!

Lately, sparked by some of these reminiscences, I’ve been venturing back down my childhood culinary pathways, experiencing odd cravings for foods I haven’t touched in years. It began one night a few weeks ago, when I found myself attempting to recreate the favorite sandwich of my youth—broiled and nearly charred Spam slices on doughy white bread slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise. Why, you might ask? I can’t honestly say. I only know that—then and now—as it sizzled away in the oven broiler, this crunchy throwback sent me into spasms of hungry anticipation.

Also present in my noisy, 1950s and ’60s-era household kitchen, there was the estimable creamed chipped beef over mashed potatoes, a dish my mother used to serve us at least weekly. You might recall that the beef itself came, weirdly enough, in a clear glass jar, its crimson colored slices packed in tight as sardines. Mom would start with a creamy white sauce bubbling on the stove, and later add in the salty strands of beef, creating a vivid contrast of colors. She’d ladle the mixture over a mound of mashed potatoes in our plates, along with a helping of Green Giant peas, right from the can. We used to like to mash the overcooked veggies into a green mush and then blend them into the beef and potato combo, where the whole thing morphed into a sort of tri-colored monument to marginal dining.

I’ll be willing to wager that, every now and then, you, too, get hooked by the lure of long-forgotten foods and the memories that bubble up along with the thought of them. Why, just the other day, I spied that curious little can of Underwood Deviled Ham on the grocery store shelf; you know, the one with the miniature red demon dancing with a pitchfork on the white label? As I gazed at it, I could almost hear the little imp taunting me to pry open the can and dig in, just for old-time’s sake.

Did You Know?

Everyone’s heard of Betty Crocker, that icon of American cooking whose name and image have become synonymous with wholesome, downhome cooking, however how many know whether she was a real person?

Unfortunately for many of us who think Betty must have been someone’s quintessential, kitchen-apron-wearing mom, she was actually made up by the folks at Gold Medal Flour to personalize responses made to consumer inquiries.

The surname Crocker was selected to acknowledge a popular, recently retired director of the company, William G. Crocker, and “Betty” was chosen simply because it was a friendly sounding name. Female employees of the company were invited to submit sample Betty Crocker signatures; the one judged most distinctive is still used today.

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