A curious thing took place at our dining room table sometime in the late 1940s. Our meat-and-potatoes supper changed into something my mother called “creative cooking.” Even though I was just 10 years old, and a boy at that, I sensed every woman was out to prove she wasn’t a boring cook. When my mother wasn’t exchanging 3 x 5-inch recipe cards with her friends, they were promising each other recipes or were collecting recipes for a new church cookbook. In fact, church dinners were a command performance that made me dread the experimental dishes — Mexican tamale pie or Italian sausage and mushroom casserole — placed in front of me.
It’s clear now what was happening. World War II was finally over, anything was possible, and miracles could emerge from the kitchen — amazing dishes like Indian curry that were previously unknown in our small Oregon town.
I’ll never know where my mother learned about shrimp curry. Her exotic dish consisted of one can of Campbell’s frozen condensed shrimp soup, thawed, heated, laced with curry powder, and poured over rice.
Another night, her quick and simple entrée might be Porcupine Balls. Leftover Uncle Ben’s rice was mixed with ground beef, shaped into balls, drowned under a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup, and baked in an oven.
Campbell’s was a staple in our house. Condensed mushroom soup was poured over pork chops before baking. Condensed tomato soup was served as a time-saving, nutritious spaghetti sauce.
On special occasions — after church or when relatives came to visit — dinner started with cocktails. Since my parents were teetotalers, cocktails consisted of a quart can of Campbell’s tomato juice, liberally splashed with Worcestershire sauce and a very small dash of Tabasco, and served up with Ritz crackers and onion dip. The dip was a touch of class. It meant buying a container of sour cream and mixing in a package of Lipton instant onion soup.
This cozy tradition lasted until after I was married with children and began substituting wine for tomato juice.
Memories of these meals flooded back when I found three metal boxes where Mom stored her recipe cards. I had almost forgotten what a basic commodity Jell-O was in the late ’40s. An entire section of one box — dozens of gummy recipe cards — were dedicated to gelatin salads. There were Perfection Salad (gelatin with peppers, pimentos, chopped cabbage and diced celery) and Fruit Salad (gelatin with a cup of unnamed dressing, cherries, pineapple and marshmallows). And there were Stuffed Eggs in Gelatin Mayonnaise, Shrimp and Swiss Cheese Gelatin Salad, Cranberry Orange Mold, and Crunchy Corned Beef Salad Loaf.
|Judy's recipe library.|
Though Mom passed away years ago, her recipe box is an archeological treasure of how Jell-O sustained our family.
As I recalled those meals, I realized this was my definition of comfort food. Bland, often mysterious, but probably nutritious. The period marked a transition from cooking with raw materials to using processed food. The tin recipe boxes also offered an insight into how hard women worked to be inventive and to change food presentation after a long war and years of rationing.
Before Julia Child there was Betty Crocker. Before Rachel Ray there was an underground exchange of family-tested recipes. The early ’50s was a time when a new dish could be invented and called Something-something Surprise. Creativity lay in the naming. There was Feathered Lemon Delight (fried chicken), Snip Doodles (cookies), and Snickerdoodle (coffee cake).
Before Hamburger Helper, there was the slice of bread crumbled into a pound of ground beef to make meatloaf stick together and go farther.
Before the Nabisco and General Foods snack foods, there were Mom’s Gizzies, a Christmas treat made in vast quantities with Wheat Chex, Cheerios, pretzel sticks, and nuts, all laced with Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and celery salt, and baked for one hour. For kid treats, there was our all-time cavity-inducing favorite: Rice Krispie cookies made with marshmallows.
Pizza was another novelty first mentioned by my sixth-grade teacher. I had my first taste of pizza — oh, the rapture — when I was 13 years old and had moved to New Jersey.
When my wife, Judy, spotted Ming Tsai’s honey-roasted poussin on horseradish beet purée with soy butter sauce on Food TV, she told me to run and download it from the Web site. Then, she cut back on one ingredient, added another condiment, or substituted an item.
“This is not comfort food,” I said. “I’ve never eaten a beet in my life.” But at dinner that night the honey-roasted poussin was so mind-numbingly good that I grabbed my camera to record it for the cookbook we wrote for our children. Creativity was alive and well in the 21st Century.
Often, she and I went back to Mom’s old tin recipe boxes. It still held comfort food for a new generation. In fact, it’s time for me to make another few cubic feet of Gizzies for snacks before a baseball game. And I have the strangest craving for raspberry cookies, almond crescents and lace cookies when holidays approach. Our children and grandchildren demand them.