This week, I may have stumbled across the worst vintage recipe ever. Meet my newest cookbook Better Homes & Gardens Snacks and Refreshments. This is number four of an eight-part “Creative Cooking Library” published by Better Homes & Gardens starting in 1963. If you want to see the full series, head over to Quaint Cooking.
I love the cover image with the goofy fish-shaped toothpick holder the neon green drinks. Change the serving dishes and take away the aspic-covered pate in the bottom right corner, and this spread could be served at any party today.
Snacks and Refreshments has a wide array of recipes for entertaining – dips, canapés, cakes, cookies. There are specific chapters for serving tea, for club meetings, and for “Pickups after 10 p.m.” The desserts and cookies all sound delicious, and there are some decent looking pizza recipes, including a clever one that uses refrigerated biscuits as a base.
The dip section has many familiar titles that still show up at today’s parties, such as guacamole, bean dips, and cream cheese-based dips. On the surface, many of the recipes seem like they would still work today, but on closer inspection, the flavors are different. Unlike contemporary recipes, the guacamole recipe includes mayonnaise and bacon, which seems like it could work. I’ve seen worse ingredients in avocado dip recipes from this era. The “Mexican Bean Dip” is a can of pork and beans with cheese and some chili powder. It’s odd today, but it makes sense for the 1960s when Mexican food was still novel in many homes, and most consumers did not have access to more authentic ingredients.
Some recipes scream mid-century, like the requisite frosted sandwich loaf found in almost every mid-century cookbook or the recipe for “mock pate” made with beef liver. Three recipes use Braunschweiger, which is smoked liverwurst (the Braunschweiger Glacé is the jellied pate on the front cover). I’m not sure why there are so many Braunschweiger recipes in this book, but clearly it was having a moment. Still, with a few tweaks, most recipes would hold up today.
Or so I thought until I got to the page titled “Snacks to sip or spoon!” – exclamation mark included. There’s a chicken soup, a chilled cucumber soup, a borsch, a jellied consommé. Nothing too crazy, though not in fashion anymore. Then I got to this horror – the “Tomato Soupshake.” The recipe consists of one can of condensed tomato soup, a cup of half and half, nutmeg, and an egg. It all gets blitzed in a blender and served cold. Raw egg and all.
I should preface this rant by saying that while I love most things tomato, I’m not a fan of condensed tomato soup. It’s thick, acidic, and bears little resemblance to tomatoes. I’ve learned to be tolerant since it’s my husband’s favorite. In a marriage, one must make compromises. That said, I cannot contemplate the idea of drinking cold tomato soup concentrate, or worse yet serving it to people I like. I asked my husband what he thought, since he’s the tomato soup lover in the house, and the look on his face said it all. Why would anyone serve this monstrosity?
It’s become popular to poke fun at vintage recipes. There are blogs and Facebook groups devoted to terrible vintage recipes. There are Buzzfeed lists and YouTube channels. Vintage recipes can be morbidly fascinating. Not going to lie – the “ick” factor is what started my interest in historic cookbooks. The very first cookbook I purchased was Knox’s Dainty Desserts for Dainty People from 1915. Like other recipe books of the era, it contains many savory salad recipes, including one for a jellied Tuna Fish Salad that stopped me in my tracks.
I used to make fun of that jellied Tuna Salad until I ran into a woman whose grandmother used to make it for the family. She thought it was tasty and had fond memories of eating it. That encounter reminded me that not all “gross” vintage recipes are created equal. Gross vintage recipes fall into two categories: 1) things people ate which have fallen out of favor and 2) lab creations.
First, the recipes which have fallen out of favor. Food tastes change over time due to culture and economic forces. Take organ meats – sweetbreads, liver, kidneys, etc. Nineteenth and early twentieth century cookbooks include recipes for these foods, and they were part of a regular diet. People were less squeamish about eating the entire animal than we are today, and organ meat was often affordable. I don’t consider those recipes to be “gross” in the sense that they were not unusual for their era. The same thinking applies to savory aspics. Jellied broth or savory jellied vegetable salads were popular at one time. Aspics were difficult to make in the era before mechanical refrigeration and powdered gelatin packets. Companies like Knox and Jell-o helped bring an upper-class trend to the middle classes. Would I willingly eat Knox’s Tuna Fish Salad? No, but I understand why someone in 1915 would serve and eat it.
Lab creations are a different matter. In the mid-twentieth century, many food manufacturers and women’s magazines had test kitchens staffed by home economists. As the twentieth century progressed, consumers purchases of manufactured food increased. Home economists played a key role in helping companies advertise food and in shaping consumer tastes. Recipes showed consumers new ways to use products and encouraged women to explore their own creativity. They were also an important advertising tool. In Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America, historian Carolyn M. Goldstein offers the example of a 1958 General Foods recipe for cheesecake that doubled sales of lemon Jell-o. Other recipes, such as the green bean casserole created by Campbell’s Soup home economist Dorcas Reilly in the 1950s, have become classics.
The drive to find new and creative uses for foods was not always successful. For every Jell-o cheesecake recipe, there are counter examples like the Tomato Soupshake and the many other “gross” vintage recipes that grace the internet. Some lab creations attempted to put a new spin on popular recipes or adapting them to new products like Jell-o lemon pudding. The fact that cheesecake is familiar likely contributed to the popularity of that recipe. Other recipes sprung from the imagination of home economists, with mixed results. Surely home economists also faced deadlines, the pressure of constantly creating new food combinations, and recipe writers block. The recipes couldn’t all be winners.