Tucked between the pages of my mom's 1933 Pillsbury "Balanced Recipes" cookbook are recipes that she saved from magazines, newspapers, and food packages, along with some handwritten recipes jotted down on scraps of paper. I was searching through this book recently for my mom's punch recipe and got caught up looking at each recipe my mom saved during the 1970s and '80s.
"Balanced Recipes" is an interesting book even without the additional recipes shoved into it. (My mom's copy is pictured at left.) The recipes were "prepared under the personal direction of Mary Ellis Ames, head of the staff of Pillsbury's Cooking Service. The recipes were developed in Pillsbury's "home-type experimental kitchen," that was "maintained entirely for service to the women of America." In the introduction, home cooks were invited to "feel perfectly free" to write to Ames herself if recipes didn't work out exactly as they thought they should.
I have to wonder how many people wrote to her about recipes like Filled Noodle Rings that were cooked in a "moderate oven until mixture is firm." The 1933 cookbook is a snapshot of a culinary era when home cooks must have understood what a moderate oven was.
The torn-out recipes my mother saved are from a snapshot of a different culinary era, a time when home cooks had lost a lot of knowledge and relied on boxes, jars and frozen foods as ingredients in quickly thrown-together dishes cooked at specific temperatures for very specific occasions. The recipes call for a lot of packaged, processed foods as ingredients. Cans of cream of mushroom soup took the place of milk, mushrooms and spices in many recipes. Blocks of cream cheese, containers of Cool Whip, melted chunks of Crisco and mountains of mayonnaise are the foundations for several of them. But there's one thing that's not mentioned in a single recipe I looked at: olive oil.
These recipes are evidence of what was lost so quickly in the average American's diet and culinary skills, but as with most bits of history, we can learn from it. After all, cooking skills are coming back. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I'm sure the average American at least realizes now that it's better to cook in olive oil than Crisco.
These recipes are also treasures — perhaps not the types of treasures you want to start using again, but treasures nonetheless. They're the efforts of a woman who was trying to feed a family of five with a husband who was on shift work and very active children. They're part of my childhood.
Let's take a look at a few of the weirder things my mom was lovingly feeding my siblings and me in the 1970s and '80s.
Clearly this recipe on the back of a Cream of Wheat packet is authentic because there's a drawing of a gondola from Venice, right? Two packets of Mix 'n Eat Cream of Wheat Cereal were cooked in beef broth and used as an ingredient to bind together a meatball mixture that was wrapped around mozzarella cheese.
Kwik Krazy Kake
This klever recipe is from a box of Kellogg's cereal. The ingredients include Bran Flakes, vinegar, coffee and vanilla flavoring to add a "krazy touch to your next kake."
2-Step Broccoli Divan
There were several variations on frozen broccoli/cheese/cream of something/bread crumb recipes ripped out of '80s-era newspapers and magazines. I believe these dishes were my mom's way of getting us to eat broccoli any way she could. What I love about this recipe is the false sense of simplicity the title gives by calling it 2-Step. Nowhere in those two steps will you see cooking and cubing the chicken or shredding the cheese.
Dip with secret ingredient
This recipe in my mom's handwriting is so 1980s. It's a dip made almost entirely of mayonnaise and cream cheese with some onion and one cut-up hard boiled egg, plus the secret ingredient — anchovy paste. I can't even imagine what this tasted like!
Menu for a romantic meal
It took me a moment to place this menu written in my handwriting. This is the dinner I cooked to impress a serious boyfriend in college in the late '80s. It's probably the first dinner I ever cooked for anyone. Notice I prepared the super fancy canned green been casserole instead of plain green beans, and I would bet a million dollars that the tomato sauce on top of the chicken parm (with whole milk mozzarella) came from a jar of Ragu. This man eventually asked me to marry him (although we never ended up getting married), so the meal couldn't have been that bad.
Going through these recipes was a walk down memory lane. I have my own book that I have recipes shoved into — most of them computer printouts for healthy-ingredient recipes from online, but there's one from a magazine that includes Cool Whip, cream cheese and Nutter Butters. I know I've never made it, which gives me hope. Maybe my mother never actually made Meatballs Italiano.