Few things are more luridly delightful than midcentury food porn—fishy Jell-Os, mayonnaise frosting, all canned everything, foods ground up and then moulded into the shapes of other foods. If you've ever flipped through your grandma's post-war Betty Crocker cookbook, then you know what I'm grimacing about. These are recipes from leaner times, grounded in thriftiness and imperishability and resourcefulness. And, yes, Hot Dog Aspic Ambrosia is fun to gawk at in 2014, but what would happen...if you actually ate the food? Some friends and I decided to find out.
It was my boyfriend's sister's idea, and a few weeks ago she sent out the following invitation:
Have you a love of all loaves? Are you jonesing for jello? Do you believe salad should shimmy?
Pick a dish from this wonderful list, or if you have a mid-century Betty Crocker cookbook that you've been dying to try, feel free to make a questionable life choice from there instead.
Be sure to post your selection in the comments below. We can only have so many Spam N Limas.
This past Saturday night, ten or so brave people showed up at my house bearing jiggly, Spam-scented platters. We girded our loins, ready for battle. I mean, it's just food! Technically! How bad could it possibly be?
Pretty fucking bad. Here is a ranking of all the recipes from best to worst.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
There's a reason why this is pretty much the only item on the list that still, in modern times, qualifies as a normal thing to put in your mouth. In case you've been sleeping on this shit, it's time to wake up and recognize that Pineapple Upside Down Cake is earth's greatest human food. We spent most of the party angry at the other foods for taking up so much stomach space before we could finally get to this elegant lady.
The pineapple slices get kind of crunchy and caramelized with sugar and the cake tastes like childhood MIXED WITH RUM. 10/10, would shovel again.
Here's the chef herself with advice on how to bake the perfect PUD-C.
Gammy's Oreo Banana Cream Dessert
I made this one. It's my friend's grandma's recipe—just Oreos (or Newman-Os, because I shop at the hippie co-op), sliced bananas, and whipped cream layered in a bowl or trifle dish. If you make it the night before, the cookies soften and the whole thing turns into a brown and yellow gloppy pudding. Choosing this recipe for the party was sort of cheating, because I already knew that it's FUCKING AMAZING. But I thought people might want something that was guaranteed to be edible.
Commentary from one partygoer: "GAMMY'S MESSY DESSERT THING = MIND ALTERINGLY GOOD." There was also a baby there. The baby loved it. How many babies have you impressed this week, smart guy!?
Orange Delight Pie
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dessert offerings rounded out the top three, because they contained 100% less ham mucus. This pie reportedly won a $10,000 runner-up prize from Pillsbury back in the day. It tasted exactly like orange Kool-Aid powder mixed with cream cheese, which is exactly what it is. The tang was strong.
Pile of Potato Salad Surrounded by Miscellaneous Pickles and Olives
I ate like 49 pieces of pickled cauliflower to trick everyone into thinking I was a Participator!!! I thought that maybe if I was constantly chewing, nobody would notice if I never touched that fucking Tuna Jell-O hellscape.
It didn't work. They noticed.
These are just slices of fried SPAM on little Hawaiian rolls. They're great, if you like SPAM! If you like that slightly gaggy, teriyaki garbage back-taste that SPAM has. Seriously, they're great. I like SPAM.
Frosted Ribbon Loaf
AH, THE BELLE OF THE BALL. When this triple-decker masterpiece wobbled through the door, we all gasped in unison. Shit was becoming irretrievably real. I'm going to let the Frosted Ribbon Loaf's creator speak for herself, because her story about preparing said loaf is actually kind of fascinating:
What I remember people saying about the Frosted Ribbon Loaf was, "This is surprising edible!" And that was exactly what I was going for. I didn't want to go to a party to drink martinis on an empty stomach, and none of the other dishes we chose from seemed particularly appetizing. I thought that at least I'd be able to line my stomach with bread. (I also didn't want to bring home leftovers. But I did. And I'm actually eating them.) Anyway, that compliment felt like high praise and I actually got a little bit flushed thinking I'd have pleased both Betty Crocker and my imaginary '50s husband's boss.
About the experience of making this? First off, I had to bake bread! Why? Because nobody sells loaves of unsliced white sandwich bread anymore. That phrase, "This is the best thing since sliced bread" actually comes from somewhere! I also had to cook a ham steak and then grind it up because, if they ever did, no one sells ground ham anymore either. I wasn't very far into this cooking project when I realized what had seemed like it was going to be fairly easy (and edible! Don't forget edible!) and pretty for all its snipped parsley decoration was kind of a pain. And all I would have to show for it in the end would be an elaborate triple decker egg salad and ham salad sandwich. After I made the cream cheese frosting (which I realized too late I could have just made with whipped cream cheese, another thing they didn't have in the '50s), I still had to carve a tomato, empty it of its guts, and stuff it with sprigs of parsley. This tomato served no purpose other than to sit inexplicably on top of the loaf and present an additional transport challenge. (I ended up removing it before leaving home and stuffing it into a highball glass to preserve what cream cheese stuck to it so I could glue that sucker right back on to the loaf once I got to the party. Oh, I'd also like to note that the recipe calls for no seasoning. None. It doesn't even instruct, "Add salt to taste."
It tasted like a big sandwich!
Hungry Boys' Casserole
ATTENTION, HUNGRY BOYS. This is actually the dish I was looking forward to the most, because I totally like dumb shit like beans rolled up in a Pillsbury Crescent Roll. The Hungry Boys' Casserole actually beat the Orange Delight Pie in the 1960 Pillsbury Bake-Off, netting a cool $25k.
The casserole has a base of ground beef, pork and beans, lima beans, celery, onion, green pepper, tomato paste, and paprika. While the mixture simmers, a biscuit dough made with pimiento-stuffed olives and almonds is prepared and the dough rolled out into a large rectangle. Part of the meat mixture is spread on the biscuit dough, rolled up, sliced, placed atop the remaining meat mixture in a casserole dish, and baked until bubbly and golden. What hungry boy would not want this?
In the flesh, the crescent dough didn't get cooked all the way at the bottom, so we ended up gumming this sort of human-flesh-pimiento-goop.
Tuna and Jell-O Pie
This is a cheesy pie crust filled with a layer of pimiento-olive-studded lemon-tomato Jell-O, topped with a chiffon of creamy, celery-heavy tuna salad. This dish somehow managed to out-cat-vomit cat-vomit.
Chicken-Cranberry Party Salad
Do you like room-temperature cream-of-chicken soup, but just wish it could be more like a beige snot-brownie? MERRY CHRISTMAS, TINY TIM.
The texture of this dish—combined with the ingredients of this dish and the concept of this dish—made it pretty much inedible, even for people who chewed and swallowed entire bites of Tuna Jell-O Pie.
My friend Jason just got an order of pho from a restaurant and then dumped four packets of gelatin in it. Four is TOO MANY. This was basically a Vietnamese frisbee.
I'll give the final word to my boyfriend's sister, the
monster visionary who got us all into this mess:
After this experience I now feel more connected to my white ancestors than ever before.