Spam and pineapples, anyone?

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Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma's Tuna Casseroles

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I was born to be a food snob.

I grew up on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1970s and 1980s, in the afterglow of the food revolution that moved the city, and then American food, away from bland mid-century concoctions toward something spicier and more diverse. And I was born to a woman who took all that very seriously. My mother arrived in New York with a solid grounding in the basics, and painstakingly taught herself to make fish sauces that took three days to prepare properly. She made her own croissants from scratch.

We were the sort of people who did our grocery shopping like a trade caravan moving from oasis to oasis. You started, perhaps, at Fairway Market in the 70s, for produce, and then you moved methodically up Broadway from point to point: Bruno’s for fresh pasta, Citarella for meat, Zabar’s for cheese and deli sundries, H&H for bagels, the Korean vegetable market on the corner for staples you might have forgotten to grab at some earlier stop. Then you cooked. Unless it was her busy season (my mother sold real estate when she was not simmering blanquette de veau), we had a fresh cooked meal from scratch every night.

If this sounds unbearably precious, it wasn’t, because the great blessing of my life is that my mother did not let me become a food snob. She was from a small town in middle America, and she did not view this as any great handicap. Nor did she look down on the culinary tradition she inherited from her mother, a “good plain cook” of the miracle-whip-and-white-bread Midwestern persuasion whose pie crust was infallible. We did not mess around with limp chicken breasts and cans of Campbell’s Soup, but I have eaten plenty of Jell-O salad, and liked it. (On summer days, I still occasionally crave shredded carrots and crushed pineapple embedded in orange jello made with ginger ale. Don’t sneer; it is delightful and refreshing.) Apples, bananas and raisins, dripping with Miracle Whip, were served as a salad in my house, and one of my favorite dishes from my grandmother was ground meat and pasta shells in Ragu. I still bake out of the Betty Crocker 1950 cookbook, and have never found a better guide to the classic American layer cake.

So I’m always a bit bemused when I read articles pondering why our grandparents cooked such dreadful food. True, reading about your grandmother’s idea of what constituted a nice Asian meal is a bit lip-puckering. But why are people forced into flights of fancy to explain why our near ancestors ate like this? All too often, cooking is explained in terms of social norms about femininity, or immigrants, or, in one recent New York Times column, the Cold War. This is all very well for sophomore sociology classes, but why does no one ever offer simple theories such as “they liked it”; “they thought it looked pretty like that”; or “that was what they could afford”? Having read quite a lot of the era's cookbooks and food writing, I find these the most likely reasons for the endless parade of things molded, jellied, bemayonnaised and enbechameled.

The modern foodie cannot imagine a world in which he or she would enjoy sitting down to a meal of poached eggs on toast points drowned in floury white sauce, followed perhaps by a dainty frozen salad. And after looking at food pictures of the era, you can sort of understand why. Photographers hadn’t yet figured out how to make food look appetizing on camera. Nor were the Technicolor hues then in fashion very kind to their culinary subjects. I confess that I myself, who have eaten and enjoyed eggs a la goldenrod, often find it hard to imagine what the cookbook authors were thinking.

And yet, I assume they were thinking something, and it probably wasn't, “This will show those Reds what the Good Life looks like.” In fact, when I try to come up for explanations for their tastes, none of the fashionably political theories even make the top ten.

Here are my prime candidates for why I think they ate like that:

  1. Most people are not that adventurous; they like what's familiar. American adults ate what they did in the 1950s because of what their parents had served them in the 1920s: bland, and heavy on preserved foods like canned pineapple and mayonnaise.

  2. A lot of the ingredients we take for granted were expensive and hard to get. Off-season, fresh produce was elusive: The much-maligned iceberg lettuce was easy to ship, and kept for a long time, making it one of the few things you could reliably get year round. Spices were more expensive, especially relative to household incomes. You have a refrigerator full of good-looking fresh ingredients, and a cabinet overflowing with spices, not because you’re a better person with a more refined palate; you have those things because you live in 2015, when they are cheaply and ubiquitously available. Your average housewife in 1950 did not have the food budget to have 40 spices in her cabinets, or fresh green beans in the crisper drawer all winter.

  3. People were poorer. Household incomes grew enormously, and as they did, food budgets shrank relative to the rest of our consumption. People in the 1960s also liked steak and chicken breasts better than frankfurters and canned meats. But most of them couldn’t afford to indulge their desires so often.
    The same people who chuckle at the things done with cocktail franks and canned tuna will happily eat something like the tripe dishes common in many ethnic cuisines. Yet tripe has absolutely nothing to recommend it as a food product, except that it is practically free; almost anything you cooked with tripe would be just as good, if not better, without the tripe in it. If you understand why folks ate Trippa alla Romana, you should not be confused about the tuna casserole or the creamed chipped beef on toast.

  4. The foods of today’s lower middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons. Before the 1890s, gelatin was a food that only rich people could regularly have. It had to be laboriously made from irish moss, or calf’s foot jelly (a disgusting process), or primitive gelatin products that were hard to use. The invention of modern powdered gelatin made these things not merely easy, but also cheap. Around 1900, people were suddenly given the tools to make luxury foods. As with modern Americans sticking a flat panel television in every room, they went a bit wild. As they did again when refrigerators made frozen delights possible. As they did with jarred mayonnaise, canned pineapple, and every other luxury item that moved down-market. Of course, they still didn’t have a trained hired cook at home, so the versions that made their way into average homes were not as good as the versions that had been served at J. P. Morgan’s table in 1890. But it was still exciting to be able to have a tomato aspic for lunch, in the same way modern foodies would be excited if they found a way to pull together Nobu’s menu in a few minutes, for a few cents a serving.
    Over time, the ubiquity of these foods made them déclassé. Just as rich people stopped installing wall-to-wall carpeting when it became a standard option in tract homes, they stopped eating so many jello molds and mayonnaise salads when they became the mainstay of every church potluck and school cafeteria. That’s why eating those items now has a strong class connotation.
  1. There were a lot of bad cooks around. These days, people who don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at it, mostly don’t. They can serve a rich variety of prepared foods, and enjoy takeout and restaurants. Why would you labor over something you hate, when someone else will sell you something better for only slightly more than it would cost you to make something bad?
    In 1950, the answer was “because we’re not made of money.” A restaurant meal was a special treat, not a nightly event, and prepared foods were not so widely available, in part because women tended not to work, but also because food processing technology was so advanced. So women had to cook whether they liked it or not. Many of them didn’t like it, so they looked for ways to reduce the labor involved. And it’s far from obvious that what they did with those shortcuts was worse than what they would have done without them. Think of the kind of casserole a bad cook might have made without canned soup and frozen vegetables. She’d probably have boiled the vegetables, because that’s the easiest way to prepare them, and boiled them to death, because she wasn’t too fussy about timing. (Out of season, those vegetables would have been limited to a few hearty root vegetables.) If there was a sauce, it probably would have been horrible. Let’s not even start on what she might have done with the meat. Canned soup and frozen vegetables start sounding pretty good.
    That was the baseline most people were working off. They were not comparing what they ate to what they might have gotten at a good restaurant; they were comparing it to what they would have gotten without the shortcuts, because, to reiterate, most of them rarely ate at a good restaurant.
    Modern food writing has an enormous selection bias. The median cookbook reader is a much better cook, and much more interested in food, than the median audience of recipes from decades past. The bad cooks, the indifferent cooks, the folks with the cast iron palates and Teflon stomachs, are all off doing something else. And since good cooks tend to raise good cooks, the median food writer waxing lyrical about Grandma’s homemade beef stew doesn’t realize just how many bad cooks were around. Or that recipes needed to be written for them, because however limited their talents or interest, they still had to put a meal on the table every night. A lot of terribly mediocre recipes are floating around from the era, and that’s exactly what most of the terribly mediocre cooks were looking for.

  2. Look at the sources of our immigrants. Immigration is still the major way that countries get new foods (if you don’t believe me, go out for Mexican food in any European country and report back).  With the notable exception of the Italians, in the 19th century, most immigrants were from places with short growing seasons and bland cuisines, heavy on the cream and carbohydrates. After we restricted immigration in the 1920s, that’s what we were left with until immigrants started coming again in the 1960s. Of course, Louisiana had good French food, California and Texas had a Mexican influence, but by and large what we ate in 1960 was about what you’d expect from a German/English/Irish/Eastern European culinary heritage, adapted for modern convenience foods. And people liked it for the same reason I like jello salad: It’s what they were used to.

  3. Entertaining was mandatory. Because people didn’t go to restaurants so much, they spent time having people over, or eating at someone else’s house. If someone had you over, you had to have them over. This meant people had to have “company dinners” they could make, or at least a stock of canapés they could throw together for a cocktail party, even if they weren’t very good at it. Cue the weird focus on prettying everything up, more than occasionally to the detriment of the food itself: if you can’t make it good, you can at least make it pretty, to show people you made an effort.

Explaining the food of yesteryear doesn’t require exotic theories about culture and politics. It mostly requires understanding the economics of food production and distribution, and the path dependence of culinary choices. The past is indeed another country, and like every country, it had its own cuisine that made the most of local resources.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net