As a food historian of sorts, I’m really fascinated by reading old recipe books. These books contain amazing snapshots of our diets and food culture, often focusing on recipes and techniques that have fallen by the wayside.
The thing is, most people don’t want to have anything to do with the majority of retro recipes out there. I mean, I can’t really blame people either. The recipes are so foul, people are now looking at older recipes as a way to remind themselves that their cooking isn’t bad.
Just looking at some of the photos of older dishes can be enough to make people rethink their interest in trying historic foods. Even I wouldn’t be too keen on eating foods like tuna loaf or ham suspended in Jello.
But, there’s a question here. Why would people publish such terrible recipes? Moreover, why would people even think of trying them? Here’s the truth behind the food disasters of yore:
Food Variety Was Much Lower
We often forget how blessed we are today. Supermarkets have never offered such a wide variety of exotic produce and goods. You can get persimmons from Asia, fufu from Africa, and cactus pears from Mexico all in the same store fairly easily. Our food variety exploded over the past 30 years.
The longer you go back, the less variety you could find on store shelves. This was due to the difficulty people had in transporting food affordably, plus the fact that keeping foods fresh enough to transport them well was difficult.
A typical grocer in 1960 would be considered well-stocked if they had more than two types of onions. Finding a roll of ciabatta or rugelach would require a trip to a specialty bakery. Because food variety was lower, it was far more difficult to find ingredients that had the right pop of flavor. One just had to make do.
Affordability Was Different, Too
Believe it or not, the type of food people could afford to buy changed drastically over 60 years. Food that we take for granted, like apples and oranges, were often unaffordable during the Great Depression and World War II. Foods that were often made from low-quality ingredients or foods with a long shelf life were common.
When it came to fine cuts of meat or even foods we now consider to be standard, people in the past rarely ever had the chance to cook them. As a result, a lot of the cookbooks out there were more experimental than anything.
Many Recipes Were Marketing Ploys
Remember seeing all those recipes on the back of soup cans as a kid, or seeing those cute little recipe booklets that were by the cashier’s location? Those recipe books and snippets weren’t just there because they could be there; they were marketing ploys.
During the 40s and 50s, many foods that we now consider staples were brand new to markets. No one knew what to do with them. To make them more popular and also encourage them to be a part of family dinners, companies created recipes with them.
The problem is, most companies didn’t know where to begin cooking with them, either. So, they ended up with some fairly weird recipes along the way.
Most Cookbooks Didn’t Test Their Recipes
Here’s the real reason why so many gag-inducing foods ended up being on recipe cards throughout the early years of modern cooking: no one tested them. Because many places just wanted something that looked festive or just had the ingredient mentioned in the recipe, testing was not a big deal.
Since no one tasted the recipes, the recipes would continue to get printed as if it was totally cool. Those were strange times, weren’t they?