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Enthralled with Jell-O (and other retro recipes)

The writer throws a mid-century party with foods of the era

Retro dinner party (Brian Feulner/ for the Boston Globe) From left, James Reed, Christopher Muther, Jessica Shires, and Oliver Sellers-Garcia dip in an appetizer of cheese fondue at Muther's home for a '60s era dinner party.
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / December 7, 2011
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It was the “Joys of Jell-O’’ that provided the final necessary shove. I could no longer resist the charms of dishes called Apple Tuna Mold, Banana Fluff, or the Broken Window Glass Cake (more humbly known as Crown Jewel Dessert). These were recipes that cried out to be made and served on my beloved 1966 platter - the one dotted with sputnik-style asterisks.

I had often toyed with the idea of throwing a dinner party made up entirely of recipes from the 1950s and ’60s. Mid-century cookbooks with titles such as “The Fine Art of Fondue, Chinese Wok, and Chafing Dish Cooking’’ were occupying a growing portion of my shelves. But when I saw the Jell-O cookbook, which is akin to a 100-page advertisement for the psychedelic wonders of gelatin, I knew I could no longer keep to myself the idea of creating a recipe-fueled time machine dinner party. I needed to invite others into the world of high camp cuisine.

The party also made sense because I am a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fool for all things mid-century. My home has become a museum for stray Scandinavian ceramic cats and discarded 1960s educational posters. Along with these trinkets, I have acquired the cookbooks - primarily because I was enthralled with the horrifying food photography. Also because I was finding them for $1 a pop at flea markets and vintage shops. If anything, the cookbook pages could be transformed into amusing gift wrap.

After several planning sessions over cocktails, I decided it was time to actually cook some of these culinary monstrosities. Cookbook publishers at the time fully succeeded in making the food of the era look as unappetizing as humanly possible. There are photos of strange salads oversaturated with color and shot on a backdrop of garishly tinted chartreuse. Even if the food was not delicious, at least my party would be deliciously kitschy.

I have several friends who share my interest in all things retro. They even collect cookbooks. So the guest list was easy. As an added bonus my friend Eve Plumb - who played Jan Brady on “The Brady Bunch’’ - happened to be in Boston with her husband. Having a Brady at my party authenticated its retro credentials.

The dress code was more of a challenge. Guests were required - kindly asked, that is - to wear mid-century garb. Some, such as my lovely friend Jessica Shires and fellow Globe writer James Reed, elegantly dressed the part. Plumb was sporting a coral blazer that was very “Send Me No Flowers’’-era Doris Day. When another guest showed up in a sweat shirt and baseball cap, I dragged him into my bedroom and put him into one of my dress shirts and skinny ties.

With others, I just threw up my hands in frustration.

But the joy of this party was finally having the opportunity to study these cookbooks, which were lovingly used 50 and 60 years ago. I also observed how dramatically our eating habits have changed. I had no idea of the miracles possible with gelatin, prepared soup, and frozen vegetables.

I would like to say that I carefully planned out the meal, but it fell together in a higgledy-piggledy succession of happy coincidences. Instead of thinking in terms of appetizer, entree, and dessert from a historical perspective, I studied notations that previous owners of these books had made. My mother wrote in her 1963 “McCall’s Cook Book’’ that she liked the stuffed peppers, so I took her advice and started stuffing. A woman named Gwen Cashman scribbled in “The Basic Cook Book’’ that the jellied ham loaf was “Heavenly!’’ She also noted that she made it for guests in October 1968 and April 1969. Well, if it was good enough for Gwen Cashman, it was good enough for Jan Brady.

What fascinated me most was the idea that jellied ham loaf, tomato aspic, and frozen peas cooked with cream cheese were all once a part of our culinary lexicon. That last dish is called Surprise Peas, and the surprise is that it was edible.

“Eating out of packages, boxes, and jars was in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s,’’ local author Barbara Haber told me. “More women were entering the workforce. Cooking was considered a chore, not the creative process it’s considered to be now.’’

This was before the influence of Julia Child and decades before the Food Network. Women dutifully followed the recipes they found in Poppy Cannon’s “Can Opener Cook Book’’ (which I highly recommend for fellow lovers of 1960s kitsch).

Laura Shapiro, who wrote “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,’’ gave my haphazard menu a gold star (“Are you all still friends?’’ she asked of party guests), and added that the food industry drove many of the culinary trends of the era.

“The food has changed,’’ Shapiro said. “But what has really changed is our appetite. A lot of what you see in those cookbooks is sweet and bland. I don’t know if our palates have changed scientifically, but we are more adventurous than we were. We don’t have that same desire for predictability.’’

At my party, friends and I deliberately chose recipes that sounded bizarre. My guest Oliver Sellers-Garcia, who also has a fondness for old cookbooks, produced a crabmeat and grapefruit salad. Another friend, Christopher Ott, found an old advertisement with a recipe for hot Dr. Pepper and rum. In lieu of coffee and tea, we sipped the boozy hot soda with our Coca-Cola cake and Jell-O Crown Jewel Dessert.

As much as we joked about these recipes, most were not as wretched as we feared. The tomato aspic was inedible. But the jellied ham loaf - which closely resembled something dreadful when I poured it into the mold - was ideal. We started the meal with fondue, which is still as wonderful as it was at swinging après-ski parties when Nancy Sinatra ruled the airwaves. My mother was entirely right about the stuffed peppers. People even had seconds of the desserts. . . . OK - I was the only one who had seconds.

But I learned that evening that there is a charm to these forgotten dishes. I was quick to dismiss them as camp, which they are, but there was also a reason my mother and grandmother cooked this way. The predictability is comforting, no matter how sweet and bland. And as the advertising slogan once said, “There’s always room for Jell-O.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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Crown jewel dessert
Recipe

Crown jewel dessert

A colorful gelatin dessert to wow your guests.