Collectively, we love to malign the 'gross' foods of the past century, and yet there are good reasons why people ate the way they did.
I always looked forward to church potlucks as a kid. There was a long table filled with casserole dishes of macaroni and cheese with a layer of crushed potato chips on top, tuna and canned cream of mushroom soup, sliced hot dogs in Ragu sauce, sweet-and-sour meatballs with canned pineapple, and impressive molded domes of jellied salads. The jello, which involved bright food colouring and additions such as shredded cabbage and mini marshmallows, had a way of melting into the rest of the food on my plate, turning it a mesmerizing green or red that I thought was very cool.
Those church potlucks are long gone. I’ve been to a few in recent years, but they certainly don’t taste like the memories of my childhood. Maybe that’s a good thing. Our collective societal palate has evolved to a point where the foods of yesteryear seem dated. We would rather stock our kitchens with fish sauce, sambal oelek, ginger root, garlic, and dark chocolate.
That being said, the food of the past century does not deserve to be maligned as much as it is. In an article called “The Economics behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles,” Megan McArdle explores the reasons why people ate the way they did throughout the 20th century, and it doesn’t require the fancy sociological explanation that so many modern food writers are quick to offer.
“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.”
McArdle lists the reasons why she thinks our grandparents’ cuisine was so unappealing by today’s standards. Some are straightforward – people were not adventurous and preferred to eat what was familiar; it was hard to source fresh, interesting ingredients year-round; the spices we take for granted nowadays were too expensive to stock back then.
Other reasons are less obvious and quite fascinating. Take, for example, the idea that “the foods of today’s middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons.” Gelatin, for example, was once a food for the rich, until modern powdered gelatin was developed and jellied salads appeared on ever table. It was the affordability and ubiquity of these foods that made them déclassé.
McArdle points out that there were also a lot of bad cooks back then who could not rely on high-end packaged foods, quick takeout, and affordable restaurant meals to offset their lack of ability in the kitchen. We take for granted the fact that poor cooks nowadays don’t have to do work that they once were required to do daily.
It makes one wonder which of our beloved ‘modern’ foods will someday be the much-maligned foods of the past, foods at which our grandchildren will laugh and shake their heads in disbelief. Will it be the enormous burgers, the green smoothies, the tofurkey, or the frites with srirachi dipping sauce? You never know.