A few days ago I heard on the news that the second-to-last Howard Johnson’s restaurant was about to close. My first reaction was – there are still Howard Johnson’s restaurants out there?
Howard Johnson’s got its start as a soda fountain in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1925, somewhat improbably expanded into a chain of restaurants during the Great Depression, and became a pioneer in American road food as the automobile became King of the 20th Century. For decades, families on road trips would see an iconic orange tiled roof and know that they could get a good sit-down meal with 28 flavors of ice cream to choose from for dessert. During the 1980s, the Howard Johnson’s brand was sold and passed from conglomerate to conglomerate, while interstate highway rest stops were taken over by fast food chains, and HoJo’s restaurants went on a steady decline. On September 6, 2016, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Bangor, ME will close, leaving only one restaurant in Lake George, NY to carry on the legacy.
My family seldom traveled, and most of the few trips we took were within Massachusetts (except for one summer week when the seven of us crammed ourselves into a neighbor’s tiny vacation cottage in New Hampshire) so I don’t really have any childhood memories of “road food”. My HoJo’s memories involve the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square in New York City. I went there twice.
The first time was in the summer of 1977. Fellow older people and/or history buffs will recognize that as the summer when the New York City police were hunting down the serial killer known as Son of Sam. It was also a low point for NYC generally, but for some reason, my grandmother decided it would be neat for her and me to spend a couple of days there with a friend of hers and her friend’s granddaughter.
Actually, I enjoyed spending time with my grandmother, and it was a fun trip. I remember that we stayed at the Taft Hotel, which must have been this one in Times Square. The centerpiece of the trip was seeing the original Broadway production of Annie (with Andrea McArdle in the title role), and we also did a bit of sight-seeing, going up to the observatory in the Empire State Building and visiting the Statue of Liberty (although we didn’t go up to the crown, presumably due to the lack of elevators). I remember that I had never been on a train before so I really wanted to ride the subway, but my grandmother refused, insisting that it was too dangerous.
Since it was almost 40 years ago, my memories of the trip are hazy, but one of the few clear memories I have is of having supper at the Howard Johnson’s. In particular, I remember the part where I ordered dessert. I wanted ice cream, and growing up in the Friendly’s company town, I naturally assumed that all other restaurants only had a few flavors of ice cream – chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and maybe one or two others. Unaware that HoJo’s were famous for their 28 flavors, I asked the waitress what they had, and she patiently starting going down the list, from memory. (Belately, I am impressed.) Luckily, peppermint stick was near the top, and since that was my favorite, I stopped her there.
Another thing I remember is almost getting hit by a cab. It was the first time, but not the last.
The second time I went to the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square was while Bryan and I were living in Brooklyn. We were living in a tiny, noisy, leaky, roach-infested shithole of an apartment in a still-gentrifying part of Park Slope, saving up to get out, and trying to make the best of our New York experience in whatever ways we could. It was probably late 2004 or early 2005 when we heard that the restaurant, one of the last old-school holdouts in the shiny new post-Guiliani Times Square, would be closing, and we decided that we had to go.
It looked as though it hadn’t changed since it opened in 1959, and it probably hadn’t, all dark wood paneling and burnt-orange vinyl. Almost certainly it was just the same as when I went there with my grandmother in 1977. We had the signature clam strips, and ice cream for dessert. Mine was peppermint stick.
In late April 2005, the Times Square Howard Johnson’s closed.
It’s not that I want them back so much, but it’s important to know that these things existed. When we forget history we’re doomed to repeat it, yes, but it’s useful to remember where we’ve been as we move on to where we’re going. Also, it’s good to be aware of our place in history. Each of us is part of a bigger picture, a picture that includes David Berkowitz and clam strips…
I have to say, after a few “scary” Jell-O recipes that turned out to be not so scary, I was really hoping that Jellied Gazpacho would turn out to be fairly nasty. Oh, yes. I had all kinds of plans for this one. First, there was the drinks pairing – my first instinct (a very wrong one, I know) was to go for Corona, or tequila, or a Mexican boilermaker. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Then I decided to look up the origin of gazpacho and found that it comes from Andalusia, arguably the most historically and culturally important part of Spain, so I didn’t want to treat it like a common Tex-Mex side dish.
I remembered that a batch of gazpacho had figured prominently in Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The gazpacho had been spiked with something – my recollection was that it was vodka (which you have to admit would be pretty good), but when I looked it up I found that it was sleeping pills. That didn’t seem like a good idea, and I ended up scrapping the drinks pairing altogether.
If we’re being honest, it’s hard to bash Jellied Gazpacho for the ingredients. It’s mostly fresh vegetables and herbs. The traditional binder for this cold soup is bread (often stale bread is used, presumably as a way to avoid food waste), and that has been replaced by lemon Jell-O. Fresh garlic has been replaced here by garlic powder (the recipe calls for garlic salt, which I thought we had, but evidently Bryan bought the powder instead), but at least the flavor is there.
The one ingredient I was seriously dreading was the canned mushrooms. I’ve always disliked mushrooms, in particular the canned ones, which develop an unpleasant mouthfeel in the canning process. I’ve tried to learn to like fresh mushrooms, without much success, so I didn’t see any real reason to substitute them for the canned ones here.
Jellied Gazpacho should have been a pleasure to make, given all the lovely chopping of lovely fresh ingredients, but the prep work on this was an annoying experience. It turns out that Bryan has been slacking on the knife-sharpening duties. You see, years ago he decided that he was something of a “foodie”, and one of the foodie toys he picked up for himself was a professional-grade knife sharpening kit. We have a decent set of Henckels knives, and keeping them sharp is definitely worthwhile – but perhaps more of a commitment than Bryan was prepared to make.
To be fair, the dull knives did make the prep work feel more “authentically 1974”. Before the Food Network put professional chefs in our faces, your average mid-century middle-class or working-class homemaker probably wasn’t aware of the importance of keeping knives sharp. Knives would get dull (probably weren’t that sharp to begin with), and she’d just operate on the assumption that chopping vegetables was a lot of slow drudgery, Maybe she’d get suckered into buying the Ginsu knife before deciding that fresh vegetables are too much trouble to do for anything other than special occasions.
(Looking into this a little, I’m thinking that “the decline of knife sharpening” could easily become its own post. But I digress…)
Apart from the vegetable chopping, making this recipe is pretty simple. Once the veggies are chopped, they’re combined with the seasonings and left to sit and marinate while a double batch of lemon Jell-O is prepared and thickened. Then, the veggies and Jell-O are combined, chilled to thicken a bit more, et voila! Jellied Gazpacho.
This is a “loose” gelatin dish, which was a bit disappointing because in the back of my mind I had been anticipating another molded one, which would have been more of a challenge. Another disappointment – this one didn’t taste bad at all. I had been hoping for a nasty one to give the blog a bit of, you know, conflict, but I had been able to chop the mushrooms up finely enough that they weren’t really noticeable, and between the vegetables and the seasoning there were enough savory flavors that the sweet lemon flavor of the Jell-O was barely detectable.
The main issue I had was with the texture. The gelatin just did not add a nice texture to this cold soup, and the veggies were a bit buoyant in it, so I wound up with a fair amount of seasoned lemon Jell-O in the bottom of my bowl as I ate this. I decided to try running the Jellied Gazpacho through a few pulses in the Cuisinart, and that actually helped. The whole thing seemed to be blended better, and it stayed blended. We even managed to eat some for supper (with a fresh baguette and butter, and a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake for dessert). Still, even though I finished my portion (Bryan didn’t), I didn’t want any more.
I could see myself making gazpacho again, but with a more traditional recipe, using bread as a binder. Using Jell-O did not in any way enhance or improve on the concept. It didn’t make it all that weird or scary, either. It was just “meh”. A donation is being made to Action Against Hunger because somebody should be getting some kind of satisfaction out of this.
I’ve been taking a “staycation” this week, just hanging around the house, getting a few useful things done, and listening to my favorite NPR station. WBUR airs a lot of talk programming that I like to listen to while I do housework, and this week I’m hearing programs that are oddly relevant to me. Yesterday, it was an hour of “On Point” about the history of exhaustion. On Monday on “Fresh Air”, Terry Gross interviewed a couple who’ve written a book about food during the Great Depression.
As I listened to Gross’s guests describe the thrifty, filling, and bland cuisine promoted by the U.S. government during the Depression, I was struck by the similarity of what they were describing to the recipes I’ve been making during the course of the Project. At some point, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head, and I realized that The New Joys of Jell-O and its ilk are direct descendants of Depression-era cuisine.
I’ve made a number of wise-cracks about General Foods food scientists, possibly on drugs, trying to screw around with the average American housewife by coming up with bizarre recipes containing Jell-O. I feel a little bad about that now. I haven’t read A Square Meal… yet (just downloaded it from Amazon), but based on what I’ve heard so far, my theory is that even as late as the 1970s our cuisine was heavily informed by Depression-era notions about food.
To illustrate, my grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression, and having grown up poor in a large family, she would have been particularly receptive to a style of cooking that was inexpensive, filling, and held to be nutritious by modern food scientists. Naturally she would have passed that along to my mother, and my mother, who had a fairly large family of her own to feed during the economically troubled 1970s, would have seen no reason to deviate from the old cookbook. I mostly accepted that style of cooking until I started watching Julia Child, who offered a look at how cooking could be different, and when I went to university I had greater freedom and opportunity to explore other cuisines.
Researching this further, I found this Serious Eats article about the history of the Jell-O salad. My theory is pretty good, but fails to account for WWII, when the food science that had been touted as a solution to hunger during the Depression was repurposed to feed the troops. After the war, the food processing industry was disinclined to scale back to earlier peacetime levels, so it geared up to (create, and then) meet the needs of American housewives. That had a lot to do with perpetuating that style of cooking, but I suspect it was an easier sell to people who had grown accustomed to eating that sort of food during the Depression. Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the food processing industry would have dared to foist some of their weird, bland creations on the nation.
As it turns out, the blandness and the weirdness of the recipes developed during the Depression were both intentional. For one thing, it was believed that spicy foods were stimulants along the lines of caffeine, alcohol, and harder drugs. For another, from a policy standpoint, the home economists developing this way of cooking didn’t expect people to enjoy it; the idea was to make sure that while poor people should feel full and nourished, they should also want to go out and get jobs so that they could afford better food. Perhaps the least palatable rationale from our modern standpoint, Depression-era cuisine purposely eschewed immigrant cuisines because they had no basis in food science and were “un-American”.
When I heard that, I was reminded of my parents’ general aversion to ethnic food. Not only was ethnic food not prepared in our home (unless it was, say, La Choy canned “Chinese” food, or Ortega prepackaged “Mexican”), but also, we never went out for it. When we went out to eat, it was to Mr. Steak or to Abdow’s Big Boy. In particular, we avoided Chinese restaurants, because my father claimed that one time, when doing a plumbing job at a Chinese restaurant, he’d seen workers chopping food on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. (Not that my father wasn’t racist, but something I witnessed on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993 lends credence to his story.) My father also claimed that his stomach was too sensitive for spicy food (but somehow it didn’t have trouble with the scotch-rocks he drank every night after work).
Now I’m going to have to be mindful of this history as I proceed with the Project. The recipes may be weird and sometimes scary, and the photos may be rather grotesque and hilarious, but many of these recipes were originated by people who were trying to do their best, with the best information they had available to them, at a desperately difficult time. In the early days of food science, this kind of cooking was considered “high tech”. Take a moment to think about how attached we, in this truly modern era, have become to our own tech…
In a development that’s making Bryan none too happy, I’ve found myself starting to think in terms of familiar dishes that can be remade with Jell-O. Case in point, as I mentioned last week, my grandmother’s ambrosia. In case you’re interested, here’s my recipe:
- 1 3-oz. package Island Pineapple flavor Jell-O
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 11-oz. can mandarin oranges, drained
- 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
- 3/4 cup juice from canned fruit
- 1 cup flaked coconut
- 8 oz. sour cream
- approx. half a 10-oz package white mini-marshmallows
- maraschino cherries for garnish, if desired
Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water, add reserved juice. Chill over ice water bath until slightly thickened. Stir/whisk in sour cream. Continue chilling/thickening. While the Jell-O is thickening, lubricate a 6-cup mold; place cherries in bottom of mold. When Jell-O is thickened, fold in oranges, pineapple, coconut and marshmallows. Spoon carefully into mold, trying not to shove cherries around. (Good luck with that.) Refrigerate until set, at least four hours, or overnight. Unmold onto serving platter. There is no need to garnish further.
My grandmother made ambrosia (also known as ambrosia salad, or five-cup salad) for Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was always the five basic ingredients – sour cream, crushed pineapple, mandarin oranges, flaked coconut, and miniature marshmallows. She had a particular holiday-themed plastic dish that she used for serving it that had fluted sides, and for decoration she would place a maraschino cherry in each curve around the side and one in the center.
I know that there are a lot of variations on the recipe, and I got curious and did a bit of research. I discovered that I’m not the first person to do a Jell-O version, although the other ones I found tend to use orange Jell-O and omit the marshmallows. I found a couple of instances of people putting prepared Jell-O in ambrosia, such as this story from NPR, which I find frankly bizarre. The other instance – well, watch if you dare…
There are several options for the creamy dressing besides sour cream. I’ve seen a lot of recipes that call for Cool Whip, which is anathema as far as I’m concerned, but it seems to be very popular, either by itself or combined with some other creamy ingredient. Some recipes call for real whipped cream, which should be fine, though I suspect that would make the dish too sweet for my taste. Another variation is thinned and beaten cream cheese, often folded into whipped cream or Cool Whip. Health-conscious cooks use yogurt. Mayonnaise is mentioned, but rarely. I even found a recipe that omits the coconut and marshmallows but includes cottage cheese – one of those things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
Of course, the greatest variety is in the fruit. While citrus and coconut are traditional, some people use canned fruit cocktail (ick), bananas, strawberries, dates, and much more. The fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned, or some combination thereof – whatever the cook likes and/or has on hand. Nuts are sometimes added as well, usually pecans or almonds.
Heading further down the rabbit hole, I looked into the history (or perhaps a better term would be “evolution”) of ambrosia. This article lays it out pretty well (and is an enjoyable read if you have a few minutes), but I’ll summarize: Ambrosia got its start as a citrus fruit salad in the American South, where such fruits are native, not long after the end of the Civil War. The completion of the trans-continental railroad made it possible to include coconut, which was shipped to San Francisco from Hawaii. At that time, it was a simple layering of fruits, coconut, and sugar, sometimes dressed with fruit juice or sherry. Over time, this came to be served as a holiday treat, sometimes with cake and whipped cream. Starting in the 1920s, promotional recipes for a product called Whitman’s Marshmallow Whip (a sort of powdered marshmallow creme mix) introduced a new variation on the traditional fruit salad, and the creamy version was born. At about the same time, confectioners were inventing marshmallow candies that could be made in discrete pieces (the marshmallows we know today), and these were quickly incorporated into ambrosia recipes. The gelatin variation first made its appearance in 1950. By the time I was enjoying my grandmother’s ambrosia as a kid in the 1970s, its variants were legion.
What’s kind of strange and interesting to me is that, although all of my general-purpose cookbooks include some sort of ambrosia recipe, ambrosia is considered to be primarily a Southern dish. It’s not often that I encounter someone up here in Yankeeland who grew up with ambrosia as a traditional holiday dish. In fact, I’ve encountered a good amount of snobbery about it. (For example, one Christmas at the home of one of Bryan’s mother’s sisters, her in-laws brought a large bowl of ambrosia salad, which was regarded with the ol’ hairy eyeball by Bryan’s mother’s family.) The thing is, I don’t have any Southern roots. My maternal ancestors came to Massachusetts from France with a generations-long stopover in Canada along the way. So how did both ambrosia and tourtières become part of the family holiday menu? My grandmother passed away some 20 years ago, so I guess this will have to remain a mystery.
Probably I will never have more than a tenuous grasp on the “white trash” in my background, but I can’t bring myself to disavow it, even though it’s not really something that I share with most of the people I know now, here in my life in Nerdvana. Besides, there’s no point being embarrassed or ashamed about something you can’t control. It’s one of those odd things that make me unique.
Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the Festive Ambrosia Mold turned out fine. The Jell-O simply gave shape and hold to a dish that would otherwise have been formlessly heaped in a bowl (preferably a fancy glass one, according to most of the videos I watched.).There are only a couple of small tweaks I might make. One, despite the pineapple flavor Jell-O, I don’t think there was quite enough crushed pineapple in this. Two, I really should have taken all the cherries in the jar and lined them up around the bottom of the ring mold, instead of trying to make a pattern based on the fluting. Better still, if I had used a mold with little round indentations in which the cherries could have sat. Maybe halve some cherries and place them on top of the Jell-O after it was unmolded? I suppose I could have cut up the cherries and incorporated them into the mixture, but my grandmother never did that. I think she would have approved of Festive Ambrosia Mold.
This is one of those “reboot” recipes that I don’t remember at all – but that’s okay, because Orange Pineapple Bavarian is a perfectly pleasant dessert that I really don’t mind making again.
I got off to a bit of a rocky start with this one. Due to heat-induced confusion, I had Honey-Pecan Bavarian on the brain, so when Bryan and I went to the supermarket to get ingredients, I had a list of things I needed for Honey-Pecan Bavarian (which – spoiler alert! – is up for a “memory lane” post in the near future). The only ingredient the two recipes have in common is boiling water, so back out in the steam-bath I went to fetch tinned mandarin orange bits and crushed pineapple.
Orange Pineapple Bavarian calls for orange-pineapple or orange Jell-O. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing the orange-pineapple flavor around, but not lately, and since I’m getting tired of “orange” in a number of different ways, I decided to go with island pineapple, of which I have a few boxes in my Jell-O stash. (Yes, I have a Jell-O stash.) I figured the grated orange rind (grating citrus rind, even orange, is still a pleasant thing to do) and mandarin sections were sufficient to keep this true to the name of the recipe.
The prep on this was straightforward and at the same time involved enough that, with Pandora set to play my Galaxy New Radio channel, I could settle into my Zen happy place. I dissolved the Jell-O and two tablespoons of sugar in a cup of boiling water, added 3/4 cup of syrup from the tinned fruits and the grated orange rind, and thickened it a bit over an ice water bath. Meanwhile, I whipped up a packet of Dream Whip, folded three-quarters of that into the Jell-O (setting aside the rest for garnish), and when all that had thickened up more over the ice water bath I folded in the fruit.
Just to be weird, I went with the brain mold for this one. I haven’t used it in a while, and I was kind of thinking I could subtitle the recipe “Trump’s Brain”, but that doesn’t fit at all, because this Jell-O tastes nice and is as inoffensive as it could be. (Not that I have any idea what Donald Trump tastes like, but I imagine he tastes pretty nasty. Basting in spray tan for years probably doesn’t improve one’s flavor.) Also, as you may be able to see, despite the orange bits in it, the whole thing doesn’t look orange at all. Maybe it could be Melania’s brain instead.
One issue with the brain mold is that the gelatin tends to spread laterally rather soon after it’s been unmolded. It quickly loses its proper brain-y proportions, and the gray-matter wrinkles start smoothing out, so I recommend that if you’re going to serve a brain-shaped Jell-O, unmold it just before serving for the greatest visual impact on your guests.
I feel like using the island pineapple flavor Jell-O was a good call. I like pineapple anyway, and that was the predominant flavor in the dish, so I was happy with it. The garnish turned out to be a little tricky, though. Day-old Dream Whip isn’t the easiest thing to work with, for starters. Then I started adding fresh mint leaves from our yard, all the while thinking, “This can’t get any more creepy, can it?”
Bryan ate it with a sort of martyred expression on his face, but admitted that it really wasn’t bad. The only issue I had with it was that I felt like something was missing – and I realized that, with a few additions and alterations, this could have been Jellied Ambrosia Salad. Ambrosia (as my grandmother called it, also known as Five-Cup Salad) is one of the things from my white-trash-y upbringing for which I still have a soft spot, so watch for Jellied Ambrosia in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, enjoy some classic brain-related humor….