So I’ve been undergoing that exercise in masochism otherwise known as trying to stay informed and engaged in the U.S. electoral process. In practice, all that means is that I’m letting myself get more anxious than necessary and falling behind in some more enjoyable and less stressful pursuits. Here’s me trying to get caught up.
As I hinted at in Cherry Chiffon, for my pre-savory “free week”, I decided to try out a couple of recipes from Junk Food. This is a book that defies description. It was published in 1980, and is a collection of photos, essays and artwork that characterize American food from the Great Depression through the 1970s. Bryan picked it up in the mid-1980s, and I read it a lot while we were living in Fandom House. When Bryan and I split up, I missed this book so much that he tracked down another copy for me. Now that we’re back together, we can’t bring ourselves to part with either copy, which is a shame for all of you out there, because the chances of this book getting reprinted are less than nil. Acquiring the rights for all the disparate items in the book would be (and was, back in the day) a publishing nightmare.
There are so many great pieces of writing, from “The 24-Hour Breakfast” by Robin Green (in which the author eats breakfast in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tijuana, and Disneyland in one 24-hour span and then, like, writes about it), to “A Mac with the Colonel” by Ira Simmons (in which the real Colonel Sanders critiques McDonald’s food), to “The Glutton’s Guide to Eating Out” by Paul Zimmerman (a sort of instructional treatise on all-you-can-eat buffets). There’s one piece, “Real and Delicious Junk Food Recipes You’ll Save and Enjoy” by Salvatore Boroso and John Farago, that we always found amusing, but we never quite had the nerve or motivation to try any of the recipes – until a couple of weeks ago.
Wanting to get the leftover cherries over and done with, I started with the Oreo Soup. My first task was to scrape the “stuf” out of a package of Double Stuf Oreos. I set the Pandora app to play my Galaxy News Radio channel, and while I listened to old jazz, early R&B, and American standards, I methodically separated the stuf from the chocolate wafers. It was a pleasantly meditative exercise, and I swear I felt thoroughly blissed out by the time I was done. I highly recommend this activity as a way to de-stress – but maybe not too often…
The stuf got whizzed in the Cuisinart, and rather than the “maelstrom” mentioned in the recipe, it seemed to quickly get flung out to the sides of the beaker and to just cling there out of reach of the blades. I wonder if that’s because Oreo filling is no longer made with lard, as it would have been when this recipe was created. Anyway. I added the sour cream, which blended with and thinned the stuf so quickly that I was sparing with the cherry juice. It didn’t seem to take much to get the mixture to the consistency of heavy cream, but the color was still very pale. Oh well.
The recipe just says to add the drained cherries to the soup; it doesn’t specify leaving them whole or processing them into the soup, so I decided to just go ahead and purée them. I think that was the right call.
I forgot to add the sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Oh well. Oreo Soup wasn’t bad, but the flavor and texture of the stuf really dominated, and again I wondered if the lard-free composition of modern stuf isn’t at least partly to blame here. I think in the future if I ever feel the need to separate a package of Oreos into its component parts, I’ll find a different excuse.
Now that I had a bowl of chocolate wafers, I could move on to Almond Joy Creme Pie. The cookies are the main ingredient of the simple crumb crust; the addition of melted butter and several minutes in a hot oven got that step out of the way.
There are a few different parts to the filling in Almond Joy Creme Pie. One is instant chocolate pudding made with chocolate milk (in our “of Jewish heritage” household, via Fox’s U-Bet) and chocolate liqueur. Another is Almond Joys with the almonds removed that are then puréed in the food processor and thinned with a non-specific quantity of chocolate liqueur. The last is Cool Whip (leftover from Cherry Chiffon in this case).
The filling ingredients get folded together and placed in the chocolate wafer crust. The almonds from the candy bars were supposed to be saved for garnish, but I didn’t think they looked very decorative so I ground them into the Almond Joy purée and used slivered almonds for garnish instead. The pie then sits in the fridge for several hours to firm up.
The recipe calls for an 8-inch pie plate, but I used a 9-inch plate, and a smaller one would have been too small, so I really lucked out there.
After a full day of chilling, the pie was firm enough to hold a slice, but just barely. I suspect that the culprit is the chocolate liqueur, which I ended up using rather liberally in the Almond Joy purée. Bryan didn’t think the alcohol was very noticeable, but I did. In fact, Bryan really liked this one, and over the four evenings it took us to consume the whole pie, he was always eager for dessert (which is seldom the case when we’re working through a Jell-O recipe).
With the first slice of Almond Joy Creme Pie, it hit me – this is stoner food. Now, I’m not going to lie and say I never inhaled, but my experience with marijuana is limited to a few attempts, years apart, when I was much younger, and I don’t think I’ve ever really been stoned. Nevertheless, I can imagine having the munchies and devouring this pie.
I was originally going to make this post all about marijuana and junk food, figuring that there had to be a clear connection between these things. I did some research, and found that, despite the stereotype of stoners inhaling Doritos or Taco Bell, when people get stoned and get the munchies, they’ll eat pretty much whatever is on hand – so if there’s junk food in the cupboard they’ll eat junk food, but if there’s more healthful food around, they’ll eat that. I found a number of different lists of “the most epic foods to eat when you’re baked”, and they were all quite different.
(No one is saying to eat Jell-O when you’re stoned, though I can image that might fun…)
Apparently food manufacturers are getting bolder about marketing to stoners. For example, the ads suggesting Taco Bell is good “late night” food are aimed at people who might be “partying”. Other ads featuring people acting like doofuses (like recent Burger King and Sonic campaigns) are thought to be depicting stoners. The expectation is that as more states legalize marijuana (as Massachusetts is, I hope, about to do) companies will be increasingly open about selling to this market. Already there’s a weed-themed sub chain, Cheba Hut, out west. However, Screaming Yellow Zonkers aside, there isn’t much junk food being produced specifically for stoners.
Still, given when the book Junk Food was produced, it would not surprise me if recipes like Oreo Soup and Almond Joy Creme Pie (as well as others like Milky Way Mousse and Crepes Jambon Drunken Mammy) were intended to be enjoyed by people under the influence. With a little over five weeks until the election, I understand the impulse.
It seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time on Memory Lane lately. It might be a function of the Big Five-Oh looming in the not-too-distant future, or it may be because I’m working my way through A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (which is an interesting, if not exactly uplifting, read), or it may be because I’ve been spending so much time listening to my Galaxy News Radio channel and thinking about the evolution of American popular music, but I feel like I’m looking back a lot – not wistfully, but trying to get a better sense of my place on the continuum. For a long time I’ve had this notion that life is a puzzle that makes more sense as you find and slot in the pieces, and the past is a good place to go looking for puzzle pieces.
Last Sunday morning I found this tweet in my timeline:
The person Steve Martin was retweeting has apparently just discovered Martin’s old standup material, which is great (oh, to be able to hear “King Tut” for the first time again!), but it looks like he jumped to the conclusion that because it’s new to him, it must have been forgotten by everyone else. Mentioning Martin in his tweet really put the icing on this faux pas. Maybe he thought he was doing him a favor.
Jay seems to lack a sense of himself in relation to history. Perhaps, like a lot of young people today, he thinks that the past is irrelevant to him because things have changed so much, so fast. It didn’t occur to him that there’s a generation or two before him who remember Steve Martin’s earlier work and consider it hugely influential, even (as many replies to his tweet noted) legendary – and who may be among Martin’s 7.7 million Twitter followers. In this internet age, it would have been easy enough to discover the foundation of Martin’s enduring success (which certainly doesn’t indicate an “underrated” early career), but Jay’s reference point was himself, and he mistakenly thought that was sufficient.
But enough of this “get off of my lawn” stuff…
Where was I? Oh, yes, Honey Pecan Bavarian. I don’t remember this one at all. In fact, the photo I uploaded initially turned out to be not Honey Pecan Bavarian, which I only realized after reading the recipe for reference.
Going by my notes, I was psyched to make this one because it contains “REAL CREAM”, which I can imagine would have seemed like a huge relief after recipes involving Cool Whip, Dream Whip, and mayonnaise. The Jell-O is strawberry flavor, which apparently goes well with honey, although in hindsight I am dubious. I indicated that the honey flavor “is pretty strong”, so I guess you have to like honey if you’re going to make this one.
A tip for anyone who decides to try to make this – the recipe says to “stir carefully” when adding the cream to the thickened gelatin; I found that beating the cream into the gelatin worked better. However, careful stirring is probably the way to go with the pecans. Pecans? Yes, though I remarked that “nuts still don’t belong in Jell-O”.
The pieces remained intact when I served them, which is always a good feature in a Jell-O mold. Bryan didn’t like the smell, and I concurred, noting that “it does smell a little like ass”. He couldn’t finish his portion, and couldn’t explain why (which may not mean that much, really), but I didn’t think it was that bad.
Still, I’m just as glad I didn’t have to make this again. I may have forgotten it, but at least I wasn’t doomed to repeat it.
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’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.
So a while ago I was googling Jell-O (don’t ask) and stumbled upon a factoid – July 12 is National Eat Your Jell-O Day. I noted it in my calendar and resumed googling. (Really, don’t ask.)
Procrastinator that I am, I left doing something about it until the last possible moment, and yesterday after work as I researched National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I discovered that the reason it’s on July 12 is that July 12 is Bill Cosby’s birthday.
I think we’d all rather not make that association anymore. Still, if you google “National Eat Your Jell-O Day”, it’s in all the calendars for July 12, and we can’t just go around changing all the calendars on the internet now, can we?
I say we just re-claim this holiday, treat the day as though it were based on, say, the Mayan calendar. (Let’s not make it a lunar holiday, though. Then it’ll keep moving around and we’ll never be able to keep track of it.) Let’s make it all about the Jell-O, because that’s what’s important.
So in honor of National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I decided to put up a little New Joy of Jell-O retrospective. Jell-O has changed my life in some weird and interesting ways.
For those of you who haven’t read the “About the Project” page, I started this blog on a dare. I had been grumbling at length to Bryan about Julie Powell’s success with her Julie/Julia Project blog after we saw the movie Julie and Julia. (Okay, I admit it, I was jealous.) Thinking he’d get me to shut up about it, when we got home he said I should start my own though-cooking blog, and he pulled The New Joys of Jell-O from our bookcase full of cookbooks and handed it to me.
I don’t think he really thought I’d do it. Considering that by that point he’d known me for over twenty years and married me twice, you’d think he would’ve known better.
I mean, it didn’t seem like it would be that hard. Depending on how you count, there’s a little over a hundred recipes in the book. And it’s Jell-O, ferchrissakes! Cafeteria food! Sick-day food! It’s the easiest bloody dessert to make in the world after cut-up fruit!
It turned out that two Jell-O dishes per week, plus the photography and writing (in addition to work, fitness activities, and other life things) was a bit much. Strange as it sounds, I got burnt out on Jell-O.
Even stranger, though, was the way that the Project haunted me. For four years it haunted me, until some friends convinced me to restart it.
Even with a proper editorial calendar and careful pacing, it hasn’t been totally smooth going, but I finally feel like I’m on track to see this thing through to the end. I like that the New Joy of Jell-O Project gives my life a sort of weird, random purpose, and it feels good to be writing regularly, getting a little creative, and stretching a bit into visual arts.
I think I’m even getting to like Jell-O. I’m kind of looking forward to the next one, actually…
Happy National Eat Your Jell-O Day!