Friday, November 2, 2007

Convenience Foods of the 1970s

When I was growing up in the 70s, I learned how to cook using convenience foods - thus the title of this blog "And I Helped" from the old Shake 'n Bake commercials. When I look back at that and other products now, I just can't believe some of the stuff we ate.

Convenience foods weren't seen as convenient to me, especially as I got older and expanded my cooking repertoire. But growing up in a household where money was very tight, we usually didn't buy expensive ingredients especially fresh vegetables in the winter. Besides, if you saw the supermarkets back in my hometown in the dead of winter, you'd think you were shopping in some Cold War era communist country. We're talking lots of root vegtables in bad condition, no tomatoes to speak of, and good old iceberg lettuce.

However, when I started cooking at age 9, my mother's intentions were to let me get dinner on the table each night as she came home from work, and to do so safely and with a minimum of steps and ingredients. And while it may not have been the best food for us, to me it was fun, educational and it got us through some tough times.

Do you remember any of these?

Tang: this stuff to me was great, especially since the NASA astronauts were still making moon landings in the early 1970s. I also remember frozen orange juice concentrate (and how my mother would use the small metal cans as curlers - I kid you not! Lots of women did this for those big "barrel curls.")

Jello 1-2-3: this was made by Kraft and basically was a triple layered gelatin dessert that you mixed and it separated on its own. This product is no longer available and I guess some consumers have been petitioning Kraft to bring it back.

Dream Whip: before there was Cool Whip, there was Dream Whip. You could, and still can, find it in the aisle with the other gelatins. Basically you placed it in a bowl, added milk and a little vanilla, and then beat it with a mixer for about 4 minutes. While it wasn't exactly non-dairy like Cool Whip, it was cheaper than whipped cream and it held up better. I still use this for my Coconut Cream Pie recipe (a future post).

Rice a Roni: yeah, this was a good one and easy to make. A little oil, brown the rice, add the "seasoning packet" (all good convenience foods had a seasoning packet), add water and simmer. Do you remember the song? "Rice a Roni, the San Francisco treat, Rice a Roni, the flavor can't be beat! . ." Except my brother and I made up our own words for the next verse: "Looks so good on the TV screen, cook it at home and the pot turns green . ."

Mrs. Paul's: in the East, we had these Mrs. Paul's fish products such as breaded fillets and fish sticks. Looking back now I think - ugh, what was in them? I also remember it came with a "seasoning packet" that you mixed with mayonnaise for instant tartar sauce. I never knew who Mrs. Paul was but I bet she never served this stuff to her family.

Hamburger Helper: oh this one was fun. You browned the ground beef in a large skillet, added the "seasoning packet", then the pasta (usually elbow macaroni) and water. A one dish meal that was done in about 30 minutes. Then they came out with Tuna Helper which was just plain wrong.

Chicken Tonite: like Rosalind Russell said in The Women: "I tried this once. Gave me a rash." That's how we felt about Chicken Tonite - hated it! I never understood this one - nothing you couldn't do with some chicken breasts and a can of cream of mushroom soup. And probably a lot cheaper.

Steak 'Ums: these were my brother's favorite but they really weren't substantial enough for dinner. This was the snack after coming home from school and they were safe enough for a teen to make in the microwave. To me it was simply thinly shaved cardboard.

That's it - the tour is over. But what goes around comes full circle sometimes doesn't it? Now when I go out the trend is for a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing. Funny isn't it? I wonder if there is still Marie's Blue Cheese Dressing? Remember that stuff?