Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Kool Retro Food Memories (or Cool Whip-R-Us)

Doesn't that image just bring a smile to your face and make you want to run to the refrigerator and grab a glass of ice-cold fake purple-colored, artificially grape-flavored sugar water? Well, maybe not today but it certainly used to do when I was a little girl begging my mother for some Kool-Aid™ (she'd occasionally cave to my pleas––and "PLEASE?"––in the store). I can't tell you how much I wanted a glass pitcher so I could make a smiley face on the wet perspiration. Instead, we managed with the latest Tupperware™ pitchers with the easy-open pop tops. [Even then I seemed aware that glass made everything taste better.]

I am a child of the 1960s and all of the "modern" food conveniences that were allowed. My mother, an excellent cook and like many of her friends, didn't want to spend too much time in the kitchen unless it was a special occasion or a spree of Christmas baking. Even though they were all stay-at-home-moms in that era, the emphasis was on ease and convenience and not artisanal or whole-food anything (that revival would begin, slowly, in the 1970s). That said, I remember shopping almost daily with my Mom and my brothers at Bisson's Market on West Market Street in Akron, Ohio. It was a small but fine specialty market with an emphasis on good meats and spectacular produce and within a minute by car from our house. Mr. Szabo (I may be spelling that wrong) always popped out of the back and gave us some Brach's candy from the produce section that he managed. As we weren't allowed candy in our house, except at Halloween, that was always a special treat for us. "Just one a piece," my mother would say. No wonder I craved sugar.

It was likely my parents' perseverance, as well as the fluoridated Akron water and twice yearly dental visits, that kept us cavity-free throughout our childhoods. [I was also a certified member of the post-War Baby Boomer "Clean Plate Club" but that is another study in residual childhood food issues, as well as a persistent aversion to lima beans and liver. But I don't blame my parents for turning me into a wayward Foodie--that is just a part of my DNA.]

My Mom, circa 1965, in her pink 1950s suburban Akron, Ohio kitchen.
[NOTE the pink Pyrex™ bowl and her Betty Crocker cookbooks.]

Of course, Mom bought fresh and healthy foods but I noticed an increasing reliance on new foods from the era, ones that food purists today run screaming away from with one look at their labels. Cool Whip™ soon became an essential ingredient of her simple but elegant Strawberry Cake, likely because it could withstand the Ohio summer heat and humidity when placed on the picnic table. Meanwhile, chocolate Whip-n-Chill™ (also available in vanilla and strawberry flavors) was a dessert staple. I remember when they stopped making it--was it all those chemicals and additives? All I know is that it tasted like chocolate clouds, cold and creamy and light. In Florida, my Great Aunt Fran not only made the best Key Lime Pie (with Key limes from her back yard), which I failed to appreciate at a young age, but the very best Whip-n-Chill™ pie. A few years ago I bought some chocolate Whip-n-Chill™, still made by Jello™ but sold only in Canada (like an illicit drug or something), that was distributed through Vermont Country Store (a great place to get retro anything, even when it isn't yet retro). For some reason it still sits unopened in our pantry. Am I afraid it will disappoint? Surely it will not spoil in its dried chemical vacuum-sealed state.

Yes, I have this (as yet unused) cookbook! Chemical confections for every palate!

Later, I believe it was Jello™ that made 1-2-3™ that separated into three layers of the same color but different textures and hues when it set (who knows what lethal combustion of chemicals that required?). That was never as popular in our house but years later when I was writing The Pantry, I learned it had been a favorite in my friend Edie's childhood (and making it in her grandparents' pantry a beloved summer memory). In the early 1970s my mother began to submit to Hamburger Helper™ and like products from Betty Crocker™. Sloppy Joes, a family favorite excepting me, were made with a powdered mix added to onions and hamburger, and heated in the electric skillet before being slopped, warm, on top of Wonder-breadish hamburger buns. Wonder Bread™! I can still see the red, yellow and blue polka dots on the white wrapper but my more esteemed culinary palate hasn't tasted it in years.

Perhaps this is one reason I became nostalgic for pantries before I could even articulate the concept: we just had a broom closet in our small 1950s post-War pink and black kitchen and my mother did not store a lot of food simply because we didn't have the room. With a market around the corner selling the latest processed food products, who needed an old-fashioned pantry? Instead, breakfast nooks were included in new kitchen designs and families ate together in the kitchen. The days of the butler, or even a waitress for an upwardly mobile middle class family, had ended with the First World War.

Going to the grocery store was a social occasion for a stay-at-home Mom on any budget. Our pink fridge, an appliance color that I did not appreciate until recently (even though I would not dare use it today), became another kind of pantry with its freezer and ice box capacity. Meanwhile, homogenized milk and dairy products arrived several times a week from a Reiter Dairy milk man in an insulated tin box on the back step (or "stoop" as we said in Ohio, certainly from the strong Midwestern Germanic influence).

Me, c. 1965, no doubt waiting for a chocolate chip cookie.

But I loved the concept of processed food and the whole marketing pitch and packaging that went with it. I noticed these things because I studied the ads in the house and garden magazines I poured over in the living room (or even in black and white ads on television). I feared the tall, bald Mr. Clean™ in the household aisle of the grocer's as much as I thought the Jolly Green Giant™ would reach right out of the freezer case and put me into a bushel of peas. These guys were as real and looming for me as the Big Bad Wolf.

In my pink-cardboard play kitchen under the cellar stairs, along with my fake food!

Another culinary fixture of growing up in the 1960s was the frequent use of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook (I believe the 1956 edition), as well as Betty Crocker's Cooky Cookbook of the same era. Both had been bridal shower gifts to my mother in 1961 and were the kitchen bibles and some of the only cookbooks she owned at the time. I enjoyed looking at the images of brightly colored plates and food styling, even before I could read, and eventually learned to bake and cook from those books (once I'd graduated from my aqua Easy Bake Oven™). My mother made Cottage Pudding and Golden Sauce on the rare occasion that my Grandpa came for dinner and different cookies from the "Cookie of the Year" section at the back: especially the Toll House (1946, I think?). When my parents bought a wok in the early 1970s the first thing they made was Sweet & Sour Pork--my mother labored over it all day while my father kept us away from the kitchen, knowing that we'd blanch at the thought of having to eat something so exotic (he was right).

The Pink Kitchen Strikes Again! (ad from early 1990s)
I'm not as nostalgic for these foods for their flavor as I likely am for their associations and vivid packaging. I would not dream of buying Hostess Twinkies™ or Ho-Hos™ or Hamburger Helper™ today for my children--instead, I try to make them myself, supplementing chocolate whoopie pies or sponge cake or Tailgate Casserole (a delicious ghoulash of egg noodles, hamburger, several kinds of cheeses, and tomato sauce all layered together) for the boxed foods of the past and present. But the Pillsbury™ Dough Boy can visit my kitchen anytime, and often does, when I just don't feel like making homemade biscuits. [Come on, I'm not that much of a food snob! Even though I'm not sure what comprises the crystallized chunks of transluscent grease in their Grands™ biscuits...]

Once in a while I'll get a craving for a Fresca™[remember when they made it like Sprite in the 80s and then, thankfully, changed it back again?]. I'll pop a can open and pour it over a tall glass full of ice, take a sip, and be transported back to Akron on its grapefruited effervescence. It's a hot summer's day in the 1970s, I'm watching billowing clouds pass over our small suburban lawnscape and I hear the bubbly, happy sounds of Herb Alpert & the Tijauna Brass wafting from the hi-fi inside, perhaps from the album Whipped Cream and Other Delights. And I'll bet that model was covered in Cool Whip™.

POSTSCRIPT July 18: I really should add that Herb Alpert and the TJB were Grand Marshalls of the Akron Soap Box Derby Parade one year in Akron––I'm guessing late 60s as I couldn't have been much older than five. My mother, who was home with my baby twin brothers, couldn't attend. My father, who was branch manager of a bank dowtown along the parade route, was able to get me, and our friends Diane and Bill, in the bank after hours to watch the parade. I'll never forget Diane, who like my mother thought Herb Alpert was the cutest thing (he was!), hanging out the second story window, in between fluted limestone columns, as the float went by. "Up here, Herb!" she yelled and waved amidst the noise of the band. He looked up at us and flashed that magic smile. I see him now, one of those indelible images from childhood memory, the float in slow motion and the colored ticker-tape and confetti raining down. A magic summer moment. But I've always been sorry that my mother missed it.


Mrs. G said...

this is a great post :)

1) I love that Lady In Pink ad
2) I believe my parents had that same album
3) we had a kool-aid pitcher...the later plastic one...favourite flavour? grape
4) I love that your mom had a pink kitchen way back when...one of my SILs is a Pink Person...outfitted her huge kitchen in Pink & Green granite...
5) one of the worst meals I ever recall...in my life...hand over heart...a hamburger helper mix that my mom jazzed up with water chestnuts, pineapple and Lord only knows what else...

and #6...I have the Red & White Betty Crocker Picture cookbook

LOL...too funny

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

Does that bring back memories. I also had that Herb Albert album. Come to think of it, I loved that music.

I recently won your book in a giveaway! I spent a few hours Sunday evening reading it and perusing all the pictures. Lovely! Great job! I hope to do a book review on my blog tomorrow or Friday.

Catherine said...

I'm glad this strikes a chord. Mrs. G, I had NO idea that Kool-Aid actually sold the pitchers! And that Hamburger Helper Gone Hawaiian? I'm with you.

I forgot to add that Herb Alpert was the Grand Marshall of the Akron Soap Box Derby Parade one summer in Akron. My dad worked at a bank...oh never mind, I'll go and add it right now to the end of this blog! Too good a story...

Gayla said...

Oh, what a post. I remember that whipped cream album cover. My gramma had a pink kitchen... it's there still, in my heart and mind. Mom still has the cookbook... your words are beautiful little memories to my ears. Great blog!

AliceB said...

Found your blog while doing some Akron research. A friend called Saturday to ask if I remembered the name of the nice grocery store on Market St. Of course - Bissons!

Enjoyed your blog - I remember as a child thinking that album cover was quite seductive.

Remember fizzies?

crucker said...

Loved your blog! I stumbled across it while checking out kitchen remodels, got to thinking about my mom's pink kitchen...and voila.
More so than KoolAid, I remember powdered Nestea ice tea...mmmmm!
Didn't everyone's parents own that whipped cream girl record?!

Anonymous said...

First, I remember Whip and Chill - loved it. we always thought the lemon was the best. I found a Whip'nChill cookbook "Magical Desserts with Whip'nChillby General Foods 1965.

Second, I made a dessert VERY similar to it and our family loved it. Came from the New Joy of Jell-o cookbook. Pastel Dessert.

1 3 1/4 pkg Vanilla pudding and pie filling - NOT INSTANT!!!
1 3 oz pkg Jello - any flavor
2 1/2 c water
1 envelope dream whip

Mix pudding, jello and water in a saucepan. cook and stir over med. heat until mix comes to full boil and is thickened and clear. Remove from heat. Chill until slightly thickened.
prepare whipped topping mix as directed on pkg. thoroughly belnd into the chilled mix. Spoon into individual serving dishes. Chill until firm - about 3 hours. makes about 4 cups or 6 - 8 servings.

a really great combo was the chocolate pudding and orange jello.

Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

The pics of your mom in the kitchen were great. Quite a lovely snapshot of an era I miss.

The $400.00 XJ6 said...

Wow, Bissons supermarket! Brings back so many memories for me too! I grew up in Akron in the early to mid '80s and always remember Mr. (or "grandpa") Szabo who always gave me a Dum Dum lollipop when we went there. I live in Cincinnati now, but my folks are still in northeast Ohio (Medina now) but every time my wife and I head north to visit them and make a trip into Akron (either to shop at West Point or eat at Lanning's), I always like to drive past the old Bissons (sadly now an Arhaus Furniture) and reminisce of going there as a kid with my mom in the Triumph TR6 that my dad bought her for their fifth wedding anniversary (in 1982).

Thanks for mentioning Bissons and grandpa Szabo. Wow, just sitting here eating my dinner and having a quiet trip back down memory lane ;)


Catherine said...

Aaron--thanks for your comment. Always nice to hear from a fellow Akronite. We moved away in 1974 but we still like to visit friends and family there--including stops at West Point, Swenson's and other drive-bys of old familiar places. Sad that Fairlawn Elementary was torn down a few years ago.

Catherine said...

PS I've always wanted a TR3! (Black exterior with red leather interior...) Before seat belt laws, an old friend and I used to sit behind our mothers as they bombed around Akron in their family TR3 (this was early 60s, before my brothers were born). Good times!