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Boomers Ate Economical Dinners Like “City Chicken”

Much has been written about how quickly the parents of the Baby Boom Generation embraced frozen TV dinners and other prepared frozen foods like pot pies and fried chicken. However, it was Mister Boomer’s experience that the day-to-day dinners of working class families were simple and economical, especially in the 1950s and early ’60s. Officially, the national data famously stated the average household family had “2.5 children,” but every family Mister B knew had a minimum of three — often four, and up to seven — kids. That was a lot of mouths to feed. Casseroles, stews and soups made good use of leftovers while feeding growing families.

For Mister Boomer’s family, one oft-made economical dish was “City Chicken,” known by some as “Mock Chicken.” Origin stories and recipes for this dish vary widely, but it is generally written that the first mention of a “mock chicken” dish occurred in the early 1900s. Recipes for the dish began circulating in newspapers and cookbooks immediately before and during the Great Depression. It was a working class dish since, at least in its early incarnations, leftover scraps of meat — especially veal and pork — were cut into cubes and skewered on wooden sticks, breaded, fried then baked. The name came from the resemblance of the skewered meat to chicken drumsticks. During the Great Depression and WWII, fresh chicken was harder to obtain than veal or pork, which were cheaper and more readily available.

Many ethnic groups claim variations of the dish as their own, but it is generally agreed that the invention of the recipe came about in the U.S., and did not come over with other treasured family recipes when boomers’ ancestors made their way here. A regional dish, it was especially popular during the boomer years in Appalachia, Pennsylvania, the Rust Belt and Midwest states. Generally speaking, wherever there are people of German, Slavic or Polish origin, you’ll find a “City Chicken” variation.

Midwest boomers will recall seeing packages in supermarkets labelled as “City Chicken” that contained pork cubes and wooden skewers. In some areas, boomer moms battered the meat before frying then baking, giving it a real fried chicken look. Other areas, particularly in Canada and the Upper Midwest, ground meat was used instead of cubes.

In Mister Boomer’s house, his mom had her own version, which was tantamount to meat loaf on a stick. His mom reused the wooden skewers, which were kept in the housewares drawer along with serving utensils and specialty tools. When Mister Boomer’s mom wanted to make her “City Chicken,” she’d ask Mister B or his sister to take out the sticks and soak them in a bowl of water for a few minutes. This would keep the sticks from burning in the cooking process and allow them to be reused another day. Her meat of choice was the same mixture used for her meatballs when she made spaghetti; that is, an inexpensive ground mixture of veal, pork and beef that was a weekly staple in the fridge.

It may have been sacrilege to some “City Chicken” aficionados, but Mister Boomer’s mom favored expediency over tradition. She’d crack an egg and toss in some cracker crumbs, which would help bind the ground meat, but also help extend the pound package to feed the family. Next his mom would shape the meat around a skewer in a teardrop shape to mimic a chicken drumstick, dredge it in flour and brown the meat in a cast iron skillet before transferring the “legs” to the oven for finishing. When the meat was put into the oven, she’d open a small can of mushrooms and toss them over the “legs.” Drippings and fat from the meat would collect in the pan, so when removed from the oven, a little flour was added to the drippings and mushrooms to make a brown sauce. Once she got an electric frying pan (with trading stamps, of course), that was it for the oven. She completed the all the cooking in the one electric pan.

Each member of the family got one “leg” along with mashed potatoes and canned string beans. His father got two. The “gravy” was spooned over the meat and potatoes. Mister B places the word in quotes because sauces were not his mother’s strong point. Generally, lumps of flour and patches of grease shared space with what other people might recognize as “gravy.” Mister Boomer’s father, a true child of the Depression, loved grease of any kind, often sopping it up with slices of Wonder bread. It wasn’t Mister B’s favorite meal, but it was dinner. His sister especially liked it, before she became a super-picky eater in her pre-teens.

Did your family eat “City Chicken,” boomers? If so, which version was popular in your household?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Got Sugar-Coated Facts

We have all been admonished for years not to believe everything we read on the Internet (excluding Mister Boomer’s posts, of course). The prevalence of inflated studies and the outright fabrication of “facts” has cast a veil of uncertainty over all aspects of medicine, nutrition, parenting, climate change and of course, politics. Recently Mister Boomer read some articles that made it clear these practices are far from new and original; in fact, the disinformation factories were alive and well during our Boomer Years.

How the cigarette industry withheld evidence and obfuscated facts and statics for decades are now known to be of the highest degree of impropriety. Mister Boomer has chronicled the case of how the dairy industry got milk into schools and every boomer household after the War (see Boomers Were Milked for All They Were Worth). In 2016, it was revealed that the sugar industry had its hands in sweetening the pot on the effects of sugar, particularly on heart disease and obesity.

The Sugar Research Foundation (SRF, now known as the Sugar Association) was established by the sugar industry in the 1950s to further the spread of their product by extolling its benefits, based on studies performed by preeminent scientists. Unfortunately, this was a time when the funding sources of research findings did not have to be disclosed, and in fact, many industries (i.e., tobacco, automotive, etc.) funded the studies themselves. In 2016 when a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California San Francisco discovered thousands of pages that documented how John Hickson, president of the SRF, paid three scientists $6,500 each in 1964 to shape their data on sugar in order to “minimize the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.” As a result, based on the findings of the SRF report released in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine, national policies for nutrition have for decades placed more blame on fat than on sugar’s role in heart disease. At the same time, the SRF was courting scientists with research that would blur the lines between sugar and tooth decay, something that had been known since the 1950s among dental researchers. Negative reports were successfully suppressed for more than a decade.

Likewise, other findings have shown the candy and soft drink industries have attempted to put out their own studies. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, waving his hand and suggesting “These aren’t the droids you are looking for,” their findings stated directly that there was no link found between sugar and weight gain.

A look back to our Boomer Days shows the effects of these campaigns. Some historians have written that the public was poised and predisposed to accept such a disinformation campaign. Sugar was such a rare commodity in Colonial times that furniture pieces were created with locked drawers to hold the precious stuff. By the time of the Great Depression, boomer grandparents could not afford sugar, then during World War II, sugar was rationed. It seemed only natural that the Greatest Generation, enjoying post-war freedom and new-found prosperity, would cause the sugar pendulum to swing in the other direction. Their swings were given that extra push. Baby Boomers became the recipients of this sugar bonanza. The spread of television assisted the sugar campaigns with commercials airing during Saturday morning cartoons that relied heavily on sugar-laden cereals and sweet drinks. Boomers will recall how Kool-Aid commercials showed kids making the sweet drink by pouring in cups — not tablespoons — of sugar per pitcher.

While the industry was not afraid to place the word “sugar” front and center in their advertising with products like Sugar Pops, Sugar Crisps (remember Sugar Bear?), Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks, at the same time throughout the 1950s and ’60s, parent-based magazine and TV ads concentrated on the benefits of sugar as an energy source. At various times, the sugar, candy and soft drink industries produced ads that stated:

  • Kids need the kind of energy that sugar provides (Despite knowing sugar-based energy could be obtained through many types of fruits and vegetables)
  • Sugar can help control appetite and weight in diets (They accomplished this with a campaign comparing the amount of calories in common foods like apples to one teaspoon of sugar; of course, we know now calories aren’t the whole story in weight gain and nutrition)
  • We like sugar because it is instinctual for us to like sweet tastes (But they failed to mention that they would exploit that sweet craving throughout the Boomer Generation and increase the use of sugars in processed foods)

Mister Boomer has written that generally speaking, the boomers he knew did not have candy on a regular basis at home, other than at holidays (or visits to grandma). However, the sprinkling of some sugar on cereal, dessert fruit, in coffee (for kids who drank coffee) and in drinks like Kool-Aid were “authorized” uses of sugar in most boomer households. There were a few years where Mister Boomer and his neighbor friends got their summer candy money by redeeming soda pop bottles. If the bottle harvest was good on a hot day, 10 cents would buy a sweet treat in the form of an 8 oz. bottle of Coke from the Sinclair gas station vending machine.

So, what are parents and grandparents supposed to do, knowing what we know about sugar now? Mister B posits that perhaps advice from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is most apropos: “The virtue of Justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.”

What was your family’s attitude toward sugar, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History and have Comments (2)

Boomers Remember Things Costing Less Than a Dollar

Mister Boomer’s latest trip to the supermarket to get the ingredients for his delicious homemade chili sent him on a flashback when he found 26 oz. cans of tomato sauce for 48¢ each (with the supermarket bonus card, of course). Mister B, for one, longs for the days when every can and package — and even produce and some meats — were less than a dollar. He was wondering how long it has been since the price of practically every food item in the supermarket crossed the one dollar line.

In the Boomer Years, food items were often less than a half dollar. Prices for cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup averaged 10-15¢ each fifty years ago, in 1968. The cost of a can of tomato soup didn’t reach the dollar mark until the early 1980s. The same is true for Nabisco Oreos — 45¢ for a 16 oz. pkg. — and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes –– 39¢ for an 18 oz. box. At the same time, bread was around 20 to 25¢ per 1 lb. loaf, and a dozen eggs were in the range of 60¢. Ground beef was less than a dollar a pound, and most fruits and vegetables were 20 to 30¢ per pound. However, there was one item that was more than a dollar in 1968: a gallon of milk.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that by 1968, inflation caused food prices to go up about three percent a year. This annual rise remained relatively steady until the end of the 1970s; between March of 1979 and March 1980, there was nearly a 15 percent rise in food prices, which accounts for many more things costing more than a dollar each as 1980 arrived.

Mister Boomer recalls going on shopping excursions with his father — the food buyer-in-chief in the Boomer household. When things were on sale, items were often four or five for a dollar. Since Mister B’s mom and sister liked Campbell’s Tomato Soup, the shopping team hit the jackpot when the soup went on sale, 10 for $1.00. Jell-O was another packaged food that Mister B remembers his father buying on sale at 10 for $1.00. It was a struggle to try to get the most desired flavors like cherry and raspberry since the shelf emptied out quickly, even though Jell-O was an economical dessert before any sales prices kicked in. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was often 4 for $1.00, and Banquet Pot Pies could be purchased at 5 for $1.00. The same was true for cans of Del Monte Corn and Green Beans, Campbell’s Pork & Beans and a host of other packaged, bottled and canned foods that had become staples in Mister B’s household, like many other boomers’ homes.

Supermarket sales such as these were the thing that enabled Mister B’s father to afford the brand name products over the lesser-priced brands. There were still compromises in food purchases, though, such as Banquet Pot Pies. Banquet was a cheaper alternative to Swanson or Morton pot pies, introducing their frozen meat pot pies in supermarkets in 1954. To feed a boomer family of five for one dollar was a welcome change. Mister B heard stories of these other brands having great flavor, and, most notably, more meat and veggies. Mister B would not know about that, since the family had a financial loyalty to Banquet.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mister Boomer’s mother would take the frozen pot pies from the freezer (usually chicken for the family), place them whole in their aluminum pans on baking sheets, pierce the tops of the crusts with a fork or knife and pop them into the oven. Forty-five minutes later, dinner was served. Mister B enjoyed his pot pies for the most part, though he always wanted more peas and chicken than was inevitably inserted. Then there was the matter of the crust. The top was always nice and toasty and crunchy, but the bottom could be anywhere from soft and mushy to outright uncooked. Mister B’s mother blamed the oven. Somewhere down the line, the company folks decided that an economical brand such as Banquet didn’t really need an entirely dough-enclosed pot pie and only the crust top remained. That solved Mister B’s bottom-of-the-pie dough dilemma, but the economical nature of the product was compromised in his view. The family noticed but continued to purchase the product, the prevailing argument being the price.


Fifty years ago, McDonald’s introduced the Big Mac. Hardly a supermarket product, it was, however, sold for 49¢. Little did boomers know how short-lived it would be that a wide variety of products would cost less than one dollar.

What products do you remember at prices less than one dollar, boomers? Did your family stock up on food supplies when there were supermarket sales that would offer four or five for one dollar?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

A Mister Boomer Thanksgiving Memory

Mister Boomer’s mother-in-law passed away last month at the age of 90. Since this Thanksgiving will be the first holiday the family will be marking without her presence, it seems fitting that Mister B honor her memory with this classic Thanksgiving post from 2011 — the only time he specifically mentioned his mother-in-law in misterboomer.com history. She will be missed this holiday.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Soup Bones

The Thanksgiving meal had ended, and the clean up had begun. Mister Boomer’s father-in-law was carving the remainder of the turkey and removing large chunks of meat from the carcass. “I get all the bones!” Mister B’s mother-in-law stated emphatically. Befitting a person of her generation, nothing would be wasted on this holiday bird. That sent Mister B on a trip down Memory Lane.

When Mister Boomer was a child, leftovers extended as many days beyond Thanksgiving as the remaining turkey would allow: turkey sandwiches; turkey casseroles; hot turkey open-face sandwiches; and turkey soup were on the family menu. The turkey carcass, like all meat bones, were used to make the soup. It was common for the parents of boomers to wring as much use as they could out of whatever food they purchased. Whether it was from a time when people held a different train of thought that had been ingrained into their being from their immigrant parents, or a result of living with food rationing during World War II, “waste not, want not” was the order of the day.


It was common for the parents of boomers to use every bit of the holiday turkey, including making soup stock with the bones. The leftover bones of any family meal could end up flavoring a pot of soup.

Turkey carcasses weren’t the only animal bones utilized in the Mister Boomer household. When he was a youngster, money was tight in the Mister Boomer home. That meant the leftovers from any family meal would help make up a meal or two during the week. At least three other meals per week were either meatless or executed as economically as possible. Fortunately, Mister B’s father loved soup in any iteration. The soup-cooking trinity for Mister B’s mom were carrots, celery and onions. Aside from being among the most inexpensive and readily available of fresh vegetables, they could impart real flavor to water to become the basis for any soup.

Mister B recalls his mother sending him to a corner store a couple of blocks away. “Ask the man behind the counter for soup bones,” she would say. At the store, the meat man would know exactly what she was talking about. In the late fifties and early sixties, soup bones could be gotten for free, or in some instances, for only pennies per pound. Most often Mister B would return home with oxtails or ham shanks. One time in particular, Mister B recalls the butcher wrapping ham shank bones in paper. Without any charge, he was free to walk out of the store with the paper package, as large as a school book, tucked under his arm.

Mister B’s mom dropped the ham shank bones into the pot she had used to caramelize her vegetable trinity and covered the ingredients with water. Then she’d add a package of split peas and some salt and pepper. A few hours of simmering later, the family had split pea soup for dinner. Sometimes, there would be fork-sized chunks of ham still on the bones, adding an extra salty, meaty flavor to her thick soup; Mister B’s father would sop up every drop with the help of a slice of white bread. As a change of pace, butter beans were substituted for split peas.

These days, Mister B prefers to make vegetable soup, but he doesn’t care for onions. Nonetheless, the same basic steps hold true: inexpensive ingredients, starting with celery and carrots and combined with whatever is on hand in the fridge; every vegetable and protein is fair game for a great soup concoction on a fall night. Mister B learned his frugality lessons well.

Whether we’re personally in a situation of plenty in our lives, or experiencing tough times, perhaps we should take a page from the book of our economically-minded parents, beginning with making full use of all the food ingredients at our disposal. “Waste not, want not”; now that’s something to be thankful for.

What visions of soup bones dance through your memories, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comments (2)

Boomers Loved Their Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole

It’s beginning to look a lot like Thanksgiving, and with it come traditions deeply embedded in the memories of boomers from coast to coast. Though celebrations of the holiday date back to Abraham Lincoln’s time, it took until the post-war period — the Boomer Years — for the day to be elevated to the gluttonous food fest we know today. Along with other excesses of the era, many historians attribute these leanings toward the mass national relief at the end of the war as celebrated by a generation that was born before or during the Great Depression. In other words, the parents of boomers had lived without a lot of comforts, then fought a war to hold on to what they had. Consequently, they had much to be grateful for, and were in no mood to scrimp. They helped create a new, modern world and they were going to see to it that their children could take full advantage of it.

Something else was happening at the time that contributed to the super-sizing of Thanksgiving: Technology was offering consumers new, lighter metal cookware and glass baking dishes that became the kitchen tools that moms used to create family traditions. One of these traditions was — and remains for many families — the green bean casserole, which was introduced to boomer families by the Campbell’s Soup Company in 1955.

Casseroles were nothing new, with evidence of various types dating back to the 6th century BC. Like stews, almost every culture had some kind of casserole uniquely its own. Therefore it should surprise no one that a country consisting of immigrants from around the globe would bring those traditions with them. Casseroles differed from stews in that heat was applied to bottom of a cooking vessel for a stew, while casseroles were baked in deep-dish pans in an oven. The basic elements of a casserole are usually a protein (often beef, chicken or tuna fish), a vegetable, and a starchy binder. In addition, in modern casseroles there is often a creamy or cheesy component and something to add a crunch factor.

Enter the green bean casserole. Campbell’s, like practically every other food company at the time, constantly published recipe pamphlets that were distributed through grocery stores, and recipes were printed on the backs of the product packages themselves. A company-created recipe of the Boomer Years is easy to spot by the brand-named products that are listed in the recipe ingredients. So it was that Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup became the central binder in the green bean casserole. Later versions of the recipe were distributed by companies that made the crunchy fried onion rings or sticks that topped the dish, giving their product the brand-name billing in the ingredient list.

The green bean casserole recipe was an immediate success for Campbell’s. Easy to make with limited ingredients, kids could participate in the making of the casserole, thus being a part of the family’s Thanksgiving celebration. So it came to pass that the dawn of a new era was the start of a boomer Thanksgiving tradition. To this day it is revered as a tasty tradition by some, and reviled as a salty mishmash by others.

Mister Boomer’s family had a few Thanksgiving holiday traditions, among them roasted chestnuts in the morning, turkey giblet stuffing and that wonderful plop of cranberry sauce oozing from the can to a waiting dish and sliced at the table, much to the delight of Mister B and his siblings. But green bean casserole was not among the usual side dish fixins for Mister B’s Thanksgiving. The family always had several cans of Campbell’s Soup in the cupboard, and Cream of Mushroom was among them. So Mister Boomer does not know why his family did not adopt the green bean casserole tradition. He recalls either someone bringing one once, or his mother making it once, but that was about it. Mister Boomer’s mother had the knack for cooking the color out of any vegetable, and certainly vegetables in a can already had a gray tinge to start with, so it’s probably for the best.

There are many things that Mister Boomer would consider a must for his Thanksgiving table, but green bean casserole isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, it is of great interest to him that this national tradition was commercially created and disseminated during the Boomer Years. How about it, boomers? Were green bean casseroles part of your families’ Thanksgiving meals? Do you still make one today for your families?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Sing About Boomer Favorite Halloween Candies

sung to the tune of My Favorite Things (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein)

Snickers and Smarties, Chuckles and Milky Way
Some Bit-O-Honey, Sweetarts, a few Payday
Dots, Now & Later, and Turkish Taffy
These are a few fav’rite Halloween things

Red ropes of licorice, Red Hots, root beer candies
Milk Duds and Mounds bars, boxes Good & Plenty
Almond Joy, Necco and some Oh Henry!
These are a few fav’rite Halloween things

When they gave pennies
And balls of popcorn
Mister B got sad

He simply remembered fav’rite Halloween things
Not apples, not suckers, but lots of candies
A pillowcase filled up, a sugar frenzy!
And then he would feel so glad!

What candies would you savor in the days after Halloween, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Fun,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Sing About Boomer Favorite Halloween Candies