Boomers Ate Their Just Desserts

For centuries, dessert in the Western World had primarily been the privilege of royalty and the merchant class. The working and lower classes reserved desserts for special celebrations and religious holidays, as ingredients were often expensive. As the middle class developed in the early 20th century, anytime-dessert found its way into American homes. The Depression seriously curtailed the trend, then just when North America was getting back on its footing, just when it looked like the trend would continue, World War II arrived. The rationing of sugar, butter, milk and eggs limited the making of traditional cakes and pies. The governments of the Allies wanted their people who remained on the homefront to maintain morale and their way of life, so they released a barrage of war-time recipes that helped promote substitute items like margarine. It was our parents and grandparents who lived through that time, bringing their newfound tastes and favorites with them after the War.

By the 1950s, American factories and technical ingenuity were humming once again. Processed foods of all types hit the markets, contributing to what food historians sometimes refer to as the worst food decade for Americans. But the timing was right for this “modern” cuisine: Women, having been employed during the War, now returned home and had babies in record numbers. The Space Age was soon to arrive and dreams of a modern future weaved their way into all aspects of 50s life, from furniture to cars, fashions to food. Our parents did not want the same things as their parents, and that also meant mothers of boomers were going to take advantage of any technological breakthrough that would be presented to them. As a result, dessert was not high on the list of things moms wanted to do for their families. While they would bake for hours for holidays, the everyday meal would be dessert-less if it wasn’t for the processed foods available.

Cake mixes, first introduced in the late 1940s, became a tastier convenience than the previous decade and ushered in a new definition of “from scratch.” Jell-O®, around since the late 1890s, started gaining national prominence in the 20s and 30s due to massive advertising campaigns and the branding of its famous name. The gelatin dessert was quick and inexpensive, so it was a nice fit for the housewife and mother of the fifties. As the middle class grew along with the country’s hope for a better tomorrow, the desire for “the good life” meant having your dessert, and eating it too.

Dig this crazy commercial from the 50s, man. The beat poetry-like narration and minimal linear drawing style really represents the era in advertising as well as food trends of the decade.

That same decade instant pudding was introduced, allowing for another quick taste of the dessert good life with minimal fuss. In fact, it was marketed as so easy to make even the children could do it. Mister Boomer certainly recalls making instant pudding, as well as the stove-top method of the regular pudding mixes. Instant pudding had the advantage of being a no-cook mix: just add cold milk and beat to a creamy consistency.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, women wanted convenience while families desired tasty treats. Every decade had its food fads, so when it comes to the dessert category for boomers, many recall what Mister Boomer can remember in his own household: Dessert wasn’t an everyday occurrence. On special occasions and holidays, there were pies and cakes; Mister Boomer’s mother specialized in pineapple cream and banana cream pies, and pineapple upside down cake, all staples of the era. Though not in a consistent manner, dessert in the Boomer household went in spurts of one week with, several weeks without, sometimes Tuesday, sometimes Wednesday. Mostly it was no dessert.

Mister Boomer’s parents reflected their generation in the dessert department. His father preferred a simple dish of fruit, which was more often than not, canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. It was thought of as a healthy alternative at the time. Boomer children will remember fighting over the one, or if you were lucky, two Marischino cherry halves in the can. Inevitably, the can contained mostly grapes. His dad would on occasion buy a can of Mandarin oranges, in step with the expansion of “ethnic” foods of the day.

Mister Boomer’s mother was a modern woman who wasn’t enthralled with spending hours in the kitchen. As a mother with a growing brood in the 50s and 60s, she ate a lot of cottage cheese. Served over a lettuce leaf or in a bowl with some fruit cocktail, it was her preferred dessert.

Jell-O gelatin and instant pudding were quite popular in the household, but unlike many homes of the day, Mister Boomer’s family did not eat “Jell-O salads” with any regularity. Every so often, a drained can of fruit cocktail was added to the mix, but it was more the exception rather than the rule. Mister Boomer’s sister loved cherry Jell-O above all the other flavors, despite the expansion of varieties introduced in the sixties. Both parents also succumbed to the commercial pitch of, “There’s always room for Jell-O!”

More than Jell-O, the Boomer children loved pudding. Jell-O had competitors, of course. In Mister Boomer’s area, that was primarily Royal pudding. Though the family tried it, they mostly stayed loyal to the Jell-O brand. In no time at all, it was the children who prepared the dessert. At that time, Jell-O had three pudding flavors: Vanilla, chocolate and Butterscotch. Mister Boomer’s sister led the way, and she wanted chocolate. Mister Boomer also enjoyed the Butterscotch pudding. It wasn’t long, though, before the Boomer children preferred the original cooked pudding to the instant variety, though that meant making it sooner and refrigerating it until after dinner. This cooking process also produced the children’s favorite part: the hard skin on top of the creamy pudding. Many people placed plastic wrap on their dessert dishes to avoid this layer, but Mister Boomer and his siblings left the glass dishes open so the chocolatey skin would form on top.

Somewhere around 1965, Jell-O brand Whip ‘n Chill was brought to the American public. It became an instant hit with Mister Boomer’s sister. The mousse-like dessert was easy to make and had a tasty chocolate flavor. Mister Boomer enjoyed an occasional cup himself, but whether it was the additional cost of this premium brand or lack of interest on the part of his parents, Whip ‘n Chill remained an occasional treat.

By the late-60s, Mister Boomer’s mother went back to part-time employment since her children were all in high school. With it, the desire for dessert waned and the family rarely ate dessert, except on holidays.

What family dessert memories are conjured up for you, boomers?

A Boomer’s Look at Those Who Passed in 2010

As we begin a new year, it’s traditional for many journalistic sources to look back at the year ending, and especially at the deaths of people whose lives touched so many. While Mister Boomer would only humbly aspire to achieve professional journalistic standards, he does want to celebrate the lives of many who made a difference to those of us in the baby boomer generation.

Though this listing is far from complete, it represents a sampling of those who passed in 2010, but whose memory lives on in the hearts and minds of boomers everywhere.

William Alexander Chilton

45 RPM records by The Box Tops
45 RPM records by The Box Tops with Alex Chilton, from Mister Boomer's private collection.

A boomer himself, Alex Chilton is best known to boomers as the singer for the band The Box Tops. As a 16-year old Memphis high school student, he co-wrote and sang lead on their 1967 hit, The Letter. Mr. Chilton wrote and sang many other memorable songs for boomers, including Cry Like A Baby. In the 1970s and 80s, Alex Chilton’s music spanned the breadth and depth of rock ‘n roll — from blues to power pop, rockabilly to punk — forming the band Alex Chilton and the Cossacks and joining Big Star. He appeared on numerous independent record labels and remains one of the most influential rock figures of his age of our generation.

Bobby Hebb
On the wings of a number one single, Bobby Hebb is forever etched into the memories of boomers. In 1963, Sunny hit number one and became one of the most played and recorded songs of the sixties. Later, he achieved lesser hit status and in 1971 wrote the Lou Rawls hit, A Natural Man, but he never reached the notoriety that the one, early-60s song had given him. Sunny has appeared on numerous lists as one of the best songs of the twentieth century.

Doug Fieger
Far from just another boomer musician, Doug Fieger gave us the incredibly popular band, The Knack, where he sang lead vocals and co-wrote My Sharona.

Theodore DeResse Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass began his musical career as a drummer for several Philadelphia groups, then for The Cadillacs. In 1970, Harold Melvin asked him to drum for his band, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. When Teddy sang during one performance, Harold Melvin made him lead singer of the group, and his career blossomed. In the mid-70s, he continued to remain immensely popular as a solo artist. Then, in 1982, he suffered a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite his challenges, Teddy returned to the stage in 1985 and continued singing until he announced his retirement in 2006.

Bernard Wilson
Bernie Wilson was best known to boomers as the baritone vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. He backed Teddy Pendergrass on their huge hit, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

Don Van Vliet
Boomers know Don Van Vliet as Captain Beefheart. Several of us, including Mister Boomer, will recall his 60s singles as Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. The good Captain operated best in an avant-garde branch of rock where few have dared tread, save the likes of other experimental innovators such as Frank Zappa and George Clinton.

Ali “Ollie” Woodson
Though not an original member of The Temptations, Ali Woodson sang with the group from 1984 to 1986. He co-wrote and sang lead on their 1984 hit, Treat Her Like A Lady (not to be confused with the 1971 Cornelius Brothers hit song of the same name).

Jimmy Dean
Many boomers will recall Jimmy Dean’s entrance into the musical lexicon through his hit single Big Bad John, in 1961. Appealing to both country and rock audiences with his down-home style, Jimmy Dean hosted his own TV show from 1963 to 1966. Perhaps he is best remembered as the creator and founder of Jimmy Dean sausage.

Robert Culp
The first actor to be teamed with a black man on a TV series, Robert Culp is best remembered by boomers for his wise-cracking, suave portrayal of a spy alongside Bill Cosby in the series, I Spy. It ran from 1965-68, riding the wave of both dramas and comedies that referenced the Cold War.

Barbara Billingsley
As noted in this blog the week of her passing (So Long, June Cleaver), Barbara Billingsley will forever be Mrs. Cleaver to the boomer generation. Ms. Billingsley’s portrayal of Wally and Beaver’s mother in Leave It To Beaver remains the quintessential portrayal of the ideal early sixties parent.

Fess Parker
Sing the first two notes of “Day-Vee …” and every early boomer will sing along with, “Davy Crockett; King of the Wild Frontier.” Fess Parker’s popular Davy Crockett TV character in the 1950s was responsible for the coonskin cap craze of that decade. Many boomers wish they had been able to hold on to their original Davy Crockett cap, as now they are being sold back to boomers on the Internet.

Dino de Laurentiis

An Italian film producer of many popular films of the boomer era, he may be best remembered by boomers for Serpico (1973) and Barbarella (1968). The latter was of particular note to boomers who were drafted during the Vietnam war. According to Mister Boomer’s boyhood friend and neighbor — a Vietnam veteran, Barbarella, in its uncensored European release, was a favorite among U.S. soldiers. In the final analysis, Jane Fonda’s screen nudity in this sexually-liberated romp based on a comic book far eclipsed her politics of the day.

Dennis Hopper
Though Dennis Hopper had more than 200 film and TV credits, boomers best recall Dennis Hopper as Peter Fonda’s motorcycle buddy in Easy Rider (1969). As Billy, he became a poster child of sixties counterculture. Mr. Hopper also appeared in other movies that are on the top of many boomer-favorite lists, including Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now, Cool Hand Luke, Blue Velvet and Hang ‘Em High.

Leslie Nielsen
A dramatic actor who found his comic genius later in his career, boomers will recall Leslie Nielsen for his numerous portrayals covering the vast landscape of our formative years. Included in his acting credits are appearances in Airplane and the Naked Gun series, along with popular boomer TV shows The Mod Squad, The Virginian, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, Daniel Boone, Route 66, Wagon Train, The Fugitive and a host of others. While Mister Boomer still enjoys Airplane, his favorite Leslie Nielsen movie will always be Forbidden Planet (1956).

J. D. Salinger
Little-photographed writer, J. D. Salinger, avoided the spotlight despite the immense popularity of his books, most notably The Catcher in the Rye. It remains an iconic work about teenage angst, though the book has the distinction of being the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the U.S. from 1961 to 1982. Naturally, that made boomers want to read it even more. In 1981 it was also the second-most taught book in public schools, introducing yet another generation to his literary prowess.

Edwin Newman
Boomers could not escape the authoritative voice and face of newsman Edwin Newman. He reported during some of the most memorable events of our boomer years, from making the first radio announcement of John Kennedy’s assassination to acting as television anchor during the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as being an on-the-floor reporter during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He appeared on numerous NBC News programs as a guest, moderator, interviewer and anchor. He was also well-known as an authority and author about the English language.

Art Clokey (Arthur C. Farrington)

Boomers may not remember Art Clokey as a household name, but mention that he was the creator (along with his wife Ruth) and animator of Gumby and the picture becomes crystal clear. Gumby, and later his horse, Pokey, grew out of Clokey’s 1955 student film, Gumbasia. The film consisted of animated clay shapes moving to a jazz score. Gumby made his first TV appearance on The Howdy Doody Show in August 1956. After it was seen by Samuel Engel, who was the president of the Motion Pictures Producers Association, Engel financed the pilot of what was to become The Gumby Show (1957). Mr. Clokey also created the animated series, Davey and Goliath.

Donald E. Goerke
Another man many boomers may not recall by name, Donald Goerke is best known for a culinary creation that was among many boomers’ favorites: SpaghettiOs. Mr. Goerke began working for Campbell Soup Company in 1955 as a market researcher. In the early 60s, Campbell’s asked him to spearhead a group for their Franco-American division. They were asked to create a canned pasta that children — and mothers — would like. After rejecting various shapes for the pasta, he finally chose the “O” shape since it reduced the mess factor and could be picked up with a spoon. Boomers will recall the famous jingle of, “The neat, round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon: Uh-oh, SpaghettiOs.” For many years, Mister Boomer’s sister had an extremely limited list of acceptable foods for her diet; among them were peanut butter, bologna, Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and more often than not, SpaghettiOs.

We finish not with a person, but with a true icon of the boomer era: Kodachrome film. Technically a slide film (the film intended for paper printing was Kodacolor), it became the witness and archiver of our early years as slide projectors joined the family movie camera, projector and screen. Famous for its “nice, bright colors,” as immortalized in song by Paul Simon, some said it was too bright, and therefore unnatural. Nonetheless, its reign ran from its inception in 1935 until Kodak announced the end of production in 2009. The final roll was created for a National Geographic assignment by Dwayne’s Photo of Parsons, Kansas for photographer Steve McCurry. The final 36 slides will be enshrined at the Eastman Kodak House in Rochester, New York. Dwayne’s Photo officially ended Kodachrome processing on December 30, 2010.

Of course there were many more passings in 2010 that had an impact on boomers’ lives. Let’s continue to celebrate them all for the contributions they have made to our entertainment, social, political, literary and cultural lives.