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?