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Boomers Loved Their Chicken Parm

The idea of an “American cuisine” is as old as the country itself. However, it can be argued that our earliest cuisine was really dishes that immigrants ate in their own countries. Our American journey in flavor and taste needed a few generations to gather steam — and that was during the Boomer Generation.

Around the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, immigrants began opening restaurants for the cross-cultural working class population. They worked dishes they brought with them from the old country, and adapted local ingredients where the items they were used to weren’t available. But very quickly, a concept was injected into the dishes, a desire that in the vastness of the nation and the land of plenty, portions could be larger, and meat, now abundantly available, could take a bigger role on the plate. Regionally, dishes grew, and celebrated local produce, seafood and meat.

By the time two dogs shared a plate of spaghetti in The Lady and the Tramp (1955), boomer-generation America had selected Italian as their favorite “exotic” cuisine. What most boomer parents did not know was that the dishes they thought of as Italian were actually variations. True Italian cuisine stressed vegetables and smaller portions of seafood and meat. However, most Italian immigrants arrived from the southern half of Italy, and the island of Sicily. They brought their love of sausage, pasta and tomatoes with them. This new Italian-American version centered on sauce, cheese and generous portions of beef, chicken, veal or pork. Pepperoni pizza, spaghetti and meatballs and Chicken (or Veal) Parmigiana — all favorites of the era, if not to this day — were American inventions, inspired by Old World recipes, but given a New World twist.

Italian-American Chicken Parmigiana required mounds of melted cheese — usually mozzarella then topped with parmesan — resting on a sea of tomato-based red sauce, which covered a breaded and fried chicken cutlet. One newspaper food critic account from the 1950s recalled being served chicken “…the size of the plate!” No one knows who served the first Chicken Parmigiana, or where or when. But it is agreed upon that the origins of the dish came from a Southern Italy eggplant dish called Melanzana alla Parmigiana. The “Parmigiana” did not refer to parmesan cheese, but rather, meant the dish was prepared in the style of Parma, a region in northern Italy; “Parmigiana” meant the eggplant was twice-cooked. First breaded and fried, the eggplant rings were then lightly topped with tomato sauce and a sprinkle of meltable cheese, then baked.

The Italian-American version substituted chicken or veal for the eggplants, and pumped up the amount of everything else. Eggplants weren’t widely available, though Asian and Arabic cuisines utilized the vegetable in a variety of ways. Americans weren’t going for these types of dishes at the time the same way they latched onto Italian-American. You will recall that the primary dishes for Chinese take-out during the boomer years were chop suey and chow mein (see Boomers Ate Chinese Take-Out). What was available was meat, and lots of it. Boomer parents just won a major war, had good paying jobs, and felt rich when they ate big. They instilled that national appetite into their boomer children.

Throughout his childhood, Mister Boomer was served spaghetti and meatballs weekly, and by the time he was teenager, plenty of pizza. He ate Chicken Parm on occasion, but actually preferred Eggplant Parmigiana. He judges a good Italian lunch take-out to this day by the quality of their Eggplant Parm hero. Mama mia, now that’s American!

Did you enjoy Chicken Parmigiana, boomers?

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

Boomers Went Fourth and Grilled

Another Fourth of July weekend is upon us, and Mister Boomer is reminded that outdoor grilling was massively popular during his early boomer days. As it turns out, the parents of the Boomer Generation were instrumental in the development and promotion of outdoor grilling as we know it today.

Most people use the terms “barbecuing” and “grilling” interchangeably but there is, and always has been, a distinction between the two. This is important to note because as we explore the founding days of our country, “barbecuing” was a popular activity for political campaigns, especially around the Fourth of July. George Washington is said to have loved them, not only for the food but for the chance to meet and greet. Washington, however, did not use the opportunity as the chance to give a speech — he wanted the food and camaraderie to work the room for him. A traditional barbecue cookout for the Founding Fathers was the slow roasting of whole pigs or hogs over an open flame. The affair lasted all day and into the night, and the food was paired with copious amounts of beer and hard liquor. Therein lies the difference between barbecuing and grilling: a barbecue method was a slow roast over lower temperatures, while grilling tends to be quicker and over hot flames.

Outdoor roasting and grilling, of course, did not start in the U.S. In fact, the practice goes back as far as the harnessing of fire itself. Yet its use and popularity skyrocketed in the U.S. after the second World War. One influence the War had on newly-minted Boomer parents was that some servicemen, on returning home, brought Japanese ceramic kamado cookers back with them. These traditional cooking devices smoked or grilled meats, fish or vegetables to the delight of American servicemen. However, the thing most associated with the advancement of the backyard cookout during the boomer years was the move to the suburbs. Houses with backyards provided all the space needed for successful outings with family and friends. The social element that our Founding Fathers found so appealing was felt in boomer neighborhoods from coast to coast. A backyard brazier — a flat device with a bed for fuel and a metal grill over it — was as important a fixture as the car in the driveway. And, in Mister Boomer’s experience, the tradition of combining the cookout with large quantities of adult beverages was one his parents and neighbors felt obliged to keep.

Charcoal and wood were the fuel of choice after the War. The charcoal briquette had been patented by one Ellsworth Zwoyer in 1897, but Henry Ford is often erroneously given the credit. Ford got into the briquette business when he founded the Kingsford Charcoal Company in 1921 as a way to monetize the wood scraps and used sawdust that covered his factory floors. By the early 1950s, Kingsford increased production of charcoal briquettes by 35 percent to meet the increased demand. The company did not advertise for fear that they would not be able to make enough to meet the needs of the marketplace.

In a “which came first” debate, several technological advances in cookery either spurred the dawn of suburban boomer cookouts, or at the very least increased its popularity. For most American suburbanites, outdoor cooking was done on a brazier grill. Having no vents to control the flames, it was known for uneven heat that tended to char food quickly and spew ashes over the cook and guests, especially when a prevailing breeze visited the backyard event. That began to change in 1952, when a man named George Stephen, a welder for the Weber Brothers Metal Spinning Company, cut a metal buoy in half and created a new kind of grill. The top half was used as a lid. In both the lid and base, Stephen fashioned controllable vents. For the first time, cooking temperature was not an either/or situation. The grill quickly spread across the nation, though Mister Boomer’s father didn’t buy his first Weber grill until the early 1970s.

Experimentation in gas grills also continued through the ’50s. The first practical propane gas grills had been introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair. However, gas grilling remained the exclusive domain of commercial cooking until the 1950s. By the mid-fifties, home models were introduced by a variety of companies. The adoption of the gas grill was slow at first due to the price of the early models — they could be priced from $50 to more than $100 — which was approximately double that of a week’s pay for the average American. Ease of use eventually won out and by the late 1970s, the gas grill supplanted charcoal grills as the most popular in the backyards of boomer parents, at the same time that the first boomers were establishing families of their own.

As for the legacy of the Japanese kamado grill, fast forward to 1974 when a Navy vet named Ed Fisher opened the Big Green Egg Company. Ed’s combination grill and smoker was based on traditional Japanese designs. Thirty years after the War, its influence was still being felt in boomer backyards. The company continues operations today, gaining a following in barbecue purist circles. In fact, most if not all of the brands that were household names to boomers are still around, including Kingsford, Lodge, Charmglow, Weber, and others.

Mister Boomer thoroughly enjoyed his neighborhood’s backyard cookouts. However, he was never enamored with the common kid fare of hot dogs and hamburgers, much preferring ribs and chicken, and the occasional steak on the grill. He especially liked grilled corn on the cob. For years, even though his father was grilling, his mother had a pot on the stove in the kitchen boiling corn for the meal. Finally, around the mid-60s, his father and brother convinced his mother that corn could be great on the grill. Then began the endless debates over whether the corn would go directly on the grill, husk and all, soaked beforehand or not, or grill the ears sans husks. One way steamed the corn instead of grilling, while the other dried it out and could make it tough. A happy medium was never reached, but Mister B ate it all, along with baked potatoes. Since the grown-ups were busy downing their adult beverages, it also gave the kids an opportunity to drink cold cans of soda pop all day long — a real treat that did not happen often.

By the time sun was going down, the remaining bits of charcoal glowed a beautiful orange-red in the twilight, beckoning boomer kids to roast marshmallows. Then, sparklers were in order as kids pranced around creating light trails of various shapes. Older kids might have some fireworks, and sometimes an adult — often still gripping a long-neck bottle of beer — held out a Roman Candle to shoot colorful sparks into the sky.

What memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts do you have, boomers?

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

Boomers Ate Their Way Through Food Trends

Every decade has their food trends, and the Boomer Years were no different. Yet when we see movies as well as articles that feature food in the times we lived through, many of us feel a disconnect between the often clichéd culinary presentations and the facts of our real lives.

Food then, as now, varied greatly by region and ethnic background. Yet perhaps the biggest regulator of food trends for the average boomer family was economic strata. It makes sense that the more money you have, the more food choices are available to you. For example, Mister Boomer has noted in previous posts that before the Interstate Highway system was completed, many areas had a limited choice of fresh fruits and vegetables. The items we did have were locally grown or had to be brought in by train, so only the heartiest of ingredients could make the trip from the South and West to the rest of the country (see Boomers Watched Out for the Iceberg).

Mister Boomer’s parents thought of themselves as people in tune with the times. They tried to dress in fashion (in discount versions, of course) and Mister B’s mom tried new recipes that she would get from McCall’s or Good Housekeeping magazines all the time — though mostly only once before resorting to her usual repertoire. As a result, some trends of the day made it into the Mister Boomer household and others did not. Two cases in point are Jell-O and Lipton Onion Soup Mix.

The 1950s and ’60s are replete with descriptions of Jell-O molds and fancy concoctions made with the gelatin dessert. In Mister B’s home, however, though Jell-O was served with some regularity, it was almost always jelled in a large bowl. Mister B’s mother did not own a bundt pan or Jell-O mold of any kind. At dessert time the bowl was brought to the dinner table where big chunks could be scooped out at dessert time and, if a spray can of whipped cream was on hand in the refrigerator, a squirt could top it. On rare occasions, such as when strawberry season arrived, fresh fruit might be added to the Jell-O. Mister Boomer’s mother loved fruit cocktail in a can, but it was even more rare that she placed the canned fruit into the family Jell-O. She reserved that for her lettuce and cottage cheese plates. More often than not, the Jell-O — strawberry or  cherry mostly — remained plain.

Lipton Onion Soup Mix was a powder that came in a package envelope. Though it was marketed as a soup base, Lipton flooded the women’s magazines with recipes using the mix. Many recipes became quite popular, such as meat loaf made with the mix, and a chip dip. The product was a hit with Mister B’s mom since she was all about modern things that were convenient and saved time. She would mix it into hamburger to make a meat loaf, but where it really entered the family food list was as a chip dip. Mister B’s sister and mother especially loved the oniony flavor. The dip was easy enough to make for Mister B and his sister — blend a package into a pint of sour cream and it’s ready to go. The family regularly had potato chips around the house. They often bought local brands, but occasionally they had Ruffles brand potato chips and Ruffles have ridges that are all the better to scoop up dip. Mister Boomer was never a fan of onion flavor, so it was not one of his favorite things. Boomer Sister ate it by the spoonful.

The Boomer family did latch onto certain trending products through the years, including Tang, Carnation Instant Breakfast and Pop Tarts, but when it came to trendy dinner recipes, Mister B’s mom preferred to keep it simple and within her comfort zone.

What food trends did your family embrace, boomers?

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

Some of Mister Boomer’s Favorites of 2016

It’s the New Year, traditionally a time to look back in reflection and ahead with hope. In that spirit, please enjoy some of Mister B’s hand-picked favorites from 2016.

Boomers and Torn Jeans: The Evolution from Time-to-Replace to High Fashion
Our mothers fretted over our torn “dungarees” only to find a decade later that torn jeans were part of the fashion scene.

Boomers Twisted the Night Away
Mister Boomer explored the origin of the Twist.

Boomers Loved Gene Pitney Songs
Early to mid-boomers probably count Gene Pitney among their favorite singers of the ’60s.

Boomers Heard the Quotes of Their History
We were there, man!

Boomers Benefited from Space Products
Are you aware of space technology in your everyday lives?

Boomers Will Recall 1966
Fifty years ago from the year that just passed, the times they were a’-changin’.

Boomer Comparison: Drug Stores Then and Now
The local pharmacy sure has changed since we were boomer kids. Here is a comparison.

Boomers and Bikinis Just Went Together
The role of the bikini in boomer-era movies is iconic and undeniably modern for the time.

Boomers Have Lived Through Many Eves of Destruction
The song reverberates even today.

Boomers Gladly Went Where No One Had Gone Before
2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the original Star Trek on TV.

Boomers’ Diets Have Changed Over 50 Years
Boomers watched the era of convenience foods enter the picture, and the American diet.

Boomers Saw Their Lives in “The Flintstones”
The technology employed in The Flintstones mimicked the space-age devices that were common in boomer households. The major difference was instead of electrically-powered devices, the action of the devices was powered by animals.

Here’s to another great year, and hoping your 2017 is boomer-ific!

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Film & Movies,Food & Beverage,Fun,Getting Older,Music,Pop Culture History,Space,TV,Uncategorized and have Comments Off on Some of Mister Boomer’s Favorites of 2016

Boomer Families Stretched A Meal

Recently, Mister Boomer came across a report that flatly stated there was an uptick in sales of meal extenders — those “food accessories” designed to bolster a family budget by stretching a meal’s protein with spices, grains and/or sauces. The report did not attempt to explain the increase in sales, though one might conclude the cost of feeding a family has something to do with it.

It got Mister Boomer reminiscing, that stretching a meal was nothing new in his family … and he thought other boomers might agree. Boomer families tended to have more children than today, which is a reason in and of itself to try and extend the food budget. Even when families could afford more than the generation before them, boomer parents lived through the Great Depression, and a good many had the mindset that extending any and every food was the natural order of things. Rationing during World War II reinforced their practices, so they continued their frugal ways into the Boomer Era. In Mister B’s experience, mothers of boomers regularly stretched a meal by creatively using leftovers, adding grains such as rice, egg noodles or pasta, or making soup.

As the Boomer Era progressed, there were three store-bought meal stretchers that became household words in boomer families: Rice-A-Roni, Hamburger Helper and Manwich.

Rice-A-Roni
The first of these meal extenders was Rice-A-Roni, created by Vince DeDemenico in 1958 for his family’s noodle business. Based on a rice pilaf, he concocted a recipe of dried chicken soup mix combined with rice and macaroni (today the product consists of rice, vermicelli pasta and seasonings). All a consumer had to do was add water and chicken to the box mix to create a meal. Originally sold in the Northwestern United States, the product went national in 1962, prompting the tagline, “The San Francisco Treat.”
Mister Boomer’s mother, always wanting to be up with any trend that would save her time in the kitchen, tried Rice-A-Roni once, and that was enough. She didn’t like it, and neither did Mister B and his siblings.

Manwich
Basically Sloppy Joe mix in a can, Hunts introduced Manwich in 1969. Libby’s had a Sloppy Joe can mix in the 1960s also. Some say the Sloppy Joe sandwich was an off-shoot of loose meat sandwiches popularized in 1930s, while others say WWII food rationing set the stage stage for Sloppy Joes. Tomato paste, dehydrated onions, oregano, garlic and red and green peppers in one can made the Sloppy Joe not only economical but also quick and easy to prepare.

Mister Boomer’s mother made Sloppy Joes fairly regularly, because it was a cheap meal. Before there was Manwich, she sauteed some onions, hamburger and green peppers, and stirred in tomato paste. Mister B and his siblings constructed their own, grabbing hamburger buns and scooping the stuff on the bread until it oozed over the sides. There didn’t seem to be a need to buy Manwich.

Hamburger Helper
In the 1920s, hamburger was not a favored meat. It was considered “unclean” by the nature of its contents and grinding. This is why, in the 1930s, White Castle was so named and its employees dressed in all white — to change public perception. The company even commissioned a scientific report on the wholesomeness of its hamburgers. The success of McDonald’s (founded 1948), Burger King (1954) and Wendy’s (1969) forever sealed a place for hamburger meat in the American cuisine. By 1971, more women were in the workforce, and the need for quick meals was peaking. General Mills debuted Hamburger Helper, advertising that all that was needed was one pan, a pound of hamburger and their box. Very quickly there were several flavors, all of which combined macaroni or noodles with a sauce and the consumer-added hamburger. It was immediately successful, so a Tuna Helper version joined the original in 1972.

Mister Boomer does recall his household having Hamburger Helper every now and then, because his sister liked it, and she was a picky eater.

Stretching the proteins was a normal part of each week’s meal planning for Mister B’s family. Yet the packaged goods that promised quick and easy meals didn’t hold much sway in his household. Mister Boomer’s mother, like many other boomer mothers, preferred the old methods of adding rice as a side dish; making hot dogs and a can of pork and beans; shredding leftover chicken in chicken cacciatore; making scalloped potatoes casseroles with leftover ham, and using the ham bone to make pea soup.

How did your family stretch a meal, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage and have Comment (1)

Boomers’ Diets Have Changed Over 50 Years

While the average American is one and a half inches taller than fifty years ago, we weigh about 25 pounds more. There are many culprits that have contributed to this increase, of course, most notably our intake of sugar, salt and fat, and penchant for less activity than people expended in the world we grew up in as young boomers.

Think back to 1966, and what your family was doing and eating. More meals were served in the home than eaten outside the home; a good portion of boomer fathers were involved in manufacturing jobs, which were far more physical than today’s desk assignments; kids spent much more time outside in physical activities; and consumption of sugary drinks and desserts, though much higher than they were in the decades before the War, were a fraction of what they are now. Food was more locally sourced, and by definition, fresher.

Enter the big food companies. Since the dawn of food commercialization, food manufacturers have been making claims that their products were good for you, or even better for you than the fresher counterparts. By the 1950s, many companies were funding studies that would suport their claims. Chief among them were studies by the vegetable oil industry. These studies concluded that polyunsaturated vegetable oils were actually better for the American diet than butter, lard and other saturated fats. Even the American Heart Association jumped on the bandwagon in the early 1960s. However, other studies as far back as the early 1950s pointed to the increase in cardiovascular disease and subsequent deaths that were occurring as proof the claims were false.

In 1900, cardiovascular disease was practically non-existent in the population. Fifty years later at the dawn of the Boomer Era, it was killing one third of Americans. Contradictory studies were showing that an increase in polyunsaturated fat consumption was contributing to higher cholesterol levels and clogged arteries, leading to an increase in heart disease not seen before the beginning of packaged foods and polyunsaturated fats.

In 1966, the American Medical Association sponsored and aired a program combating the health claims put forth by the vegetable oil industry, but for the most part, it fell on deaf ears. If your boomer family was anything like Mister Boomer’s, packaged foods and modern formulations represented progress and prosperity, so what could be wrong with that? Besides, they brought convenience and longer product shelf-life, and that allowed for more time to spend with the family.

As time went on and we boomers aged, we became addicted to the fast food that was a novelty for many of us in the 1950s and ’60s. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study states that the average American consumes nearly a ton of food per year; twenty-three pounds of that is pizza alone. And according to the Huffington Post, the average restaurant meal is now FOUR times larger than it was in the 1950s. In other words, we are eating much more than we did fifty years ago.

Like the lobster in the pot of water that is slowly reaching a boil, we were lulled into thinking everything was fine, even though information was available to tell us otherwise. In a time before the Internet, getting that information wasn’t as straightforward as it is today — and now we find ourselves in the realization that the Boomer Generation’s youngest members are over 50. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, blood pressure, and more, are increasing at an alarming rate. Is this our way of checking out early, so “Hope I die before get old” becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy? Or should we now grasp the freedom we said we always wanted to control our own destiny, and overcome another seemingly insurmountable challenge?

What are you doing to improve your diet and health these days, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage and have Comment (1)