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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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!