Boomers Loved Italian-American Food

Chances are, the vast majority of Baby Boomers grew up eating a variety of ethnic-based foods. To a large degree, this depended on the background of their families, and how long their families had resided in the United States. Regardless, many traditional cultural dishes made their way across the oceans, along with immigrants in the nineteenth century, to become ingrained in the American diet … most notably, Italian cuisine.

Italian cuisine is often split into the various regions of Italy’s boot and Sicily, but as a general rule, a division of north and south will suffice for our discussion. Northern Italian became known in the U.S. for polenta, white sauces and risotto, while Southern Italian brought olive oil, pasta and tomato sauce. From the early days of the nineteenth century, Italian immigrants — like all immigrants — had to adjust family recipes to the ingredients they could easily find in their new home country.

In every age, there was always a backlash against immigrants, and food was often a battlefield. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the blending of cuisines into the American diet prompted unscrupulous journalists and powerful politicians to launch a campaign against the foods prepared and sold by immigrants, particularly Italian. The Italians were derided as dirty, uneducated and poor (like the Irish and many other groups before and since), so it stood to reason (in their estimation) that the foods they produced were impure and unsafe to eat. Food was always a class indicator. In turn, this prejudice led to the establishment of the first Federal meat inspections and legislation on the preparation and handling of foods as a way to tamp down the spread of these “lower class” cultural food ideas. Italian foods survived the assault.

Soldiers returning from the War had a taste of the real thing overseas — pizza, baked ziti, lasagna, gelato, cannoli and more. Many of these dishes had been available in the U.S., in cities that had a large population of Italian immigrants, but for most soldiers, this was their first foray into the cuisine. Italian immigrants began opening more restaurants to serve this desire for a taste of Italy as people moved out of larger cities and into new suburbs. Yet post-war American tastes were entering into the picture. Americans ate more meat than Europeans, and expected larger portions of fewer dishes. For example, spaghetti and meatballs was a true Southern Italian dish, but only as one of many dishes in a multi-course dinner, and served in smaller portions. It took the influence of Americans to increase the size to a “dinner portion.”

At the dawn of the Baby Boom, Italian restaurants began their quest to capture the new families as regular patrons by catering to their tastes. In addition to dinner-sized portions of spaghetti and meatballs, they served sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, stuffed manicotti and baked ziti. By the 1960s, the style of a traditional eggplant parmigiana dish was used to create veal and chicken versions — true Italian-American dishes. Italy did not have a meat version of the dish. Veal and chicken picante, chicken cacciatore, shrimp diavolo and more joined the growing menus of the burgeoning Italian-American restaurant scene. Many boomers gained a love of spumoni and tiramisu desserts during this time period.

However, most families before and during the boomer era ate their meals at home. Restaurants were frequented on special occasions or while traveling. To give the family that ate primarily at home a taste of Italy, companies such as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee (which began selling canned pasta in 1938) expanded their product lines for boomer families. Many boomers will recall with varying degrees of nostalgia the mushy pasta and watery tomato sauce of the canned ravioli and Beef-A-Roni. Likewise Franco-American Spaghetti and Meatballs in a can was available for early boomers. In 1965, the company introduced SpaghettiOs, “the neat, new spaghetti you can eat with a spoon.” Both became a part of the boomer diet. While their origins were from the old country, the tastes were all-American.

Meanwhile after the War, delicatessens expanded their product lines with American-made versions of Italian meats and cheeses, such as mortadella, salami, capocolla, prosciutto-style ham and pepperoni, and ricotta, provolone and mozzarella cheeses.

Commercials on TV and ads in magazines related to the popularity of Italian-American foods in different ways. Some promoted Italian-based food items, while others used the cultural aspect for their own means. In 1969, the Prince Spaghetti Company in Boston, Massachusetts ran an ad that not only wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Italian-American food, but suggested TV viewers eat it more often. The Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day commercial campaign ran for 13 years. To this day, boomers can answer the question of, “What is Wednesday?” Consequently, Mister Boomer still eats pasta on Wednesdays, though his family rarely bought the Prince brand.

Mister Boomer’s father knew an Italian family that owned a restaurant. He often brought the family to the restaurant on occasions such as Mother’s Day or Easter. Truth be told, Mister B has a partial Italian ancestry. As a result, home-cooked spaghetti with meat sauce and meatballs, chicken cacciatore and many other Italian dishes were served up at home on a weekly basis, or by his grandmother and aunts when the family visited.

Mister Boomer has written before about his sister’s love of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni and Franco-American SpaghettiOs. Mister B and Brother Boomer preferred the ravioli. They often used the hand can opener to pop the lid on the tall can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli themselves. Though part Italian, the family was much like other boomer families in enjoying Italian-American foods.

Today, according to the National Restaurant Association, Italian cuisine is among the top three preferred in the country. A look in supermarkets will show the variety of Italian-American products available to families across the country, including frozen lasagna, pizza, and parmigiana dishes, plus fresh tortellini or gnocchi, and jars of tomato or Alfredo sauce, to say nothing of real Italian imported cheeses, meats and sausages.

The evolution of Italian-American foods happened during the boomer years, and boomers had a seat at that dinner table. How often did your family enjoy Italian-American restaurants and foods at home, boomers? How does your experience compare to your eating habits today?

Boomers Loved Their Condiments

Dictionaries define condiment as a seasoning or relish for food. Depending on one’s geographical and ethnic origins, some people include herbs, and salt and pepper in the condiment family. For the purposes of this discussion, salt and pepper will be considered a given.

When it came to the boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there were primarily three condiments that were pervasive nationwide: ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. To be sure, there were differences region to region; hot sauce contributed to the American diet from Louisiana and salsa to the Southwest (we’ll come back to that later), but to understand the desire for building an American cuisine after the War, those three condiments ruled the roost. Likewise, fish dishes had tartar sauce and shrimp cocktail was not the same without cocktail sauce, but those were both based on mayonnaise and ketchup, respectively.

An emulsion of eggs, oil and some type of acid such as vinegar or lemon juice mixed with seasonings, mayonnaise in some form has been around for hundreds of years. Mayonnaise began being sold in stores when Hellmann’s, a brand well known to boomers, began selling it in 1912. Primarily used as a sandwich dressing at first, by the 1920s, mayonnaise was a key ingredient in salads such as potato salad, crab or tuna salad, and fruit and nut salads such as the Waldorf. It was an essential ingredient in making other types of dressings as well, such as tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing.

The 1950s and ’60s were an era of “creative” salads — from Jell-O molds to fruit salads and more — and mayonnaise found its way into most of them. As a precursor to an Instagram world, the recipes were often supplied by Kraft Miracle Whip and Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, the industry leaders. Food shortages during the Depression and rationing during WWII saw mayonnaise being substituted for oils and butter in many recipes, including chocolate cake. By the early 1950s, Hellmann’s dominated the market and was instrumental in distributing these types of “traditional” recipes on their jar labels. The condiment had moved from the lunch menu to every aspect of dining, from breakfast to lunch, dinner and dessert.

Heinz dominated the ketchup market in the 1950s and ’60s, with the Hunts brand coming in a distant second. The American hamburger was fast being identified as all-American with the franchising of McDonald’s, then Burger King and others, and ketchup was considered entirely necessary to finish a beef burger. Hot dogs had, from decades earlier, purists in the “never ketchup” camp, with those preferring only mustard on their hot dogs. On the other hand, if you lived in the Midwest, piling on both ketchup and mustard, plus onions and sweet pickle relish, was pretty common. The East Coast (Philadelphia in particular) added cheese sauce, and the West Coast (Los Angeles) and the Southwest added chili as far back as the end of the Civil War. Chili, in addition to mustard and ketchup, became a bigger condiment addition to first hot dogs, then hamburgers, in Mister Boomer’s area.

Mister Boomer recalls making burgers at a Burger Chef for his first job. To dispense the “company-correct” amount of ketchup and mustard on each burger, he used a contraption that looked like a burger-sized metal ring that resembled the belt strapped to prisoners’ heads going to the electric chair in the movies. The ring was suspended on an aluminum pole, with two clear tubes, one yellow, one red, leading up the pole to jets fixed to a bar within the ring. Mister B took the bottom bun and placed the burger on it, then in an upward motion, pushed the burger upwards under the metal ring. The ring, when triggered by the upward motion, squirted the mustard and ketchup onto the burger, forming the perfect yin-yang dabs of mustard and ketchup. If the burger had cheese on it, the mustard-ketchup combo was added in the same manner, only on the cheese instead of the meat. If a customer did not want one or the other (a rarity), the chosen condiment was squirted by hand from a squeeze bottle.

Of the three top condiments of the boomer years, ketchup was by far the favorite of Mister Boomer. He put it on everything from scrambled eggs to all types of lunch meat, from olive loaf to ham, to steaks, pork chops and beyond. Mister Boomer’s mother, like most boomer-era moms, placed a layer of ketchup on top of her meatloaf. Baked in the oven, the ketchup layer formed a sweet, tomato-ey crust that became Mister B’s favorite part of the dish.

It is believed by food historians that mustard, first cultivated in India, is more than 6,000 years old. From there it spread throughout Asia and the Mediterranean. The Romans brought it to Europe when they conquered Gaul. Some say Benjamin Franklin himself brought a type of Dijon mustard to the U.S. from France at the time of the American Revolution. So certainly, mustard was not new to the condiment world when the boomer era began.

The most popular brand of mustard in the boomer years was French’s, reported to have captured half of the market. Known for its sharp flavor and bright yellow color, it was sold in jars from its introduction in 1904 up until French’s stopped selling the product in glass jars in 1991, replacing glass with plastic squeeze bottles. In 1974, French’s introduced the first squeeze packet, which enabled fast food companies to offer the condiment on a to-go basis.

Boomers will recall, with some nostalgia, pulling mustard from a French’s jar with a butter knife. In Mister B’s household, the mustard was kept in the door of the refrigerator. Brother boomer liked mustard much more than Mister B. His sister, though she also had a preference for ketchup on her fried bologna sandwiches, would on occasion smear on mustard instead.

Salsa and more
In 2013, tomato-based salsa replaced ketchup at the top of the preferred condiment list, a spot it held for 60 years. In Mister Boomers opinion, the changes in tastes are indicative of two things: the countries of origin for immigration had shifted from the Mediterranean and European immigrants of the boomer years to Hispanic countries, as well as Asia and Africa; and secondly, the adoption of foods — and condiments connected to those foods — that have been elevated to the status of all-American cuisine has expanded. Prior to the boomer years, all-American cuisine included hot dogs and apple pie. During the boomer years, Italian food was added to hamburgers and French fries to represent a national food identity. Today, pizza consistently comes in as the top choice of “American food,” and tacos and salsa are fast becoming labelled as American cuisine.

Which of the top three condiments — mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise — reigned supreme in your household, boomers? Today, what do your children and grandchildren prefer?