A Cottage Industry Booms During Boomer Years

The mothers of boomers, being born in the 1920s and ’30s, had difficult teen years. Years of manual labor helping their parents around the house or farm were then made more difficult by the Great Depression of the 1930s, marked by food shortages and the lack of money to purchase it. This was then followed by World War II, and food rationing. During that series of nutritional challenges there wasn’t much reason for women of the middle and lower classes to construct diets focused on losing weight.

While a larger girth among wealthy men was considered a sign of success for decades, it was the opposite for their wives in the 1920s. Upper-crust women of that era furthered the idea of eating slimming foods, exercising and utilizing various technological contraptions in order to maintain or lose weight. The most notable of these predilections was the popularization of the salad lunch. A well-known phrase popularized in that time was, “You can never be too rich or too thin.”

By the time our mothers were married and began having children after the War, life was changing dramatically for American families. The move outward from cities to suburbs meant more time was spent in cars. Inventions like washing machines and dishwashers that had been first introduced over the preceding decades infiltrated the burgeoning middle class, who now had the space and the income to be able to afford them. As a result, women were spared a modicum of the drudgery that comprised housework for the previous American centuries. A bit more leisure time, the advance of daily television programming, less physical labor, less work outside the home, better medical care and less need for walking could have been factors in the weight our mothers began to gain. Naturally, marketers were at-the-ready to first plant the idea in women’s heads that they had a weight problem, then provided solutions to the problem with various products, one of which was a decidedly low-tech food: cottage cheese.

In a nutshell, cottage cheese is the result of milk being heated with an acid (like vinegar) until curds appear and whey is separated. This mixture is then drained, but not pressed, which keeps the curds intact and leaves a small portion of the whey in the product. If the cheese were pressed, it would become pot cheese, farmer cheese or queso blanco, depending on the type of milk being used and elements added. Since cottage cheese can be made on a stovetop, it is believed the term comes from people making cheese in their “cottages” using leftover milk after making butter. The first known use of the term was in 1848.

In the 1950s, dairy manufacturers such as Borden began advertising cottage cheese on TV as a great food for families. High in nutrition, it was soon brought to consumer’s attention that at only 80 to 100 calories per half cup serving, the product could be an aid in dieting. Cookbooks appeared by the dozens to help out the new generation of suburban moms, and they were overflowing with recipes for making and utilizing cottage cheese — as a substitute for other cheeses in recipes or eaten by itself with fruit, vegetables and the quintessential food of the era, Jell-O.

Restaurants, from fine dining establishments down to the local diner, placed cottage cheese on their menus, usually under a heading like, “Dieter’s Special.” While boomers ate cheeseburgers and fries, their moms were often treated to a plate of Iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese and canned fruit.

A typical cottage cheese plate
A typical 1950s and ’60s “Dieter’s Special” would consist of a scoop of cottage cheese with canned fruit (like peaches, pear or pineapple) sitting on a bed of Iceberg lettuce. Photo by Mister Boomer.

Mister Boomer’s mom was one of those women who, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, consumed a lot of cottage cheese for its dietary properties. She would often eat the product for lunch, and sometimes dinner, but it was always the same: a few spoons of the cheese straight from the store-bought container, topped with canned fruit cocktail. Occasionally she dressed it up with a few leaves of Iceberg lettuce, or switched out the fruit cocktail for canned peaches, pineapple or pears, but that was the extent of it.

Mister Boomer tried cottage cheese a few times as a youngster, and he was not impressed with its bland and slightly bitter taste. He would, every now and then when choices in the refrigerator were limited, partake of the product, but only with an equal or greater proportion of canned fruit. Once cottage cheese began being sold with pineapple already mixed into the container, that became his choice if he had to eat it.

A quick survey conducted this past week by Mister B of his boomer friends and co-workers revealed that the group was almost evenly split — around half recalled their moms eating vast quantities of the stuff, while others didn’t see it in their homes.

By the 1970s, cottage cheese lost some of its appeal. It has remained a staple on menus in many places to this day, and can still be purchased at your local supermarket, but the wave of popularity it once enjoyed seems to have moved on to other foods.

What memories of your moms and cottage cheese do you conjure up, boomers?

Boomer Turkey Days

The Thanksgiving holiday is this coming week. Recently, Mister Boomer ran across an advertisement from 1935 which read in part, “We may not all be able to afford a turkey this Thanksgiving, but we have much for which to be thankful.” That got Mister Boomer in a pensive mood. As boomers, we certainly have much to be thankful for. Parents of boomers lived through Thanksgivings in the 1930s, which was during the height of the Great Depression. Just when the country was pulling out of its worst economic maelstrom ever, World War II knocked on the door. World events didn’t exactly give our parents happy Thanksgivings through their formative years, certainly by today’s standards.

It’s Mister Boomer’s theory that their experiences had a direct impact on how the holiday would be celebrated with their boomer children. As boomers were being born after the War, these new young families set out to make a better life for their children than what they and their parents had — the mantra of every parent. The country’s economic engine was churning as the nation recovered, highways were being built, and suburban sprawl meant a home of one’s own was within reach. It is likely that that new home looked like a modern, idyllic paradise to young parents anxious to begin a new chapter of their lives. It was also something to be thankful for.

Mister Boomer’s Thanksgiving memories go back into the Eisenhower era. At that time, Thanksgiving and the Christmas season weren’t complete without the requisite trips Downtown, beginning with the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. In Mister B’s household, the children would be awakened at the crack of dawn. Sometimes there would be snow flurries, sometimes freezing rain, but always there would be cold. After a quick breakfast of cold cereal, the children were dressed in multiple layers to ward off the frigid November Midwest air and whisked into the family car. Mister B’s mom stayed at home tending to the meal, as was the custom of the era.

A short ride later, Mister Boomer’s father would pull the car into a Downtown parking garage and the family made the walk to the Boulevard to stake their space along the parade route. Mister Boomer would stand there shivering, and wondering why he couldn’t have stayed in bed a while longer and watched the parade on TV. Aside from the cold, there was the viewing challenge. Mister Boomer’s family didn’t always get the best viewing spot. The Boomer children were considerably smaller than the sea of adults surrounding them, so at times seeing any glimpse of the parade at all meant crawling through legs to try and get to the street barricade. Mister B would observe how some fathers put their children on their shoulders, while others brought along step ladders, but with three children in tow, Mister B’s dad was not able to be among them.

As the parade marched on, Mister B did occasionally enjoy a colorful float and some of the marching bands — when he could see and if the bands’ cacophony didn’t hurt his ears, that is. By the time the star of the parade — Santa Claus — drifted by to mark the close of the parade, toes and fingers were numb. The crowd always stepped through the barricades at that point and followed Santa’s float to the big department store. There, a temporary second-story entrance to Santaland was installed in the side of the building. Santa would move directly up a staircase from his float to a platform decorated in full Christmas regalia, where the Mayor was waiting to give him the key to the City. Conveniently, it was also the key to the hearts of good little boys and girls everywhere, as the crowd was informed. After a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” and wish for a “Merry Christmas,” Santa retired inside to his home for the next four weeks, and the crowd slowly dispersed.

To avoid the traffic, sometimes Mister Boomer’s dad would take the children into a coffee shop. There, they’d attempt to warm themselves and their fingers with a cup of hot chocolate. Invariably, there would be a large swirl of whipped cream on top of the hot beverage, and a candy cane with which to stir it. The Boomer family children always ate the whipped cream on top first, leaving little to stir into the cocoa. Not being a fan of peppermint or hot chocolate, this was not a ritual that Mister B enjoyed. To this day he dislikes hot chocolate, candy canes, and the cold November air.

Boomer families were divided on the best time to serve Thanksgiving dinner, as families appear to be today. For some, it depended entirely on when the bird was cooked. If that was 1 p.m., then so be it. Dinner was served. Others had a more precisely timed approach, choosing 3 p.m. or even their regular dinner times. In Mister B’s house, it was the former rather than the latter. Dinner was almost always served by 2 p.m. — whenever the big bird was finished. It had been cooking away since 6:30 a.m. in the roaster that was kept in the basement. Meanwhile, a tablecloth covered the table, which only happened on holidays. It didn’t matter that the china arrived courtesy of a weekly discount purchase for shopping at the supermarket. It was special dinnerware for special occasions only.

Most of the time, some aunts and uncles or family friends were invited to share the feast, prompting the “children’s table” to appear. Who knows when the first children’s table was set up, but boomers are well acquainted with the holiday tradition. It helped keep the children separate from the adults by design, it would seem. Was it to get a moment’s rest for adult conversation to ensue or to keep fidgety, picky eaters out of a major sight line for a while? Inevitably, the mother, an aunt or older female cousin would tend to the children at their table, seeing to it that each had the meal they wanted.

In Mister Boomer’s family the bird was the star, followed by the stuffing, sweet potatoes and that wonderful can-shaped cranberry sauce that the family ate only once a year. Vegetables were clearly down the list. It would be many years later before Mister Boomer would learn that vegetables didn’t have to come from a can. That’s a trait shared by many boomers… was it because our parents lived through the Great Depression where every can was precious, or rather that in that time, in Cold War America, canned goods were the American thing to have on hand? In any case, there was always plenty of food and enough for leftovers. The meal would be capped off with pumpkin pie, banana cream pie and a pineapple upside-down cake.

Somewhere along the timeline, perhaps germinating in our youth, the meal gained in importance over the holiday sentiment. Boomers have changed the holiday from one of thanks to the one of over-indulgence that is celebrated today. Is it merely that boomer parents, like their parents and grandparents before them, want more and a better life for their children? Or have we gotten too comfortable in the lifestyle our parents’ generation worked so diligently to create for us?

Mister Boomer wishes you and yours a happy, thankful Thanksgiving. Now where is that can opener?