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.
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.
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.
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?