Boomers Gave Thanks, But Not For Their Kitchens

It’s time for Thanksgiving once again, and boomers have certainly had much for which they can be thankful. In the 40 year period between 1900 and 1940, previous generations endured two world wars and a Great Depression. The Boomer Generation was the first to witness an abundance after the hardships; of technology, living space and more. Some sociologists say the “American portion” that is so evident on Thanksgiving plates came about as a direct result of the experiences of boomer parents.

Of interest to Mister Boomer, though, is where the Thanksgiving meal had to begin in every household: the kitchen. Compared to the spaces inhabited by today’s cooks, kitchens in boomer days were rudimentary, and in most cases, small. Yet boomer mothers cooked, roasted and baked for days so their family could enjoy the benefits of a post-war world.

Step into a boomer-era kitchen and the first thing you may notice is that it was, more often than not, a separate room. There was no such thing as “open concept living” at the time. Each room had a function, separated by walls. Here are some things you’d expect to find in a boomer-era kitchen, but no longer, and things you would not see at that point in history:

Back then, it was common to have:
• A clock on the wall. The location could vary, from being attached to the wooden valance (which was often scalloped) over the sink to above the door that usually led to the backyard. Clocks could be merely functional or designed to reflect the personality of the “woman of the house,” whose domain was the kitchen.
• A rotary phone on the wall. The kitchen wall phone is legendary in boomer history. Until fathers gave in and got their daughters a Princess phone, somewhere in the late ’60s, the kitchen wall phone was the only phone in the house for most boomers. Some boomers who lived in older homes had a phone sitting on a stand or table in a hall or living room, but in Mister B’s experience, the kitchen phone was the most likely.
• A grease can on the stove. Many boomers recall the grease can that was there to collect bacon grease, but in Mister Boomer’s home, the grease can was for all types of grease. His parents utilized empty coffee cans. One of his aunts, however, had a ceramic pot with a lid, made for the purpose. Mister Boomer recalls that a quick Thanksgiving breakfast could be eggs fried in grease taken from the can.
• A radio on a counter, preferably away from the sink or stove. For Mister Boomer and several houses in his neighborhood that he had occasion to visit, this was the case. In Mister B’s home, a plastic 1950s radio sat on the counter, its plug taking up one of the two outlets that were available in the entire kitchen. Mister B’s mother would, on occasion, listen to the radio while cooking.

Things that are common now, but you probably would not see in a boomer-era kitchen:
• A microwave oven. Though they were invented in 1945, and the first home-use microwave was available to consumers in 1952, it was the 1970s before they became popular fixtures in the kitchen.
• A dishwasher. Certainly dishwashers were available for purchase, but the only people Mister Boomer knew who had dishwashers were those who had purchased new homes that had them built in. Kitchens in older homes didn’t have space for a dishwasher, even if the family could afford one. So, Thanksgiving dinner’s pots, pans and “good china” that was reserved for holidays, would be washed and dried by hand. (Mister Boomer’s mother got her “good china” by purchasing the set one plate per week from a supermarket promotion. Mister B and his siblings traded off washing dishes.)
• Granite countertops. Though commonplace these days, granite, or any stone, was rarely used as a kitchen countertop in middle-income households. In the 1920s and ’30s, the style was ceramic tile. Many boomers who lived in older homes grew up with tile countertops. The 1950s and ’60s brought laminate surfaces, the most popular being Formica. In Mister B’s case, most of his aunts and uncles had tile countertops, while his kitchen countertops consisted of vinyl sheeting glued to the counter. It was the 1970s before the kitchen was remodeled and a laminate was installed.
• Under-cabinet lighting. Another common feature of today’s kitchens, though for most boomers in Mister B’s experience, there was one light in the kitchen, and it came from the fixture in the ceiling. Once oven hoods began to be popular in the 1970s, an extra source of light over the stove became an option.
• Frost-free refrigerators. The first frost-free refrigerator was patented in 1960. Boomers will recall helping their moms defrosting their refrigerator’s freezer by turning it off, then waiting until the walls of ice could be chipped away and wiped down before turning the freezer back on. Mister B’s mom placed pans of heated water in the freezer to hasten the process. Defrosting the freezer would be a must before Thanksgiving. It was the 1970s before frost-free refrigerators became more popular, along with the introduction of the in-the-door ice cube dispenser.

Boomers had much to be thankful for, but thinking back on it, one we probably took for granted was the space and equipment our mothers had to work with to produce the meal memories we now recall in our senior years.

In retrospect, how rudimentary was the kitchen of your youth, boomers?

Boomers Still Argue Over the Best Way to Eat Cranberries at Thanksgiving

The Great Debate over which is the best cranberry preparation for Thanksgiving continues to rage on. In Mister Boomer’s experience, there were three distinct camps: those who made their own and refused to buy any cranberry product in a can; those who preferred the relish-style canned product with whole cranberries; and those who only wanted the jellied cranberry sauce in a can. Short of marrying into one tradition or another, boomers tended to keep the style they grew up with through the years, and passed it on to the next generation.

For the purposes of our nostalgia here, we can totally discount those who made their own cranberry sauce from scratch. Mister Boomer was a full-fledged adult before he came across anyone who spent the time doing that. He was in his 30s before he ever purchased fresh cranberries himself, and then, only for a baking recipe. This is a discussion of can vs. can.

The first record of canned cranberries claims it came out of New England in 1912. That would make sense on two fronts: cranberries are native to North America, and that area remains the largest growing region for the fruit. Canning the fruit enabled it to be eaten all year long, but to this day, the vast majority of cranberries are consumed between the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays.

It was 1941 before jellied cranberry sauce hit the shelves for consumers. So, it makes perfect sense that Baby Boomer families, starting out right after World War II, would be the target of marketing for the jellied sauce, setting the table for it to become a family tradition of boomers coast to coast.

Mister B and his siblings often fought over who would get to open the can of jellied cranberry sauce, an annual ritual. It was by watching their older brother perform the sacred can-opening rites that Mister B and his sister learned the “correct” way. First, the can was removed from the refrigerator. It was important in Mister B’s family to chill the product. Then, flip the can over, take the manual can opener and pierce the bottom once or twice. This would allow air into the can from the bottom when the top lid was fully removed. The idea, of course, was to get the entire contents of the can to slide out, pristine and untouched by cutlery or human hands. Besides, after a few shakes of the can, the contents would shift and produce a satisfying slurping sound as it kerplopped to a waiting dish. This sound factor was part of the annual ritual, welcomed by Mister B and his siblings.

If successful, the contents, thicker than Jell-O, remained standing on a plate. A quick flip on its side revealed the molded circular rings produced by the inside of the can itself. These rings were part of the preciousness of the process in that they provided a template for slicing. The perfect cranberry jellied sauce slice was about a quarter of an inch thick, maintaining its roundness. Mister Boomer and his siblings were allowed to cut their own, since it could be sliced with a butter knife.

Mister Boomer does not recall that jellied cranberry sauce made a return at Christmastime. In his household, it was strictly a Thanksgiving accompaniment. Of note with the technology of today’s cans, Mister B has noticed the bottom of the can has rounded edges, eliminating the straight-edge lip, making it much harder to pierce the bottom with a can opener. The can note claims this rounded bottom (or top for some manufacturers), contains a pocket of air that helps propel the product from its cylindrical home. Hmmm. Mister B is skeptical. He still uses his handy crank can opener; no fancy electric models for him. No matter, there is probably still an ice pick in the back of a drawer somewhere. Worst case scenario, there is always the Swiss Army knife. Traditions must be upheld!

How about you, boomers? Did your family prefer the whole berry relish, or the jellied sauce in a can? Or are you from one of those families who pass along homemade recipes using fresh cranberries?