In Defense of Retro Foods

Considering the iconic foods of our culinary and cultural past.

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My grandmother cooked one thing well: wine cake. She cooked other things constantly — a 24–7 parade of scorched stews, gray hamburgers, blackened pancakes — but this one thing was actually tasty. It somehow managed to break the curse that lay over the land of my grandparents' kitchen.

Where did she get the recipe? Hard to say. Versions of this cake were all over the place mid-century and can still be found in any community cookbook. Basically, you dump cake mix, eggs, vegetable oil, instant pudding, and really cheap cooking sherry into a bowl, bake it, then soak the resulting bundt with plenty of sherry-sugar icing. It's chemical and gooey and (obviously) keeps forever. If you want to serve it in a truly authentic way, stick an old, dusty, scented pink candle in the hole in the center, and never light it.

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The general quality of the food wasn't really her fault, or at least it was only partially her fault.  Her husband, my grandfather, was "a character," but only because he proudly refused to go to a doctor for a real diagnosis. The short, funny version is that he was an eccentric rocket scientist from Arkansas who never met a used pressure cooker or brass animal he didn't like, bought books by the metric ton, and covered his once-valuable Northern California property with sheds, boats, piles of salvaged rubble, and the occasional tractor-trailer. The reality is somewhere between that and Faulkner, with some Hoarders: Buried Alive thrown in for good measure.

The reality is somewhere between that and Faulkner, with some Hoarders: Buried Alive thrown in for good measure.​

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His food scavenging could not be contained by the "traditional kitchen." It would not be an exaggeration to say that he added a room to the house to accommodate an immense, never-cleaned deep freezer. Or that, on one notorious occasion, he picked up a half-eaten sourdough-bread bowl from the beach, caked with sand and residual chowder, and brought it home for his lunch the next day. Everyone was sick, a lot.

Several times a week — far more often than necessary — he went shopping: a produce stand that sold him stuff they'd been about to throw away; a Navy commissary with a bargain bin; and — my favorite — the Rainbow: a discount supermarket that carried only discontinued or damaged products and out-of-season Christmas candies. My grandfather regarded expiration dates as academic, weevils as a valuable source of protein, and mold on cheese as something that suckers paid large sums for.

In short, wine cake was a blessed relief, and a staple at every festive gathering.

Wine cake is, to modern eyes, gross. A lot of recipes from that period in America are: many used mixes and canned goods and other convenience foods that today just seem low-rent. And it's not just that they used them — that anyone can understand, when women had to put three meals on the table a day — it's the zeal. It's the weird, baroque combinations: psychedelic, mayo-filled gelatin salads; bananas wrapped in bologna and napped with packaged hollandaise; avocados in various now-horrifying permutations. It's like anything in its natural form needed to be disguised, heightened, touched, and improved by man and science.

It's like anything in its natural form needed to be disguised, heightened, touched, and improved by man and science.

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In their 1981 Square Meals, the cultural anthropologists Jane and Michael Stern devote a whole section to "The Cuisine of Suburbia," with subheadings on dried-onion soup, Jell-O, Bisquick, and can-heavy casseroles. This was a pace of life set by returning soldiers and the prosperity of the boom years — a far cry from wartime austerity — and like so many things about that era, it's a fascinating combination of optimism and nihilism. As the Sterns write, "This problematic cuisine is irresistible. Encouraged, indeed created as it was by food companies, it is far from innocent."

This was not fundamentally home cooking; this was social food. Intended to impress, competitive. It was like, who could depart the most from nature? Who was furthest from the drudgery of the farm, and by virtue of her multiple TVs and family sedan, most exposed to advertisers' wiles?

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It's easy to make fun of this kind of recipe: five-can casserole (containing five random cans, one definitely chow mein); five-cup salad (one of the cups is mini-marshmallows); Sterno-luaus and luridly hued Polynesian punches. It's everything we don't eat now: bad for bodies, landfills, and other living things. Not so much farm-to-table but chemist-to-table. For the past ten years or so, or ever since postmodernism came to a gift shop near you, people have been laughing at gross, old-fashioned recipes. Galleries of regrettable food, grotesquely flavored aspics, combinations that seem like emetic exercises are all over the Internet, the gift-book table. And it's true: to our eyes, a mayo-and-banana mold with pimento breaks about every aesthetic rule we've been taught to value.

For the past ten years or so, or ever since postmodernism came to a gift shop near you, people have been laughing at gross, old-fashioned recipes.

But there's something that doesn't feel good about mocking the aspirations of another generation of women. What we're making fun of, after all, is effort: we can deal with Spam and the canned soup, but maybe only as long as people didn't try too hard. And people tried so hard! Convenient though the components may have been, every package of Bisquick, every pouch of Jell-O, every can of tuna suggested a canvas for a sort of unironic excess that we can't even imagine! It's difficult, at least for me, to see Douglas Sirk without seeing Todd Haynes, or Campbell's without Warhol. In fact, it's kind of scary, because it evokes a world where we're not onto everything.

Anyway, a recipe like this is not good in spite of its toxicity; these same chemical components are what make it so good. Although I admit to a Proustian obsession with wine cake, I will happily go on the record saying that it is objectively delicious. The flavor is rich, buttery, refined but accessible. The cake, rich with oil and pudding and soaked in glaze, is almost unbelievably moist. Obviously, it's cheap.

I think of my grandmother, with her tiny piece of modern aspiration in that recipe binder, the one thing that she wanted to get right and couldn't mess up. The one that, for a moment, made everything normal. A recipe that can survive that much dysfunction and emerge edible is a family heirloom.

Sadie Stein is a writer and a contributing editor at The Paris Review. She lives in New York.

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