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.
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.
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.
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."