As we are looking at a new home built in the 1930’s to celebrate our home with a range we desided to get into the spirit and have a 1930’s theme party. After the initial excitment and reality set in one major question arose. What exactly did the suburbanites eat in say 1936? It was after all the great deprestion and soup kitchens were strugling to serve any form of nurishment to the hungry masses. The 1930s witnessed major developments in how Americans ate and thought about food, as well as how they purchased, stored, and prepared it. More than 11 million women were in the workforce by 1930 (11.7 percent of them were married), and they looked for ways to save time in the kitchen. Many began to replace their messy and inefficient iceboxes with electric refrigerators. By the end of the decade, 60 percent of American households had one.
Refrigerators kept food reliably cold for longer periods, which meant less time spent on frequent trips to the grocery store. And thanks to the electric refrigerator, “cooking with cold” became not only a convenient way to prepare a meal but a trendy way to enhance the experience of eating. A 1929 advertisement described the process: “chill new flavor and sooth coolness into every course.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, economy became just as important as efficiency. “Leftovers are valuable,” declared one cookbook, “don’t waste them!” To prevent the boredom of eating the same meal over and over again, home economists and cookbook authors alike encouraged home cooks to disguise leftovers by incorporating them into whole new dishes.
Armed with jars of mayonnaise, can openers, and Jell-O molds, the Taylor Foundation Object Project team set out to recreate historical 1930s recipes. Here’s what we found when we put our concoctions to the taste-test:
The recipe appears in the ‘Salads for Special Occasions’ section of a cookbook, which states that “the more attractive, the more dainty, the more delicious the salad, the more competent delightful hostess do you prove yourself to be.”
“There were not enough radish roses to make my salad delicious,” Fernanda lamented.
Though our modern taste buds found this surprising combination of flavors and textures less than delicious, it would have been a highly fashionable entrée for the 1930s hostess.
And the biggest surprise? The Surprise Loaf itself. It was assembled like a cake, consisting of three tiers of bread separated by layers of a coleslaw-like mixture and relish, with a whipped combination of cream cheese and “snappy” cheddar cheese spread like icing on the outside. Garnished with parsley and radish roses, the Surprise Loaf proved to be yet another example of a fancy-looking entrée that used inexpensive ingredients.
In truth, presentation was where our potluck excelled. Along with finding creative ways to repackage leftovers, 1930s hostesses had an eye for elaborate tables. Emma made a Leftover Vegetable Casserole, unanimously voted “most edible.”
If you have a fondue pot in your cupboard or a pasta maker gathering dust in your garage, you know firsthand that food prep is vulnerable to the whims of fashion. We may be getting our recipes off the Internet these days, but in wanting to try the newest gadget or cooking process, we aren’t that different from our grandmothers.
Today it may be goat cheese and marinated figs, but whatever the latest food fad happens to be, in a couple of decades it will become a culinary footnote in the cultural summary of the times. To get a good take on 1930s party foods, you have to explore the trends. They may seem tame today, but back then, they were oh-so chichi. Think of them as the food superstars that could make or break a host’s reputation:
- Devil it – Think deviled eggs, deviled ham (or ham salad) and deviled chicken, and you’ve got the general idea. Grind it up, mix it with mayo and serve it on a cracker or piped into the hollow of a hard cooked egg and you have elegant finger food. Our Spicy Deviled Eggs are a great place to start.
- Give it some jiggle – That kid-friendly gelatin mold in your pantry was once so fashionable no 1930s food fest would have been complete without it. You had to have an ice box or refrigerator to make a gelatin mold, which made it a dish that required modern technology. Gelatin molds also sported ritzy ingredients like mayonnaise, nuts and tropical or seasonal fruits. Our Cranberry-Apple Gelatin Salad is a good representative example. If you were really on the cutting edge of food fashion, you might have served aspic — a savory gelatin mold using ingredients like tomato juice, cream, salmon, crab or minced chicken. Aspics were served cold like the fruity molds you’re used to, so they were often warm weather or light afternoon fare.
- Make it into a ring – If you’ve discovered how easy it is to slice and serve Bundt cake, you can see why placing food in a ring was considered convenient and attractive. The shape was considered unique, and it could be achieved using a simple mold and inexpensive ingredients. In the 1930s, gelatin molds and aspics were often ring shaped and served with assorted vegetables in the open center. Rings were also made out of rice and even pasta. Want to create the right note for your party? Give our Festive Cranberry Ring Mold a try.
- Stuff it – Filling the hollowed core of any of a number of vegetables with chopped or ground ingredients was also huge. Recipes like tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and mushrooms stuffed with bacon and breadcrumbs were popular. We’ve got the perfect stuffed tomato dish to show you how it’s done. This one’s delicious and pretty to look at: Pesto-Pasta Stuffed Tomatoes.
- Form it into a loaf – Meatloaf may get groans from your kids, but way back when, serving a loaf of magical meat was too cool. Lamb loaf, veal loaf and salmon loaf were all considered party food. A hostess could layer a loaf pan with ingredients like bacon, mushrooms and even mashed potatoes for a striped effect that was bound to elicit oohs and ahhs from guests.
Using the right ingredients was important, too: A lavish shrimp cocktail appetizer like our Pineapple-Ginger Shrimp Cocktail, carried as much cache in the 1930s as it does today. Including ingredients like lobster, squab, oysters, tongue, crab, fruit punch, prunes, peaches, pineapple, honeydew melon and orange marmalade in the menu helped gentrify the meal and add that touch of elegant refinement that was so important. A 1930s dinner party menu would probably also have included dishes that mirrored what Hollywood considered sophisticated European taste with items like scones, crumpets, cucumber or watercress sandwiches, salmon croquettes, trifles, tortes and meringues. A smart hostess could also show her sophistication by serving big city menu items like Waldorf salad or curried lamb.
For a crash course in making a 1930s party the talk of your social circle, all you need to do is review the fiction or movies of the period. Nero Wolfe, the rotund gourmet detective in Rex Stout’s enormously popular series of 1930s novels, is as good at crafting meal options as he is at solving murders. For some unique ideas, check out the Nero Wolfe Cookbook available through Viking Press. It explores the wit and cooking savvy of this ’30s gourmet gumshoe.
You can also use any one of the many 1930s themes to unify your party:
- Invite a few matineeidols – During the depression, a night at the movies was the perfect escape from money woes. If this resonates with you, why not try a classic movie star theme? You can have your guests dress up as their favorite stars of old, or just display old movie posters prominently. Name your menu items after stars, and make bold star name tags with classic photos for the backs of your dining chairs.
- Jazz it up – Don’t forget the music when you’re planning your party. Blues, jazz and big band swing were all keen in the 1930s, and there’s no better way to strike the right mood than with authentic music. If you’re a music historian, then take the time to compile your play list with care; if you just want something fast but authentic, there are style, artist and decade specific CDs on the market that will have your toes tapping in no time.
- Make it a matinee – If you think your decor needs a little more period panache, why not use your flat screen to create a fun matinee feel. Play some classic 1930s movies, and turn the sound down low. You can even choose a movie medley from some of the best genre films of the time.
- Serve luncheon or teainstead – During the 1930s, hosting a big dinner party may have been hard on already strained finances, but turning the affair into a luncheon, tea or brunch buffet meant the cook could serve lighter fare, which left room in the budget for making the table look scrumptious, too. A creamy lace tablecloth, silver candlesticks, crystal (or glass) accents and a large centerpiece of fresh cut flowers could dress an elegant table. A lighter meal also meant less work for the lady of the house who may have been pulling everything together without her trusty maid or part-time cook to lend a hand.
Depression-era party planners were often working alone and watching their pennies (much like us). The idea was to make entertaining look effortlessly elegant, an illusion that helped folks deal with economic hardship and convince themselves that better times were just around the corner.