Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

topic posted Mon, August 7, 2006 - 4:17 PM by  Melodious
I'm housesitting for some friends and just found a gem among their cookbook collections. It's a self-published, fundraiser cookbook from the female congregation of a church in a small town in the Appalachians of Tennessee. The copyright says 2002, but I'd say all the recipes date from the 1960s or 1970s (or earlier).

I was highly entertained by what I found there, and a bit shocked at the same time. I grew up in the Great Lakes/Midwestern U.S. in this period, so some of it was familiar, but this was pretty extreme even for my lowbrow tastes. It is a pretty comprehensive cookbook, covering everything from appetizers to desserts, and yet there was virtually no fresh produce of any kind, and the only meat to be found was ground beef and canned ham (and an occasional chicken breast or pork chop). The most prevalent ingredients in the recipes were canned and dried soups (especially cream of mushroom), canned fruits and vegetables, dried herbs and spice mixes (especailly onion flakes and garlic powder), Velveeta, beef and chicken boullion cubes, Saltine and Ritz cracker crumbs, mayonnaise, Crisco, Cool Whip, Jello, food coloring, and Tang (yes, Tang!).

I understand that these people were probably dirt poor, but don't the poverty-stricken usually go for cheap produce like onions, potatoes, lettuce, etc.? There was hardly a single item of fresh produce to be found in this 200-page book, and absolutely none of the hundreds of recipes were truly homemade--all contained numerous processed ingredients like those mentioned above. And there were certainly none of those Southern U.S. traditions you hear about all the time, like barbecued meat, fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoe pie, etc. Everything was made from a mix or a can.

Can anyone shed any light on this? Did the U.S. processed/canned food industry have such a big influence in this period that it destroyed even the time-honored traditions of Southern cooking? Seems like a rival for the bad foods of the British past, to be sure.
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  • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

    Mon, August 7, 2006 - 4:35 PM
    i can't shed insight but growing up we had a cookbook of the same calibur from the local united methodist church. perhaps it is just that poor people don't have time to go shopping for fresh vegetables and meats?
    • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

      Mon, August 7, 2006 - 4:43 PM
      Yeah, I'm just curious about how things changed from earlier decades, when fresh produce, whether it be a turnip you dug out of the ground or whatever, would have been the way to go, especially in rural areas.

      Interestingly, things may be starting to come full circle. In the last few decades, processed food has been the only choice for poor people in U.S. cities, but now that farmers' markets are offering some cheap produce options in certain areas, that may be gradually changing. Granted, a lot of the produce at these markets is still high-end, but there is an ever-growing amount of cheaper stuff. I hope that trend continues.
    • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

      Mon, August 7, 2006 - 4:48 PM
      maybe family favorites didn't need a recipe? but making something 'special' with cream of mushroom soup would?
      who would have needed a recipe for something so common as baked potatoes, apple pie or BBQ?
      just a thought.
      • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

        Mon, August 7, 2006 - 5:15 PM
        That's a really interesting thought, Liselle; thanks. Given the heavy-handed marketing campaigns of the processed-food companies, this makes perfect sense--you need to write down a recipe using the new-fangled canned product, but everybody back then knew how to make apple pie, right? (Too bad so few of us do these days!)
      • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

        Mon, August 7, 2006 - 5:18 PM
        well, this also makes sense: i remember there being recipes for rhubarb in mine and that's a weed in these parts. and grocery stores had such sparse variety growing up that the entire town thought that green peppers were called "mangoes". since we never got any exotic fruits, we didn't know the difference. i'll never know how the grocery stores came up with the wrong name though.
        • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

          Mon, August 7, 2006 - 6:00 PM
          Very funny about the green peppers. I remember when my mom decided to cook artichokes (1970s Michigan), this was considered extremely exotic. And then when she decided to use jicama...well, that was just off the map. Where she purchased these, I don't know.

          So what kind of produce was native to your area? And did people in that period cook with them, or use canned products instead?
          • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

            Mon, August 7, 2006 - 6:08 PM
            oh we're the basic standards: potatoes, tomatos, onions, apples, strawberries, raspberries, corn. farmer's market was a big deal every week. it took over the town square on wednesday afternoons. everything downtown closed down at 3pm that day, even the bank.

            i don't know about everybody else but the only fresh fruit pies my grandmother made were rhubarb/strawberry and apple. everything else came out of a can--peaches and cherries mostly. and my mother was a single parent with no knack for cooking so if she made it, it was frozen or canned before it got put on the plate.
  • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

    Mon, August 7, 2006 - 8:53 PM
    >maybe family favorites didn't need a recipe? but making something 'special' with cream of mushroom soup would? <

    I think this has got to be closest to correct. Moreover, the availablity of fresh food would be highly seasonal and dependent on having extra resources - time and land - needed to get it. Town folks might not have had much access to fresh produce or vegetables and poor folks in the out in the country would rarely get much meat at all, let alone fresh meat. My dad's family rarely had fresh meat other than at hog killing time.
    • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

      Mon, August 7, 2006 - 9:51 PM
      not to mention, fresh food spoils, and spoiled food = wasted money.
      • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

        Mon, August 7, 2006 - 10:08 PM
        Yeah, I grew up on a farm (mostly fruit orchards), so I guess I was privileged among the low-income rural kids of that period because we always had produce. The winters there were brutal and lasted about eight months of the year, but we canned and preserved stuff to last us until the growing season started again.

        So I guess this problem was most evident for people living in towns? Still seems strange that the church ladies in that small Tennessee town back then couldn't find any fresh produce any time of year, though.
  • Unsu...

    Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

    Tue, August 8, 2006 - 6:46 PM
    This sounds like a wonderful find.

    One of my favorite cookbooks I've found is by Knox from the early fifties. It has five courses, all jellied, and all using pretty much only canned things. And, for your reading pleasure, it's all laid out in a way that's "as easy to follow as television."

    Canned foods were really heralded until recently. If this is a book for poor people, then it's probably a book intended for women running households who also work.. As it is so diffficult to produce a meal cheaply with less time to do it (as we all know as people into food), I think it's logical to incorporate already prepared foods. Particularly if the contemporary popular discourse doesn't describe these foods as nutritionally sub par.

    I also agree with most of the reasons stated by others so far in why fresh foods would be ommitted; it's an overdetermined selection of recipes.
    • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

      Tue, August 8, 2006 - 11:21 PM
      These are all good points. I have another to add to the mix. I was raised in SW Virginia on the other side of those same Appalachian mountains. In the late 60's and the 70's - which I remember much better, my mother was always interested in something "new" and particularly something "modern". Remember how everything said "New and Improved" - because that marketing strategy worked for folks like my mom. Ads would talk about their product as being for the modern housewife who was aware of the latest new and improved product. Convenience for the "busy housewife" was very important.

      We had never eaten dinner in the living room watching TV. However, when "TV Dinners" came out, mom set up "TV trays" and brought out the TV dinners to the living room. It was a new and improved dining experience - very modern - just like on TV.

      My mom thought Velveeta was great, Cool Whip, etc. My father and older siblings remember her making biscuits from scratch - until the convenience of canned biscuits was discovered. No more messy flour going everywhere. Just open the can.

      My mom was sucked into just about any ad for a new product that looked good on TV and the husband and kids seemed to really like that product when the mom brought it out and served them.

      Even earlier - 1940's and 1950's, breast feeding was considered old fashioned and the new and improved "formula" for nutrition was the modern thing to do for a baby. After all, modern scientists developed the formula. Processed foods meant clean and modern and sometimes "fortified" with extra vitamins. Remember when the Superman series came out. Moms wanted to make little supermans and not deprive them of the best things modern science could produce.

      It never occurred to most people that modern science could not duplicate the value of what "mother nature" produced.

      Anyway, that's my prospective from my childhood memories and conversations with mom. I have a lot of those old "church ladies" cookbooks.
      • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

        Wed, August 9, 2006 - 7:23 AM
        The lure of modernity with its promise of allowing people to emulate rich folks is what drove the marketing of the packaged food industry in general, no? Isn't it true that packaged geletin products - things that would become Jell-O and Knox began in the late 19th century as a way to allow the middle class to obtain some dishes that were fairly tony at the time - wine geletin and such? No need to spend hours rendering bones or have your servants (that you don't have anyway) rendering bones when you can just buy geletin in a box.
  • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

    Sat, September 23, 2006 - 12:52 AM
    Since this was a very poor area, it may have had to do with government "commodity foods." This is what you got when you were on public assistance before they started using foodstamps during the 70's. I remember getting my monthly supply as a single mom trying to finish school --- everything was either in a package or a can. Lots of cans of already cooked pork and cooked chicken chunks; cans of Spam-type stuff, lots of boxes of beans, rice, potato flakes, noodles, mac & cheese, oatmeal, cream of wheat, flour, corn meal, powdered eggs, powdered milk, corn syrup (for sweetener), shortening and blocks of real cheese. Also, cans of veggies and fuits, usually big ones, onion flakes, and cinnamon.

    It was amazing what you could make if you were creative. The Spam-type stuff was definitely the worst. I used to sometimes put chunks of it in the mac and cheese. If you could get some real potatoes, you could make a really nice hash from the the pork. There was even a recipe for potato soup using the potato flakes, dried milk and onion flakes and recipes for cornbread or regular bread using corn syrup as a sweetener. Also, a way to make your own Bisquick-type mix and a sub for cream soups.

    Most poor people didn't know how to do this, though, and lots of it went to waste.
  • Re: Recipes for Poor Folks in the '60s and '70s

    Sun, September 24, 2006 - 7:30 PM
    Also, if you're poor, you might not be able to keep up with utility bills. Or have utilities hooked up in the first place, depending on what sort of home you're in. In which case you may not have a refrigerator or freezer. An ice box would only get you so far, especially if you're in a warmer area during a warmer time of the year. Not much ice to put in the ice box.

    Which means canned foods that'll keep longer start looking really good, and fresher produce which takes time and energy to find, bring home, and prepare looks less interesting.

    I've got a recipe book from about the 50s heralding the new fangled electric refrigerator. Near as I can figure, it's from about the time when upper-middle class people could mostly afford one. It's presented as a huge deal, with all sorts of suggestions on how to prepare and store food with it, things we don't think twice about today. That suggests to me that it was another decade or more before folks lower down the income scale would regularly have fridges/freezers in their homes, plus have the wherewithal (money, time, energy and knowledge) to take full advantage of such a tool.

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