Vintage recipes and cookbooks are like time machines.
I recently stumbled on a box of Weight Watchers recipes from 1974. I grew up in this glorious gustatory era of canned soup and iceberg lettuce, but the recipes — and the photos — were side-splittingly funny for the culinary geek in me.
The recipes are a culinary record of just how far American tastebuds have come. But the first thing I noticed as I flipped through the cards was a garish food styling aesthetic that was more unflattering than a pair of polyester hip-huggers.
For instance, what’s with all the tchotchkes? Cat statues, owls and vases of all shapes and sizes. Busy, busy, busy. The colors and patterns on placemats and tablecloths clashed. Bouquets of inedible flowers were strewn about these weird tableaus. Instead of enhancing, they distract from the food.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
As I shuffled the deck, particular themes began to emerge, like game-show categories. I’ll take “Something Fishy” for $200, Chuck! With bonus rounds: “Where’s the Iceberg?, “What Is Aspic?” and “Variations on White Bread.”
The reliance on white bread cannot be overlooked. It seems that white bread could be used as a stand-in for an eggroll wrapper, pizza dough or a tortilla.
To be fair, these were the days before a thing called artisan bread was widely available in supermarkets. Instead, slices of “enriched white bread” could stand in.
Enriched white bread was another way of saying Wonder Bread, although Weight Watchers did have its own brand of skinny bread — think ultra-thin slices that looked suspiciously like regular bread pushed through a slicer.
Recipe names were odd: Cabbage Casserole Czarina, which included toast but seems unfit for royalty, Russian or otherwise. Meanwhile, quote marks were used only on Marcy’s “Enchilada” — no doubt a wink to the recipe-maker that this wasn’t exactly authentic but designed to give you the flavors of a cuisine with fewer calories.
The Fish “Tacos” dallied with whole-wheat toast in place of the ubiquitous white bread. I mean, um, in place of the proper corn taco shells or tortillas. The recipe instructed that the cod or sole filets be cooked with chili and onion powder and then served with a blender sauce made of pimentos, chicken bouillon, vinegar, garlic, paprika and pepper.
To borrow an ad phrase of the time period from Campbell’s Soup: Mmm, mmm. But I’m not sure it was good.
“Wow. That looks terrible,” was the response from TikiCat, a Westport tiki bar, when I posted a series of my white bread finds on Instagram.
Farm to Market, the artisan bread company that has upped Kansas City’s bread game over the past few decades, had this to say: “We vow to never. Ever.”
It seems crazy to consider how much bread appears in these recipes. I even found a black walnut cake recipe that skipped the boxed cake mix in favor of still more slices of white bread.
The breadcrumbs from eight slices of enriched white bread were combined with nonfat dry milk, artificial sweetener, eggs and a tablespoon of black walnut extract, then poured into a pan, baked and frosted with Strawberry Fluff Frosting.
Not a real black walnut in sight, but plenty of flower petals ringing the cake plate. I only hope they are edible. All this carbo-licious bread has made me hungry.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Find her at @jillwsilva and @chowtownkc on Intagram.