Years ago, I wrote a piece for Salon magazine that bemoaned the prepackaged, chemically saturated foods that made up a good portion of my childhood diet. My mother had a mixed reaction to the essay. She laughed at my descriptions of our meals and agreed with my points about the changing role of women in the 1960s, but she took issue with my hyperbole about her devotion to easy-to-prepare foods. What about her delicious stuffed veal breasts, her succulent beef stew, or her wonderful turkey dinners? My mom was a good cook but she was still a product of her time. Speedy meals made with a minimum of effort were changing women’s lives in the kitchen the same way the brand new birth control pill was changing their lives in the bedroom.
I still have some of my mom’s old cookbooks: her dog-eared copy of “The Joy of Cooking” and her well-used tome from “Better Homes & Gardens.” But these were not her culinary bibles. No, her primary role model in the kitchen was that elegant and urbane star of stage and screen, Miss Arlene Francis, whose book “No Time For Cooking” promised to get women in and out of the kitchen in less than fifteen minutes!
Arlene extols the virtues of packaged foods in her book with a religious fervor and my mother was her devoted disciple. As I wrote in my Salon article:
The new prefab goodies were designed to free American women from the drudgery of the kitchen and add quality time to family life. As consumer dependency shifted from the farmland to the factory, our foods reflected the hopeful wonder of American technology. Why spend countless hours preparing the boring meals of our grandparents’ generation when you could simply grab a box, open a can, break a plastic seal, or pull back a foil lining?
A typical day in our house began with breakfast cereals that boasted a staggering array of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Cocoa Puffs, Sugar Pops, Cap'n Crunch. My favorite was Trix—tiny spheres of crunchy Day-Glo sugar that sent spirals of fluorescent colors strafing across my bowl of milk. I also liked Lucky Charms, which featured mini-marshmallows in leprechaun-inspired shapes. I foraged past the bland cereal bits to find the yummy hearts, moons, and clovers in a spectrum of hues that never existed on God’s rainbow.
Lunchtime foods sprang forth from a stock of canned goods that was big enough to outlast the Cold War. Our luncheon menu might include Spaghettios (“the neat new spaghetti you can eat with a spoon!”), Chef Boy-Ar-Dee mini-raviolis, Goober’s peanut butter and jelly swirled together in the same jar, or the glorious Marshmallow Fluff, a pristine white concoction of sugar and air that was added to peanut butter to make heavenly “fluffernutter” sandwiches. When she had a little extra time, my mother prepared comforting Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese. As she mixed the powdered topping with milk, it was magically transformed into a cheesy goo guaranteed to stay in the colon until Nixon’s resignation. All of these treats were washed down with refreshing sugary beverages such as grape Kool-Aid, strawberry Fizzies, Tang, Fresca, or chocolate-flavored Yoo-Hoo.
For our nightly dinner meal, my mother demonstrated a flair for the exotic. Hawaiian meatballs made with canned pineapple in heavy syrup; lemon chicken, cooked all day in a Crock-Pot with frozen lemonade concentrate. Sometimes she served honest-to-God fresh produce: wedges of watery iceberg lettuce drowning in the dazzling gelatinous red-orange of Kraft French Dressing. In an era that worshiped brand names, our dinner ingredients were offerings upon the altar: melted Velveeta, cubed Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese, crushed Kellog’s Corn Flakes, Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce, Wish-Bone Italian Dressing, Lipton Onion Soup Mix, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, Durkee’s French Fried Onions. Capitalism was alive and well in America and living in our pantry.
My mother’s desserts rivaled science fair projects. She made Dole pineapple upside-down cake, sticky Rice Krispies treats, and “mock” apple pie made of Ritz crackers instead of fruit. My favorite dessert was the short-lived Jello 1-2-3. Although prepared like regular Jello, this amazing product would separate into three distinct layers as it cooled: creamy top, fruity middle, and plain artificial black cherry bottom. Top the whole thing with non-dairy Cool Whip and you have a dessert fit for an Apollo astronaut!
This week marks what would have been Arlene Francis’s 100th birthday. She died in 2001 but sadly had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for many years. Was there anyone on the planet who was more witty, intelligent, and charming than Arlene Francis? She appeared in films, on Broadway, and in many radio and TV shows, but most Baby Boomers got to know her during her amazing 25-year stint on “What’s My Line,” the best game show in the history of television.
In 1961, at the height of her “What’s My Line?” fame, Arlene wrote this cookbook for the modern woman. The color photos alone are priceless. Arlene’s caption on this photo says, “I like to entertain informally. The little spread you see here is set out on the coffee table in my living room. Like most working women, my schedule simply doesn’t allow for big affairs very often.” Um…this is informal? I guess in Arlene’s world it was, even though the silk dressing gown, canapés, and carved pineapple evoke a palace event at Versailles compared to what we call an informal meal at my house.
I’m sure a lot of celebrity cookbooks are ghostwritten by professional writers but this book has Arlene’s unique wit all over it, I’m sure she wrote it herself. Just take a look at her “Act 1” introduction:
Just as some people lose their attractiveness at the beach, others seem stripped of all charm at the breakfast table. They fall into two types—and I’d wish they’d fall farther. You have either those determined human-robins, who chirp brightly over their orange juice, or you are confronted with the Great Stone Face, who won’t speak!
The following panacea of breakfast suggestions are so good the human-robin shuts up to eat them, and the Stone Face speaks up in appreciation. Either way, with a Breakfast Winner, how can you lose?
While Arlene’s repartee is always sparkling, many of her recipes make my 21st century stomach want to hurl. But maybe you’d enjoy her breakfast selections which include such items as Prune Delight, Fruited Pork Roll, Tongue Omelet, or Smoked Sliced Beef Pancakes.
In addition to providing hundreds of recipes, almost all using those innovative packaged meats and canned vegetables, Arlene was also a bit of a shill for her co-publisher, Mickleberry Food Products, a huge company in Chicago that would suffer a terrible factory fire in the late 1960s and go out of business. This photo shows some of their prepared products. (Notice the careful placement of Arlene’s book “That Certain Something” on the table!) The caption reads, “HE might want Beef in Red Wine, SHE might prefer Lobster Newburg. These and many other truly gourmet dishes are individually packaged in Flex-Vac ‘boil-in-bag’ form and frozen.” I would never doubt Arlene’s honesty, but if that Lobster Newburg came out of a frozen pouch, then my name is Bennett Cerf!
In the chapter on picnics and cookouts, Arlene offers up her Bacon Kebabs that include grilled bacon wrapped around carrots, olives, and cucumbers, all basted with garlic butter. How about cubes of canned luncheon meat interspersed with buttered bananas? Another recipe involves folded slices of pork luncheon meat and salami mixed with maraschino cherries, vacuum-packed dried apricots, and canned pineapple chunks. Do you see where my mother got her inspiration? For a special treat called Asparagus Mornay, Arlene arranges a 6-ounce package of sliced luxury loaf in a pie plate and then thaws some frozen asparagus tips in Hollandaise to sprinkle on the meat along with some cheddar cheese. Yum…but what the hell is luxury loaf?
Feel like entertaining? Arlene has all the advice you’ll ever need, as well as delicious recipes for Tongue Spread, Prune Rings, a melted cheese dish called White Monkey, her famous Bologna Ring Gelatin Mold, and something called Frankfurter Suey which combines hot dogs with soy sauce, brown sugar, bean sprouts, onions, and chicken bouillon cubes. Mmm-good! If anyone knows how to throw a well-heeled soiree, it’s Arlene Francis:
Parties, like plays, need plotting. You can’t just ring up the curtain and hope for the best. One plot element, as important as the menu, décor, and advance preparation, is your cast of characters. To wit, if your guests lack mutual interests, their dialogue, witty or not, will give out before dinner.
The party setting is a manner of brightening your home as a mute but warm compliment to your guests. Remember, too, in that setting you, the hostess, will be stage center. If everything’s ready in the wings, there’s no need for you to make your first entrance in a dash from a hot kitchen into the spotlight looking like a road company witch from “Macbeth.” If you’ve plotted well and timed things properly, you can glide onstage, glamorous as a professional model. The hostess’ temperature serves as a reverse thermometer for her guests. When she’s feverish, their spirits drop to zero; when she’s cool, their spirits soar.
I’d be willing to eat Arlene’s Bacon Kabobs or Luxury Loaf if I could just spend some time in her gracious presence. Throughout the book, Arlene talks about her teenaged son Peter who “likes to feed his friends in his own room where the record collection is handy.” She explains that Peter and his “constituents in Young America” prefer cold cuts, hot dogs, and hamburgers to anything else in or out of this world. “When teenagers have four miles of catsup in which to drown anything they’re eating, they’re in heaven. Beyond that there’s little to say except ‘Batten down the hatches, and lots of luck!’”
Today that teenager is 60-year-old Peter Gabel, Director of the Institute for Spirituality and Politics at New College of California, associate editor of Tikkun magazine, and the author of “The Bank Teller…and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning.” Arlene, you did good!
Happy Birthday, Ms. Francis, and thanks for helping to get my mother out of the kitchen…even if it did lead to scary meals that probably stunted my growth!
(You can find a diamond heart necklace like the one Arlene Francis wore at myjewelrybox.com.)