by Carol A. Westbrook
When I see a restaurant promising their food is “just like Mom's home cooking,” I am not interested. My mother was not a great cook. As a matter of fact, most other Boomers (my generation) feel the same way. We remember meals where many of the ingredients came out of cans or from the freezer. Microwave ovens hadn't yet been invented. Birthday cakes were made from a Betty Crocker mix, while we dined on spaghetti O's, or white bread smeared with margarine, holding 2 slices of Oscar Mayer bologna. Pie was constructed using a crust mix in a box, and apples from a can. A typical meal served to company: salad of head lettuce with Kraft French dressing, green beans from a can, instant mashed potatoes to accompany the well-done roast beef, and store-bought ice cream for dessert. (Mom drew the line at Jell-O with embedded canned fruit salad and Dream Whip topping.) Worse yet, being Catholic meant that our Friday meals were meatless, so we would have to look forward to Kraft macaroni and cheese from a box, meatless spaghetti with canned sauce, fish sticks, or tuna fish casserole made with a can of that all-purpose sauce, Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. (To this day I can't tolerate tuna fish or Campbell's mushroom soup).
You get the picture. American cuisine was relatively impoverished in the early 1950's. We were just coming out of WWII, and many war-time brides had grown up learning to cook when there were shortages of crucial ingredients–sugar, eggs, butter, meat–so poor quality food was a way of life. The war effort required rations for thousands of men, and this spurred the development of many ways to preserve food in a ready-to-eat condition, from canned beans to Spam, to boxed cheese sauces and dehydrated potatoes.
After the war ended, the soldiers came home to settle down and have children–lots of them–giving rise to the term “Baby Boomer,” and the wives gave up their jobs to stay home. Moms like mine had large families to feed, and welcomed these cooking short cuts, especially when they were cheaper than making them from scratch. As a large Catholic family, with only one income and parochial school tuition to pay, our food budget was exceptionally tight. Mom had to be very parsimonious about her food choices; we didn't eat out or take in, and cheap McDonald's food hadn't yet been invented. Spam was cheaper than beef (we ate a lot of Spam in our home, since my dad, a WWII veteran, loved it!). Canned vegetables were cheaper than fresh produce except, of course, in the summer, when our large backyard city garden produced a bumper crop of beans, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and peas. At these times we shared and traded with neighbors and friends, or took family outings that included stops in orchards and farm stands. I remember when we purchased our first deep freezer, enabling us to stock up on meat and TV dinners when they were on sale, or freeze our surplus garden vegetables –no canning for the modern wife.