Menus change. Right along with the times.
The typical U.S. dinner menu in the 1950s looked like something you’d get in a school cafeteria — potato ‘frosted’ meatloaf, tuna surprise and canned lima beans. In the 1970s, when we weren’t drinking down fondue, we were eating a lot more TV dinners — salisbury steak or turkey and dressing. By the 1990s, ranch dressing was served on everything from chopped salads to turkey pita pockets, and we’d already decided that microwave ovens were better suited for bags of popcorn. These days? We’re all over the culinary map when it comes to what we’re eating at home.
Much of it though is inspired not by the stuff we remember Grandma making, but the stuff thawed — and microwaved — by the 16-year-old kid at the local chuck & pluck. Yep. Fast food joints, and restaurants in general, seem to be steering our tastebuds in a different direction than that of our ancestors.
OK. A lot of fast food joints have served fries through the years. But McDonald’s fried theirs in a combination of vegetable oil and beef tallow, which is why the place gets top honors. — While most of us aren’t dropping fries in the deep fryer every night, we’re slapping them into the oven. Have you seen the size of your frozen potato section at the grocery store? Remember that same (much smaller) section 25 years ago?
Long before Dominoes and Papa John’s came onto the scene with their quasi pizzas, Pizza Hut was putting mom & pop artisans out of business. There was a time not so long ago that Chef Boyardee brand pizza mix was the only option at the market. But nowadays? Look across that long freezer of frozen potatoes and you’ll see an equally long section of pizza varieties. Somebody’s buying them.
I hate to be the spoiler, but that General Tso’s Chicken, Orange Beef and Chow Mein that you’ve been picking up at Mr. Chow’s are … American. General Tso is a mythical person — or at least unknown by any Chinese friends of mine. And Orange Beef is a knock-off of the popular dish named for the mythical general. As for Chow Mein? Yeah, it’s somewhat authentic, if you leave out the meat and half of the seasonings we enjoy here. Fact is, the Chinese people were (and generally still are) not with the amenities — such as free-flowing gas or electric — as we Americans. Furthermore, they don’t have an Iowa or Texas, where beef cows are as plentiful as mosquitoes. And some Chinese provinces are well within the coastal areas, which omits Happy Family or Black Pepper Scallops from the authentic menu. Sorry, folks. The stuff on that buffet was most likely concocted in San Fransisco.
Though there are accounts of fried U-shaped tortillas showing up in New Mexico in the 1940s, Glen Bell is widely credited for filling the crunchy shells with mystery meat, plastic-like lettuce shreds, mealy tomatoes and some sort of wicked cheese. Yep. Same guy. (And you thought the ‘Bell’ was from old Mexico?) — Sorry Food TV fans, Aarón Sánchez and the Ortega company didn’t invent the shells for those Tuesday night tacos. Neither did the Old El Paso company, which actually originated in New Mexico. But both companies and their savvy marketing departments have made damn sure that many Americans celebrate ‘Mexican Night’ or ‘Mexican Made Easy.’
The history of this now-iconic salad is disputed. There’s the Caesar Cardini camp, which believes that the Tijuana, Mexico restaurateur invented the bowl of egg-laden greens for hungry Marines who crossed the border to drink alcohol during the Prohibition. We also have the Giacomo Junia fan club. They swear that Junia originated the dish in Chicago in 1903. — Either way, Caesar Salad is served in every restaurant and convenience store in the country. And the salad dressing selection these days is nothing like the Thousand Island and Italian selection of the 1970s and 1980s.
Bottled Caesar dressing is the number three seller in the U.S. behind ranch and vinaigrettes.
This popular pub (and home) grub is said to have originated in a border town across from Eagle Pass, Texas in the 1940s. According to many food historians, the now-famous appetizer first appeared in a San Antonio restaurant in the 1950s. The liquid cheese (or queso) version first appeared at Arlington Stadium at a Texas Rangers’ home game in 1976. It was introduced by none other than Frank Liberto, owner of Rico’s — the same stuff on the shelves of the Hispanic section of your local grocer. Frito Lay and other companies have followed suit in a huge way.
If you aren’t from the Midwest, you’ve not likely heard of the Maid-Rite chain. Their specialty? Loose ground beef sandwiches. Sort of like Sloppy Joe’s … without the nasty Manwich-style sauce. I was introduced to a homemade version of these about 25 years ago and thought they were a family recipe. Then, along came the Internet.
Maid-Rite sandwiches are what they are — slow-cooked ground beef and onions. They are messy. Not very attractive to look at. And addictive. Some cooks go a little crazy with the ingredient list, adding various herbs, spices and bottled sauces. But this is truly a 4-ingredient dish: Ground beef, onion, salt and pepper.
I prefer mine with mayonnaise, American cheese and a couple of pickle slices. They are traditionally served with a tomato slice, fake cheese and mustard. No matter what, you must have these on steamed buns. No frills. Delicious.
2 lb – Ground beef
1 – Medium Onion, diced
1 TB – Salt
1 TB – Black pepper
Place all ingredients in a large Dutch oven or slow cooker. Cover with water by about an inch. Cook on low heat for about 4 hours; or at the ‘low’ setting for about 6 hours.
Drain and serve on steamed hamburger buns with your favorite hamburger toppings and a stack of napkins.
Serves 5, with seconds for someone.