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50 funniest food fads

Sunday, August 22, 1999

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

In 1981, I ran the recipe for Better Than Sex cake in the Post-Gazette. It was all the rage that year. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from a woman who said she had baked it for the block party on her street.

"My neighbor said it is not better than sex," the caller said, sounding a little miffed. "But how would she know? She's 80 years old."

    Fad recipes

In retesting these recipes, I discovered that many box sizes have changed since 1981. The recipes are updated accordingly. I also used pineapple in natural juice, low-fat cream cheese, 2 percent milk and Cool Whip Free. Both desserts are still sweet.

Maybe the names of the desserts should be updated, too. My 9-year-old grandson suggests "Next Best Thing to Brad Pitt," or maybe Ricky Martin would be better.

-- Woodene Merriman


Where that recipe originated, nobody knew. But it had been printed in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the Washington Post. (Phyllis Richman, executive food editor at the Post, commented that she really preferred celibacy.)

The same story had a recipe for the Next Best Thing to Robert Redford, another fad of the summer of '81, and another rich dessert.

Funny food fads spread as quickly as butter on a hot biscuit. Sometimes they're recipes, sometimes a product, sometimes an unusual way to use food or a piece of kitchen equipment. They're popular for a time, then they disappear. Some pop up again years later. A few eventually become classics.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of the of the 50 Funniest Food Fads of the 20th century. The timing of each one is approximate; you may have known them before or after I did.

1. Mastication. Chew, chew, chew your food, declared scientist Horace Fletcher back at the turn of the century, claiming it cured him of gout, incapacitating headaches, boils on the neck and face, and a lot more. "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate," Fletcher warned.

Mothers everywhere started urging their children to chew, chew, chew, usually 25 times for every bite. One-time British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone said he chewed every bite 32 times, and to that he owed much of his success in life.

2. Apple pie without apples. At the turn of the century, cooks were making apple pie without apples and probably trying to fool their friends with it. Mrs. James Biddle, wife of the inspector general at Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory, wrote down the recipe for soaking soda crackers in water to make them soft, then using them instead of apples in a pie. The recipe kept popping up during this century, even on the Ritz cracker box.

3. Sauerkraut Cake. Instead of coconut, rinsed, drained and chopped sauerkraut goes into the chocolate cake. Another guessing game for cake-eaters.

4. Hurry Curry, Sweep Steak and Spuds O-Grotten. Recognize those recipes? Then you were a fan of Peg Bracken and her "The I Hate to Cook Book" in 1960. "This book is for those who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day," she wrote.

5. Watermelons Spiked with Gin. Or was it vodka? Whatever, early in the century it was popular to cut a small plug from a watermelon, deep enough to go into the cavity, fill the watermelon with alcohol and let it sit overnight before serving. One large group of teetotalers by mistake were served alcohol-soaked watermelon meant for a group of salesmen. The smiling teetotalers devoured the melon, picked out the seeds and stuffed them into their pockets. Or so the story goes.

6. Cantaloupe with Gelatin Center. After the seeds were scooped out through a small opening, fruit-flavored gelatin was poured in to fill. When the gelatin set, it could be cut into wedges or slices and served. Think of the pretty color combinations.

7. Jell-O Eggs. For Easter in the 1960s, we used to make a hole in the small end of a raw egg, dump out the contents, wash out the shell and pour in thicker-than-normal fruit-flavor gelatin. When the gelatin set and the "eggs" were peeled, you had gelatin eggs. I must have had more time than sense in those days.

8. Jell-O Poke Cake. Liquid Jell-O is poured over a cake poked full of holes.

9. Jell-O Broken Glass. Different colored cubes of Jell-O are held together with Cool Whip, giving a stained glass effect.

10. Cool Whip. It contains no cream, stays stiff and tastes like sweetened Crisco. Introduced in the late '60s, it launched wave after wave of dessert and mousse recipes, in addition to being used as a topping. No longer a fad, it's almost a classic now.

11. Bride's Pie. Before Cool Whip, it was popular to substitute whipped canned milk for whipping cream. The canned milk had to be icy cold before whipping. Gelatin that was about to gel also could be whipped. Fold whipped canned milk and whipped gelatin together, spoon into a graham cracker pie crust, and you have Bride's Pie.

12. Pressed sandwiches. Two slices of Wonder Bread, a slice of Velveeta in the center. Wrap in aluminum foil, place on the ironing board, place the hot iron on top for 2 or 3 minutes, turn the sandwich and repeat on the other side. Quick, hot dinner for this college coed.

13. Aerosol cheese. Bad idea.

14. Fried peanut butter sandwiches. Of all the peanut butter concoctions dreamed up in the 20th century, this was the worst. My children loved them.

15. Cheese and jelly sandwiches. Another kid favorite, before they all started eating Lunchables.

16. Dishwasher fish. The fish of your choice is wrapped well in aluminum foil, placed in the top rack of the dishwasher and left there through a complete cycle to "cook." I first saw this in The Washington Post in the 1970s. Sounds dangerous to me, but it's an idea that keeps resurfacing every few years.

17. Roasting meat on the car engine. I first tried it in the late 1960s -- for a newspaper story, of course. The meat is wrapped in aluminum foil, placed under the hood on the engine, and off you go. It took 150 miles for a 3-pound chuck roast, or something like that. When I stopped for gas, I asked the attendant to check the roast, and got a startled look. It's another idea that keeps turning up; one clever foodie recently turned it into a book..

18. Chocolate cheese. It was made with cream cheese and chocolate, and it was awful.

19. Herman. Not a man, but a sweet sourdough starter. For a while everyone had Herman in the refrigerator, and couldn't get enough of him. From Herman, we made pancakes, breakfast rolls, breads, you name it.

20. Amish Friendship Bread. This is another sourdough fad, much like Herman, that works something like a chain letter. It's making the rounds again. Be suspicious if anyone offers you a container of sourdough and the recipe.

21. Brandied fruit. In a large glass jar on the kitchen counter, peaches, pineapple, maraschino cherries and lots of sugar fermented. Every week you added more fruit and more sugar, but never brandy. It was served over ice cream or cake, and you had to keep giving cups of it away; it was impossible to eat it all.

22. Sex on the Beach. It was a popular drink for a while. Ask your favorite bartender for his variation on the vodka-liqueur-and-fruit juice concoction.

23. Fuzzy Navel. Even nice old aunts who claimed they never touch anything with alcohol drank these sweet drinks made with peach schnapps.

24. Spam. After World War II, especially, Americans ate Spam baked, studded with cloves and covered with sweet 'n spicy sauce, Spam fried with eggs, Spam with chili, cold Spam sandwiches with Miracle Whip on white bread, toasted Spam and cheese sandwiches, Spam spaghetti. The question is, why?

25. Twinkies. Born in the Depression, the oblong sponge cakes injected with creme filling caught on quickly and became the epitome of junk food. One man in San Francisco was acquitted of a murder charge when he claimed his mental capacities were impaired because of a high intake of junk food, including Twinkies. And a man who worked for the bakery that made them was said to have subsisted on nothing but Twinkies and Cutty Sark for several years. I've been known to eat a few myself, after they were warmed in the microwave.

26. California Dip. In the '60s, every suburban party had a bowl of dip made with a package of onion soup mix and a 16-ounce container of sour cream. It had originated in California, thus the name.

27. Crab Spread. By the late '70s, the hors d'oeuvre everyone was serving was another easy one: An 8-ounce block of cream cheese, topped with the contents of a small can of crab meat from the supermarket, the whole thing drenched with cocktail sauce. Pass the soda crackers.

28. 7-Up Pound Cake. Blame this one on a home economist in Dallas who developed 150 recipes using the lemon-lime soda. This cake soon was in every community cookbook. Two of her other creations were 7-Up Baked Beans and 7-Up Pancakes. (To make the pancakes, substitute 7-Up for the liquid in any pancake mix.)

29. Coca-Cola Cake. Another recipe that turned up again and again in community cookbooks.

30. Balloon-made wine. In an empty 1-gallon wine jug, we put a can of frozen Welch's grape juice, sugar, yeast and probably water. I can't remember the precise ingredients. A balloon went on the top of the jug. This sat in the television room, so we could check on it. As the yeast went to work, the balloon expanded. When the balloon collapsed, the wine was ready. Sure we drank it -- once.

31. Kool-Aid. Some drank it, some used it as hair dye.

32. Cheez Whiz. Cooks in the 1950s loved this cheesy sauce in a jar. That was before microwaves made it so easy to melt cheese.

33. Ham barbecues. Other parts of the country still argue about what makes a good barbecue. But in 1950s Pittsburgh, we knew the exact ingredients: Isaly's chipped ham and "secret sauce" (ketchup and relish). Heat together, and serve in sandwich buns

34. Tuna Noodle Casserole. Of all the recipes for cooking with a can of soup and something else, the most popular was tuna noodle casserole. It came to be one of the best-known recipes of the '60s, or thereabouts. Cooks came up with many variations, adding peas, using chicken or celery soup instead of mushroom.

35. Liver once a week. Before people worried about cholesterol, liver once a week was the rule for good health. But kids hated it, and mothers devised all sorts of concoctions to sneak liver into their diets. My favorite was grinding raw liver (yuck) and adding it to ground beef to make meat loaf. I never fooled them, though.

36. Cabbage Soup Diet. A few years ago, it was all the rage -- for a very short time. My brother tried it. He made the giant batch of soup one morning, and started eating as directed. He was able to stay on the diet until 3 p.m. that day.

37. Grapefruit Diet. This one keeps reappearing every few years, apparently appealing to a new group of people who haven't heard of it.

38. Oat bran. For a while in the '80s, we were adding oat bran to everything possible.

39. Fiber. High-fiber breads were popular for a time. One company went too far and put super-fine wood chips in their bread.

40. Beef Wellington. Remember when we were all making it? Now it's rarely in new cookbooks or on restaurant menus.

41. Milky Way Cake. One of the first desserts that used candy bars in the mix. The size of Milky Way bars has changed at least once since I clipped my recipe -- throwing the measurements all off.

42. Goldfish. Swallowing real goldfish, not the snack crackers, was the rage with college students for a time (shortly before trying to see how many people you could pack into a Volkswagen).

Kitchen equipment of the century was serious, but cooks put some of it to strange uses, such as:

43. Microwaves. Every kitchen has one now; we couldn't get along without them. But remember when people used them to curl false eyelashes or dry pantyhose and underwear (to kill bacteria)?

44. Fondue pots. In the '70s, we all gathered around the fondue pot, dipping long forks with cubes of bread into hot, melted cheese. When you pulled your cheese-soaked cube out of the pot, the string of cheese followed you around the room. It made for great parties. If you had two fondue pots, chocolate fondue went into the other. Who worried about cholesterol and calories?

45. Pressure cookers. By the 1950s, every kitchen had a cast aluminum pressure cooker. Not everybody read the directions. The ceiling of the kitchen in an apartment I knew intimately had strands of hardened spaghetti that flew up there and stuck when a pressure cooker burst.

46. Donvier Ice Cream Makers. Anyone from age 3 up could make ice cream in 20 minutes with a few turns of the handle, if you kept the liner in the freezer, ready to go. I still keep the liner in the freezer; my husband thinks it makes a great wine cooler.

47. Baking bread in a glass tube. If you like gadgets and like to bake bread, you had one of these in the '80s. The result was a loaf of bread shaped like a long roll. Cut into slices, it made neat round sandwiches. Some cooks baked bread in coffee cans and clay flower pots, too.

48. Home freezers. Free standing home freezers became popular in the latter half of the century. Our first one was used to stow snowballs so they could be brought out the next August; to hold dead birds until we could get them to Carnegie Museum for the bird researcher; and to hold whole sides of beef, cut into roasts, steaks and hamburger.

49 and 50. Better Than Sex and Robert Redford, because we've saved the best for last.

Oh, oh. I forgot cold duck and wine coolers. Everyone was drinking them, then no one was drinking them.

I probably forgot a lot of other funny food fads of the 20th century, too. If you remember others, e-mail them to wmerriman@post-gazette.com or write to Woodene Merriman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

My thanks to Carolyn Wyman's book, "I'm a Spam Fan," for reminding me about some of these funny food fads.

Related Recipes:

Better Than Sex
Next Best Thing to Robert Redford

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