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Why Was Mayonnaise Such A Staple Of The Groovy Era?

Fads | September 9, 2019

Detail of something called the 'Welcome Home Salad' in an advertisement for Best Foods mayonnaise. Home chefs are advised to combine canned pear halves, grapes and cottage cheese -- then top with a dollop of mayonnaise. Source: Flickr

In Cold War America, "mayonnaise on everything" was the rule. We've seen the t-shirts and memes that advocate "sriracha on everything" -- imagine that sort of ever-presence, but it's mayonnaise, and it's not a hipster trend, but a rule of thumb for decades. Mayonnaise on everything, mayonnaise in everything, everything plus mayonnaise, mayonnaisey things with a side of mayonnaise -- peruse old recipe cards or any copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook from the ‘60s and ‘70s and you get the idea that a recipe wasn't really a recipe if it didn't include mayonnaise.

Recipes back then called for heaps of olives, gelatin, and mayonnaise. Items like Eggs à la Goldenrod or Perfection Salad jump out as relics from another time, maybe even another universe - a place where it’s acceptable to put a cup of mayonnaise in a chocolate cake.

Today, these recipes have a definite ick-factor, but at the time they were a part of a culture that placed a thrift and resourcefulness above all else. They were atomic age dishes that came about in an era when Americans were putting World War II behind them and looking forward to the future. 

Depression era thinking never went away

source: pinterest

It’s an understatement to say that there wasn’t a lot to go around during the Depression. Mothers had to feed sometimes large families with very little food, and they spread out their recipes anyway they could. Enter: Mayonnaise. Made mostly of eggs and oil, and aside from a slight tanginess it’s hard to assign a flavor to the sauce.

Adding mayonnaise to a pasta salad or mincemeat helps spread the meal out for a large family, maybe even for a couple of days. The people starting families in the ‘50s and ‘60s were raised in the Depression, or at least by parents who survived the era, and they definitely had the sensibility to make food last for as long as possible drilled into them. They chewed every bite of food 80 times, and used mayonnaise as the basis of a meal. 

Mayonnaise forward recipes were about showing off in the atomic age

source: vintage recipe cards

Mayonnaise wasn’t strictly used in depressing meals eaten by families with the dust bowl weighing heavy on their minds. Following the end of World War II families were once again able to spend money without feeling guilty. Rationing was over and people felt like it was time to celebrate. Many recipes, like the Fonduloha (pineapple, turkey, mayonnaise, curry, peanuts, coconut and canned mandarins, put back into a pineapple shell), showed off the new American excess that our enemies in the Cold War could only dream about. America put its stamp on everything following the war, including party meals and goopy salads. For better or for worse, we made food that couldn’t come from anywhere else but the good ol' U.S. of A.

The era of civilized food ushered in mayonnaise and gelatin centric items

source: pinterest

At the same time that Betty Crocker and Hellmans was rolling out their mayonnaise forward meals, domestic science and home economics classes were popping up across the country. Starting with the Boston Cooking School, new dishes were dreamt up for housewives to prepare, and all of them were meant to be eye catching and feminine.

The meals dreamt up by the Women’s Education Association and its Boston Cooking School all featured a rich sauce made from mayonnaise, and they usually featured a dash of horseradish for flavor and a sprig of parsley to liven things up. These classes and recipes infiltrated middle America, making it perfectly acceptable for golden tuna shortcake to be considered a meal. 

Mayonnaise and Jell-O, the perfect combination?

source: pinterest

Are you the kind of person who has trouble with new and interesting textures in your food? If it wobbles do you send it away? If it makes a squishy sound when your spoon dives in do you say, ‘no thank you?’ If so, aspics are not or you. These gelatin molds may look unappetizing, but they’ve existed in different forms throughout history, and in the 1950s they came into vogue as a way to keep meats and vegetables relatively fresh while offering a meal with visual pizzaz.

As odd as it seems now, mayonnaise is actually the perfect condiment for an aspic whether it's sweet or savory, and it plays into the depression era concept of making use as many leftovers as possible. Do they look gross? Sure. But they made sense for families who were trying to stretch one meal into two (or three), or for a party host who needed to feed a lot of people on a small budget. 

Mayonnaise is still a way of life

source: pinterest

We may no longer include mayonnaise as a recipe staple. No one in their right mind or outside of a theme night is going to whip together a diced ham filled aspic with mayonnaise in the center, or a platter of sliced peaches covered in some tangy Miracle Whip, but it’s still used as the basis for sauces that we eat on an every day basis.

The mayo filled recipes of the ‘50s, ’60s, and ‘70s seem archaic, but they show a spirit of ingenuity and thriftiness that’s never gone away, it’s just changed a little. The next time you’re invited to a dinner party, think about bringing a dish with a little extra mayonnaise. 

Tags: Food In The 1950s | Food In the 1960s | Food In The 1970s | Mayonnaise | Recipes | Remember This?... | Vintage Advertisements

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.