You probably know that I’m intensely interested in food history–particularly American food history. In the last post, a few folks brought up something that Ken Ham is suggesting that Christians do for Halloween this year. His suggestion is hilariously bad, by which I mean that it’s so inept and obviously self-serving that it’s had me chuckling at odd moments ever since it was brought up. I’ll show you what it is today and why it reminded me of a ketchup meringue recipe from the 1950s.
The Golden Age of Processed Foods.
Most foods we buy in stores are processed to some degree. Most of the dirt on potatoes is hosed off. Carrots are denuded and put in plastic bags. Salad vegetables are washed and bagged. Grapes destined to become raisins are de-seeded, picked over to remove foreign matter, and dehydrated before being boxed up. Wheat grains are hulled and the germ removed to make white flour. Green beans and other vegetables are picked over, sorted, and prepared for canning so all a cook has to do is open the can and pour the contents into a dish or pan for reheating. Meat is cut into different configurations and wrapped in plastic.
All of that stuff is considered minimally processed. So when I use the term processed, I’m not talking about that kind of processing. I’m referring to what the food industry calls ultra-processed, meaning that these products are combinations of other processed foods. This is stuff like slices of American cheese in individual wrappers, snack crackers in boxes, canisters of soy protein powder, and various grains pummeled to the point of disintegration and then spat through an extruder barrel into whatever shapes marketers think kids will nag their parents to buy.
A truism in the food industry is that the more processed a food is, the higher the profit margin on that product. Bags of raw sweet potatoes have a far smaller profit margin than do snack chips with sweet potato powder in them, for example–even taking into consideration the machinery needed to turn those raw tubers into Terra Chips. Plus, ultra-processing generally removes from foods the bits that make them go bad so quickly and add all kinds of stuff to keep them fresher for longer, so these foods were seen as win-wins for everyone.
Many of the techniques involved in ultra-processing, like dehydration especially, were developed for the American war machine, but once World War II ended, food manufacturers were left with an awful lot of machinery for ultra-processing foods that now didn’t have the demand created by a serious war effort.1
Loath to let all that machinery go to waste (and possibly thinking about the much-larger profit margins that ultra-processed foods garner compared to minimally-processed ones), they retooled their various processes to introduce a veritable explosion of new products to the consumer market instead. In the heady days of the 1930s and 1940s, one could say indeed that processed food was having a glorious Golden Age of its own.
There were just two little problems standing in the way of total and universal adoption of these products.
Houston, We Have a Problem. Or Two.
As early as 1944, admitted the publisher of Quick Frozen Foods, frozen baked beans had become “a drug on the market.” Apparently 25 million pounds were available, and pretty much remained so.
Something From the Oven, p. 12
Very quickly after that explosion began, the people who marketed processed food had two huge problems on their hands.
First, these foods rarely tasted good enough to eat in their own right.
Consumers usually considered ultra-processed foods as substitutes for food prepared from scratch, but it would have taken advanced imaging technology and rather a lot of imagination to figure out what the vast majority of these products were supposed to be imitating. It took decades for cake mix manufacturers to figure out how to formulate their products to turn out recognizable cakes on a consistent basis–and that’s just cake mixes. Other products, like frozen spinach and instant coffee, tasted even worse. But the main issue here was that not only were these foods low in quality, but they were also completely unfamiliar, like frozen whale steaks, canned hamburgers, and vichyssoise.
During World War II when America faced rationing, families tried these weird and unfamiliar products simply because they were either not rationed at all or had very low ration-stamp costs. After WWII, though, families stopped purchasing them entirely and went back to their preferred eating habits and diets.
That diet wasn’t actually a pinnacle of refinement or flavor, but at least it was something they were used to preparing and eating–stuff like candlestick salad (for women-only luncheons, of course! Ooh la la!) and pineapple fluff.2
Second and arguably way worse in manufacturers’ view, women rejected these products out of hand as being within the purview only of lazy women who didn’t really love their families.
Ironically, women had long ago given their seal of approval to a number of products that qualified as processed, albeit minimally so–they gladly bought chickens that were pre-plucked and dressed, used gelatin mixes for every course in meals from soup to nuts, and served canned conventional vegetables like green beans. These products had been around for so long that they were familiar; a woman could use them in meal preparation without feeling ashamed of herself or worrying at all about society’s disapproval of her for doing so.
Not so, with the newer foods.
Mad Men to the Rescue.
The pages of Quick Frozen Foods practically bristled with irritation. Why wouldn’t people buy frozen Camembert cheese? What prejudice kept women from trying frozen whale steaks, especially since they were “Papal approved” for Fridays and Lent?
Something from the Oven, p. 16
The makers of these foods seem to have gone the same route then that Christian leaders are taking now in dealing with low sales.
At first they got annoyed with their sales numbers. Then they blamed women for a while for not adopting these new products. But unlike religious leaders, after these manufacturers finished crying in their reconstituted beer, they set to work to find real answers to women’s objections to their products.
The story of how they did it is astonishing in and of itself–a real testament to American ingenuity and inventiveness. They eventually realized that they’d been going about their marketing to these women all wrong.
They’d assumed that women hated cooking and considered it drudgery, so they’d stressed the time-saving nature of their offerings. In reality, survey after survey revealed that women generally liked cooking–or at least didn’t hate it as much as they hated the other stuff they had to do every day. Many of them identified cooking itself as a symbol of their status as housewives and as the primary emblem of their role as the nurturing caretaker of their families. Indeed, many women were starting to reject even the learning of even basic cooking skills, as one woman explains in the October 2017 issue of Bon Appetit, as a symbol of their escape from that restrictive role.
So advertisers went to work to teach women how they could use processed foods to both be creative and to show love–and to discredit and challenge traditional American cooking to usher in a new and altogether unfamiliar kind of food preparation.
(Sound familiar, maybe?)
Over the next decade or so, American food got even weirder than it already was. We’re talking about a culture whose cooks came up with Ham and Bananas Hollandaise and saw no problem with proudly signing their names to a recipe for roast beef fudge. They created recipes involving marshmallows that in any kind of just world would qualify as violations of the Geneva Convention, and they sure didn’t see a problem with making a pineapple out of liverwurst, “frosting” it with yellow-dyed mayonnaise, and happily calling the botched result an hors d’oeuvre fit for a dinner party.
A lot of the wackier recipes of the 1950s and 1960s came out of the flailing brain-pans of food advertisers. One thing you’ll likely notice quickly when you leaf through the various cookbooks and pamphlets of the era is that many of them are sponsored or even printed specifically by particular food companies or industry advocacy groups. It wasn’t uncommon at all for these groups to make recipe booklets and offer them for free to women.
And. Friends. Dear friends. OMG. These booklets. ARE. A. STONE. COLD. RIOT. They make me think of Chick Tracts in the best possible way.
These booklets are the most awesome thing you can possibly imagine for their epic hopefulness, which is dwarfed only by their authors’ obvious, sheer white-knuckled desperation to come up with some new way to use their product to pad out the recipe list in their advertising materials.
I’ve got a whole box of these things that my mom collected in the 1960s and 1970s. In these booklets, Holland House’s cooking sherry shows up in a recipe for French toast. Angostura Bitters come to the rescue to glamorize Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie. A-1 Sauce tarts up Main Dish Macaroni Salad. It’s all not only disgusting-sounding, it’s incomprehensibly out of place. And in most of these booklets, the advertising company’s product must show up in every single recipe without fail, no matter how silly or extraneous its presence might be.
Not all of the hoard is that bad–I remember my mom making some of the tamer recipes in my childhood–but you’ve got to exercise some discernment to figure out which recipes are viable and which ones are pure advertising over-optimism.
And a few decades previously, most women had the skills to be able to exercise that discernment. But by the time Mom began amassing her box of pamphlets and handouts, many women had been divorced and estranged from those skills for years. (Not for nothing does Michael Pollan advise his readers to avoid purchasing or eating anything “your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” though of course he recognizes that this advice doesn’t take into account our modern-day fondness for international cuisines.)
No, I’m Serious: Ketchup Meringue.
A meringue is what you get when you beat egg whites and sugar together till they turn into a thick froth. Typically you cover custard pies with it and brown it on top just a little, but meringue can be used in all kinds of other ways. The real pity is that we can’t really trust our food supply to provide safe eggs anymore, making it necessary to cook the meringue in various ways to safely consume it. Nonetheless, meringue was very popular in the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond. (At the end of this post I’ll include my favorite meringue recipe–it is divoon and I hope you’ll try it out.)
Oh, but in the hands of Heinz’ marketing people, meringue suddenly became an ingredient in a savory dish. And that should sound a little weird, because it is. It’s not totally impossible to make a meringue work in a savory application, but it isn’t easy.
As Laura Shapiro writes (p. 58):
A cook who actually decided to follow the suggestion in a Heinz booklet and fold a quarter cup of ketchup into beaten egg whites, thus arriving at a ketchup meringue, might well have wondered what on earth to do with it until the concept of spreading a topping over a meat pie swam into focus.
Most likely though, women didn’t follow those suggestions because they were hopelessly weird. Ms. Shapiro goes on to point out that the really wacky recipes you see in books and pamphlets of the time were really just promotional in nature–meant to convince women to see the product as part of her repertoire of skills and recipes–and to purchase the products named in the recipes.
That exact pipe dream may be responsible for the glut of recipes for oleaginous canned-food casseroles topped with potato chips instead of more conventional and tasty seasoned, buttered bread crumbs (my mom tried tuna casserole on me once in my childhood, and I still remember it almost 45 years later because I threw up so hard it felt like every cell in my body had come together like they were summoning Captain Planet to projectile-launch that disgusting mess out of me). As food historian Abigail Carroll tells it in Three Squares, the manufacturers of potato chips thought that if home cooks thought of their product as a legitimate recipe ingredient rather than a self-contained snack food in its own right, they’d buy more of it. And they’d be right. I don’t often eat tortilla chips, but there’s a bag of ’em in my pantry right now intended to be used in the tortilla soup I’m making this weekend.
Little wonder women at the time tried some of these lamentable recipes, tasted the results or watched their kids barf till they could taste shoe leather, and concluded that they should go back to their regular routines that worked so much better. Or they gave up entirely if they lacked the skills to do anything better.
Their major error was in trusting manufacturers to provide trustworthy recipes to them as consumers. They hadn’t realized that these recipes were provided to make manufacturers more money–not to help women cook three meals a day for their hungry families.
Ken Ham’s Big
Gay Boat Halloween Suggestion.
We turn our gaze from ketchup meringue to an equally ludicrous suggestion from Ken Ham of the Answers in Genesis (AiG) pseudoscience peddlers.
He wrote a post on AiG’s blog a few days ago suggesting that parents “[share] Christ with trick-or-treaters.” And how should parents do that, you might wonder? Not to fear, he’s got the perfect way (emphasis his):
Halloween has its obvious downsides, but we can use this day to share the hope of Christ with others by welcoming trick-or-treaters with some candy (or maybe a healthier snack!) and a gospel booklet.
Before a reader can even gasp at the ingenuity of this suggestion, he suggests the AiG publication “A Biblical and Historical Look at Halloween” to hand out–and then helpfully provides the link to the AiG store, where Satanic Panicking parents can buy the booklets for the low low cost of 79¢ apiece.
This booklet is written by Ken Ham’s very own son-in-law, but I’m sure that nepotism had absolutely nothing to do with Ken Ham’s promotion of this book. And I’m sure that Bodie Hodge, who has no background whatsoever in history any more than he does in biology, is indeed quite the Renaissance scholar. I’m even more sure that he will present the history of Halloween correctly and without bias to the AiG’s overly-trusting customers–especially given that Hodge is on record as thinking that there is literally no situation in which lying is acceptable, ever.
Like most Creationists, Bodie Hodge is a Biblical literalism and inerrancy crank. And he thinks that he’s totally an expert in all kinds of fields, enough so that he is qualified to advise Christian parents about what to teach their kids about philosophy, ethics, history, and biology. Really, his output is simply astonishing–I guess it’s easy to write tons of books very quickly if one doesn’t fuss about with actually learning about the topics involved.3
Ken Ham’s All-New and Improved Medicine Show.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if toxic Christian leaders actually even care about recruiting new people for their various groups, or if they’re even aware of how little credibility they have in the general public’s opinion. Their suggestions are just that out-there and laughably ineffective. They remind me sometimes of the charlatans of old who traveled America in their brightly-painted wagons to sell their magic potions to desperate homesteaders.
These salesmen’s snappy patter and smoke-and-mirrors performances might remind modern viewers of any fundagelical revival service nowadays, but these theatrics had a very real function: they cloaked the truth about these elixirs: they didn’t work, there was no proof at all that they even rose to the level of uselessness, and they might even make would-be patients’ conditions worse by poisoning them somehow.
Ken Ham is surely among the most colorful of the modern-day medicine show charlatans. His constant stream of self-serving diatribes serve as a barometer for just how loopy fundagelicalism is getting these days. But the mistake would be to think that he provides these booklets and blog posts as a service to humankind. No, he does it to raise his own visibility in Christians’ minds–which in turn translates into bigger sales of his pseudoscience trash.
Ken Ham’s Real Goals vs. His Stated Goals.
When he whines about how Google made a doodle celebrating the discovery of the ancient fossil Lucy, he’s trying to compare real science with his narrow-minded brand of Biblical literalism–and to try to make Creationism look like a valid worldview.
When he tells his fast-shrinking group of followers that Creationist science-deniers like him are “happy to teach children regarding various views of origins,” he’s reinforcing those followers’ self-image of themselves as the truly fair and reasonable people in their self-created culture war. Sure, everyone outside that group will immediately perceive that the reality of the situation is the dead opposite, but they aren’t buying a whole lot of AiG’s pseudoscience or many tickets to Creationist museums.
When he presents his weird little theme park and museum as the best solution to persuade people to join his particular flavor of Christianity, he’s doing it so that the people who do buy tickets to such ventures continue to do so. Christians like him don’t like to think of themselves as losing, even if they treasure a self-image as underdogs.
We’ll ignore the fact that it sure seems like literally nobody has ever converted to fundagelicalism because of a message peddled by a theme park, that nobody ever has been happy to see tracts in their trick-or-treat bag with the exception of a few people (like me) who find them ironically hilarious, and that Google’s doodle makers don’t care what Creationists think about Lucy because Creationism is as obviously useless and untrue as, say, phrenology.
That’s almost not even the point.
The point seems a lot more like keeping Ken Ham in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. That’s why he always makes suggestions to Christians that will enrich himself. He’s a huckster and a very shrewd one that way.
The Eternal Reality of Salespeople.
Christians are displaying a singular lack of wisdom when they take the word of salespeople about what does and doesn’t work regarding recruitment. But it’s all they know how to do, these days. I don’t think they even realize that their leaders are in fact salespeople, any more than they realize that they themselves are simply deputy salespeople acting on behalf of those leaders for the most part.
Just as nobody writing recipes decades ago for ketchup meringue and California Prune Cream Salad cared if anybody ever actually tried those recipes, Ken Ham’s concern appears to end after his products are purchased by gullible Christians. That these materials arguably push away more people than they draw in hardly matters to him. If it did matter, I’d expect Ken Ham or his pals to do what processed-food manufacturers did in the 1950s. I’d expect him to get real answers for why his products, as well-intentioned as they might be, do the dead opposite of what fundagelicals think they do, and to find real solutions for those problems.
What I’m describing sounds like a bad fantasy novel, though.
If someone does somehow, inexplicably, get persuaded by this awful stuff then that’s great, it’s not like fundagelicals won’t take it, but (alleged) Christian grifters play to their audience–and we, the unwashed masses who don’t buy anything fundagelicals are selling, are simply not that audience. The fundagelicals buying this stuff are. They won’t buy anything that doesn’t mesh 100% with their worldview and ideology, nor support any self-titled ministry that disagrees with them.
That’s why fundagelicals’ advice often boils down to keep doing what we already told you to do–just do more of it and with more fervor.
Could they figure out some new marketing technique that was more effective at recruitment? Maybe, but it wouldn’t look much like what they’re already doing. Fundagelicals would absolutely need to change a lot of their current tactics. More importantly, they’d have to stop rewarding the many snake oil salespeople in their midst.
I don’t think they can make big changes at this point. Maybe in a few more years their desperation will lead them to dare to consider what is now unthinkable. But they’re not desperate enough yet.
We’ll talk more about this idea next time–and will see you then!
And this is what happened right after I took the picture of the recipe booklets. I barely got it all put away before she reclaimed her current favorite spot. PS: Guess which game Mr. Captain is playing in the background?
1 Much of this food history comes from Something From the Oven, by Laura Shapiro.
2 Pineapple Fluff: Pour a 16-ounce can of crushed pineapple in juice into a large bowl. Add 1/2 pound regular-size marshmallows cut into quarters. Stir around, cover the bowl, and put it in the fridge. Stir it sometimes until the marshmallows totally dissolve and it goes fluffy. Serve in bowls with whipped cream on top. If you prefer, you can use canned berries in juice. Recipe comes from Fashionable Food.
Preheat oven to 200; put parchment paper on two baking sheets. Trace 12 2″ circles on each sheet, then turn the paper over so you can see the circles but the ink/pencil won’t come off on the cookies.
Beat 2 room-temperature egg whites and 1/4 tsp cream of tartar to soft peaks. Slowly add 1/3 cup sugar and continue to beat to stiff peaks.
Mix together 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, and 1/2 cup almond meal (ground almonds). Gently fold this nut mixture into the meringue. Put the resulting goo into a piping bag (I just use a gallon-size freezer baggie with the tip of one corner cut off). Pipe coiled circles on the cookie sheet parchment, following the tracings you made. If you have extra, feel free to make more as room on the sheets allow.
Bake this for about 70 minutes OR until crisp.
Put a dollop of thick chocolate ganache on each cookie and top with a raspberry or something, if desired. (I make mine with 1/2 cup heavy cream, heated in the microwave until bubbly, and 2 oz of chopped bittersweet chocolate added and stirred in until it’s all smooth–MMMM.)