In the course of researching Turkducken's real age last week, I turned to one of my favorite food resources on the Internet: the Food Timeline. If you're a food nerd, prepare to lose dozens of hours to the fascinating depths of the Food Timeline and its entries on the history of nearly every food or beverage you can think of.
One of my favorite things to do is peruse old foodstuffs that were once the pinnacle of popularity, and have since fallen out of style. During the height of at-home entertaining in the 1950s and 1960s, a dish's status was more or less determined by how expensive and laborious it was to prepare. During the 1970s and 1980s, dieting and calorie-counting diminished the popularity of many of these dishes as the foods of the fit and fabulous became ever more processed into low-fat, sodium-free versions of their former selves.
Nouvelle cuisine reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s -- think of the famous L'Idiot scene from L.A. Story -- and one day, food historians will look back at the 2000s as the decade when farm-to-table food and locavorism was favored above all else. The only question is which faddish foods we're eating now that will have completely fallen out of favor in a generation or two.
Here are five old favorites that have already fallen off the average foodie's radar, and are now resigned to food history timelines and the odd octogenarian-supported restaurant.
5. Steak Diane
According to the Food Timeline, Steak Diane "is an American invention of the late 1950s/early1960s, when French cooking (think Julia Child & the Kennedy White House menus) was all the rage. Rich wine sauces and flamboyant presentation were the norm for many top restaurants."
There are a handful of restaurants in Houston that still serve Steak Diane, places such as Brennan's and Rudi Lechner's. I like Brennan's, but I don't need to point out the one thing that these three restaurants have in common: a certain age demographic, which still wants its steak with a bucketload of butter on top and the theatricality of a flaming dose of cognac.
"The beef, sizzling in a large copper pan with brandy flaming and sauce bubbling," wrote Jean Anderson in American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, "makes a wonderful show reminiscent of the days when Humphrey Bogart and friends would bound in at midnight following the newest opening on Broadway..." Hollywood doesn't really make them like Bogie anymore, and neither do restaurants create full-on spectacles like Steak Diane (with the notable exception of Gordon Ramsey above).Gordon Ramsey makes Baked Alaska, too. Go figure!
4. Baked Alaska
"The history of Baked Alaska is an interesting study of food evolution and culinary folklore," says the Food Timeline. "Most food historians generally agree this confection originated in the 19th century. None of them are willing to commit with regards to 'absolute' credit." But no matter which origin story you believe, the fact of the matter is that traditional Baked Alaska is rarely seen in its original form these days: ice cream baked for a short time in a very hot oven, guarded from the heat by a meringue shell.
Baked Alaska reached the height of its popularity during the middle of the last century. Wrote Sylvia Lovegren in Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, "Ice cream pies were very chic [in the 1950s], and baked Alaska ice cream pie was too soigne for words." The feminine look of the thing even mimicked the pastel design aesthetic that was popular at the time.
But ice cream pies gave way to other desserts in the 1960s, specifically cakes: red velvet cake, Black Forest cake and Texas sheet cake soon became the things that everyone brought to potlucks and parties, and ice cream-based desserts began to fade into obscurity.
There are still a few places where you can find Baked Alaska -- like the Oceanaire in the Galleria -- but more common these days are updates and interpretations of the old dessert. Take, for instance, pastry chef Rebecca Masson's individual Baked Alaskas with strawberry sour cream ice cream and a cap of toasted meringue on top.
3. Cherries Jubilee
How could something created by Auguste Escoffier himself be deemed out-of-style? Well, when was the last time you saw Cherries Jubilee on a dessert menu? Escoffier's original recipe was modified by American cooks who were fascinated with the idea of flambéing desserts, with the result being that Cherries Jubilee was "a standard dessert item in the finest continental restaurants" throughout the 1950s and 1960s. "Cookbooks in the 1950s and 1960s almost always contain a simplified recipe for this particular item," the Food Timeline notes.
The popularity of Cherries Jubilee declined for the same reasons as Steak Diane or Baked Alaska: No one was looking for excess or theatricality in their foods in the 1970s, as the country dove into recession and the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War. We look back now on dishes and desserts like these as deliberate and gaudy forms of conspicuous consumption, even though cooks back then might say the same thing about our foams and emulsions of today. We're still in the throes of the "better living through science" dogma, although we go about it somewhat differently now.
But not too differently, of course, as you can still find flambéd desserts on menus, especially here in Houston, desserts that owe their heritage to Cherries Jubilee. Bananas Foster, anyone?
2. Lobster Thermidor
The popular story holds that Lobster Thermidor was created on January 24, 1894 at Chez Marie in Paris. Victorien Sardou's play Thermidor had debuted that evening at the nearby theater Comedie-Francais. The restaurant named the dish after the play, "Thermidor," and the rest is history.
If you think Steak Diane is rich, or Baked Alaska is time-consuming, meet the Loster Thermidor. Lobster meat is combined with egg yolks, powdered mustard and cognac, then baked in a lobster shell and served with a browned crust made of Gruyere. It's a high-maintenance dish that takes a ridiculously long time to prepare (when done correctly) and is cost-prohibitive for most diners. You can imagine why -- like Cherries Jubilee -- this showstopper eventually started to seem like mutton dressed as lamb.
And thank God for that. Have you ever been served anything in aspic? It's often the color of untreated sewage, an unpleasant reminder that you're eating something made from horse knuckles. Yet it remained popular through medieval times, eventually becoming a standard in classic French cooking. Remember reading Julie & Julia and marveling at the author plowing through the dozens of aspic recipes contained in The Art of French Cooking? Aspic was recently important enough for Julia Child to devote much of her writing to the stuff, as despicable as we may find it today.
While most food historians agree that aspics reached their apex in the mid-20th century, no one can accurately explain why aspic was so popular. I quizzed my mother and a table of her friends last night at dinner on this subject, and they all unanimously agreed that aspic looked, felt and tasted disgusting. Yet they all felt obligated to make and eat it in the 1950s and 1960s regardless.
The only explanation I can find is that foods looked curious and intriguing when displayed in aspic. They hovered weightlessly in the clear brown gel, perhaps seeming to mimic the astronauts hovering in zero gravity during the great mid-century Space Race. It's as good an explanation as any, especially considering the dish's popularity during the Kennedy administration.
Thankfully, by the 1970s and 1980s, nearly everyone admitted that -- while visually interesting -- anything suspended in aspic tasted vomitous and moved on to concocting new and more heinous modern creations. Red Bull, anyone?
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