Vail Daily Behind the Scenes column: What America was eating 50 years ago
Ryan Summerlin January 13, 2013
Winter, 1963. The first Broadway run of “Camelot” closed after 873 performances and the American political era named for the mythical kingdom would end tragically before the year was out. Nine years after the 707 was introduced, Boeing secured its near three-decade jet age dominance when the 727 took off for the first time on Feb. 7. The Age of Aquarius had not yet dawned and war drums in a distant land in Southeast Asia were still muted. The world was changing, in some ways seismically. And in the world of alpine skiing, the resort destined to become that which all others would be compared, Vail, was born. Nearly everyone on the planet who has ever strapped two boards on their feet to careen down snowy slopes knows about Vail. But probably no one remembers what people were eating in America when Vail opened in the winter of 1962-1963. Please indulge me in a little nostalgia as I travel back in time to the culinary world then and what food trends and fads existed that first season of the resort’s storied life.
I was 6 years old and living in south Louisiana in 1963. The “big” grocery stores in Thibodaux, where I grew up, consisted of Food Town, National and Winn-Dixie. Later, an A&P came to town and that was big stuff. Small groceries still existed, though, unbeknownst to their owners, they were on life support. My favorite grocery store belonged to my grandparents, Joe and Frances Manale. It was a combination grocery and butcher shop in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. If ever there was a typical small New Orleans grocery of that era, it was theirs. Behind the cash register and against the big window was a sea of penny candy – every 6 year-old’s dream. That alone convinced me I was born into a rich family. Imagine all that candy! A red Coca Cola soda pop case was nearby. It was about that time that 10-ounce and 12-ounce bottles of soda were appearing alongside the 6-ounce bottles in my grandpa’s store. Six-ounce bottles of Coke are relics of the past. Sure, you can find 6-ounce tetra packs of coconut water for $2.50, but if you want a regular soda today, 33-ounce bottles are the norm. The soda bottles in my grandpa’s store were just that, bottles – as in, glass. Although soda had been available in cans since the 1940s, most believed – and I still do – that sodas tasted better in glass than in cans. That was particularly true when Coca-Cola introduced its first diet drink, Tab, in 1963. Of course, Tab wasn’t particularly good in bottles or cans! Aluminum cans became available in 1960, but the convenient opening methods were still down the road. To drink out of cans, you needed a “church key,” a near-extinct tool for opening beverage cans and prying “crown caps” off soda bottles. Canned soda would become the norm in the 1970s, when pull-tabs came into use, followed by plastic bottles that now can carpet the earth many times over. But there’s nothing new under the sun. We’re now going back in time, and expensive sodas are increasingly bottled in glass. To buy Coca-Cola in 1963, one would have to pony up a whopping .13 cents for a 12-ounce can. Doesn’t seem like a lot in today’s terms, but when you considered Coca-Cola cost 5 cents for 70 years – the last 5 cent Coke was sold in 1959 – that’s a big jump. It was still four years before the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, and no one had to write, “made with real sugar” on the label. Again, nothing new under the sun, as, increasingly, high-fructose corn syrup is falling out of favor for various reasons and “real” sugar is making a comeback.
What were people snacking on in 1963? Giant bags of potato chips the size of standard pillows weren’t around then, but neither were 33-ounce sodas to wash down all that salt, grease and carbohydrates. Potato chips had been a favorite snack since George Crum invented the food in 1853 – and it is still a global favorite.Chex Mix became a party favorite in 1955, when the recipe appeared on the side panel of Chex cereal boxes. It was still highly popular in the 1960s. Kids today will be shocked to know some snacks now routinely found in bags priced higher than a box of cereal were actually once homemade. A 1963 issue of Better Homes & Garden printed a recipe for “Party Mix:” A little Lea & Perrins, salt, butter (or margarine), salted nuts and seasonings, a few minutes in the oven and, voila! Chex Mix! I recall this being one of my early culinary endeavors. It has not followed me through life. In 1963, that processed wonder known as Cheez Whiz was 10 years old; the Ritz cracker, nearly 30. The two had been married along the way as a favorite snack food. Articles from the era containing party snack food ideas suggested Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers or piped onto celery sticks. Again, another culinary wonder best left in the past, in my humble opinion. My brother Mike recently admitted his favorite high school snack in 1963 was white bread dipped in condensed milk that was kept somewhat hidden on the refrigerator bottom shelf. The things we learn about our siblings as adults! One friend, Patti Thompson, recalls her high school snack of choice in 1963 was French fries and Tab with lime. “Nasty!” she claims. My husband, Dani, longs for his favorite snack food from his time an officer in the Israeli navy in 1963: falafel bought in a Haifa kiosk. He still has a great palate but now prefers some Pinot Noir with his falafel.
For dinner, adventurous cooks were tuning into Julia Child’s first season on TV as she extolled the wonders of classic French cooking made all the more wonderful with a “little” red wine. Trendy Americans, including the occupants of the White House, favored all things French when entertaining. But for average Americans, things like meatloaf (Hamburger Helper was still 8 years away), string bean and sliced almond casserole, as well as “company creamed onions,” were popular. Iceberg lettuce salads, particularly those with a leaf “cup” filled with potato salad or ambrosia, were popular in 1963. My dad’s favorite was drained canned pineapple with shredded sharp cheddar cheese, and dollop of mayonnaise on iceberg lettuce. Once again, one of those tastes best left in the past.Buffets and theme barbecues gained popularity in the 1960s. Swedish meatballs, first trendy in the U.S. in the early 20th century, enjoyed a renaissance on buffet tables. According to foodtimeline.org, an incredibly fun website, the Americanization of popular international favorites created themes such as “Island Feasts” and “Casual Curry Buffet.” I hope you’ve enjoyed my family memories and Google surfing experiences. Interestingly enough, in my research I discovered that 1963-theme dinner parties are trendy now. Nostalgia, particularly involving food, is a strong fad generator. But I want to know more about what people were eating in Vail that first season. Come back next week and we’ll explore that! Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.