Lessons Learned From A '50s Housewife
Updated: Jun 7
(by Gloria Bailen)
In 1949, my mother, an 18-year-old city girl from St. Louis, married and dutifully followed her new husband to small-town life in southwest Ohio (a cow town, she called it), where my dad and his brother were starting their own junk business. The scrap trade, a respectable occupation for Jewish men of the era, was a step above schmata salesman perhaps, but several rungs below the more prestigious careers of doctor, lawyer, or financier.
Nonetheless, Mom was eager to leave behind her working-class roots and the sacrifices of the Great Depression through the 1940s—eager for the opportunity to embrace the post-war American Dream of prosperity and consumerism by becoming the queen of Jewish housewives. The jewel in that crown was a new house my father bought for $6500 with help from the GI Bill. It was modest by any measure, but it featured a modern kitchen replete with shiny new appliances and Formica countertops. It was her very own domain of domesticity, where she would create food on the cutting edge of an emerging cultural phenomenon—mid-20th century cuisine.
Dad grew up eating his mother’s Russian shtetl cuisine of borscht, pulverized potatoes, and desiccated meat, so he thought his wife’s cooking was wildly exotic: an elegant relish tray with celery, carrots, and olives on ice; chicken à la king; green bean casserole made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup; instant mashed potatoes; packaged Parker House rolls; and, the piece de resistance, angel food cake or baked Alaska for dessert. Dad would come home in the evening, exhausted from 12-hour days at work. In stark contrast, his beautiful bride, always resplendent in something utterly chic (and never to be caught dead without her Revlon Fire and Ice lipstick), proudly presented his supper on their laminated dinette table (with a pink boomerang pattern design).
They entertained friends with trendy cheese fondue get-togethers, and served pigs-in-blankets along with the ubiquitous relish tray and copious amounts of martinis at the occasional cocktail party. But by the time my sister and I came along, the honeymoon was over, and when it came to food, convenience and time was of the essence. Our new TV set became part of the family, and on weekends, when Mom and Dad had a night out, our old-maid baby sitter plunked us down at TV trays with a Swanson frozen dinner (to this day, I cannot look at a Salisbury steak without getting queasy), while we were cruelly forced to watch her favorite program, “The Lawrence Welk Show.” (I must admit, I did develop a secret crush on Bobby.)
When I was about seven years old, Mom gave me my first cookbook: Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls. I thought it silly that boys would ever be cooking in the kitchen, but nonetheless I was thrilled and felt so grown up. I learned how to make a “Candle Salad” with a slice of pineapple as the base, a banana as the candle in the center, and a maraschino cherry as the flame. Best of all, I could assume my mother’s mantle as “chief pigs-in-blankets maker” with the help of some Bisquick biscuits and little wieners. (So fun to say out loud. Little wieners. Heh- heh.)
In the early sixties, we moved to a new home in a development called Sherwood Manor. And yes, we actually lived on Merry Robin Road. Our kitchen was new and improved, with a turquoise refrigerator and countertops, knotty pine cabinets, a KitchenAid dishwasher, electric can opener, and a Veg-O-Matic—a Rube Goldberg type of device that my sister and I proudly mail-ordered as a surprise for Mom one Mother’s Day. I think the only fresh "Veg" that gadget ever sliced and diced was a potato, since most of the vegetables to be found in our house were in cans in our fallout shelter, unless you count the iceberg lettuce.
Mom’s culinary influences leaned more toward Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines than Julia Child. To be fair, I remember a few special occasions where she successfully turned out a boeuf Bourguignon that was tres delicieux. But the foods that pleased my young palate were somewhat less glamorous: chop suey with little crunchy noodles on top. (The TV commercial proclaimed “La Choy makes Chinese food swing American!”), fried bologna on Wonder Bread, Crispy Critters or Pop-Tarts for breakfast. Better living through chemicals. No wonder I did my fair share of drugs when I was a teenager; I was already hooked.
And I must not forget the condiment of my people: ketchup. On everything. Don’t judge.
Smash cut to 1974. I graduated high school and took off for New York City to make my way as a professional ballet dancer. I moved into the Barbizon Hotel for Women, a storied residence for young dancers, actors, and models who came to New York to seek fame and fortune, as well as old spinsters who didn’t find fame or fortune (or a husband) and never left. With no cooking facilities, I ate daily at the hotel's coffee shop, putting on my “freshman 15” with the predictable comfort food of my childhood, like cheeseburgers, French fries and BLTs. But then I fell in love. With cheesecake. Not the guar-gummy frozen Sara Lee, but rich, creamy, unadulterated New York cheesecake. My virgin taste buds were smitten. And thus began my love affair with real food that changed life as I knew it.
I embraced many things about New York City, among them a self-taught, culinary education. I was a dutiful student, exposed to foods my mother never dreamed of, let alone ate when she was my age: sushi, dim sum, chicken and waffles in Harlem, and the legendary “eat ‘em if you dare” dirty water hot dogs sold from pushcarts on the street. I was lucky enough to dine at iconic New York restaurants like Tavern on the Green in Central Park, as well as tucked-away places in Greenwich Village, Chinatown, and Little Italy.
I learned how to cook from my more sophisticated friends in their tiny, but well-equipped apartment kitchens—with their carbon steel Sabatier knives and exotic Dansk cookware that I coveted. They taught me how to sauté a perfect veal piccata, stuff a whole fish, and roast a capon. Hold the ketchup.
At one point, in the late 1980s, I worked in public relations for the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the national contest that showcases recipes made with that company’s products. The winning entries were typically mid-western fare, like Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs or Hungry Boy’s Casserole made with slightly ersatz, processed ingredients that I had learned to disdain. But as much as I now fancied myself an evolved, urbane foodie, these ladies were proud of what they created, and reminded me where I came from. They were my people, and I swore on my well-worn Silver Palate Cookbook that I would never become a total food snob.
Mom’s taste for good food progressed over the decades too, and she eventually added trendy ingredients to her cooking repertoire like sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and panko bread crumbs. But she still makes the chocolate cake of my childhood, with a box of Duncan Hines Devils Food mix, bespoke with her secret ingredient, a ripe banana.
My dad has passed on, but Mom, nearly 90 years old, eventually moved back to her native St. Louis, to an independent living facility, where most of her meals are prepared. When I visit, our days are planned around our meals. I’ll take her to restaurants, but mostly we eat in her communal dining room where I devotedly follow behind her as she pushes her walker, slowly scanning the room to see where the “cool kids” are sitting, so she can show me off, as she likes to say. As I look around, I notice on every table, atop the crisp white linens, a relish tray with celery, carrots, and olives on ice, and it makes me a little teary-eyed. A nod to simpler times that somehow never change.
Certain foods are constants in our lives, and never go out of vogue, bringing comfort and sustaining us as we age, when we’re alone, when we’re in love, when we’re happy, sad, or indifferent.
My mom taught me that.
Gloria Bailen was a professional ballet dancer with the Israel Classical Ballet and Boston Ballet. She transitioned careers to broadcast television, working at ABC News 20/20 in New York, and later as a freelance producer of videos and documentary films for ABC News Nightline, Lifetime, Discovery Health, and Travel Channels. She and her husband live in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She creates cooking demos as a volunteer for a non-profit that supports the food insecure, and is also a consultant for a skincare company. She can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
8 veal cutlets (about 5 oz. each)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 c. unbleached flour
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. dry white wine
1/4 c. capers, drained
1/2 c. veal or chicken stock
4 T. unsalted butter
juice of 2 lemons
1/4 c. chopped flat Italian parsley
Place veal cutlets between two sheets of wax paper.
Using a meat mallet (or the bottom of a skillet), pound them (gently) until about 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick.
Season with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour, shaking off excess.
Heat oil in large skillet over high heat.
Add veal, and sauté, turning once, until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate, cover with foil, and set aside.
Add wine and capers to skillet, scraping the browned bits at the bottom of pan.
Bring to a boil and reduce by half.
Add stock, and cook until somewhat thickened.
Stir in butter and lemon juice until bubbly.
Add parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
Pour sauce over veal and serve immediately.