How Cooking Retro Recipes Became One Woman's Life Calling
Vintage cookbooks are often filled with combinations and structures that are flat-out laughable: chocolate cake batter bound with tomato soup; shredded roast beef mixed into fudge; lamb-shaped cakes adorned with coconut fleece and beady jellybean eyes; and transparent gelatin molds filled with pineapple chunks, baked beans, or even tongue.
But Ruth Clark looks at them with wonder.
“I enjoy finding books that have interesting food and crazy techniques that don’t exist anymore,” she says. At 13, Ruth inherited a small collection of cookbooks from her grandmother. It’s since amassed exponentially and become her livelihood.
“It blew my mind when I was looking at my vintage recipe collection that all the thousands and hundreds and billions of recipes that have come out before; all the people who have been working hard, all of the people who have been creating and have been writing down recipes and perfecting …. Which has been going on for hundreds of years.”
After graduating from college, she worked as a paralegal, then got married and moved to Michigan. She decided to put her writing degree to use and started a blog about mid-century lifestyle. When she needed content, she turned to her cookbooks.
“I had my cookbooks and I was talking to my husband and I said, ‘I want to write about mid-century food because it’s really interesting for me. I don’t want to just post recipes and make fun of them, I actually want to try them. I want to make them and see what they taste like and see what happens.’ And he said, ‘If you do that, I will eat anything that you make.’”
Thus Ruth became the cook, and Tom the taster. In the beginning, she prepared one meal (spanning in origin anywhere from the 1920s to the 1980s) weekly. And on several occasions, life got in the way. Ruth and Tom had kids, and earlier this year Tom landed a new job and the Clarks moved to Detroit. Now, nearly 10 years since she’s started, Ruth doesn’t always have time to experiment—but she does keep these recipes circulating, both on the Mid-Century Menu and its social pages.
The process goes something like this: Whenever Ruth goes through her collection, she’s armed with a handheld scanner. She copies anything that catches her interest and categorizes the recipes by ingredient in a gigantic file. As time passes and these ingredients come into season, she hits the files to see what’s lying around.
“Sometimes I’ll come across something that’ll jump out at me so fast that I’ll make it the next week,” she says. Ruth takes the contenders to Tom and asks what he feels like eating that week. Before you feel sorry for him, know that Tom gravitates towards weirder options. “He’s a good barometer for how crazy stuff is,” Ruth says. “He’s a chemist so he’s really interested to see how things come together.” They treat the process as an experiment, complete with constants.
“When we made beef fudge, we had to have controlled fudge that didn’t have beef in it to make sure,” Ruth says. “If this fudge tasted okay, then how would it taste with the beef in it?” Most of the time, the food turns out just okay, but sometimes it’s exceptionally bad—or surprisingly delicious. The end result isn’t just a meal, it’s a chemical reaction.
“Different things go together,” Ruth says. “Chocolate will go with anything, pretty much. I’ve thrown so many random things in chocolate, and most of the time it tastes good.”
Food and culinary history goes in cycles, Ruth says: “There’ll be a new product or new way of cooking and everybody will be really excited about it—think about, for example, currently, the Instant Pot. So everybody’s super excited about the Instant Pot, there are all kind of cookbooks and blogs and everybody wants everything to go in the Instant Pot. That’s kind of how culinary history goes. And then it’ll kind of slack off because people get sick of it, and then start up again once people find something else that’s awesome.”
For a more antiquated example, look at California dip - a combination of Lipton onion soup mix and sour cream - which emerged in the 1950s. First, it existed at cocktail parties (which were also in vogue) and evolved into far more than a condiment. In the 70s, Lipton put out a cookbook that worked California dip into every recipe.
“There’s weird stuff all the time. Every decade has its crazy trends,” Ruth says. “People took it too far and then it kind of fell out of favor and then something else started up.”
Gelatin molds, perhaps the most ubiquitous mid-century food trend, seemed fated for popularity. In addition to an aggressive advertising campaign, Jell-O benefited from political circumstance. World War II-era sugar rations provided Jell-O an ideal stage as a substitute. Then, with the advent of refrigeration, the jiggly treat became a medium for salad. (“You could basically do anything you wanted to for the ‘salad’ course,” Ruth says. “If you just threw a couple leaves of lettuce around it, it was a salad.”) People were really into salads, which were “anything that even sort of touched a vegetable,” as well as homemade salad dressing.
“They started experimenting with what things went together, what you could throw together to make it taste good,” Ruth says. “It’s not that they were crazy. It’s just that in a different time period, a gelatin that had pineapple in it was considered a salad course.”
Resurgences usually concern techniques rather than ingredients. Lots of contemporary food hacks, for example, originated in mid-century cooking—low-ingredient recipes, 3-minute ice cream, and even Rachael Ray’s potato masher trick are all rediscovered methods.
“As long as there are interesting food hacks and people who want to see them, you’ll see the mid-century stuff come back again and again,” Ruth says. “People always have ingredients sticking around. But if you show somebody how to do it, how do do something with them, and do it fast and well, I think that’s always gonna be an interest for people.”
The lessons Ruth picked up from these recipes are timeless. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and as I do it more, I become a better cook,” she says. For one thing, she’s learned what to do when there’s nothing spelling it out. A lot of mid-century recipes don’t have extensive instructions: “I’ll find a recipe that has just the ingredients for white cake, and at the end it says, ‘Bake until done, and cover with this frosting.’ The whole center section is missing, but because I have made so many cakes over the years, I know what the basic process is. So I can do it without a recipe.”
Knowing when something is ready comes with time and practice. “You can get some of that information out of a book, but unless you do it multiple times, so you can see all of the results, you’re not gonna know what you’re looking for,” she says. “Over time, the more you cook, the better you will be. Even if you fail. Even if you fail all the time.”
Nearly a decade of practice still can’t nullify Ruth’s shock factor, though. Even an expert can get weirded out by mid-century flavor combinations.
“I’m totally disturbed all the time. Things will be happening that are completely against my nature,” she says. “The first time I made the tomato soup chocolate cake, I just closed my eyes and dumped it in there.” She thought it was a waste of time and nice cocoa, but it turned out incredible. “I’m always going against my feelings, but I think that’s part of the reason why I pick the recipes. What I’m looking for is the stuff that’s bringing me out of my comfort zone and makes me try new things.”
Ruth encourages her readers and other cooks, both aspiring and proficient, to ditch their comfort zones and open their minds to the past.
“You can look at all of these other things that have come down the line and you can create from what we’ve learned before,” she says. “You don’t just have to know what’s happening now.” Combine history with current knowledge and you can create your own trends.
The enormity of it can blow your mind—it certainly blows Ruth’s: “It’s like when you look at a star in a universe and you’re looking up at the night sky, and you think ‘that star is one of millions of stars.’ There’s millions of different food experiences out there. Don’t just narrowly look at what you’re doing. Try to encompass it all and really, really take a look at stuff.”
It doesn’t mean you have to eat gelatin. It just means that you’re open to different food concepts and you’re interested in learning. That’s the only way we can keep the evolution of food and cookery in motion.
How people present their food can be fascinating and hilarious, both then and now. So don’t be afraid of seemingly unholy combinations, and don’t be surprised when people a few decades from now laugh at our favorite foods.