Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Perfection, schmerfection

Let's face it, I'd make a lousy '50s housewife.

Inspired in part by the AMC series Mad Men, set in a swishy fantasy of 1960 Manhattan, my roommates and I threw a '50s-themed supper party on Saturday. I had a vision of me in heels and pearls, opening the door with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in another, canapés artfully displayed upon a gleaming table and jazz emanating from my ipod (fantasies need not be authentic).

Let's just say that's not how it turned out – and not least because there would be no indoor smoking.

I was guilty of poor planning. Foods that were popular fifty years ago require a great deal of advance work, for gelatin sets at its own pace (a length of time that I have found is always double what the recipe indicates it shall be.) I woke late on Saturday morning, exhausted from several weeks of nonstop work, travel, and other modern-gal activities. After an egg-white spinach omelette and some blogging, it was afternoon by the time I hit the grocery store.

My shopping cart looked like I was stocking a bomb shelter. I got a bit carried away in the canned goods aisle, as thrilled and curious as a time-traveler by cocktail onions and a 70th-anniversary tin of SPAM.

But I was jolted back to the modern day at the checkout counter. My bill came to $60-something, in part because I over-bought to compensate for poor planning, so not in the spirit of the thrifty young housewife (who, let's remember, would not have had her own debit card.)

Most of my friends are single; I am as well, very newly so, and so it simply couldn't be helped: at a ratio of six women to one man, the party was heavily weighted toward lipstick and rhinestones rather than V-neck sweaters and oiled hair.

This is a big tsk-tsk, according to all the old hostessing manuals, but Chris, Katie’s date, was a good sport (we sang a round of "For he's a jolly good fellow" in his honor – after a few rounds of my roommate Andrea's gin fizzes and Manhattans, mind you.)

On the menu... (put to shame by a group of bloggers' retro buffet party in Marin!)

Admittedly odd-looking mushroom canapés stuffed with shamrock-green Roquefort cream inspired by several recipes for dyed cheesy things found in my new VCA-fueled Ebay acquisitions. As weird as the canapés were (my guests barely touched them), at least I didn’t freeze the green cream into squares and serve over salad, as The Best from Midwest Kitchens (1946) would have me do.

What I’ve dubbed the “Sputnik Surprise”: a cheeseball sprouting toothpicks of precious little cocktail onions and teensy squares of fried Spam, inspired by an illustration in Betty Crocker's Guide to Easy Entertaining (subtitled "How to Have Guests – And Enjoy Them.")

More “surprises:” puff pastries filled with cocktail weenies and green cheese, respectively.

“Shrimp Mold Deluxe,” a cracker dip recipe from my roommate Jane’s mom Linda that contains a number of things I thought I’d never eat (and especially not together): canned shrimp, lemon gelatin, pimento cheese, and more, oh so much more. (Find the recipe below.)

And for the first course … “Perfection Salad.”

In 1905, Mrs. John E. Cooke created the perfect salad: finely shredded cabbage, celery, and canned red peppers suspended in sweet and tangy gel flavored with vinegar, sugar, and lemon (“perfectly cut vegetables in a pretty gelatin bondage,” as Molly O’Neill writes in American Food Writing). Mrs. Cooke named her creation Perfection Salad, submitted it to the Knox Gelatine company, and saw it published in the classic of the gelatin genre, Dainty Desserts for Dainty People. For her efforts she won a not-too-shabby $100.

What's a Theodore Roosevelt-era recipe doing in a Cold War party? As Laura Shapiro argues in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (1986), the salad epitomizes the era of domestic scientists, those experts in cooking and housekeeping who approached the duties of womanhood like their granddaughters and great-granddaughters would approach environmental law, neurobiology, and advanced degrees in Irish literature. More to the point, they were just as into gelatin-anything, including variations of Perfection Salad, in 1955 as they were in 1905.

As a matter of fact, I was encouraged by Molly O'Neill herself (!!) to take it on for the supper party; it is "a must," she wrote in an email. (Someone at the Library of America found this blog and passed it along to Molly, who contacted me. There was an exciting flurry of emails about food writing and the pursuit of quintessential recipes – with all due respect, she's clearly a VCA sister.)

My salad was … not perfect. It didn’t set in the time I had (four hours). But it was gelled enough to be look presentable in cups made of green peppers (one of many ways that Mrs. Cooke recommends that it be served – she wasn’t kidding when she called it Perfection, the thing is versatile.) My guests actually ate their entires servings – I’m not sure that they would have been so enthusiastic if the salad was firm, cubed, and jiggly as Jello.

And then, to fill us up, tuna casserole, pretty much exactly as it’s done on the Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom label, except with homemade (green) spinach noodles from the Little Barn Noodles company of Honey Brook, PA (we were in the area for my friend Kate’s simply beautiful wedding a couple weeks ago). Chris turned to me and said, "You're in a green mood, aren't you?" Well yes, and feeling lucky, too!

And for dessert, a Glorious Fruit Crown Mold – which, wouldn't you know it, just wouldn't set.

Perfection's overrated, I've always thought.

Linda’s Shrimp Mold Deluxe

Blender-chop each of these ingredients one at a time and put in a single big mixing bowl: 2 cans shrimp (drained), 2 oz jar pimientos (drained), 2 hard-boiled eggs, 1 c celery pieces

In blender (no need to clean out the blender first) mix together: 1 pkg lemon gelatin and 1/2 c boiling water until dissolved

Add these items to the blender lemon goo and process until smooth: 1/2 c half-and-half, 1/2 c mayo, 1 thin slice onion, 3-oz pimiento cheese, 1 t salt

Pour this over the chopped stuff in the bowl and mix well. Pour all into a well-greased (I use Pam spray) 1-quart mold and chill thoroughly (overnight is best). With luck, you can turn this out onto a serving plate. Surround with interesting crackers. Enjoy!


D. Cloyce Smith said...

Nora: The person who noticed your blog works at The Library of America (not Congress), the publisher of the American Food Writing. Staff members at LOA have been enjoying your blog immensely, and we've even linked to it on the LOA Web site (www.loa.org).

Nora Leah said...

Thanks my dear Mr Smith! Apologies for the mistake and so glad you're enjoying my adventures.

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