As a boomer, I grew up with the excesses of the amusingly epithet-ascribed greatest generation. Those carried along by the tides and storms of WWII indulged themselves from the moment they declared victory. We kiddies got to share in their leavings.
As a group, my parents’ generation rewarded themselves non-stop. Sure, that meant too much booze and a level of adultery not known since the most profligate of ancient periods. To this day, they feel and think they deserve every indulgence.
With that comes the irony of calling my generation and the next several The Me Generation, The Entitlement Generation and other denigrations. We who studied history, sociology and similar soft sciences know those slurs were first applied to the WWII and Korean “police action” sorts.
Regardless, the mythology was and remains powerful. All hail, summa cum laude, the Greatest Generation!
One small piece trace of that legacy is salads.
Yes, boomers grew up with the formerly deprived slathering dressings on. Sure, it was the Greatests’ parents and grandparents who had to make the family work and survive during the Great Depression and WWII. Sure, it was the WWII folk who walked into battle (or were the men and women behind the desks and safe in the defense plants) who risked bullets or paper cuts after their elders had shepherded them through the national economic horrors.
Having landed firmly after V-E and V-J Days, the WWII crew knew it was party time. Among the obvious delights were the self-indulgence of food.
We boomers recalled the weekly visitations of the women’s service mags — McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook and others. In most middle-class, white families that really meant one big thing. As surely as the WWI generation grabbed their Reader’s Digest monthly to find out what disease they had to fear this time, the competitive housewives made sure they were up on the latest recipes.
That was a simpler version of today’s foodie snobbery. Now it’s obscure ingredients and must-have food prep gear. Back in the 50s and 60s, it was being sure you were the first, or at least not the last, to serve the pop dishes.
Dreadful they were, but adequate in nutrition, if short on sapidity and devoid of presentation value. It meant, by God!, another tuna noodle casserole variation. It was those dreadful, salt-filled, mouth drying burgers baked in foil with cream of mushroom (always Campbell’s) and dried onion soup mix (always Lipton’s). Accompanying the leaden entrée was some cloyingly sweet mess with colors that do not naturally occur, think an orange Jell-O mold with pineapple junks and mini-marshmallows.
Then both at home and particularly in restaurants, the iceberg lettuce salads were totally dominated by four or five times too much sugary, fatty dressing. A typical dinner table at home or out included two, three or more bottles of gum-thickened, sugar filled mayonnaise disguised as condiment. The very antithesis of light, savory vinaigrette, those clots of extremism marked the WWII generation as surely as did the second and third pre-dinner cocktail.
I thought of those days a decade or more later when working one of my summer college jobs at Cain’s Foods (now Cains and in Ayer not Cambridge). We made and packaged salad dressings, mayo, pickles and horseradish. The famous chips magically happened elsewhere.
Among our short runs on the assembly line were gallons of salad dressings, ketchup and mayonnaise for restaurants. Sure, they carried the Cain’s label like the grocery quarts, but they were different. The old hands (all deaf from the clinking of bottles on the line) said the stuff the chefs got was simply better. The production shifted to condiments that used better materials, richer oils and more fully flavored ingredients. Your perception that the tabletop stuff when you ate out was better was accurate.
One effect of the women’s service mag tyranny was that most of us boomers had little idea what vegetables on their own tasted like. To this day, many of us suffocate salads.If a teaspoon of dressing is good, a quarter cup must be much better. You know…getting your money’s worth…
To no effort of my own, I had the benefit of summering with my maternal grandfather, who grew phenomenal amounts and varieties of vegetables. He neither accepted nor permitted overpowering his veggies with fats and sugars. If we had asparagus, he’d go down his 150-foot rows with his stainless-steel knife and cut just enough for dinner. We’d eat them minutes later, maybe with a bit of lemon, a dusting of butter and a little salt.
Yet, at friends’ and relatives’, we’d be in the over-consumption mode. The four bottles of clot-thick bottled dressings fairly screamed to swamp the salad makings. Kids as well as adults lathered it over and on.
In contrast, tossing a salad with say a little white-wine vinegar and a small squeeze of Dijon mustard or perhaps a splash of balsamic with a small portion of olive oil or maybe a scant teaspoon of mayo with some black pepper is all you need…and much, much better tasting. In fact, lightly dressed salads actually let you taste the ingredients, including remarkably enough the veggies.
We don’t have to praise the WWII generation. Lord knows, they’ve done plenty of self-mythology themselves. What the boomers and their kids are learning though is that we don’t have to replicate their food silliness. Too much is not better. It’s just too much.