`Gunsmoke' and pot roast. Food in the '50s, or culinary life before the VCR and microwave

REMEMBER food in the '50s? Sure you do! Who could forget the lovely tray tables all lined up in front of the black-and-white Philco television?

They were emblazoned with bouquets of roses and peonies - and had legs that stuck out like a giraffe at a water hole!

Every time you jumped up to switch off the news, you'd trip over a tin leg, and there went Debbie's milk all over her favorite turquoise-felt skirt with the black poodle.

Try as you might to forget, there's something buried deeper than nuclear waste that occasionally cries out for tuna casserole, right?

These were the dark ages. We're talking pre-TV dinner years. The times when mom spent most of the day busy in the kitchen cooking - sort of. No need to take a course in defrosting to get dinner on the table back then.

Mom didn't need anything as exotic as a food processor. A can opener did just fine, thank you. And recipes came mostly from Woman's Day magazine.

The food was abundant, honest, comforting, and well seasoned. ``Seasoned,'' back then, was the generic term for celery and onion salt - please, no garlic!

Dinner was often assembled while the kids were at school, and simply heated up and served just about any time after Howdy Doody and before Dinah Shore.

An entire cuisine developed back then that had employees at Kraft working double shifts. And if your father had any stock in Campbell Soup, at least he dined with a smile.

Sunday supper was set up in front of the TV just minutes before 8 o'clock. No one missed a minute of ``The Ed Sullivan Show.'' And Sunday supper meant Something Special - avec canned Le Sueur peas.

One favorite was the pot roast recipe that swept the country faster than a prairie fire on ``Gunsmoke.''

It consisted of a piece of meat the size of a bowling ball wrapped in a double layer of aluminum foil.

Add a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup (Cream of Celery could be substituted), a package of Lipton Onion Soup Mix, and a cup of water. Seal tightly and bake an hour and a half at 350 degrees F. Heat the Le Sueur peas, and - ``Dinner is Served!''

A genuine affection for this simple, comfortable fare solidifies like two-day-old California Dip in Jane and Michael Stern's classic collection of recipes of the period, ``Square Meals'' (Knopf, New York, 337 pp., $17.95, 1984).

I asked them what recipe in their book epitomized the zenith of '50s cuisine.

Quicker than you could say ``miniature marshmallows,'' they came out with the following recipe.

Flaming Cabbage Head Weenies With Pu Pu Sauce Weenies 1 large head cabbage, red or green 1 can Sterno 15 to 30 cocktail frankfurters

Rinse cabbage and trim bottom so it sits level on its base.

Form decorative petals by curling a few outer leaves down from top.

Cut a hole in top center of cabbage head deep enough to hold can of Sterno inside, with rim of can even with cabbage.

Light Sterno. Stick cocktail franks into flaming cabbage on toothpicks.

Pu Pu Sauce 1/2 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons yellow mustard 1 tablespoon chili sauce 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon wine vinegar 1 small onion, finely minced Chili powder to taste Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Set aside to cool.

7-Cans Casserole 1 large can chicken - about 2 cups (tuna fish, shrimp, or crab meat may be substituted) 1 can cream of chicken soup 1 can cream of celery or cream of mushroom soup 1 small can mushrooms (drained) 1 small can pimentos 1 small can evaporated milk 1 can Chinese noodles Onion powder and ground pepper to taste Bread crumbs Butter

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl, except bread crumbs and butter. Place in buttered ovenproof baking dish, cover with bread crumbs, and bake for 1/2 hour or until bubbling.

This popular threat to Western man was nothing but a loosely disguised 20th-century adaptation of the salt lick.

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