Fifties food

Chowing Down in Stony River

A behind-the-scenes look at what the people in Stony River chow down on.

Book clubbers: For themed refreshment ideas, see “Stony River Book Club Menus.”

You won’t find any culinary gourmets in Stony River. My characters eat what we call comfort food nowadays: tuna casserole and rice pudding, macaroni and cheese (baked, not from a box, and with real cheese), fried chicken and mashed potatoes, homemade pie and coffee. They drink milk delivered to their door in glass bottles with cardboard caps. When fruits and vegetables aren’t in season, they rely on the canned variety, as the world hasn’t become small enough yet for the fresh stuff to appear year-round. If they have lettuce, it’s iceberg. In the summer, families with cars head out to farm stands (they don’t call New Jersey the Garden State for nothing) for beefsteak tomatoes and corn on the cob that taste all the better for being available for such a brief time.

They haven’t yet been told red meat is bad for them. They grind thrifty cuts of beef into hamburger, using a hand-cranked meat grinder clamped to the side of a counter, or turn them into pot roast. My own mother’s pot roast went into an electric cooker with water, potatoes and carrots before we left for church each Sunday. It was often completely dry and the carrots caramelized when we returned, due to my father needing to chat with nearly everyone in the congregation after the service. We needed more than a dollop of gravy to salvage the meal.

Pizza was as popular then as now and Jersey thin crust pizza is the best I’ve ever had. Years ago, I asked a pizzeria owner why that was and he said the “secrets” were olive oil (not canola, etc.) and a particular type of mozzarella that arrived directly in New York Harbor on ships from Italy.

You can bet they eat a lot of Jell-O in Stony River, plain as dessert or dressed up with canned pineapple and shredded carrots for salad. It wasn’t unheard of for us to have waffles with creamed corn for dinner. My mother knew about stretching a dime. Tereza’s mother in the book knows about that, too; she serves “hot dog pieces, like chopped up worms, swimming in baked beans.” Once a week, Stony River kids might get a nickel to spend on penny candy in places like Rolf’s corner store: Hershey kisses, wax lips, licorice babies, banana chews and Tootsie Pops.

The closest we get to gastronomy in Stony River is to Betty Wise’s Baked Alaska. She makes hers with a slab of pound cake first topped with Neapolitan ice cream then covered with meringue and popped in the oven only until the meringue is brown. I like to think that if Betty had a blowtorch, she’d go for this updated version instead:

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