We seem to have gone full circle. My children, high school and college students of the '80s, are beginning to return to the foods of the '50s.
Recently I went to my son's graduation at Oberlin College in Ohio, and I felt I was traveling back in time. It wasn't just the crew cuts and pompadours that were familiar from my school years, it was what these young adults were eating. The porch was piled with empty beer bottles -- but that has never changed. The dining table was littered with shoeboxes of brownies some parents had sent -- "care" packages are a tradition that brooks no tampering. But the surprise was the barbecue my son and his five housemates were preparing for their parents and friends. Grilled tofu, I expected. Or some massive stir-fried dish with lots of zucchini and a hint of meat. While these particular students are not vegetarians, they tend to cook foods that are cheap, and concentrate on vegetables. Stir-fries and lasagna, from what I gather, are the mainstays of their everyday cooking.
As it turned out, they made hamburgers and hot dogs. With ketchup, mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, potato chips and a mountain of potato salad, utterly delicious potato salad (my son made it, so don't look for objectivity here). It sounded astoundingly old-fashioned to me, but they explained that they were sick of stir-fried tofu. Hamburgers were a treat for them, whereas they would have been everyday fare for me at their age.
Their unfamiliarity with meat-as-main-dish dawned on me as I wandered into the kitchen to help. For three dozen people they had about two packages of hot dogs and five pounds of hamburger. Just the right amount if you were stretching it with bean sprouts and broccoli. Despite themselves, they had showed as secret tofu-and-lasagna eaters. (Somebody ran out for more hamburger and hot dogs during the party, and apparently the problem was rampant throughout the town, since the stores had very little meat left.) Just as their crew cuts and pompadours are modern versions of the '50s not quite the same as the originals, the hot dog and burger eating of these youths is that of the fast-food era, where five pounds of meat will actually make about 50 burgers. On the other hand, they had plenty of tomatoes, which were admirably red, ripe, homegrown-tasting tomatoes. They know their vegetables, these '80s kids; they are products of the salad bar and the vegetable-eating era, where meat is often the condiment rather than the mainstay.
What it adds up to is that kids and young adults today probably eat a greater variety than ever before. Obviously, fast food is the basic meal for many kids as well as adults, but they are familiar with foods from around the world. They are likely to grow up already knowing how to shop and cook, which they do regularly in dormitories as well as at home where both parents are working.
Kids aren't embarrassed by vegetables, nor are they ashamed to be seen eating yogurt or whole-wheat bread. What is even more surprising, at this graduation barbecue, it was the parents who drank most of the beer.
Tradition hasn't disappeared as completely from Philadelphia as I had thought. While the Old Original Bookbinders restaurant no longer has any Bookbinders running it, as I had reported, Bookbinders Seafood House is still run by two Bookbinder brothers, the fourth generation in the business.
Among classics that are returning to the modern table are New Orleans calas cakes. These deep-fried rice fritters, which used to be sold on the streets of French Quarter, can be made the old fashioned way, with yeast left to ferment the rice slightly overnight, or put together more quickly with baking powder batter. They are flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg or orange flower water, dusted with confectioners' sugar and served with jam, syrup or on their own. They taste a cross between rice pudding and New Orleans beignets. In New Orleans, Cafe Sbisa has added them to the brunch menu. They have showed up in Washington at the New Orleans Cafe. And at home they are a delicious way to use up leftover rice.
CAFE SBISA CALAS CAKES (Makes 15 to 20 cakes)
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon other flavoring (orange flower water, nutmeg or cinnamon)
2 cups cooked short-grained rice, cooled
Milk or cream if necessary
Oil for deep frying
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Mix flour with baking powder, salt and sugar, and set aside. In a large bowl beat egg with vanilla and other flavoring of choice. Stir in rice. Add flour mixture and a couple of spoonfuls of milk or cream if necessary to moisten the batter enough so that it is not crumbly. Let batter rest for 15 minutes. Heat oil for deep frying to 350 degrees. Drop rice batter by tablespoonfuls into the hot oil. Fry for 8 minutes or until golden brown, then drain on paper towels and dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve immediately for brunch, accompanied by syrup or strawberry preserves if desired.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group