The Way It Was

For this 1950s fam­ily, there was noth­ing bet­ter than Dad’s mac ‘n’ cheese served in front of the TV

Our Canada - - News - By Gail M. Mur­ray, Scar­bor­ough

It was the 1950s. Tele­vi­sion was still in its in­fancy and sit­ting around the liv­ing room watch­ing TV as a fam­ily ac­tu­ally brought peo­ple to­gether—un­like to­day’s tech­no­log­i­cal world of per­sonal de­vices.

Dad would pre­pare a Sun­day din­ner casse­role that was a scrump­tious, flavour­ful mix of el­bow mac­a­roni, stewed toma­toes, tomato sauce and aged ched­dar cheese. And there were no store­bought toma­toes for us; Mom had grown them in our large veg­etable gar­den, then spent painstak­ing hours sim­mer­ing, peel­ing and can­ning them in Ma­son jars to store in the root cel­lar.

“Bill, what are you do­ing with my canned toma­toes?” my mother shrieked.

“They’ll add flavour to the mac­a­roni casse­role. What are you sav­ing them for?” he said with a wink.

It was true. Rows of canned peaches, pears and toma­toes lined the shelves in the coolest and dri­est part of our base­ment, be­ing saved for a rainy day.

Dad had spe­cial touches when cook­ing, such as adding an egg and some milk to our mashed pota­toes as he whipped them into a bowl of fluffy de­li­cious­ness.

As the el­dest child in his fam­ily, Dad was no stranger to cook­ing. At age 12 he’d been ex­pected to have din­ner on the ta­ble when his par­ents ar­rived home from their gru­elling fac­tory jobs.

Dad had learned to make ap­ple pie, beef stew, poached eggs and the pièce de ré­sis­tance—roast beef with roasted pota­toes and York­shire pud­ding.

With my par­ents shar­ing the cook­ing, we were in many ways quite mod­ern for the ’50s.

My mother re-en­tered the work­force when my younger sis­ter started school, mak­ing me re­spon­si­ble for din­ner at age 12 as well. This in­ter­fered with watch­ing Dick Clark’s Amer­i­can Band­stand and learn­ing the lat­est dances. Once, while watch­ing a dance con­test, I saw flames leap­ing from the fry­ing pan. I rushed in to save the day just in time. Af­ter that I learned to stay close to what­ever I was cook­ing. I would get din­ner started by set­ting the ta­ble, peel­ing the pota­toes and chop­ping the veg­eta­bles. Dad would ar­rive home from work and give me point­ers, teach­ing me how to cook.

Dad, of medium height and wear­ing his flan­nel shirt and cot­ton pants held up by sus­penders, would peer out from his dark­rimmed glasses at the pots and fry­ing pans, mak­ing ad­just­ments, fry­ing or sim­mer­ing. He had big blue eyes, an open smile and a kind heart. To a girl like me, who did not take nat­u­rally to do­mes­tic­ity, he was pa­tient and kind and never scolded (un­like like my mother). Though we worked as a team, I left the real cook­ing to him. He knew his way around a kitchen and took pride in his fast and easy mac­a­roni and cheese that we fussy eaters sim­ply de­voured.

Com­plet­ing the casse­role, Dad would pop it in the oven to merge the flavours. The ched­dar made a crunchy, gooey top crust.

Then we all gath­ered in front of the box to watch a much-an­tic­i­pated movie— Tarzan. The TV sta­tion ran this type of ac­tion ad­ven­ture film every Sun­day.

There was no question that it was fam­i­lyfriendly fare with Cheeta, the pre­co­cious chimp, adding hu­mour with his zany an­tics and Boy (Tarzan’s adopted son), played by Johnny Sh­effield, round­ing out the jun­gle fam­ily. Though many ac­tors played the Edgar Rice Bur­roughs hero, it was Olympic gold medal swim­mer Johnny Weiss­muller who was the quin­tes­sen­tial ape-man.

Each film had swim­ming se­quences and bat­tles with croc­o­diles, but the great­est bat­tle Tarzan fought was with en­croach­ing Euro­peans try­ing to ruin the har­mony of the jun­gle by cap­tur­ing wildlife il­le­gally or ha­rass­ing lo­cal tribes. Each film had Tarzan emit­ting his dis­tinc­tive yo­delling yell as he swung through the vines on a res­cue mis­sion. Tarzan’s New York Ad­ven­ture (1942) was my favourite with Tarzan look­ing un­com­fort­able in a suit and then dis­cov­er­ing the “ho­tel wa­ter­falls” (re­ally a shower) and stand­ing un­der it wear­ing his suit. Soft-spo­ken Jane was there to bridge the gap.

Dur­ing com­mer­cial breaks, we’d all dash to the kitchen to fill our plates as Dad served us. Break­ing through the crusty cheese top­ping, with the aroma of toma­toes es­cap­ing, Dad spooned the gooey mix­ture onto our plates.

We’d place our din­ner plates on the cof­fee ta­ble or on spe­cial TV trays—metal trays with legs—so your knees fit nicely un­der­neath. Imagine cre­at­ing fur­ni­ture for this pur­pose!

Dessert was served as we segued into Walt Dis­ney’s Won­der­ful World of Color. Ear­lier in the af­ter­noon, Mom had cut up ba­nanas and or­anges into a large glass bowl. Typ­i­cal kids, we craved sweets such as ice cream, choco­late chip cook­ies or but­ter tarts. Luck­ily for us, Mom limited sugar con­sump­tion. I can thank her to­day for my love of fruit and my trim waist­line.

The crown­ing glory of Sun­day night tele­vi­sion was The Ed Sul­li­van Show. This strange, wiz­ened, stone-faced em­cee, a for­mer New York en­ter­tain­ment colum­nist, had an eye for tal­ent. His was the long­est-run­ning va­ri­ety show in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion. To ap­pear on his show was a hall­mark of suc­cess. If you could sit through the plate spin­ners, jug­gling acts and smarmy croon­ers, you could see “live and on our stage” the greats of rock and roll: Elvis Pres­ley, The Bea­tles, The Doors and the Rolling Stones. Ed was the first host to break ra­cial bar­ri­ers and have African Amer­i­can greats like Harry Be­la­fonte and Nat King Cole per­form.

When Elvis per­formed “Hound Dog” in 1956 with his gy­ra­tions, the teenage girls in the au­di­ence screamed and swooned. My three-year-old sis­ter Wendy mim­icked them, squeal­ing and hurl­ing her lit­tle body against the back of the soft sofa in mock faint. My par­ents got more laughs out of her that night than the standup co­me­di­ans.

When I think of com­fort food, it takes me back to those early times with my nu­clear fam­ily. Fare such as grilled cheese sand­wiches, hot choco­late and es­pe­cially the mac­a­roni and cheese, lov­ingly pre­pared by my dad.

Above left: Gail with her mom and younger sis­ter, Wendy. Above right: Gail with her dad.

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