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