︎︎︎episode 52

Nostalgic Food Trends : As American as Mac & Cheese,Hamburger Helper and Hungry Man

Aug 10th, 2021

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Amanda: This week I was lucky enough to acquire two really important pieces of processed food history:  The Favorite Name Brand Recipe Cookbook and The New  Can-Opener Cookbook by Poppy Cannon.  And let me tell you, I have been having a good time over here!

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

(or as they call it in Canada….Kraft Dinner, Cheesy Pasta in the UK)

I don’t know about you, but I think of macaroni and cheese as the quintessential American food.  I know that title is supposed to belong to apple pie, but real talk, I’ve eat wayyyyyyy more mac and cheese in my life than apple pie. 

But actually….macaroni and cheese *probably* has its origins in Italy!  The anonymous Liber de coquina (Book of Cooking)--a book written in latin some time in the late 1200s/early 1300s--has a recipe called de lasanis which we can call the first “macaroni and cheese” recipe.   It was lasagna sheets cut into 2” squares, cooked in water, tossed in powdered cheese (probably parmesan)It was a macaroni, in this case, lasagne sheets made from fermented dough and cut into two-inch squares that were cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, probably Parmesan.  The author also suggests adding spices and layering the lasagne noodles like the lasagna we know today. 

This dish caught on throughout Europe...and as we learned in the last episode, food trends realllllly stuck around for a long time back then.  It wasn’t a classic Snackwells in/Snackwells out situation.   In the 14th century, a famous medieval French cook book called “The Forme of Cury” shared a  cheese and pasta casserole known as “makerouns.” It was made with fresh, hand-cut pasta which was sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese. It sounds pretty delicious. The first “modern”  recipe for the dish could be found in writer Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book “The Experienced French Housekeeper”. Her recipe callis for a bechamel sauce with cheddar cheese, which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan and baked until bubbly and golden. Also:  DELICIOUS

A Canadian take on the dish--published in Modern Practical Cookery in 1845--calls for puff pastry to line the baking dish.  The cook is instructed to stew the noodles in a cream thickened with egg yolks, with a little “beaten mace” and “made mustard” to sharpen the flavors before grating Parmesan or Cheshire cheese over top.

However, there is a lot of disagreement around how it made its mark here in the United States. 

The first  possibility is that the food took hold in the upper class homes of New England in the early days of the colonies, where it was called “macaroni pudding.” This would have been a dish of only the wealthiest people because at that point pasta was rare and therefore, expensive. 

One school of thought is that Thomas Jefferson fell in love with pasta in a cheesy sauce during a trip to Italy.  On his return trip to the colonies, he brought back noodle recipes and a pasta machine...because pasta was not available in the colonies. . As president, he served macaroni and cheese at an 1802 state dinner. But this most likely would have been parmesan-style cheese.

But the last--and in my opinion--most likely origin of the modern macaroni and cheese also takes place in Jefferson’s household...but the credit goes to James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved cook.  Hemings was born into slavery, and at the age of  9, he, along with some siblings and his mother, moved to Monticello, Jefferson’s estate.  They were part of the property that Jefferson inherited from his wife’s family.  Jefferson took Hemings to France with him, where he learned all of the finest recipes and techniques.  He was not along for Jefferson’s trip to Italy, but when Jefferson returned, he explained the dish to Hemings in hopes of recreating it.  No one around was able to make a pasta machine that produced a noodle to Jefferson’s liking...so Jefferson began importing the pasta from Europe (once again, something only an uber wealthy person could do) and Hemings developed the famous recipe.  In fact, Hemings’ talent created a lot of foods and tools that Jefferson was long credited for, including the introduction  of macaroni and cheese, ice cream, whipped cream and french fries to the United States.

Hemings was freed by Jefferson in 1796  but only with the condition that he would train his younger brother Robert to replace him as  chef in the Jefferson household.  Hemings died at the age of 36, only owning some  kitchen utensils and four recipes.

In 1802, when Jefferson served a “macaroni pie” at a state dinner, it was more than likely prepared from a recipe by James Hemings and cooked by his brother Robert.

Macaroni and cheese would remain a popular food item, but...only for wealthy people because until the industrial revolution, pasta was expensive and quite a delicacy.

It is ironic--or but only in that Alanis Morrisette kind of way--that the inventor of Kraft Macaroni + Cheese...the man that would bring mac and cheese into the life of every babysitter, latchkey kid, and college student...was actually...Canadian.

J. L. Kraft (first name James) was born in Ontario, Canada., where he grew up on a dairy farm.  He moved to Buffalo, NY in 1902, where he took a job as a combination secretary and treasurer of the Shefford Cheese Company.  The next year he became a partner in the company. But then….in the ultimate #girlboss move, his partners dissolved the partnership agreement WHILE HE WAS ON A BUSINESS TRIP IN CHICAGO!

Kraft was stranded in the big city, with only $65 to his name.  So he rented a horse and wagon and started his own business buying cheese wholesale and selling it to grocers.  I guess once a cheese man, always a cheese man?   A few years later, he brought his brothers into the company and by 1914, J.L. Kraft & Bros. Company opened its first cheese manufacturing plant in Stockton, IL.  While Kraft didn’t invent the idea of “processed cheese,” he knew that it was an innovation that could change food as we know it.  He won a patent for one processing method in 1916, which just made the company explode in size.   This new process would pasteurize cheese in a way that would make it longer lasting and able to be shipped long distances.  It wouldn’t need refrigeration and it was “shelf stable.”  His method of processing cheese relied on a combination of citric acid and phosphates.  His method paved the way for Velveeta (1928), Kraft Dinner (1937), Cheez Whiz (1952), and Kraft Singles (1965).

In World War I, Kraft’s company continued its exponential growth as it provided cheese in tins to the armed services.

I think this is an important time to just call out the obvious here:  nothing builds a business like a war. And that is just so sad to think about.

The actual invention of Kraft Dinner happened  during the Depression.  A salesman in St. Louis wrapped rubber bands around packets of grated Kraft cheese and boxes of pasta and persuaded retailers to sell them as a unit.  Kraft began actually boxing this up and selling it to customers in 1937, promising to feed a family of 4 for just 19 cents!  Macaroni and cheese was no longer the food of the wealthy. In the first year, 9 million boxes were sold.   And overall the timing of this product  COULD NOT HAVE BEEN BETTER….because, during WWII, convenience foods became more important than ever. Not only was there rationing of butter, milk, and cheese, but many women were working outside the home as the men were away at war, and they needed an easy, nutritious meal for their children.  And a lot of people didn’t own a refrigerator.  Furthermore, a package of Kraft Dinner could last about 10 months.  During WWII on average, 80 million boxes per year were purchased.  Of course, it helped that two boxes of Kraft Dinner could be purchased for one rationing coupon.

Here are some fun facts about Kraft Macaroni and Cheese:
  • Even now, about 1 million boxes are bought each day.
  • Kraft Macaroni and Cheese should be $3 today based on inflation, but it holds steady around $1.
  • Unsurprisingly, sales of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese picked up during the pandemic, and the company added "breakfast" to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner packaging.  "56% of parents have served their kids Mac & Cheese for breakfast more often during Covid-19 related state lockdowns than previous months," the company said in a press release in August 2020.
  • In 2015, Kraft removed all artificial flavors, preservatives, and synthetic colors (yes, there was a lot of yellow food coloring in there) from its boxed mac and cheese, using paprika, annatto, and turmeric instead.
  • Canadians love Kraft Dinner, eating 1.7 million of the 7 million boxes sold each week.

Of course, in the mid century, Kraft had to invent weird elaborate recipes using Kraft Mac and Cheese, so here are few:

  • The Kraft Ring (basically shaping the pasta into a ring and sealing it with margarine, displaying meats around it.
  • Tuna Confetti Casserole:  which includes cream of celery soup and pimiento.
  • Kraft Dinner Medley: includes peppers and hard boiled eggs
  • Kraft Dinner Timbales in a soup of creamed tuna and peas
  • My “Favorite Brand Name Recipe” cookbook suggests
    • Ham, Cheese, and Macaroni casserole...literally just Kraft dinner, with prepackaged ham lunch meat, and some breadcrumbs
    • Fiesta Mac Salad: add tomato, cucumber, carrot, and miracle whip.
    • Side note:  this page also includes a “macaroni fruit salad” that contains plain macaroni, canned pineapple, oranges, and grapes(?), mixed with celery, marshmallows, apple, sour cream, mayonnaise, and nuts.  Served on lettuce.

And oh yeah, recently Van Leeuwan did a collab with Kraft to create Kraft Mac and Cheese ice cream?!

Hamburger Helper (a whole army of helping hands?)

When I think of Halloween costumes that I wish I had worn, but never have...a few come to mind:  Lady Gaga’s famous Vogue cover with the dress made of Hello Kitty stuffed animals, Marie Antoinette...and Sexy Hamburger Helper.

Picture it:  It’s late 1970  the United States of America. Jimmy Carter is president.  Led Zeppelin is the coolest band, you’re driving a huge car, you’re “laying out” with baby oil, the dollar isn’t trading well, and even worse, there is a beef shortage!

Who was to blame for this meat crisis?  ANCHOVIES! Apparently a decrease in the population of anchovies drove up the cost of beef because farmers had been relying on anchovies as animal feed.  With less anchovies, the price of animal feed went up, which then, drove up the price of beef.

Never fear...Betty Crocker (a brand owned by General Mills) is here to help you!

Oh btw...this is a great time to tell you that Betty Crocker is not and never was a real person!  

That year General Mills introduced what it calls “the undisputed king of boxed dinners.” I’m not sure what Kraft thinks of that, but nonetheless, this was the year that Hamburger Helper was launched! 

With just the use of a single pan and a pound of hamburger, Hamburger Helper promised a hot, nutritious, filling meal for a family.  And most importantly, it was affordable! The original flavors were
  • Beef Noodle,
  • Potato Stroganoff,
  • Hash: this had dried potatoes in it
  • Rice Oriental: racist name, but apparently delicious
  • and Chili Tomato (formerly known as Chuckwagon dinner)

Hamburger Helper was an instant hit,  27% of U.S. households purchased Hamburger Helper in its first year. In 2005, Food Network rated it third on its list of "Top Five Fad Foods of 1970".

On one hand, it made sense that this product would be a hit because many Americans were stressing about putting food on the table.  On the other hand, Betty Crocker had launched four similar dinner mixes in 1967 – Noodles Stroganoff, Macaroni Monte Bello, Noodles Cantong, and Rice Keriyaki. Yes, really Keriyaki.  I don’t know why.  General Mills believes that because the first round of meals had to be made using TWO pans...one to cook the noodles, the other to brown the hamburger, this turned off customers.  I think it’s more like perfect timing, and maybe better flavors?

In 1977, sales began to dip as people felt less enamored with packaged food. We saw the same thing happen with Jell-o! People wanted more “natural” “healthy” foods, real vegetables, less additives, etc. General Mills decided that what people really needed was a jazzy mascot...so the invented Lefty,  a four-fingered, left-hand white glove with a face on the palm and a red spherical nose.  And believe it or not, it worked! Sales actually jumped considerably. Even today, about one million households eat hamburger helper for dinner each weeknight. 

In 2013, Hamburger Helper did a major rebrand, both in terms of packaging and dropping the “hamburger” part of its name.  Now it’s just “Helper,” and the marketing focuses on young men, because apparently a lot of young men love some Helper.  There are over 24 flavors of Helper!

Kim, where do you stand on brands doing social media pranks on April Fool’s Day?

On April Fool’s Day in 2016, General Mills commissioned an EP as a prank.  It was called Watch the Stove. According to a press release, the EP was produced for General Mills by a team at St. Paul, Minnesota's McNally Smith College of Music. The EP's title is a parody of the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaborative album Watch the Throne. It contains five songs, all of which are about Hamburger Helper.  One of the songs is In Love With the Glove. The playlist actually went viral and was played over four million times on SoundCloud in less than three days! 

Don’t worry...Helper was here to help you with other crises over  the years:
  • Tuna Helper:  1972
  • Fruit Helper (a dessert product, using canned fruit):  1973
  • Chicken Helper: 1984
  • Pork Helper:  2003
  • Asian Helper:  2006

And like their mid century counterparts, people continue to be obsessed with doctoring up some Helper with the help of peas, additional cheese, pepperoni, etc.  The internet is filled with advice on how to take Hamburger Helper to the next level, even turning it into soup!  And it’s more important than ever because….of course Hamburger Helper saw an increase in sales during the pandemic, along with canned soups and really anything else that was easy to eat at home.


Hungry Men and Lean Cuisines (frozen meals)

In 1925, Clarence Birdseye invented a machine for freezing packaged fish that would revolutionize the storage and preparation of food. 

Maxson Food Systems used Birdseye’s technology to manufacture and sell the first complete frozen dinners to airlines in 1945...but the much bigger plan to start selling these meals in supermarkets were destroyed when the company’s founder died.  Other brands had been trying various combinations of frozen side dishes and main courses, including one brand called Frigi-Meal, which offered combinations like beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. Maybe it was the name, maybe it was the food, but Frigi-Meal never achieved the kind of success of...Swanson!

The legend of Swanson’s “TV dinners” (and yes, they owned/invented that name) goes like this:

In 1953  the company found itself in a real quandary.  They had wayyyyyy over estimated demand for turkey that season, and so after Thanksgiving, they were left with 260 tons of frozen turkey sitting in 10 refrigerated railroad cars.  To make matters more complicated and urgent, the train’s refrigeration worked only when the cars were moving.  So these trains were literally travelling back and forth between Swanson’s Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast until they could figure out what to do with the turkey.  A Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas had an idea:  why not serve them alongside cornbread stuffing and sweet potatoes in partitioned aluminum trays that could be heated in the oven.  Everyone liked this idea...so Betty Cronin, Swanson’s bacteriologist, was tasked with figuring out how to heat the meat and vegetables at the same time while killing food-borne germs.

There’s been a lot of squabbling over the years about who gets credited for this invention, but this version of events is the most widely accepted.  And regardless of who invented them, Swanson had a certified hit on its hands, selling 10 million trays in the first year of production.

Other companies soon joined in on this new fad, including Morton’s and Banquet. 

Swanson coined the term “TV dinner” at just the right time. In 1950, only 9% of U.S. households had television sets.  In 1955, that number rose to 64%, and by 1960, it was 87%.  Owning a television and eating in front of it was practically an aspirational lifestyle, the sign that you had “made it” to the middle class.  Furthermore, more women were joining the workforce, and these dinners guaranteed a nutritious, hot meal for their families.  Swanson ran TV advertisements that depicted elegant, modern women serving these delicious meals to grateful family members.   In 1962, Barbra Streisand told the New Yorker, “The best fried chicken I know comes with a TV dinner.”

The original TV dinners weren’t cheap either… they were 98¢, which is $9.97 in 2021!

Over time, prices came down and while some criticized the lack of flavor or the depressingness of eating in front of a TV, others valued the good prices and the portion control offered by the little compartments.

As competition became more fierce, brands were forced to try new things, to mixed success:
  • Morton began offering a three course meal that included chicken and dumplings, peas, a brownie, and a pull out “refreshing fruit salad.” 
  • Swanson got in on this multi course option offering three course meals that had a meat main dish, usually a side of peas or corn, a dessert like cherry crisp, and then a soup (chicken noodle or tomato soup).  Side note: remember the weird sad peas-and-carrots blend?
  • Swanson also tried adding a blueberry muffin to its classic Salisbury Steak dinner.
  • In 1974, Morton offered what I would consider a “proto Kids Cuisine, “ offering a Twinkie with a burger, spaghetti, pizza or a hot dog.  It was called The Morton Twinkie Supper.
  • Swanson also started offering one of my favorite TV dinners as a kid (I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist anymore):  beans and franks with cornbread and baked apples.

  • Next Swanson introduced a Polynesian Dinner, which included chow mein, an orange tea cake and sweet and sour chicken.

  • Then came the “german” dinner, which included Beef with Sauerbarten Gravy, Spatzle (pasta), Bavarian Red Cabbage, and Prune-Apricot Compote.

  • Libby’s decided to woo the children’s market with its Libbyland meals. The box popped up into a cartoon backsplash, and the options included Pirate Picnic, Sundown Supper, Sea Diver's Dinner and Safari Supper.

After a certain point--specifically that period in the late 70s when Americans fell out of love with packaged foods, tv dinners became something for lonely people, busy people, children home alone...but certainly nothing cool or trendy or delicious.  In the mid 80s, Campbells developed a new tray that was microwave safe, making the even more convenient.  And at this point frozen meals were marketed towards dieters (Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers), children (Kid Cuisine, Bagel Bites, Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets), and office workers who valued convenience (Budget Gourmet, eventually the Amy’s line)

However, like all convenience foods we’ve talked about today, frozen meals got a shot in the arm during the pandemic (pun not intended):  With restaurants closed during Covid-19, people spent nearly 50 percent more on frozen meals in April 2020 over April 2019.