Food fads have come and gone in many cultures and in various forms for centuries, but America has had a particularly unique affinity for adopting—and dropping—culinary trends with regularity. Michael Pollan, a food activist and award-winning author, credits this phenomenon to the nation’s immigrant history, in which Americans have long been exposed to many different foods and cuisines, but have not necessarily retained many food traditions. As a result, we have become more susceptible to government or marketing influences that push the next “it” food. Today we are accustomed to being bombarded with health news promoting chia seeds as a means of obtaining optimal health, or, conversely, with advertisements extolling the decadence and pleasure of devouring a cronut. Decades ago, the fare was decidedly different, but the hype surrounding the latest trends was often the same.
In the early 1900s, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company invented a machine capable of peeling, coring and slicing 100 pineapples per minute. With canned pineapples readily available throughout the year, pineapple upside-down cakes became exceedingly fashionable. Typically baked in a cast iron skillet or frying pan, the sponge-like cake was later inverted to display caramelized rings of pineapple, with or without maraschino cherries, and sometimes topped with whipped cream.
In the 1920s, the spread of home refrigerators happened to coincide with the increasing popularity of instant gelatin, or Jell-O. The result? A proliferation of aspics and gelatin molds. Suddenly suspending fruit, vegetables, olives, meat, mayonnaise, sour cream, ginger ale—almost any ingredient one could think of—in congealed “salads” became commonplace, and the festive-shaped masterpieces were served at home and parties across the U.S.
As the Great Depression took hold of the country in the 1930s, Americans were forced to consider more economical choices at the market in order to stretch their meals as far as possible. Casseroles, originally made with homemade cream sauces, became a popular way to bulk up entrees with a small amount of meat or protein and other fillers like noodles or rice. Following World War II, convenience was key, and canned soups were touted as the magic ingredient capable of making dishes like tuna noodle and green bean casseroles even tastier and easier to prepare. When TV dinners—complete with meat, vegetables, a starch and fruit—were introduced in 1953 by Swanson, they were an immediate hit, saving housewives time and energy and allowing the family to congregate around the latest television program without the burden of having to wash dishes afterwards.
By the 1960s and 70s, fondue parties were all the rage. Melted cheeses served with bread, meats cooked in hot oil, and cake and fruit dipped in molten chocolate were consumed as a trendy communal meal. In 1971, the debut of the Crock-Pot proved to be hugely successful as the slow-cooking appliance could be left unattended, allowing the increasing number of women who worked outside of the home to return to a fully cooked meal.
Since then, of course, numerous other food trends have made their way into the hearts and guts of Americans: frozen yogurt, cupcakes, small plates, acai berries and quinoa to name just a few. Consumers may never fully realize the mysterious forces that combine to launch a new food fad, but they can rest assured a new one is just around the corner.
PINEAPPLE UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
Start to finish: 1 ¼ hours
1 large can of crushed or sliced pineapple
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup + 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, yolks and whites separated
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup brown sugar
Maraschino cherries for garnish
Optional: Whipped cream
Preheat oven to 350° F. Drain the juice from the can of pineapple.
In a medium bowl, sift 2 cups flour and then sift again with the baking powder and salt.
In a separate large mixing bowl, cream 1/2 cup butter and gradually add the granulated sugar until they are both creamed well.
Beat yolks and whites of eggs separately in small bowls. Add yolks to butter and sugar mixture and combine well. Add flour mixture and milk alternately, mixing well. Using a spatula, fold in the beaten egg whites and vanilla.
In a large frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Spread brown sugar over pan and add the drained pineapple in a single layer. Pour the batter over the fruit and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.
After removing from the oven, turn the cake upside-down on a large serving dish and garnish with maraschino cherries. Whipped cream may optionally be spread on top.
Adapted from: Hawaiian Pineapple Company Recipe Contest, 1925 winning recipe