Remembering days long past brings back memories of fabulous foods. Some of those meals were served outside. Picnic dishes were often family recipes we grew up with, passed down from Grandmother to Mother, Grandfather to Father.
Back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, school picnics, potluck picnics, 4th of July picnics, and Labor Day picnics were times when the mothers and fathers would present their favorite salads, desserts, baked beans, or grilled masterpieces. Just recalling these old favorites is enough to take you back, enjoying the memory of every tasty morsel. Here are a few dishes that, I hope, will evoke memories for you, and maybe even some ideas for your next picnic:
Old Mains Made New
Ah, for the days when low fat and cholesterol were still a figment of someone’s imagination. At every picnic, piles of chicken with crispy skin, hamburgers, hotdogs, and bratwursts or sausages took center stage. There was no such thing as boneless, skinless chicken breasts or turkey burgers. Back then, we cooked our chicken with the skin on, bones in, and everybody ate it all. There was one brand of hotdogs, all bratwursts and sausages were pork, and hamburgers were made with ‘hamburger’ and not lean ground beef, or any variation.
Nowadays, you can grill some of the old time favorites, but can tweak them a little… that is if you care about fat content, cholesterol, and your health. You can get the same great taste with less fat and fewer calories. Go ahead and mix up a batch of hamburgers, but use leaner beef or even substitute ground turkey or chicken for the beef. Add more flavorings, like minced onion, garlic, herbs, and hot sauce and you’ll never miss the fat.
Put a whole chicken on the grill, either by removing the backbone and “butterflying” the chicken, flattening it out to cook evenly, or putting it on the rotisserie. The fat cooks off better than deep frying it, and a whole chicken stays more moist than a cut-up chicken. You can choose to pull off the skin, because the meat underneath is juicy, and tastes better than ever. Another option is to slide your seasonings underneath the skin before grilling. Perfect “have your cake and eat it too” solution – the flavor is ON the meat and not the skin.
There are more choices now for hotdogs, sausages, and bratwursts. You can find many varieties using leaner choices like turkey, chicken, or even vegetarian, that have fabulous flavor. It’s amazing how many vegetarian hotdogs are available that taste identical to other hotdogs once they’ve been on the grill. Don’t shy away from these new varieties of your favorite summer grill staples.
Even the good old fashioned steaks that Mom got ready for Dad to throw on the grill have taken a turn for the healthier. Those thick steaks that are well marbled are still a favorite, but we often choose a smaller steak or a steak that has been trimmed to eliminate some of the fat. Dad’s big T-bone steak has become Mom’s Petite Filet. But, simple grilled beef maintains the legacy of the 40s, 50s, and 60s quite well. Include the classic cast iron skillet of mushrooms and onions and you have a grilled steak dinner identical to the best dinners from decades past.
Chicken salad, tuna salad, and other cold main dish salads and sandwiches are the mainstays of Mom’s picnic dishes from decades past. Ground ham or bologna sandwiches are still seen, but have been updated for a more health conscience picnic goer. Processed meats are often avoided when picnic meals are planned today, however, the flavors of these long-ago sandwiches are still a much desired picnic basket favorite. Choose a lean slice of ham, chop it up or grind it, and mix it with light mayonnaise, olive oil mayonnaise, or just mix in cooked egg yolk and sour cream as a nice alternative. Don’t forget the pickle relish! This makes a nice old-fashioned sandwich that’s delicious and more health conscious.
Here’s where we add a note about breads when serving sandwiches. The days of piles of sandwiches in white bread are gone. Replacing white bread with multi-grain bread bumps sandwiches up a notch into the 21st Century. For instance, the classic “picnic spread” of ground or chopped ham that we just modernized can be made even healthier. Spread it on a hearty seven grain bread, and you turn an old fashioned picnic favorite into a new, healthier classic.
Old Sides With a Few Twists
Salads had less greens and more mayonnaise back in the old days. Pasta salads, potato salads, egg salad, deviled eggs, seven layer salads, Jello salads, and lots of other sides were often based on mayonnaise dressings. Now, many of these sides have embraced vinaigrette dressings, light herb dressings, and other low fat alternatives to regular mayonnaise.
Classics like three bean salads have changed from sugar and vinegar based dressing to honey or other light dressing. Potato salads now include lighter varieties for the dressing, like olive oil, vinegar, and lots of herbs, while still including the classic egg yolk for the flavor we all love. You’ll also find many creamy dressings are now being made with low fat yogurt or low fat sour cream instead of mayonnaise. Or, folks are making their own mayonnaise using no fat or low fat alternatives.
Old fashioned German potato salad has even taken a turn. We see many recipes now for a combination of white potato with sweet potatoes. You can also use honey to replace processed sugar. Regular bacon can be replaced with turkey bacon. Rethinking the ingredients is all it takes to turn a old fashioned classic into a new-age favorite.
Deviled eggs are another side that we loved back in the old days. Every picnic had a tray or two or three of these classics, often in clever little carrying devices. How can you improve or update deviled eggs? By reducing the fat and adding more flavor, of course. Greek yogurt, no fat sour cream, or even no fat cottage cheese can easily be turned into a mayonnaise and mixed with the yolks to create a delicious deviled egg. Add capers or anchovies for more flavor and you have an updated version of this wonderful favorite. Chop up cilantro, add a dash of hot sauce, and you’ve got deviled eggs that are uniquely yours.
And, yes, we mentioned Jello salads. There was a time when Jello salads were vehicles for vegetables as well as fruit. Those days are long gone. However, the reason is not because they weren’t tasty, the reason is because many of these vegetable Jello dishes featured mayonnaise. Lime Jello with shredded carrots topped with sour cream and mayonnaise was not uncommon. No, you probably don’t want to duplicate that in your “revisit the good old days” picnic. However, there are ways to bring back the old, yet maintain the new. Simple Jello salads featuring vegetables is actually quite tasty. Choose simple combinations like a lime Jello with shaved celery and carrots, topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt. This is a tasty, light combination that appeals to many picnic goers who are watching their diet.
Think twice before you plan your sides and salads and you’ll find many alternatives with today’s nod to health conscious choices.
Decades Old Desserts
Chocolate desserts were always a big hit at picnics of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. From chocolate puddings, cakes, cookies, and even cream pies, knowing then that everybody loves chocolate was a pretty safe bet, just as it is today. Some favorites of those decades was Black Forest Cake and German Chocolate Cake. As ingredients like coconut, baking chocolate, and canned cherries became more available, these favorites became the norm instead of the exception at just about every occasion. Because both of these cakes freeze especially well, they are the perfect choice for today’s picnic celebration. Transport in a cooler and they will thaw in time for dessert.
Fruit cocktail in the can gained popularity back in the old days. The applications for this delicious canned sweetness were endless. Using this wonderful treat in a Fruit Cocktail Cake was a classic, and not totally unexpected in the 1950s. Today, this canned goodie is much undervalued. You can make this classic cake for your next picnic, or you can freeze the can of fruit cocktail and blend into an icy cold fruit smoothie. It’s a nice way to have fruit on hand anytime for a quick dessert.
Now, we come to Jello once again. During the 40s and 50s, the Jello folks were pushing hard to get housewives to implement Jello as a vegetable. Then, in the 60s the emphasis turned to Jello as a dessert. One classic from those days was the whipped Jello and ice cream dessert. Throwing your Jello in a mixing bowl and whipping in fruit and ice cream got kids to eat Jello for dessert, long forgetting the vegetable focus. Jello desserts began to fill picnic and potluck tables like never before. When hosting a picnic featuring your favorite dishes from long ago, you can’t forget the Jello. There are sugar-free varieties now and many creative recipes to serve Jello in new ways. Give it a try again.
Yes, times have changed, but every once in awhile, don’t you just long to indulge in the picnic foods you remember from long ago? If so, dig around in the recipes from the past. Choose your favorites and have fun making them exactly as you like – either the way you remember, or with a few tweaks to make them healthier. Plan your next picnic with all those favorites from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and rediscover the flavors of days gone by.
For some vintage recipes, take a look at this Picnic Time Cookbook. Click Here!