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Vintage Kitchen: Dieting

Dieting has come a long way over the past few decades.

Fad and not-so-fad diets have always been a thing, from the once popular gelatin dishes good not only for reducing, but also for preserving the food itself in times when everyone had to tighten their belts for the war effort, to new diets like Whole 30 and the Paleo-thing, which focus not on limiting the amount of food you eat but the type of food you eat.

But it can be pretty objectively said that diet recipes have improved over the years. Whether it’s the country’s expanded palate, increased food options, a better understanding of “good” fats, a healthy aversion to additives and preservatives, a movement away from refined flour. . .whatever the reason, those who are looking to lose weight through measured or unmeasured reducing have much better options now than they once did.

Case in point: the 1972 Weight Watchers recipe card collection.

Weight Watchers is, of course, still very popular weight loss program. But their approach and recipes have changed considerably over the last 50 years. Here, we’re simply appreciating the early approach to diet foods, (as well as food photography). Check your local estate sales for vintage diet cookbooks and recipe cards and join in the fun!

Everything about this particular collection embodies the 1970s, at least to those of us who might not be able to remember the decade well. The ingredients. (Sardines! Fruit molds! Celery Cheese logs!) The photo quality. (So dark! So saturated!) The photo props. (Why is there a ceramic cheetah on the Jellied "Peach Melba” recipe. . .and why is “peach melba” in quotes? What is melba, anyway. These are important questions.)

Although there are recipes we would likely never choose to eat again—whether it’s because the ingredients themselves are no longer readily available (looking at you, aspic), or because they are no longer considered the best diet choices (move over, cottage cheese—greek yogurt is in town!)—there’s something special about these recipes. Something naturally sweet about these artificially-sweetened foods.

Choosing what to make for this post was difficult. I’ve put my coworkers through their paces with past vintage recipe adventures, from the inaugural Winter Salad, to the more palatable Chicken à la King and microwave lasagna (a winner in my book). But I knew many of these recipes would be a hard sell. So I pared the selection down to six, and put it to a vote.

The selections:

Curried Cocktail Toast is a simple recipe involving six slices of bread, curry powder, butter, and three drops of hot sauce. So if you’re looking to live life on the wild side…

Curried Seafood in Pineapple Shells. Let’s talk about it. This recipe takes half a pineapple and fills it with: shrimp, tuna, sardines, curry powder, yogurt, pimiento, pepper, mustard, ketchup, horseradish, chili sauce, and steak sauce.

Potato Pizza has a mashed potato crust, essentially, and is topped with tomatoes, sardines, onions, and a light smattering of mozzarella cheese.

Cream of Peanut Soup melts together peanut butter, skim milk (or, as the cards refer to it, “skimmed milk”), chicken broth packets, celery, and butter. Garnished with celery and served with 6 saltine crackers per serving. Glorious.

Frankfurter Pie is, essentially, a bed of white bread, upon which hot dogs rest, along with a mixture of sauerkraut, mustard, pimiento (another ingredient popular in this era), and Worcestershire sauce.

Apple-Cheese Tacos are baked corn tortillas filled with apples seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, cottage cheese, vanilla extract, and shredded cheddar cheese.

The winner was surprising, but not really. Particularly after someone announced that if you voted for the winning dish, you would have to eat it. At that point, it was clear...

I know, I know. I wanted curried seafood in pineapple shells, too. In theory at least. I didn’t want to deal with all that seafood...or to eat the finished product. But I really wanted to make other people eat it.

Perhaps another time. At least with the apple-cheese tacos, I have an excuse to bust out the vintage apple peeler.

So let’s dive into what is, probably, the “safest” dish offered up in the vote. It is, after all, basically apple pie with a corn tortilla crust, topped with cheddar cheese (as one does), and, inexplicably, cottage cheese.

What could possibly go wrong?

First, I’d like to point out that the apple-cheese taco is categorized under “Worldwide Favorites.”

A quick Google search turns up a few apple pie taco recipes—more appetizing and less health-conscious than our recipe card, with ZERO inexplicable cottage cheese. But nothing, as far as I can see, that would qualify this as a “worldwide favorite.”

I’m being noncommittal about this, you’ll notice, because I fully expect someone to pipe up with their grandmother’s apple taco recipe from the old country. But then someone else will respond that traditional Mexican tacos do not have cheese, so this would never count as a taco.

Let’s take the title “worldwide favorite” with a boulder-sized grain of salt, is what I’m saying. At least for now.

We had to improvise a bit on this recipe. The instructions said to fold the tortillas in half, hold them open with toothpicks, and then cook them on a skillet until firm.

But folding a modern store-bought corn tortilla in half results in one thing, and one thing only: a broken corn tortilla.

So what we did was heat the tortilla flat on a skillet until firm, then draped it over a spatula handle to cool. It worked as well as one might expect.

And I’d like to point out that the photograph on the card clearly shows a taco with a store-bought hard taco shell. (Yeah, I see you, recipe card!) So clearly we weren’t the only ones struggling with this step.

Next, we peeled, cored, and diced two apples, and cooked them on the stovetop with water, allspice, and cinnamon. This, of course, made the kitchen smell deceptively delicious.

While the apples cooked, I combined cottage cheese and vanilla, and blended it until smooth. (Yet another detail left out from the card’s picture, which clearly features chunky cottage cheese that was clearly not  processed in a blender.)

I’m not sure which is worse.

Finally, we filled the taco shells with the apples, the liquified cottage cheese, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. The four tacos (two servings) were then put into a 350-degree oven until the cheese melted.

The final product looked pretty similar to the card—save the misleading hard-shell tacos and chunky cottage cheese (grumble, grumble). But how did it taste?

Not great.

The general consensus was that it could be tasty, if you took out most of the elements that made it somewhat healthy, namely the corn tortillas (replace them with flour, they said) and the cottage cheese (which no one was a supporter of).

Some comments from those brave enough to try it:

“If you ate too many, you’d definitely get sick.”

“The apples are delicious.”

“It kind of tastes like yogurt.”

“The aftertaste...it stays.”

While this recipe might not come highly recommended, it was certainly fun to try. I have no doubt many of the other cards in this recipe box, and in others we might find in our local estate sales (including the second box sitting on my desk right now, calling to me), feature exciting dishes that could become a staple in our own homes. It’s all part of the tag sale magic!

Besides, imagine how people 50 years from now will look upon our present-day diet cookbooks. Will someone gag at Atkins-based recipe, wondering how people in the old days could survive eating meals with no trace of carbs? Or wonder what we must have been taught in our history class if we thought people in the Paleolithic era ate zoodles?

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