Monday, March 28, 2011

I'm Wondering About Dessert

My great-grandmother, who baked fabulous bread, and my grandmother, who made a dessert for every dinner.

Anna at Pleasant View Schoolhouse posted a day's menu from the vintage cookbook, The American Home Diet, or, What Shall We Have for Dinner? published in 1920. It doesn't take long to see that this diet is packed with carbohydrates and sweet delectables, in one form another, for each meal. Since the epidemic of obesity had not yet struck America in 1920, it is interesting that people could eat through such a day's menu.

When I was between four and eight years old -- quite a few decades ago -- my mother and I lived with my grandparents. My grandmother did most of the cooking. Every evening, dinner was served in the dining room, on a table cloth -- not in the breakfast nook adjoining the kitchen. Every night there was dessert. Years later when I looked through my grandmother's recipes and those of her mother, at least 50 percent of the recipes were for sweets--puddings, sherberts, cakes, pies, cookies, sweet sauces, tarts. For each kind of fruit there was an array of recipes, so you could cook it when it was in season in all kinds of ways. If are making 365 desserts a year, you need variety.

There are plenty of differences between the 1920s, when my grandmother first started cooking for her husband and family, and today. For one, many more people moved their bodies in the course of doing their daily work, rather than sitting in an office, or walked a lot more as part of their commutes or trips to the store.

Our portions are reported to be much larger today.

Food represents a much smaller portion of the family's monthly budget -- that is, it is cheaper.

But was there a difference in the experience of the meal itself, especially the family dinner? At my grandmother's, meals were regular (I don't remember eating in restaurants), and eating ended when the meal ended. Adults never ate between meals.

Ergo, missing from the grocery store that we went to every Friday night were the huge aisles of snack food that we see in today's supermarkets. In my local grocery store, there is one side of an aisle devoted to candy, another to popcorn and nuts, another to frozen desserts, a double aisle of cookies and crackers, and another double aisle of chips, pretzels, and other snack food. With the exception of the desserts, crackers with soup, and cookies for lunch, none of these foods are eaten at meals, yet they consume close to 25 percent of the supermarket floor space devoted to food items.

I am wondering if there is a correlation between the lack of a ritualized family dinner, complete with dessert, and the rise in snack food?

I am wondering, do many women today still make a dessert when they prepare the family meal at night? Do you? And if you do, does it help decrease your family's eating between meals?


Jodi said...

While I still bake cookies and such, I really don't make desserts for after dinner unless we're having company. A lot has changed since my three oldest have left the nest. We have always eaten dinner together as a family, and now that my husband's work day is longer, we don't eat until 8pm. We try not to eat too heavy when it's so late. You brought back a memory about my grandmother. She always insisted on clean clothes at the dinner table, so when you came home from school or work, you dressed for dinner. She made everything from scratch, but I don't recall any desserts.

Val said...

My husband and I are the only people linving in our house. I only make dessert when we have company, as I have a voracious sweet tooth and my husband prefers salty things - translation I would end up eating all of the desserts myself. I do love to make desserts though, as I think baking is rather fun.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was born in 1892, and by the time I knew her well, she was living part time with us and part time in her studio. We rarely, if ever, had desert with a meal. My parents, children of the Depression, always told us that sweets were a rarity in their childhood.

I do not make desert with our dinners. Our snacks are a bit "off center." We may snack on cheese, olives, fruit, plain yogurt or cottage cheese, or crackers with peanut butter and jelly. Upon occasion, I make puddings, some cookies, and maybe a coffee cake. Sometimes we snack on leftovers, such as that one leftover sausage.

Nan said...

And now, if there is a dessert - a nice cake, for instance - people would say, oh, I shouldn't or how decadent instead of just plain enjoying it. And then they would go and eat all those things you mentioned in the supermarket aisles. When did we get so crazy about food? No one raves and loves their food anymore without some words that put down the very food they are eating. And yet, everyone is fat. It is so, so sad.

And, I think that it is very possible that people actually prefer the junk snacks over homemade foods. I'm living in the wrong time.

Anonymous said...

Custard--one of the most delectable desserts I can think of--is made from a small amount of sugar, eggs, and whole milk (or part milk and part cream), with a dash of vanilla and a sprinkling of nutmeg. A modest portion adds less than 250 calories to a meal, and, with all its protein and nutrients, can actually help balance a meal. Therefore, it's good food, whereas the heavily processed and chemical-besotted supermarket foods are not. I think the operating hypothesis is more processing = less nutrition.