11 Old School Foods That Need to Make a Comeback

They say what goes around comes back around, but we’re still patiently waiting for the return of medlars, sweet potato pudding, and other treats that have sadly fallen out of fashion through the centuries. Driven by new technologies and shifting lifestyles, food fads say a lot about their era: what was in vogue, what was unavailable, how much mayonnaise was too much (hint: there’s no such thing). Whenever someone finally invents a tasty time machine, these are the first old school favorites we’d like to try.

1. SWEET POTATO PUDDING

Not only was Thomas Jefferson a scholar and inventor, the guy had good taste in desserts too. Sweet potato pudding was a popular Colonial take on what we now know as sweet potato pie, made with sweet potatoes, eggs, sugar, and nutmeg, and TJ had his very own special recipe. The president’s version was a twist on Virginian Mary Randolph’s pudding, a recipe that was eventually published in Randolph’s popular 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. According to Randolph, a similar pudding could be made using Irish potatoes, but "it is not so good." Noted.

2. GREAT DEPRESSION CAKE

In case the name didn’t tip you off, pickings were slim during the Great Depression. Without easy access to ingredients like milk, eggs, and butter, which were scarce or being conserved for the war effort, bakers in the 1930s and '40s had to get creative. The result, in this case, was a simple but delectable cake heavy on spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and dotted with sweet boiled raisins. Similar dishes date back to at least the Civil War.

3. WATERGATE SALAD

Calling this fluffy green concoction made primarily of Cool Whip and pistachio pudding mix a “salad” is a stretch, but that was common in the 1970s when the ambrosia-style dish made its official debut. Legend has it Kraft originally published a recipe for Pistachio Pineapple Delight sometime around 1975—though the exact timeline is fuzzy—and an enterprising Chicago editor reprinted and renamed it to cash in on the most talked about scandal of the day. When customers started asking Kraft about the recipe for Watergate Salad, the name stuck.

4. MEDLARS

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, who knows what good a medlar—the apple’s foregone cousin—every now and again could do? The tougher, smaller fruit was around back in the Greek and Roman heydays, but really shined during the Victorian era. Inedible without being left to "blet" or partially rot (Shakespeare and other writers apparently used it as a symbol of premature decay in their work), the medlar was most often served with the flesh scooped out and eaten with cream and sugar. Today the stuff can be found in jellies and jams.

5. SEVEN LAYER SALAD

Wedged between the convenient, cream-soaked party foods of the 1970s and the sad attempts at healthier options in the 1980s (Diet Coke, we’re looking at you), the Seven Layer Salad seems a little confused—and a lotta delicious. The one-time go-to potluck pick has plenty of variations, but the basic concept is layers of lettuce, veggies, bacon, and cheese topped with mayo (or sometimes mayo mixed with sugar, which is decidedly not healthy). Preferably, you'd always serve this up in a glass container so fellow block-party diners could really bask in its layered loveliness.

6. PRE-MEAL FRUIT COCKTAILS

When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, much more than American drinking habits changed. In place of the Champagne or claret that had once been served with oysters or crudités before a meal, fruit cocktails dusted with sugar or sprinkled with marshmallows became fashionable.

7. BEEF BOURGUIGNON

French fare was très chic in the 1960s thanks to the popularity of Julia Child’s essential food bible Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her subsequent TV show, The French Chef, which debuted in 1963. Like most of Julia’s other recipes, the bourguignon was not for the faint-of-heart cook. The indulgent beef and wine dish is complicated to make and takes more than two hours, which is perhaps why it unfortunately doesn’t show up on many weeknight dinner menus today.

8. NUT RING

Shaping stuff into a fancy ring was big back when 1930s and '40s homemakers cooking on a serious budget (this was the Depression era, after all) were gravitating toward ingredients that would give them the most bang for their buck. Enter party rings made from hearty, filling, and cheap foods molded in aspic (savory gelatin) with the center of the ring filled with nuts, beans, and veggies plucked from Victory Gardens. 

9. DIPPIN' DOTS

Yes, this kooky frozen staple of '90s kids’ childhoods is still technically around, but the beaded ice cream is nowhere near as popular as it once was. Illinois microbiologist Curt Jones started developing the cryogenically frozen ice cream balls in 1987, and by 1998, high-tech (for the time) Dippin' Dots vending machines were a movie theater and theme park must. Sure, the dots would get stuck on your lips without fail and didn’t taste exactly like regular ice cream, but we have to admit the novelty was pretty fun.  

10. CALAS

Aside from sounding super appetizing (you can’t really go wrong with deep-fried rice fritters), calas have also been attributed to helping some enslaved Louisiana residents buy their freedom in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The once-popular New Orleans street food is thought to have been brought over by slaves coming from Africa and its profits were enough for some African American vendors to eventually buy their way out of bondage.

11. CHEESE BALL

iStock

Culture cheese magazine (yep, that’s thankfully a real thing) claims the old school cheese-molded-into-a-ball-or-log has been making a comeback in recent years, but we’d still like to see more of the nut-armored party snacks that date back to at least the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson pops up again in formerly fashionable foodie history, as the politician was evidently the recipient of a massive sphere, known as "The Mammoth Cheese," which was made from the milk of more than 900 cows. It was transported to the White House lawn by wagon as a gift from a Massachusetts preacher. The version we know today dates from the early 20th century, when cookbooks would variously describe them as being appetizers, garnishes for salads, or even desserts. With such a versatile history, we'd support another full-fledged revival.

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

A man mixes ingredients in a bowl
iStock

It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

A man in an apron looks tired
iStock

Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

A woman examines a supermarket shelf
iStock

When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

Food sits in a trash can
iStock

Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

What Did Elvis Presley's Famous Peanut Butter-Bacon-Banana Sandwich Taste Like? Try It for Yourself

iStock
iStock

Elvis Presley was not what you would call a healthy eater. He reportedly loved bacon-wrapped meatballs, burgers, chicken-fried steak, fried pickles, pound cake, and of course, his signature PBBB sandwich, which took peanut butter, bacon, and banana and smashed them between two slices of white bread.

In honor of The King's favorite food, The Takeout decided to try the PBBB out for themselves. Although some may recoil at this artery-clogging concoction, the food news site gave the sandwich a big thumbs up, citing its balance of sweet and salty flavors and smooth and crunchy textures as major selling points.

According to Salon, Elvis's longtime cook, Pauline Nicholson, may have been the first person to serve Elvis a peanut butter and banana sandwich (but no word on when bacon was thrown into the mix).

The recipe is pretty straightforward, but it eliminates the sticky situation of having to put butter on one side of the bread and peanut butter on the other. Instead of butter, bacon grease is used to toast the bread.

For the ingredients, you'll need two slices of white bread, four strips of bacon, two tablespoons of peanut butter, and one sliced banana. First, fry up the bacon in a pan; while you're doing that, spread peanut butter on one side of each piece of bread. When the bacon is done, remove it from the pan, but leave the grease.

Next, place the bread (peanut butter side up) into the pan, and place the banana slices and bacon on one piece of bread. When both pieces are toasted to your liking, put the sandwich together, give it one more flip in the pan, and press it down until the peanut butter starts to ooze.

And there you have it: a deliciously, sinfully fattening sandwich. Enjoy responsibly.

[h/t The Takeout]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER