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.
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.
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
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.