The 1970s: Party food from the decade that taste forgot
A Twitter account, ’70s Dinner Party, has spawned a book celebrating the culinary adventurism of yesteryear
Fondue memories: The upwardly-mobile set would invite friends to their homes for brightly coloured extravaganzas, where spectacle was everything. Photograph: iStock
Picture in your mind’s eye a 1970s dinner party, and there’s a very good chance you’ve conjured up images of cheese and pineapple on sticks, pickled onions and salad cream as far as the eye can see.
Yet when Anna Pallai started thumbing through her mum’s old recipe books and cards, she unearthed a treasure trove of party food that went from the sublime to the ridiculous, via the downright stomach-churning.
Pallai’s youthful mealtimes were already heavily flavoured with the influence from her Hungarian dad, and her mother loved nothing more than to whip up a party platter trimmed with chopped olives and “greying boiled eggs”.
“My mum was an experimental cook, though not in any negative way,” recalls Pallai. “We didn’t have anything in the way of convenience foods – not to belittle anything Mum was doing, but I’d have killed for a Findus crispy pancake back then.”
I found an old festive food book, with cats made out of cauliflowers, aubergine helicopters and avocado guitars
Yet crispy pancakes had nothing on the sheer showboating of the typical, keen-to-please 1970s housewife. The upwardly-mobile set would invite friends to their homes for brightly coloured extravaganzas, where spectacle was everything. It was the decade, too, where convenience food was imbued with a sort of Jetsons-style glamour – remember how Smash instant mash was marketed as a space-age staple?
“A lot of jelly and jelly moulds were being used,” observes Pallai. “A lot of the recipes were using hot dogs or canned soup as a base – something that probably came out of the fact that a lot of the women who went back to work were still expected to go cooking, but still wanted it to be a bit showy. More people started to get freezers too, so I came across lots of dishes with fish fingers.
“Back in the ’60s, bananas were savoury and everywhere,” Pallai adds. “I saw a lot of chicken and bananas, and a ‘Zulu Hotpot’ that was beef with bananas.”
Yet there was something in the joyous, hyper-decorated presentation, and the Heston Blumenthal-style experimentation way before its time, that set a lightbulb off over Pallai’s head.
“When I found those old recipes, I found some of them really funny, mainly because the styling was pretty dated,” she recalls. “I’d put the photos on Facebook, and thought, ‘I’ll lose all my friends if I keep posting these.’ So I switched to Twitter.”
Share your memories of 1970s food
A wise move. Pallai’s account, 70s Dinner Party (@70s_party), has 106,000 Twitter followers and counting, and no wonder. The feed is replete with hair-raising images of broccoli souffle rings, ham and banana with hollandaise delight and god-knows-what shaped as ladybirds. Predictably, given the publishing industry’s appetite for retro titles, a 70s Dinner Party book followed in hot pursuit. Pallai began to track down the original recipe makers, stylists, photographers and cookbook authors so that she could pay homage with her own cookbook.
“I had no idea it would get like this,” admits Pallai. “It’s a mixture of the nostalgia thing, especially for my generation and older who remember these foods a lot. But it’s also entirely at odds to what people eat today.”
In the current climate of clean eating, Insta-diets and social media food fascism, the ’70s seem to signify a happier, more honest time. If you’re going to see kale, in other words, expect it as a garnish on a slice of Arctic roll.
I did see a reindeer’s head made out of fish fingers with olives for eyes – that would certainly liven up the table
“I’d rather look at pictures of this food as opposed to avocado and quinoa – that’s boring and puritanical,” Pallai says. “I recently found an old festive food book, and found all these pictures of cats made out of cauliflowers, aubergine helicopters, and avocado guitars.”
The book and Twitter feed weren’t about eviscerating or patronising the palates of previous generations: rather, Pallai was genuinely curious to see if any of the creations from yesteryear would work on a modern dinner table.
“I did have a launch party for the book where a food stylist made a few of the dishes,” admits Pallai. “Some were completely inedible, but with others, you’d need a bit of spare time on your hands.
“I recently came across a recipe for sauerkraut and chocolate cake, and a pork cake, which was basically sweet cake with pork in it,” she adds. “Someone made them, though, and assured me they were nice.”
Anyone hoping to add a touch of 1970s adventurism into their festive hosting later this year, meanwhile, would be advised to play it, um, safe with the classics.
“There are some great Christmas garnishes you could make, like a tree-shaped decoration with shrimps hanging off it,” suggests Pallai. “I did see a reindeer’s head made out of fish fingers with olives for eyes – that would certainly liven up the table. And if you just wanted a hint of it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good old trifle. And nothing would stop my mum hosting a Christmas party and bringing out her devilled eggs.”
70s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food by Anna Pallai is published by Square Peg
Hot dog surprise
6 hot dogs
1 275g can cream of celery soup
225g cream cheese at room temperature
36 melba toast rounds
36 sprigs of parsley
Finely chop the hot dogs until the texture of mince, then, in a bowl, mix with the cream cheese and celery soup. Leave for 1 hour in the fridge to set. Spread the mixture on top of the melba toast rounds and grill until the top is a pale golden brown. Garnish with the parsley sprigs and serve immediately.
Inspired by The Cook’s Treasury, by Betty Brown
1 can mushroom soup
1 can chicken soup
1 small can evaporated milk
1 can chow mein noodles
1 can chicken
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 packet ready-salted crisps, crushed
Mix the first six ingredients together in a large bowl, place in an ovenproof dish and sprinkle the crushed crisps on top. Bake for an hour at 175 degrees Celsius/350 degrees Fahrenheit. Serves six.
Inspired by Mrs Wallace W Morse
2 large tins condensed beef broth
2 large tins water
¼ cup brandy
¼ cup whipping cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon
¼ teaspoon grated orange rind
Mix together the beef broth, water and brandy in a saucepan and heat, stirring occasionally and making sure the mixture doesn’t boil. Combine the cream, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon together in a bowl and beat until the cream forms peaks. Carefully stir in the orange rind and serve on top of the warmed soup.
Inspired by Ideals Christmas Cookbook Treasury