Suburban Cuisine, or: What to Eat When You’re Through Being Cool

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“You take a bag and a half or so of frozen corn kernels. Or you could even use canned, but make sure it’s a good brand like Del Monte. Drained of course. Dump it in a good-sized sauce pan. Scoop in at least a whole regular-sized tub of sour cream and a cut-up block of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Then dump in a coupla those little cans of chopped green chiles, some chunks of butter, maybe half a stick, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir it all up over low heat till it makes a creamy sauce, and then put it in a nice dish to serve. Couldn’t be easier.”

“And what do you call it?” I asked.

 

The two tall, handsome gentlemen leaning on my kitchen island shot each other side glances and conspiratorial smiles.

 

“Well,” said one, “we call it ‘Funeral Corn.’”

 

The other nodded. Then he told me how it came by the unusual name. A serving dish of it had mysteriously appeared at his grand-mama’s funeral dinner. All the ladies started sneaking over to the buffet and picking up the dish to look under it and see whose it was because it was just so good.

 

“You know how you’re supposed to write your name on adhesive tape on the bottom of the dish for funeral food?” he said. “Well whoever brought it, didn’t.”

 

They assumed that after everyone left, they could figure out who brought it by process of elimination. But they never did.

 

“We didn’t recognize the serving dish,” he said. “Nobody ever called for it. And Mama was aghast that she couldn’t write a thank you note.”

 

He, his mama, and his aunts experimented until they figured out the ingredients and proportions and realized how simple the dish was.

 

He went on, “Turns out easiest was best, and we’ve been making Funeral Corn ever since. Mama still has the serving dish in case anybody ever wants it back.”

 

This is how I remember the induction into my repertoire of one of the most useful recipes I’ve found. The two gentlemen were a gay couple who had been invited to my Austin home for a potluck fundraiser for some cause or another. We had grown up in roughly the same era and traditions of recipe swapping. The three of us lingered in the kitchen far longer than was polite to my other guests. We talked about mamas, gardening, cooking, and what else to serve with this simple, delectable dish that was so uncool it was cool.

 

And Funeral Corn is utterly delicious, from the crunch of the sweet corn kernels to the silky, savory sauce tempered by the acid tang of green chile and the perfume of crushed black pepper. That’s a highfalutin’ description for a dish made almost entirely from canned and packaged ingredients. I’ve fancied it up a few times. I’ve used fresh roasted corn, hand-roasted poblanos, and crème fraiche. And I’ve topped it with crumbled queso fresco. But the recipe remains basically the same. Corn, creamy sauce, green chile. Truth is, I still use the original standby ingredients when I’m in a rush.

 

For, as sophisticated as my cooking can be, there is always a place for a few humble, flavorful recipes that my mother might refer to as “white trash food.” But her label isn’t quite right. The stuff I’m talking about originates from a time and place where several influences came together to create a cuisine that often involved little more than heating up and arranging. The main purpose of these dishes seems to have been to display some sort of modern flair. This all occurred at the intersections of humble and urbane, post-War and Mad Men, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and hand-made and processed — a place called the early ’60s.

 

I have no doubt that Funeral Corn sprang from this era. It was a time when many American women who had grown up either country or urban suddenly found themselves in suburbia. They often lived far from their mothers and sisters for the first time and were expected to “entertain” and look great while doing it, raise perfect children, and make everything appear effortless. They were also the targets of a vast commercial campaign to sell them the latest available household goods. These women were supposed to keep perfect houses and compete for the titles of best mother, wife, and cook. No wonder they took tranquilizers and made hideous carrot-raisin salads swathed in mayonnaise. Specifically, Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise. I call this painfully waspy, weird, white people food Suburban Cuisine.

 

Not only were these pioneering suburban women bombarded with messages imploring them to desire patios, wall-to-wall carpet, refrigerator-freezer combos, washers and dryers, and (holy-of-holies) dishwashers, they were also to abandon nursing their babies in favor of bottle-feeding and to purchase their families’ food at sleek new neighborhood supermarkets. Products were what these gals were told they needed, and their recipes reflected it—the mark of a modern kitchen. The recipes, often created and promoted by the manufacturers of early processed foods, called for specific brand names like Rotel, Kraft, Heinz, and the like. The brands were often included in the names of the dishes. An on-trend suburban mom of the period might have served Spam Teriyaki, a molded Jell-O Salad, and Dole Pineapple Upside Down Cake all in the same meal.

 

Like those classics, Funeral Corn has most of the desired qualities of Suburban Cuisine in one dish. A Suburban Cuisine Dish should be:

1.) Properly full of name brand ingredients

2.) Easy to prepare for a gal on the go

3.) Vaguely international

4.) Trés, trés colorful

5.) Called by a fun and festive name

 

Vaguely international adds a whiff of supposed sophistication. A need for color can be the only conceivable explanation for that carrot raisin concoction. Funeral Corn lacks only the fun and festive name. I like to think that Funeral Corn was once called “Del Monte Corn Fiesta” or perhaps “Philadelphia Cream Cheese Chili con Corn-nay.”

 

But despite its downer name, Funeral Corn, unlike most of the mostly forgotten Suburban Cuisine dishes that now seem irrevocably camp, has something going for it that makes it endure in my repertoire. It tastes good. On that basis alone, it earned its place in the rotation.

 

There are a few other dishes that fall into the subcategory of Suburban and delicious. Coca Cola Cake, for example. My first taste of Coca Cola cake was a revelation—something I knew instinctively that my mother would never have made or approved. But she was working on the Cancer Fund Drive with our neighbor Mrs. Schroeder at the time and had left my brother and me at the Schroeder’s house for safe keeping. The Schroeders were from “up north,” and the inside walls of their house seemed to be made of stacked books and stuffed bookshelves. Heaven.

 

As if that weren’t enough, the Schroeders employed a five-day-a-week maid and cook named Maisie whose dark-skinned, pink-palmed hands seemed to be constantly working flour and butter and rolling pins. While my brother ran around outside playing with the Schroeder kids, I quietly selected a few books from the shelves and joined Maisie in the kitchen. We didn’t speak. I almost never did, and I liked being in the company of adults who didn’t speak much either. I sat on a stool at the counter reading as she worked, and at some point, Maisie placed in front of me a glass of cold milk and a small plate on which stood a caramel-colored cube of glazed Coca Cola Cake.

 

Unaccustomed to being permitted dessert in the daytime, I hesitated for a moment before I picked up the fork to carve a corner from the cube. In my mouth, sweet, sweet, almost too-sweet, moist, and vaguely chocolaty, the cake collapsed almost instantly on my tongue. Its forbidden nature no doubt enhanced the experience. It was sugar and glaze and candy in cake texture, and it needed the bracing cold milk as a chaser.

 

“It’s good, right?” Maisie asked.

 

“Mmm. Hmm. Thank you.”

 

Maisie and I never did talk much, but we spent a number of afternoons in her kitchen eating some of her other specialties: buttermilk pie, peach cobbler, and leftover biscuit sandwiches made with homemade blackberry jam and salty slivers of Virginia ham. I imagine that the Coca Cola Cake recipe had been clipped from a magazine by some white lady she worked for. I’ve encountered Coca Cola Cake a few times in the years since, and I never turn it down when offered. Although I liked Maisie’s other desserts better, I could get those things at home. Only Coca Cola Cake can mystically transport me to a house full of books and a kind, quiet grown-up who let me be and fed me outlaw dessert in the afternoon.

 

I should explain that, as a suburban mom, my mother was not exactly the ideal Betty Draper-type. She could never quite abandon her country ways, a tendency that seemed to irk my urban father, a social-climbing, suit- and tie-wearing Don Draper-type born and raised in Houston. My mother, a sixth generation West Texas beauty, nursed her babies, grew her own vegetables, bought unpasteurized milk from the dairy, made butter and cottage cheese, and fished and hunted. She cooked from scratch and made her own curtains, too. My mother never, ever made a Jell-O salad. Thus, for the few Suburban Cuisine dishes I sometimes craved, I was forced to forage outside our home.

 

Frito Chili Pie was such a dish. I could find it at a drugstore lunch counter or a burger stand. In those joints, the traditional serving method was to slit the Frito bag open along the side, ladle in the chili meat, and top it with chopped onions and good old shredded orange American cheese. Brand name. Check. Easy to prepare. Check. Vaguely international. Check. Colorful. Check. This one had everything going for it except that whiff of sophistication. And for that reason, no conscientious suburban housewife served this for fancy company. But I still found it on many a dining table at friends’ houses, minus only the Frito bag. It was considered a “fun” dish for casual nights, usually when dads were out of town on business.

 

A few years ago I noticed Frito Chili Pie on the menu at Alicia’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant in the town where I lived. I had to order it. The waitress brought me a large steaming bowl full of all the expected ingredients in the correct strata—the salty Fritos on the bottom covered in chili and topped with a layer of good old shredded orange American cheese and chopped onions. Alicia’s special twist was an additional layer of chopped lettuce and tomato and a generous splotch of sour cream. This was a Frito Chili Pie Salad, and it worked. It packed all the savory goodness of the original but with a guilt-reducing touch of vegetation.

 

The trick was managing to plunge my spoon directly down to the bottom to capture layers of each ingredient in every bite. From the spoon tip to the base of the handle, the series of tastes included crunchy, salty, umami, smoky, spicy, cheesy, more crunchy, and then cool. I ordered a Coke, something I pretty much never do, to add a sweet, brisk counterpoint and to complete the drugstore lunch counter experience as well. This was the first of a couple of dozen Alicia’s Frito Chili Pies with a Coke I consumed over the next five years.

 

My nostalgic notions about certain foods make me wonder which dishes my now-grown sons will remember most fondly to their yet-to-be-born children. I fear that it may be stuff they, too, left the house for in their teenage years. I fear that it will be McNuggets. Will they someday regale their children with the memory of peeling back the tops of little rectangles of patented Honey Barbecue Sauce? I hope not.

 

Because I was a single mom, the boys and I often cooked together. So I hope their memories will include sitting on the counter beside the stove and stirring the smoking roux for gumbo. Or my mother’s buttery, sage-infused cornbread dressing that we so faithfully reproduced each Thanksgiving. Or the tamales we used to make by hand around the table each December—the ones we consumed straight from the steamer, the fluffy masa and spicy pork filling falling apart as we burned our fingers ripping the first ones from their corn husks too soon. Or Frito Chili Pie. Or Funeral Corn. But it’s out of my hands, really. We can pick and choose our memories, certainly, but some of them seem to pick us, especially when it comes to food.

 

My mother came along at a low ebb in American cuisine. For most American moms of the sixties, fresh was passé, fast food was beginning to take hold, and Julia Child hadn’t yet caught traction on Public television. These unfortunate ladies were thrust into an isolating, insecurity-provoking Tupper World, neither town nor country, a social phenomenon so dehumanizing that it eventually birthed second wave feminism, thank God, and not a moment too soon.

 

The food from there and then reflects the manic nature of it all. The Google images reveal a nauseating variety of congealed messes that look like Hawaiian shirts regurgitated on serving platters. And we laugh. We’re above that stuff. No Ham and Bananas Hollandaise for us. Please do not pass the Frosted Lime Walnut Salad.

 

But bless those women’s hearts anyway for trying. I never had to impress the husband’s boss with a last minute dinner. I never had to sit with his pissed off, Scotched-up wife trying not to say anything wrong. I never had to convince myself that a dishwasher was the key to happiness. And I don’t have to feel that consuming certain types of goods and foods makes me a better woman.

 

Or do I?

 

The decisions we make about food in the new millennium seem ridiculously complex. GMO-free, gluten-free, locally-produced, pesticide-free, free range, grass fed, organic, certified organic, fair trade, and package-free are the hot choices for this era’s Best Mommy wannabes. And it can be exhausting staying on top of the trends hurtling rapid-fire at them and the rest of us.

 

Soon, according to the experts who project food trends, we’re going to want more oysters, not salmon, more beef cheeks, not bacon, more bone broth, not coffee, more whiskey, not vodka, and more romaine, not kale (that old weed!). A friend of mine speculates that artisanal gravy and marrow butter can’t be far behind.

 

And what is all the fuss, anyway? It’s just food fashion. And nothing dates like the fashionable. Eventually bone broth may seem as campy as tuna noodle casserole with a crust of crushed Lay’s Potato Chips. But just in case you want to be on top of the next wave, food forecasters are currently predicting craft gin, flavored salts, savory ice creams, retro Pimm’s cups, and pistachio everything in the near future.

 

We should check out some of those trends. But maybe we should also stick to a few things we like simply because we like them and not because we’re supposed to like them. We need at least a few foods that aren’t completely about healthy nutrition, responsible consumerism, or cutting edge style. We need some foods that take us to places we ought to revisit once in a while, foods that taste good to us and that connect us to the past. In my case, some of those dishes are, for better or worse, solidly rooted in the Suburban Cuisine of the sixties, uncool and nutritionally and environmentally irresponsible as such food may be.

 

Most days, I eat healthy. I’m down for the kale and sprouts. But I have to admit that I actually like banana pudding, especially after a day or two when the Nabisco Vanilla Wafers go soft. And no matter what manner of low-carb, low fat, organic program I may be on at the moment, if anyone offers me Coca Cola Cake, I intend to enjoy it and say “thank you” just as my mother taught me to do.

 

Phyllis Dunham currently lives, works, studies, teaches, and writes in New Orleans and directed social change campaigns focusing on women’s and environmental issues for over two decades. Her work has recently appeared in the Cenizo Journal and Drunk Monkeys and on WWNO Public Radio and is soon to be featured in Sugar and Rice.

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