Weird Vintage Recipes Found a Second Life Online—And They're Thriving (2024)

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“Have you ever had jellied prune whip? If not, get ready to live!” says Shawna Jones in a 2022 TikTok video. Her narration, arch and sardonic, guides us through a recipe from the 1973 cookbook,The New Joys of Jell-O. She blends prunes into a liver-colored purée before adding them by the plop to a frothed-up bowl of orangeJell-O. “ASMR!” she chirps, at the sound of the wet-on-wet slap of prune slop meeting partially set gelatin. While mixing, she remarks on how the ruddy brown and orange sludge might be a perfect treat for Halloween, or perhaps for serving to someone you don’t particularly like.

Jones, an artist and writer based in Chicago, began making TikToks of herself cooking through a 1953Better Homes & Gardenscookbook in 2021, trying out both appetizing and bizarre recipes alike as a pandemic hobby. Other TikTok creators have embarked on similar projects over the last few years. There’s Barry Enderwick, who focuses on early 20th century sandwiches for his account @sandwichesofhistory, and the high-octaneB. Dylan Hollis, who cooks mostly unappetizing retro recipes with a signature cartoonish affect for his 9.8 million followers. For her part, Jones has amassed a following of more than 100,000 TikTok spectators who follow along while she journeys through her more subdued and personable culinary excavation of the past.

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When it’s finally time to taste the prune whip, Jones turns the camera on herself to provide her viewers with her reaction. She stares down a formidable spoonful before taking a resigned yet determined bite. “It’s actually not that bad…Itis a little bit bitter at the end. I don’t know why there’s salt in it, though…can’t figure that one out.”

Why is the internet obsessed with weird vintage recipes?

Jones, Enderwick, and Hollis are just the latest participants in a well-established content genre on the internet—one preoccupied with the concept of “weird vintage recipes.” While weirdness may be in the eye of the beholder (or content creator), there are some defining characteristics that unify the genre. A majority of the recipes reached peak popularity in the ’50s and ’60s (though some originated in the previous decades). An emphasis on appearance is essential, whether it be spectacular or repellant. They often involve unconventional ingredient combinations and novel textural elements that are not as common today.

These are dishes likejellied hamburger loaf or the infamous and oft-recreatedcandle salad, culinary monstrosities that have become a pop culture shorthand for the worst qualities of post-war American home cooking, and simultaneously seem precision-engineered for viral success. Culinary historian Sarah Lohman, the author ofEight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine is familiar with the allure these recipes have: “They’re like the true crime of culinary history. It’s like watching a disaster unfold in front of you, and you can’t take your eyes away.”

The late Julie Powell may have inadvertently created the blueprint for the genre when blogging her way through Julia Child’sMastering the Art of French Cooking in 2002. While hers was not an exploration of the extravagantly repulsive, her methods inspired many amateur culinary historian bloggers in the years that followed. One such blog is the now defunctMid-Century Menu, in which Ruth Clark documented her arduous journey cooking through old promotional pamphlets and thrifted forgotten cookbooks. During the blog’s 13-year run, between 2009 and 2022, Clark conjured up creamy horrors likeFrosty the Slaw Man andFrankfurter Macaroni Salad Loaf, to the delight of her audience.

In recent years, the weird vintage recipe genre really hit its stride on video-based platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where morbid curiosity and a desire to behold the grotesque drives a lot of successful digital media—take Dr. Sandra Lee’s pimple-popping empire as an even less appetizing example.

“Certain ingredients elicit a gut reaction in people, like mayo in particular,” says Emmy Cho, one of the first auteurs of the genre. Cho is known for her nonjudgmental exploration of a wide array of culinary obscura on her long-running YouTube channel,Emmymade. For her audience of 2.89 million subscribers, she’s preparedbeef fudge, which is just straight-up fudge plus a cup of ground beef, and a liver paté centerpiece covered in lemon Jell-O, mayonnaise, and green olives and shapedinto a pineapple.

While mayo always strikes a nerve, nothing gets viewers going like Jell-O. The instant powdered gelatin is a key ingredient for many of the most unappetizing vintage recipes, and it makes for an alluring, wobbling, translucent spectacle—that’s also perfect for a thumbnail. “When you have crystal clear Jell-O with pieces of fruit and vegetables suspended in it, there’s something about it that makes you think, Wow, you can eat that?” Jones agreed, saying “I haven’t made very many Jell-O recipes, but every time Idon’t make one, people comment, ‘Where's the Jell-O?’” she says. “It’s what the people want.”

Both Cho and Jones accrued large view counts by daring to eat disagreeable retro creations, but both of them see the videos as more than just shock value. Cho is more interested in the process and cooking techniques involved with these recipes, and she’s always respectful and appreciative of a new edible experience, even if the edible experience is ultimately disgusting.

Jones, who described to me a long-standing interest in mid-century culture, is keenly aware of how these recipes came to be. She’ll point out the inherent superficiality of promotional recipes (as with afarming conglomerate’s 1960s recipe for avocado pie) and doesn’t shy away from discussing thefraught domestic expectations of women during that period. Just as often, she features vintage recipes she genuinely loves and grew up eating, like the one forcherry delight or her grandmother’s three ingredientchicken and dumplings. “For me, going back into this book that no one has thought about for 50 years and being able to open it, and experience it for myself, is sort of magical,” Jones explains.

Photo by Travis Rainey, Styling by Joseph De Leo

Where do these “weird” recipes actually come from?

To state the obvious: the United States underwent massive and unprecedented changes through industrialization, advances in science and technology, and the growth of a suburban middle class during the 20th century. Companies began directing their advertising toward this middle class through promotional pamphlets and recipe books; a strategy which, according to Lohman, Jell-O first laid out asearly as 1905. Following the post-World War II boom in industrialized food and the supermarket’s rise, this type of recipe-based promotion reached its peak.

Color print advertising gave companies the opportunity to use the visual appeal of food as a selling point, often at the expense of taste. The zaniest creations were conceived as ostentatious centerpieces for a co*cktail party or merely advertising ploys for catching the eyes of someone flipping through a magazine. To bloat the perceived versatility of ingredients, advertisers concocted strange flavor combinations out of an assemblage of processed foods. Not all of these dishes were disgusting, but for everygreen bean casserole,no-bake cheesecake, andstrawberry pretzel salad, there are dozens of packaged food mash-ups ripe for contemporary mockery.

Still, there were some overarching social conditions during the 20th century that made for a perfect storm of questionable culinary creations. Lohman points to the changes in labor following the industrial revolution as one significant factor: “Up until the turn of the 20th century, domestic labor was very, very affordable, and sort of an expected part of middle-class life.” After the war, the cost of in-house labor was no longer affordable for people considered middle class, and pressure fell on women to perform household duties and prepare meals that met a standard executed previously by in-home staff.

Cookbooks from this period demonstrated how these social pressures and class aspirations were translated to the masses. To pull off what once required a full staff, cookbooks encouraged women to rely on shortcuts, processed ingredients, and put an emphasis on deceptively easy recipes meant to impress. Gelatin salads and aspics were a vestige of 19th-century upper-class cooking; prior to the invention of Jell-O, it was an expensive and labor-intensive dish available only to the elite. This is only a gloss, but books like historian Julia Shapiro’s Perfection Salad provide greater context around the domestic education of middle- and upper-class American women and its impact on American culture.

How many bologna cakes were people actually eating in the 1950s?

It’s worth remembering that just because these recipes exist doesn’t necessarily mean that people were actually cooking and eating them all the time. Lohman notes that promotional recipe materials tend to appear relatively untouched in comparison to well-loved cookbooks, and there’s a noticeable lack of documented firsthand experience with these extreme recipes. “You hear people cooking fromMastering the Art of French Cooking, you don’t hear of them cooking from the Wharton’s beef pamphlet or something,” she says.

As historian Jessamyn Neuhaus first pointed out in a1999 journal article, advertising materials and moralizing cookbooks might portray ideals and expectations of those who produced them, but the actual, lived experience of Americans was far more complicated and varied across class, race, region, and cultural context.

Much of the weird vintage recipe content out there is missing historical nuance. Take this video,Gen Z Tries Vintage Recipes!, in which teens take turns tasting and spitting out a SpaghettiOs jelly ring and a bologna and cream cheese layer cake. Divorced from any historical context, it’s easy to assume—as many commenters seem to do—that these foods were just a normal part of the mid-century diet. There are manyother examples of content depicting food from the early to mid-20th century as a Boschian horror where perverse flavors were simply “foods your grandparents ate.”

This fast-and-loose approach to history is a perfect example of the problems with what historian Jason Steinhauer refers to as e-history. In his bookHistory, Disrupted, Steinhauer defines e-history as “discrete media products that package an element, or elements, of the past for consumption on the social web and which try to leverage the social web in order to gain visibility.” This includes history-related content from YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, but also wiki pages, blog posts, and web articles (including this one.)

He explains that a significant amount of people today, especially young people, obtain more historical information through e-history than they do in the classroom. The algorithmic nature and metrics-based organization of online content elevates the clickable, the entertaining, and the easily digestible over in-depth, factual, yet potentially less exciting, content. In Steinhauer’s words, “the social web does not privilege facts; it privileges getting noticed and signals of attention.”

Jell-O nostalgia dies hard

Popular culture today perpetuates a certain image of the 1950s, with a caricature of the middle-class suburban family at the center. “I think we do have this kind of misinformed nostalgia for that time period that can really skew our understanding of how complex a space the domestic kitchen was for women,” says Smithsonian food historian Ashley Rose Young.One out of three women were still in the labor force in the 1950s, and as Young points out, the notion of the tireless domestic entertainer was even further from the reality of working-class women and women of color during a highly segregated time.

The reality of how people actually cooked during the 1950s isn’t a mystery—at least, not to food historians or the millions of Americans who lived through that time and are still alive today—it’s just way less exciting than what viral videos might lead you to believe. To use another piece of e-history as an example, there areseveral threads on the subredditr/AskOldPeople, filled withresponses which reveal that by and large, the food most Americans ate resembles food still eaten today. To go back a little earlier, you can visit Michigan State University’sWhat America Ate, a massive archive of primary resources documenting the varied regional diets of Americans during the 1930s.

Historical or not, intentionally disgusting food, asthis story in the Verge highlighted, is a serious business capable of generating more engagement and revenue on TikTok than videos featuring foods people actually want to eat. But there are also more and more creators like Cho and Jones who are using food as a way to build a sense of historical empathy and cross-cultural connection. The TikTok account @passtheflamingo, and YouTuber Max Miller’s channelTasting History, are other great examples of people who approach culinary obscura through a desire to understand rather than as an object to poke fun at.

Regardless of how the bologna cake is cut, all of this content will continue to exist online in perpetuity, and it will itself be e-history that the historians of the future will have to sort out themselves. Hopefully, they’ll know better than to assume that in 2023, Wednesday night dinner in America looked likea boiled Dorito bag full of beef.

Weird Vintage Recipes Found a Second Life Online—And They're Thriving (2024)


Who is the guy who makes weird old recipes? ›

cookbook recipes new life. You never know what B. Dylan Hollis might be cooking.

Who is the Tiktok baker who makes old recipes? ›

Dylan Hollis gives wacky vintage cookbook recipes new life.

Who is Dylan who cooks old recipes? ›

Dylan Hollis. Hollis has raked in millions of views and followers by recreating obscure recipes from cookbooks that date back decades. In one of his more popular videos, Hollis takes on ambrosia, the fluffy fruit salad you might see at your next summer BBQ.

Who is the weird guy on Food Network? ›

Andrew Zimmern's Canteen, a fast-casual concept he launched in 2012, reflects his fascination with food history from around the world. Andrew has released three books: The Bizarre Truth, Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World of Food and Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild & Wonderful Foods.

How old is minimalist baker? ›

It all started in 2012 with a simple idea to make home cooking more approachable, and has since evolved into something much bigger!

Who is behind minimalist baker? ›

Dana Shultz - Co-Founder - Minimalist Baker | LinkedIn.

Where does Dylan Hollis get his recipes? ›

Hollis's videos use recipes from 20th-century vintage cookbooks, typically spanning from the late 1800s to the 1960s. The recipes in his videos span from 1865 at the oldest to 2001 at the newest, however the recipes he touches on are typically from the Great Depression.

Who is the chef that swears? ›

A 2009 episode of Great British Nightmare exemplified just how much chef Ramsay likes to swear, as he uttered a total of 312 swear words in just 103 minutes, including 240 F-bombs. In one scene, he somehow managed 37 swear words in 95 seconds.

Who is Food Guy Alton Brown? ›

Alton Crawford Brown Jr.

He is the creator and host of the Food Network television show Good Eats that ran for 16 seasons, host of the miniseries Feasting on Asphalt and Feasting on Waves, and host and main commentator on Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen.

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