In the 1950s, home cooks – even fictional home cooks like June Cleaver, who wore heels and pearls while whipping up dinner for Ward, Wally and the Beav – used about 10 spices.
All of them were housed in small glass jars and displayed on a wooden spice rack that hung near the stove so pepper and its simple cousins were within easy reach.
Today’s cook, however, has easy access to spices around the world, which has completely changed the way we think about food.
“The range of ingredients available to home cooks has expanded dramatically. People are incorporating herbs and spices like lemongrass, smoked Mexican chile, sumac, and za'atar mix,” said food writer Yotam Ottolenghi.
From rags to riches
Those 1950s spice racks were meager at best, containing paprika – used to add a dash of color to classic deviled eggs – nutmeg and cinnamon to enhance pumpkin pie and oregano to season a Sunday spaghetti sauce.
Today, however, paprika is available in smoked, Hungarian and classic sweet, and the 10 or so spices on the vintage rack have quadrupled.
If you check your own spice cabinet, you’ll likely find the classics – McCormick’s best-selling products have been black pepper, cinnamon and vanilla extract since World War II – alongside cumin, turmeric, coriander and cardamom.
While part of the trend toward more exotic spices is born from availability – spices once were considered prized and elusive commodities, so much so that when Christopher Columbus set out on his adventures, he said if he found the right spices in large quantities he would return to Spain – we also have to look to influencers like the Food Network and Cooking Channel, which along with Bravo’s award-winning show “Top Chef,” encourage viewers to find their inner culinary master and unleash him or her in the kitchen.
A cooking challenge
“The Food Network is like MTV was in the '80s,” Sandra Lee, host of the shows “Sandra’s Money-Saving Meals” and “Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee” told USA Today in 2009.
And celebrity chefs are the rock stars.
Consider Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef who because of his unique heritage, finds himself influenced by foods that span the globe when creating his innovative cuisine.
But even rock stars have their home musicians jamming out in their bedrooms, and Samuelsson is quick to point out that adding a few diverse blends to a spice cabinet can turn even the most timid home cook into a master chef.
“Even just a few spices or ethnic condiments that you can keep in your pantry can turn your mundane dishes into a culinary masterpiece,” Samuelsson says.
Not only are more spices available, but so are more types of produce. Where once heads of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes were the only offerings, today’s grocery store veggie aisle contains fennel, sun chokes, celery root and plantains, allowing for more experimenting in the kitchen than ever before.
Too, today’s cooks are more aware of where their food is coming from – farm to table is a trend that has grown considerably as people become more aware of the many ways foods can help boost our health – and are working harder to make tastier, healthier meals inspired by the foods they see everywhere from talk shows such as “The Chew” to reality shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Everybody is a foodie,” said Lee.
And if she saw today’s internet recipe offerings, June Cleaver, who likely whipped up meat loaf and mashed potatoes on a regular basis, would be as green as fresh basil with envy.
One reason there has been such an explosion of food information is that today "everybody is a foodie," says Lee, who also is editor of her own magazine and author of three new cookbooks.
While modern foods are on trend, some classics stand the test of time. A popular item at Ikea store restaurants, this Swedish meatball recipe – updated from one that appeared in the classic Betty Crocker cookbook in 1956 – is an ode to both June Cleaver and Marcus Samuelsson.
For the meatballs:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
- 2 large egg yolks
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the gravy:
- ¼ cup butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups beef stock
- ¾ cup sour cream
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves as garnish
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions soften and become translucent, about 2 to 3 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, ground pork, bread crumbs, egg yolks, allspice, nutmeg and cooked onion. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste and mix with your hands until well combined.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to your skillet and roll a 1 ¼-inch meatball, browning on all sides to test seasoning levels.
Add salt and pepper as needed, then roll the remaining meatballs, cooking them in batches until all of them are well browned on all sides.
Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.
To make the gravy, melt butter in the skillet and whisk in flour until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Still whisking, gradually add beef stock to flour mixture until the gravy is smooth and slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the sour cream, then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Add meatballs to gravy and cook until the meatballs are heated through and the gravy has thickened, about 10 minutes.
Serve over egg noodles, garnished with minced parsley.