Adventures in 70’s Suburban Dining

 By Marc Gilson

You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. They’re snapshots of my own experience of the 1970s and 80s when I was in school. I don’t know that my experiences as a kid in the 70s were any more or less “typical” than anyone else’s. But I do hope these stories appeal especially to others of my generation – the latch key kids, Generation X.

Every generation has its own unique experiences of life that shape it. We grew up watching news reports from Viet Nam, saw the rise of video games and the fall of communism. We witnessed the Watergate Scandal, the murder of John Lennon, the death of Elvis. We know what a “record album” looks like, and how to re-spool a cassette tape using a Bic pen. We watched AIDS ravage thousands of lives. We saw the first launches of NASA’s space shuttles. We watched Live Aid, live. We made it through recession, inflation, and watched the national debt skyrocket faster than in any time in history. We enjoyed our first awkward kisses in the flickering light of John Hughes movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. We worried over the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 81. We watched MTV when they actually did play nothing but music videos 24/7. We listened to U2, Billy Joel, and Madonna when they were new acts. All in all, it was an interesting time to grow up.

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Anthropologists believe that the dietary habits are a key driver of social and cultural change in any given era. In the case of the 70s, America was no longer a nation primarily comprised of “the nuclear family” where dad went to work each day to earn a living for the family while the kids were busy learning their multiplication tables and mom stayed home to cook and clean and keep the home fires burning.

Fewer and fewer families resembled the “Leave it to Beaver” ideal of the whole family gathering around the dinner table to enjoy a home-cooked meal and discuss the events of the day. In the 70s mom went to work, just like dad, and after a long day at the office nobody had the time or energy to come home and cook a complete Betty Crocker-style meal. Convenience took precedence over gourmet preparation. Any meal that could be made by “just adding water,” or whipped together in 20 minutes earned a place in the cupboards of the 70s family. It was the age of the TV dinner, Spaghetti-Os, and frozen fish sticks. Society was changing and with it, our food, and our ways of preparing it.

In 1967, the first commercially successful microwave oven – Amana’s Radarange – began to find its way into American kitchens. Although costly for the time ($495), the Radarange became extremely popular and revolutionized home cooking. It also allowed members of the family with less-than-Julia-Child-quality cooking skills (usually dads and kids) to cook their own meals and snacks. Hence, the microwave oven was a mixed blessing in some households. While early TV commercials portrayed the microwave as a replacement for the conventional big, hot, and slow-cooking oven by showing whole turkeys and chickens being “miraculously” cooked in just a few minutes, time has proven that microwaves are more often used to heat up leftover pizza or warm up a cold cup of coffee.

My family obtained its first microwave in about 1975. I vividly remember my grandfather hefting in a big box, unpacking this thing that looked more like a TV than an ”oven,” and plugging the microwave in for the first time.

Grampy was a man who believed in reading instructions, sometimes aloud. We had a drawer in the kitchen that contained complete documentation, including receipts and warranty forms for every household appliance we owned going back to the old 1960 Magnavox console stereo system, which seemed to weigh about seven tons (and is, today, bested in sound quality by a three ounce mp3 player). We even had a little page of instructions for our toaster. Now, if you need to read an instructional manual in order to make toast you probably have no business being in the kitchen.

Back to the new microwave – as I sat at the kitchen counter, eager to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner in 30 seconds, Grampy sat there next to me, reading all 99 pages of the owner’s manual (I swear, he probably read the French, Japanese, and Spanish versions too). He refused to allow me to mess with the buttons or even open the door of the microwave until he had fully educated himself about this new gizmo. This, I was informed (and like so many other things in the house), was “not a toy!” But of course I was already fantasizing about what would happen if, say, two or three unlucky green plastic army men “accidentally” wandered into the microwave and were suddenly and tragically subjected to invisible rays of radiation from spaaaace!

Having become a certified expert on microwave ovens, Grampy finally put the manual down, went to retrieve a Tupperware container of last night’s spaghetti, dished it onto a plate, and placed it with great care inside the microwave. He closed the door, turned the dial precisely to the two minute mark, took a deep breath, and pushed the “on” button. The microwave whirred to life and we both sat, transfixed and silent, watching through the opaque plastic window as steam gradually rose from the plate of leftovers inside. After 120 suspenseful seconds, a bell dinged and the microwave went dark and silent. It was the moment we’d been waiting for. My grandfather gingerly touched the door handle, testing it for heat. Was that the theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey I heard in my head?

I watched for Grampy’s reaction. He looked at me and said, in hushed wonder, “It’s cool to the touch.” He opened the microwave. We heard a sizzling hiss, and out rushed some steam and the distinct smell of over-heated spaghetti. Cautiously, he removed the plate, handed me a fork, and we got our very first taste of mouth-scalding, non-ionized, dielectrically-cooked cuisine.

We looked at each other in reverent amazement. It just wasn’t possible! What had taken my grandmother an hour in the kitchen the night before had taken this strange metal box only a few seconds to accomplish! Here before us was a plate of perfectly edible, hot, steamy spaghetti, meatballs and all. This was amazing! It was like something out of Star Trek. We immediately went back to the fridge to find more things to heat up.

About 30 minutes later, my grandmother arrived to find most of the contents of the fridge emptied onto steaming hot plates: apple cobbler, a hot dog, some chicken cutlets, a cup of milk, a carrot, along with a previously ice-cold cup of coffee from the usual morning pot brewed by my grandfather early that morning. We both grinned with pride at her, and my grandfather held up his hot cup o’joe as a victory toast. “Behold!” our cobbler-tinged expressions said, “the mighty power of technology!”

Gram scrunched her face disapprovingly, opened her mouth to speak, but then apparently changed her mind, shook her head, and with a sad-sounding sigh, left the kitchen. “So!” I said to Grampy once she left, “What should we make for dinner?”

While the microwave was undoubtedly the new “cool kid” on the kitchen counter, it had its limits. We quickly learned what NOT to put in the microwave, including bread and spoons. So once Grampy and I had conducted enough scientific research we dutifully turned the kitchen back over to Grammy, and found that under her competent management we could all be enjoying steaming hot plates of preservative-infused goodness in a matter of moments.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.
~ Oscar Wilde

There’s no doubt that the microwave oven played a major role in changing America’s home dining habits. But it was a different appliance that had an even greater impact on my family’s dinnertime: the television. Of course, the TV was nothing new in the 1970s. The television is one of those devices that was “developed” over time more than something invented by a single genius. While the origins of the television can be traced back to the 1920s (or even earlier as some insist), the TV as we know it today really came into its own in the 1950s when manufacturing plants in the US could shift their attention from the needs of World War II and begin supplying modern America with this new, strange “window on the world.”

The TV was a fixture of my family long before I came along, and was nothing new to me in the 70s. Sometime around 1969, while I must have still been in diapers, I can still remember my mother pointing to a serious-looking man with strange ears on the TV. “That’s Mr. Spock!” she informed me. My first favorite TV character was Felix the Cat (“the wonderful, wonderful cat,” as the theme song explained). Along with Felix, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, and Fred Flintstone kept me entertained for many of my childhood hours.

My family had TV watching down to an art form. While today there are those who believe you should “kill your television,” that notion would have been tantamount to killing a member of the family in my household. For better or worse, we loved our TV and spent most evenings gathered around it, watching shows like M*A*S*H*, Star Trek, The Love Boat, Adam-12, The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Happy Days.

My grandfather was a big Perry Mason fan. And to this day, when I hear the pulsing strains of that theme song, I think of him, poured into the left-hand corner of the couch, his hands clasped over his stomach, watching Perry grill perspiring courtroom witnesses to the point of confessing to the murder. “Yeah. Yeah it was me, ok? Me! I did it, and I’d do it again!” While everyone gasped, Perry would nod, knowingly, and rest his case. Never, under any circumstances, did you want to interrupt Grampy during Perry Mason.

Another of Grampy’s favorite shows was “Kolchak, The Nightstalker.” This show featured Darrin McGavin (the dad from “A Christmas Story”) playing the role of a newspaper reporter with a certain penchant for investigating disturbing, paranormal events. This was the show that inspired and influenced the much later “X Files.” It was scary, disturbing, and intense. Although the show is actually very good, and holds up well even today, as an impressionable seven year old it scared the heck out of me. The show usually aired after my bedtime, but my room was situated right adjacent to the living room. So even in bed, when I heard that strange, scary theme song from Kolchak emanating through the wall, I would pull the covers up over my head and pray that no monster, or ghost would invade my room. I recently had trouble sleeping, and decided to watch an old Kolchak episode on Netflix. And just like it did over 30 years ago, it kept me awake and alert to any bumps in the night.

My grandfather watched a lot of TV, and whether it was the evening news or a test pattern, it seemed like the TV was always on. My grandmother was less of a TV fan, and she insisted that it be turned off, or at least muted, while we gathered around the dining table for dinner. My grandfather complied, although he made his irritation at this restriction known by first prolonging his sloth-like migration from the sofa to the dinner table, and then by emitting two or three of his famous grunt-sighs on his way to the meal. “Chet!” my grandmother would call from the table, “your dinner is getting cold!” “I know! I know!” Then he’d meander to the table where we would consume our meals in awkward, tortured silence. Every so often, someone would ask, “How was your day?” “Oh, fine,” was the usual reply. Then, more silence. My family was wonderful, but we weren’t exactly the Brady Bunch!

The TV was situated just out of visual range of the dining table. So even if it was on but muted, Grampy would have to crane his neck in an extreme manner to steal a glimpse during dinner. He learned through trial and error with Gram’s reactions not to do this too often. There was much more in the way of body language than actual verbiage during these moments. This all changed in 1978, however. That was when we got our first color TV. And it was also when The TV Stand Incident occurred.

One Saturday afternoon, Grampy brought home a 19 inch color TV, massive by 70s standards. But Grampy also brought  something else home – a TV stand. With wheels on it.

Getting a color TV was a magical experience for us. No more tiny black and white TV viewing for us! For the first time, we could see Hawkeye’s blue eyes, and we discovered that crew members on the USS Enterprise wore different colored shirts! The Pink Panther, as it turned out, really was pink! It was a stunning advancement in our home entertainment experience. Getting a color TV doesn’t seem like much of a big deal these days. I don’t think they even make black and white TVs anymore. But having a color TV in the 70s was considered a real luxury.

While Gram was probably the least enthralled by the new TV, she would have much more of a problem with the TV stand. For, as we gathered at the table for dinner, we discovered just why Grampy picked one with wheels. By simply pulling the stand out a few inches and angling it to the right, Grampy now had a fully unobstructed view of the TV while comfortably ensconced at his seat at the dining table. No more conspicuous leaning. The look on my grandmother’s face when she realized the real purpose of the new TV stand made it clear that the stand was Public Enemy #1 in her mind, followed closely by Grampy.

Dinnertime became thick with tension as I wondered just what – if anything – my grandmother would do about this development. Would there be an argument? An ultimatum? The withholding of dinner? Maybe Gram would go on strike and we’d have to order pizza!

Her solution, as it turned out, was simple and elegant. A few nights after the arrival of the new TV and stand, as we gathered at the table, I found that my usual spot had been moved…to Grampy’s spot. There, where his plate was usually set, was my place setting, complete with the map of the United States placemat that always marked my spot at the table. Mom and Gram retained their spots, but Grampy was relegated to my old place, opposite of me, and miles away from any position from which the TV could be viewed. Grampy discovered this dramatic change in routine about the same moment I did, which was after he had pulled the TV stand out. This allowed me to smugly watch TV and consume my meal. I knew better than to play it up. For his part, Grampy was nonplussed but said nothing whatsoever. Not even a grunt. Knowing he and his TV stand had lost this particular chess match, he agreed to turn off the TV for future dinners and that was the end of the TV Stand Incident. Gram: 1, TV stand: 0.

All great change in America begins at the dinner table.
~ Ronald Reagan

Of course not all dinners were consumed at home. We did dine out from time to time. We frequented a few restaurants close to home or church, including A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now simply known as KFC – the word “fried” deemed potentially off-putting to today’s consumers), Shakey’s Pizza, and Sizzler. At one point, my grandfather discovered a local Chinese restaurant that featured an all-you-can-eat buffet on Sundays. So after church, we’d file into the place and stuff ourselves on chow mein and egg foo yung. I think I once ate about 14 crab puffs in a single sitting. On one occasion there, my fortune cookie read, “All your hopes and dreams will come true.” Still waiting on that one!

My grandmother preferred Sizzler. Gram was of Scottish descent, and Scottish blood is frugal blood. Food was not a commodity to waste, and we were all quite accustomed to the varied ways in which the leftovers of a Sunday pot roast could make a sudden reappearance in a stew or poured over rice on Wednesday night. We also were strong believers in the doggie bag. No scrap of food was ever left on a plate by my family in any restaurant in town. A half-eaten piece of toast, a spoonful of peas, three pieces of lettuce and a cherry tomato – none of it would be returning to the restaurant’s kitchen. We PAID for that food! Why let them dump it out? As we never actually fed these scraps to our dogs, I once wryly observed that we should, perhaps, call them “Grammy bags.” Grampy was the only one who laughed.

Gram liked Sizzler because with virtually everything they served came a little packet of soup crackers, pads of butter, and an endless supply of bread. And, you guessed it, any of this bounty that went uneaten managed to be secreted away by Gram into her ample purse. She collected crackers, pads of foil-wrapped butter, tiny little packets of salt and pepper, virtually anything not nailed down. This habit irritated Grampy, who would watch her nonchalantly dump six or seven cracker packets and a couple pads of butter into her purse when the server wasn’t looking, and then utter her name in hushed exasperation, “Anitaaaa!” She paid him no mind, and continued her tabletop scrounging. We kept a massive Folger’s coffee tin in the cupboard, filled – not with coffee – but with packets of salty little souvenirs from our Sizzler visits, along with soy sauce and ketchup packets, some wrapped candy, and more.

As with all things related to Gram, there was a method to her madness. Thanks to her restaurant kleptomania skills, I never went hungry on a family outing. There was always a mint, candy bar, or something stowed away in her purse. And anytime I was sitting quietly in church and my stomach began to growl conspicuously, Gram, without saying a word, would reach into her purse and hand me a packet of crackers. Problem solved.

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I admit to a certain amount of sentimental nostalgia about all of these food-related experiences from my childhood.  We all have memories, hopefully fond ones, of growing up. It’s interesting to me how often food is a part of those experiences. These stories are only a few of the many dining-related moments that stick with me now. I write these pieces as a way of solidifying my memories of them, and hopefully inspiring you to remember your some of your TV dinners, pizza parties, or memorable Thanksgiving meals.

“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” – Samuel Pepys

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3 thoughts on “Adventures in 70’s Suburban Dining

  1. I remember so much of this and treasure each moment, incident and the details are very real to me. How you remember all of these things is a gift and what joy there was along with all the practical things in our lives! Great Writing!!!!

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