Ever since one lucky caveperson accidentally dropped their mammoth steak on a campfire, humanity has been creating in the kitchen. Experimentation is the key to evolution, especially with food. Through combining ingredients, flavours and textures, some dishes have passed into legend, beloved by generations that have enjoyed their storied history as well as taste. This is not the tale of those dishes. This is the tale of the dishes that were spawned straight from the pit and, we can only assume due to politeness and the crippling weight of social expectation, were actually eaten by people.
There are many eras that specialised in the creation of questionable recipes. The Romans had their sows’ wombs, the Chinese had their leopard foetuses and the Victorians had their penchant for gruel. However, the more vindictive culinary minds of the day were limited in the monstrosities that they could make. Everyone was far too busy worrying about staying alive to try anything too complicated. This all changed in the 20th Century.
Suddenly, we had the time to entertain, and food formed a key ingredient in that entertainment. With the growing demand for impressive centrepieces, we began to worry less about how our food tasted and more about how it looked. Now, some of the more wayward minds of the 50s, 60s and 70s could turn their attention to making some truly deranged food.
There is one main culprit at fault for the slew of disgusting dishes that lingered like as many stale farts in the cookbooks of the mid-20th century. Gelatine. Though it’s been with us since the 1400s, gelatine only started doing real damage in the late 1940s.
The result of a long, difficult and objectionable process that involves a multitude of miscellaneous animal parts and boiling, what makes gelatine the preferred weapon of choice for the deviant chef is its structure. You can sculpt it, mould it, stuff it... When something sounds more like a building material than dinner, it’s probably best not to eat too much of it. If only we’d listened to this advice. How much happier people could have been.
With some tentative steps taken in the preceding decade (the unholy banana meatloaf was an early indication of where food was heading), it was the 1950s that really saw disgusting, gelatine-obsessed cookery come into its own. This was the era that gave us such horrors as the fluffy mackerel pudding, blue cheese mousse and beer and kraut fudge cake. While these corruptions of nature were doubtless just as terrible as they sound, the more worrying trend that the 50s set was the identification of the food groups that would suffer most at the hands of maverick cooks: salads, meat and fish. To be enjoyed at their fullest, none of these should ever cross paths with gelatine. All did.
First, salad. A good salad can be a wonderful thing - fresh, crisp and full of life. It should be a way to revitalise and refresh: a perfect accompaniment to any meal or capable of stealing the limelight all on its own. Suspending a salad in gelatine, by contrast, is a surefire way to suck all the joy out of the eating. Thus, the gelatine epoch saw a slow and steady progression of salad degradation.
It began in the 50s with abominations like the "summer supper" (featuring the classic flavour combinations of lemons, assorted vegetables, orange and aspic) and the "veg all pie plate salad" (which presumably tasted like something between a pie and a plate). By the 60s, pimento, apple and vinegar characterised "perfection salad" (forever changing the definition of both "perfection" and "salad").
To make matters worse, these excuses for salad were creeping their gelatinous tendrils out to ensnare both meat and fish in an aspic-suspended web. The snowy chicken confetti and the Monterey souffle salads were just the tip of the slowly wobbling Jell-o iceberg. The piece de resistance of these crimes against vegetables has to be the aspic aquarium, a triple barbed insult to fish, salad and aquariums. It’s a miracle that anyone born in the 50s could ever eat greenery again without suffering Post Traumatic Salad Disorder.
Despite the horrors endured by salad, fish was arguably the most abused food group to suffer at the translucent hands of gelatine. The age of aspic saw the creation of atrocities like the "glace fish mold" and "ring around the tuna", all seemingly created with the intention of torturing tastebuds and stomach linings everywhere. But, unlike salad, it was not just jellied suspension that afflicted the creatures of the deep.
Creations such as the sandwich loaf (featuring bread crusts, pasted fish, celery, walnuts, egg, mayonnaise and pimento) and oriental shrimp sandwich roll (neither oriental, shrimp-like or presumably edible) prove that chefs of the 60s and 70s were determined to cram fish in anywhere they could. Even fresh fish, one of life’s great joys, was not safe - as demonstrated by the delightful combo of "prawn and apples". On behalf of humanity: ocean, we apologise.
While fish and seafood has enjoyed something of a renaissance since these dark days, we are still finding new and inventive ways of corrupting meat. This, however, is not an excuse for some of the 50s, 60s and 70s' more vile concoctions. Creating meat-based meals with the express purpose of increasing shelf life was an essential way to help the population get some much-needed protein into their diet. As such, canned foods have been around since the 1800s. Despite this, whatever you feel about tinned meats, they are not the most visually appealing of propositions and not naturally suited to centrepiece status.
Contemporary chefs sought to rectify this. As a byproduct, they also stumbled upon a number of new and inventive ways to turn what was edible, and in some cases really tasty, and turn it into putrid hellspawn. Dishes like the "frankfurter spectacular" and "liver sausage pineapple" are proof that there are some areas in which man was not meant to meddle.
We’ve come a long way since the days of "super supper salad loafs" and "banana candles". But, for the sake of future generations, it’s important that we never forget the sacrifices that our forebears made. The brave souls who suffered at the hands of these mad cooks were not the heroes we deserved, but they were the ones we needed. Their ordeal means we now know that, when it comes to gelatine, here be monsters. Do not disturb the Jell-O.