Tilefish and Jello Salad for Family and Nation
From fruit to fish, everyone from the U.S. government to the National Canners Association encourages you to consume more of certain products. Unlike the last recipes in this series, which were used to market certain foods to improve an individual’s social and moral health, these historical recipes aimed at encouraging consumers to cook with certain products. Once again, History of Science and CHE grad Melissa Charenko teamed up with Edge Effects to bring historical perspectives on recipes that were about more than the bottom line. Anna Zeide explores the perfection of pairing canned pineapple, mayonnaise and Jell-O in the mid-century “Jellied Hawaiian Salad.” Samantha Muka presents “Tilefish en Matelotte,” a fish recipe promoted by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in the early twentieth century.
“Jello & Mayonnaise? What fresh white 1950s suburban hell is this?!”
“Jellied Hawaiian Salad,” from “The Book of Can Cookery” in Woman’s World Magazine (1928):
Dissolve the jelly powder in the boiling water, add to it the pineapple juice, and when it is almost ready to set, stir in the fruit and coconut. Turn into a mold, previously wet with cold water, chill, unmold onto lettuce or watercress and serve with marshmallow mayonnaise. Serves six.
In 1928, Woman’s World Magazine published “The Book of Can Cookery,” to help the women of America make the most of “the high state of perfection now achieved by the great commercial canners.” The book featured general advice on how to use canned foods, along with a wide range of sweet and savory recipes organized by month—an organizational structure that was perhaps a relic of earlier times, before canning, when season determined diet. One recipe from the month of February was Jellied Hawaiian Salad with Mayonnaise in bowl, with canned pineapple as the star of the dish. Today, dishes like this are hardly popular, evoking a sense of times past. When the Washington Post in 2015 offered a Thanksgiving recipe of apple Jell-O served with mayo, one Twitter follower responded, “Jello & Mayonnaise? What fresh white 1950s suburban hell is this?!” While such foods may evoke mid-century suburbia, their roots go much deeper. Jellied Hawaiian Salad is very much a product of its time, as published in 1928, attesting to the early twentieth century rise of canning, popularity of pineapple, and emphasis on control within home economics.
Although canning had been around for more than a century, and an established canning industry for nearly a half-century, canners were still working to win over consumers in 1928. The National Canners Association sponsored many recipe books like that published by Woman’s World Magazine, in order to convey the progress of the industry to women around the country. Although this book featured a huge array of canned foods—from fruit to vegetables to meats—pineapple in particular showcased the benefits of the canning technology. Before canning, pineapple consumption was limited to areas where it was produced: the fruit spoiled quickly when ripe, and did not retain flavor if harvested before ripening. Canning allowed pineapple to travel beyond its tropical home, with flavor preserved by technology. After the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, James Dole set up the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and marketed his canned pineapple throughout the mainland United States. By the 1920s, pineapple—especially in the form of pineapple upside-down cake—made frequent appearances on the tables of middle- and upper-class homes. The rise of Jell-O as a means of presenting pineapple, and many other foods, was a way of joining the controlling tendencies of the early twentieth century domestic science movement with the need to stretch more expensive ingredients. As Laura Shapiro writes in Perfection Salad, the gelatin salad was “a salad at last in control of itself.”
A New Fish Food for America
“Tilefish en Matelotte” from U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Economic Circular 19 (1915):
Place the fish in a saucepan lined with a few slices of fat salt pork, a little parsley or sliced onion, a clove, salt, and pepper. Cover the fish to about half its height with equal parts of fish stock or water and white wine. Bring to a boil and place in the oven to cook slowly, basting frequently. In about 20 minutes remove the fish with a skimmer and keep it hot. Strain the liquid in a saucepan, add one-half glass of good claret, boil down a few minutes, and thicken with a small piece of kneaded butter or flour and butter mixed. Taste, rectify seasoning, pour over the fish, and serve.
In 1879, a Gloucester fishing boat captain caught a vibrantly colored, large, and flavorful fish off of Nantucket. The crew ate some and sent a specimen to the National Museum in Washington D.C. for identification. The new species, named by Tarleton Bean and George Goode, was given the common name tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleontocips) and the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (USBF) immediately began making plans to develop a market for the palatable and abundant fish. However, in 1882 a fleet of fishing vessels off the coast of New York reported an abundance of dead fish as they crossed the northern edge of the gulf stream; the area covered by the floating carcasses stretched 170 miles in length and 25 miles in width. Estimates at the time suggested nearly 1.5 million fish in total; tilefish and deep sea robins made up the majority of species in the kill, likely as a result of the rapid cooling of waters from the Labrador current. Between 1882 and 1898, only a few tilefish were landed off the Mid-Atlantic and the species was presumed extinct or near extinction. However, in 1898, the species was found to be abundant again and the USBF began working to establish a market for the species.
The USBF reached out to a number of groups to create markets for tilefish. They educated anglers and commercial fishermen about its habitat, taught fishmongers the proper techniques for cleaning and cooking it, created a variety of images to advertise it, and urged a variety of women’s magazines to promote the fish by offering special recipes. This scheme worked relatively well. But the ultimate PR campaign would come in the form of World War I, when the USBF began heavily marketing all fish to the public. During the war, the US Food Administration urged American citizens to cut down their consumption of wheat, meat, sugar, and fat to help the war effort. Fish was often suggested as a meat alternative with the assurance that it was as good or better for your family and your nation. In September 1917, Ladies’ Home Journal suggested that women “put two Fridays in every week” (an allusion to the Catholic practice of eating fish on Friday) and assured their readers that “practically all fish is good fish.” Therefore, preparing new varieties would be both economical and help the war effort. At the top of their list of Fish you have overlooked: Tilefish.
Today, tilefish is still considered a sustainable and well-managed alternative to better known but overfished species of firm fleshed cold water fishes. You might see it marketed as Golden tilefish, Golden Bass, Golden Snapper, Great Northern tilefish, or Rainbow tilefish. It has a mild flavor similar to crab or lobster and is firm and flaky.
Anna Zeide is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Academic Advisor in the department of History at Oklahoma State University. She teaches and studies food history as a lens onto consumer and environmental issues. Anna is a proud graduate of CHE and now lives in Stillwater, OK, with her husband and two daughters. Contact.
Samantha Muka is a historian of marine biology. She received her PhD in 2014 from the University of Pennsylvania in History and Sociology of Science, Technology, and Medicine and currently teaches in the Critical Writing Program there. Website. Contact.
Melissa Charenko is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on the history paleoecology and paleolimnology, particularly the various ways the past and possible futures are represented and reconstructed from proxy data. Contact.