July 17, 2024

This time of year is great for memories. Growing up, as families gathered around the holidays, there were sights and sounds and smells that just got burned into our brains.

But there was a magical moment during the holidays that many of us remember most fondly: When Grandma walked in with… well, anything, really. For whatever reason, when Grandma made it, it was just right.

And there is definitely something about southern grandmothers that just couldn’t ever be beaten. Their cooking was just top-notch, and they were never shy about whipping up something when you asked.

I’ve mentioned old family recipes in the past, and I have a theory that grandmas kept certain ingredients off their recipe cards or didn’t put accurate measurements because they just measured with their heart when making whatever they were making.

So, it’s often pretty hard to re-create what those old southern ladies were doing in the kitchen, but still we try. Especially as we get older and, while they may not be around, we still want the comfort of having them in our kitchens.

That makes looking through the old recipe cards and hand-written notes so meaningful. But, let’s be honest, some of those dishes are a complete mystery. Why did we put mayonnaise on pears? Why were so many clearly unhealthy things called “salad”? What on earth is with all the gelatin?

Could keto have even been possible in the 1950s and 60s?

Here’s a look at some classics you might remember growing up.

Ambrosia Salad

I put this one at the top of the list because it’s my favorite. Ambrosia salad really pushes the limit on the definition of “salad” because, technically, it is a bunch of non-meat items tossed in what I guess you could call a dressing, but that’s about it.

So, in taking a can of fruit cocktail, draining the syrup, and mixing it with whipped cream, you create the base. Adding marshmallows, nuts, etc. for flair elevates it. It’s simple and comes from a time when making foods cheaply was just what you did.

Pear Salad

I must admit to you that I am at a loss for this one, but it has its cult followers. Canned pears, topped with mayonnaise, shredded cheddar, and a cherry. I don’t know why it’s a thing and frankly I am too terrified to find out. But Southern Living swears by it, so I guess that makes it legit.

I don’t think there’s a way to make it that doesn’t look like it isn’t from some Southern magazine issue from decades ago.

Pecan Pralines

Credit: Joe Cunningham/KPEL

Credit: Joe Cunningham/KPEL

This candy is a staple during the holiday season, and I haven’t met a grandmother that doesn’t have their own recipe. I also haven’t met a single descendant of any of other grandmothers who was able to properly recreate the magic. My theory is that those grandmothers don’t write the whole recipe down on the recipe cards. But, for whatever reason, recreating that Grandma Magic is just beyond our collective grasp.

Pralines are a mix of sugar, corn syrup, water, and vanilla, cooked to a certain temperature (I have seen many recipes that disagree on the temperature, which is actually important!), and beaten until thick. Pecans are added and the candies are scooped out and allowed to harden. They are a southern classic.

Cheese Balls/Cheese Logs

Some variation of this exists in your core memories somewhere. Grandma or some aunt brings in to the family gathering, and you look at it with interest. It is literally a ball of cheese, usually rolled in pecans or some other toppings, and you just grab a cracker and scoop some up.

The above picture comes from a recipe we’ve shared before, but finding the right ingredients to fit your taste is pretty easy. The basics are shredded cheese (usually cheddar), cream cheese, some spices, and maybe some green onion or pimento peppers. From there, you make your own destiny. Some people like smoked cream cheese, some people like to roll it in bacon. Most often, you see pecans, but it’s really up to you.

But, man… who came up with a massive ball of cheese as a dip? Genius.

Pound Cake

Credit: Joe Cunningham/KPEL

Credit: Joe Cunningham/KPEL

Like all of the dishes here, every grandmother has their own version of this recipe. I am convinced of it. This is a cake, however, that dates back to early America, if not before. At least one version of a “pound cake” recipe was printed not too long after America gained its independence, and it seems to explain the source of the name “pound cake.”

That recipe called for a pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs as the base of the cake.

This dense, sweet cake is a perfect dessert. It’s neutral, so you can add anything to it, from fruit to chocolate to ice cream (or all of the above?), but it’s also tasty enough to just eat on its own. There are not many family gatherings around that ignore this one when it’s brought to dinner.

Jello Molds

For reasons I shall never fully understand, we as a society in the mid-20th century decided that gelatins served in molds and sometimes filled with free and other assorted foods were not only acceptable but actually demanded of you. These still exist, depending on which family member is hosting Christmas in a particular year.

It’s when they get absolutely jam-packed with, like, fruit cocktail out of a can that I begin to worry. This is just one of those foods that were born out of a different era that I don’t think anyone would make on their own in the present day. But someone remembers having it at Christmas or Thanksgiving and so they make it every year to remember the good times.

Coca-Cola Cake

In another mid-20th century masterpiece of desserts, someone realized that the carbonation and sugar in Coca-Cola made it the perfect ingredient for making a cake. This chocolate cake has been around for a while, but in the 1990s, it became a popular dessert at Cracker Barrel restaurants – so popular, in fact, that it was supposed to be a temporary item but was added permanently to the menu.

The soft drink is used in the cake and in the icing, making it a very rich, very fudgy treat. That icing becomes a thin layer of chocolate over a gooey, moist cake.

It always seemed to be one of the first desserts to go at any family gathering, for some reason.

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LOOK: Food history from the year you were born

From product innovations to major recalls, Stacker researched what happened in food history every year since 1921, according to news and government sources.



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