Traditional Easter Dinner

“We’ve had to do without ham and hats for quite a while, but now the ham is here and no foolin'. Look at the picture and take it from me. We can go right into our Easter dinner and forget the years we went without, or ate hash.”

Ann Batchelder, Ladies Home Journal. April 1946
Ann Batchelder, one of the top magazine food editors of the time, expressed the optimism reflected in all the monthly magazines with their long lead times. The picture to which she referred was of a holiday spread with a glazed baked ham as the centerpiece. People were hoping for a traditional at-home holiday with the family this year after the rationing, worries and anguish of the war years and sacrifices of the Depression.

The holiday menus and recipes in the women’s magazines and the daily newspapers presented no novel dishes, experiments or exotic foods for Easter. There had been enough adventure for now. People wanted a hearty Easter breakfast; dyed hardboiled eggs in baskets, hollow chocolate bunnies, stuffed toy chicks and brightly colored jelly beans for the kids; and, most likely, a baked ham or roast lamb with all the fixings for dinner.

Last year had been the worst Easter of the war as far as food was concerned. There was no meat, very little poultry and even canned goods were scarce due to metal rationing. This year, advertisers in the April magazines announced that their products, from canned pineapples to new refrigerators would soon be available in stores. In her Gourmet column the city’s favorite food writer, the Herald-Tribune's Clementine Paddleford, rejoiced that wartime restrictions on hollow chocolate figures had been lifted, hot cross buns were on display in bakery shop windows and in supermarkets, and European delicacies like caviar, truffles, cheese from Switzerland and herring from Norway again were finding their way across the Atlantic and into the city’s gourmet shops and department stores.

Easter dinner that year for most wouldn't be so fancy but it would be a “square meal” with meat at its center, accompanied by a vegetable and a starch, most likely potatoes, and a salad. This was the “balanced meal” that home economists recommended, a more nutritious alternative to the meat, potatoes, dessert menu, with nothing green on the plate, that it was presumed real men preferred.

For Easter. the traditional meat for most Americans was ham, with lamb the second place option. Ham had all but disappeared from supermarkets and butcher shops in the last years of the war, but this year, according to the women’s magazines, ham was back. Most of the women’s monthlies for April featured ham recipes and several also carried full page ads from the American Meat Institute trumpeting the fact that “handsome ham” once again meant Easter. Swift and Armour were advertising their canned hams and on Easter week A&P ran ads in Life for their ham platter dinners. The same issue of Life carried an ad from Armour showing a smoked ham dressed with daisies made of toasted almonds with candied cherry centers pierced with white cloves in a glaze of brown sugar and corn syrup.

While the upper crust might be serving up a country smoked ham, perhaps an aged Smithfield, most New Yorkers would expect to buy a precooked, water-injected, mass-produced supermarket or even canned ham. The ham would be glazed with mustard and brown sugar or jam or fruit syrup or juice. The fat would be trimmed and scored in a diamond pattern and studded with way too many cloves. Sometimes the ham would be covered with bread crumbs or served with pineapple slices. Now that was Easter.

The seasonally appropriate vegetable would probably be peas or asparagus. A cream sauce would be involved somewhere in the menu, most likely in this case with the potatoes or the vegetables rather than the ham, unless you were one of the la-de-dahs who read Gourmet, which in its April issue featured mayonnaise and whipped cream sauces said to be appropriate for smoked ham. In many households, the “cream sauce” with the vegetables or potatoes actually would be a can of condensed soup.

All courses would be bland to sophisticated modern taste since home cooks then did not make much use of herbs and spices, other than curly leaf parsley, and an occasional stingy pinch of celery seed, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cayenne or curry. Bottle sauces like ketchup, mayonnaise, Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco were the old reliables to provide whatever oomph was required. Horseradish and currant jelly pop up in a lot of Easter recipes in 1946. Raw eggs appear frequently in sauce and dessert recipes. Daring cooks might rub a little garlic on the bottom of their salad bowls but many Americans held the stinking weed in ill repute. On the other hand, Americans used a lot of pimiento and chopped green peppers. If they could get it, cooks put sugar in or on practically everything, directly and through the addition of sweetened bottled and packaged ingredients. The ambitious garnished their dishes with hard-boiled eggs or sieved yolks, carrot curls, olives, parsley or watercress. A ring mold was an indispensable piece of kitchen equipment for serious cooks for rice and noodle dishes as well as desserts.

A meal without a dessert was unthinkable on any day to many and for Easter the dessert might well be a show stopper. Cake mixes were still a year away, so cakes were baked from scratch, although the growing popularity of “dump” cakes, where all the liquid ingredients were added at one time to all the dry ingredients, were a clear precursor. The hope of many home bakers this year was that they could again make their favorite pre-war cakes rather than the leaden loaves they had to settle for in the last few years. Otherwise dessert would have to be something store bought or a gussied-up pudding or Jell-O from a box or ice cream with a sauce. Bavarians, made of gelatin and whipped cream and fruit, were a popular alternative to cake and there were savory versions as well. A holiday called for hot rolls or biscuits, preferably home baked, and made with your own sweetened dough or more conveniently with pre-sweetened Bisquick, although in New York a visit to the bakery was acceptable as well. The beverages of choice in the ladies magazines were milk and coffee for every meal. Coffee was usually percolated—a few years later noted restaurant reviewer/traveling salesman and self-anointed epicure Duncan Hines was revolted when he encountered filter coffee in Europe—but instant coffee was making inroads. Manhattan sophisticates and foreigners might serve wine or even cocktails. Up north, adults did not drink soda pop with their meals unless it was a summer picnic or a child's birthday party. It was a little different for the city's Jews for whom flavored soda was a step away from the traditional seltzer--the mixing of dairy and meat being forbidden by Kosher law and custom-- but the Jews, of course, did not celebrate Easter. 

A simple starter of some sort, traditionally oysters, canapés of hard boiled eggs, fruit cocktails, soup or seasoned tomato juice, was an elegant touch. One course was likely to be concocted from gelatin. In much of the country that course was apt to be the “salad,” which could mean an assemblage of vegetables or fruits inside and around gelatin, most often lime Jell-O, topped with mayonnaise or “French” dressing, which might include sugar and ketchup as well as salad oil and vinegar. Interestingly, the Easter menus in the New York dailies were more likely to include a green salad. Nancy Dorris in the downscale Daily News even suggested an endive salad with blue cheese dressing. If the cook was going all out, she also might put out a serving dish of curled celery and olives or a relish in a shallow cut glass bowl or a platter of canapés.

The continuous countertop was introduced in the late 1930s so most New York City apartment kitchens in 1946 still had limited counter space. There wasn’t a lot of cabinet space either but bigger or older homes might have a pantry. The kitchen was a place in which the affluent were not expected to spend much time in the good old days but the servant shortage was increasingly putting middle and upper-middle class housewives behind the stove. Appliances were only beginning to roll off the assembly lines that had been converted to war use and were only now returning to their prewar function. Just about everyone was making do with their pre-war appliances. Stoves were freestanding and often had built-in storage space beside the oven to store pots and pans and free space beside the burners on which to put food before or after cooking it. Refrigerators had replaced ice boxes in most middle class kitchens in the twenties and thirties, but a lot of working class tenements and apartments still depended on the ice man. Most pre-war refrigerators had freezer compartments that held little more than ice cube trays. Few city dwellers had stand alone freezers. Dishwashers, inefficient and expensive, were rare, as were garbage disposals, not yet banned in the city as they later would be.

Subpages (1): Easter Menus