Last summer, Anna Pallai was leafing through her mom's cookbooks — sauce-splashed volumes of Robert Carrier recipes, issues of Supercook pinched together in a ringed binder — when she realized she'd stumbled across a gold mine. The books were full of meaty aspics and mousses coaxed into elaborate shapes: a crown made of blunted hot dogs, seafood mousse sculpted into the shape of a maniacally grinning fish.
Pallai started posting snapshots of the recipes on Facebook, then migrated her impromptu archive to Twitter so she wouldn't clog her friends' news feeds. She found a receptive Twitter audience, accruing more than 35,000 followers. Now she's spun the project into a book, '70s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food (Penguin UK).
The book borrows the format of Pallai's '70s Dinner Party Tumblr, where she posts questionable '70s-era diet advice and couples photos with dubious captions. One ad extols sugar's potential as a weight-loss aid: "Nibble on a cookie about an hour before lunch," it prescribes. "Sugar keeps your energy up — and your appetite down." (Sadly, that's not how it works.)
Beneath a pyramid of compacted shredded ham, mayonnaise and almonds, she's swooned: "Oh, baby, you're the only thing in this whole world that's pure and good and right." And under a hollowed-out loaf of bread stuffed with paté, frozen peas, carrots and corn and topped with slices of cucumber that look like toppled dominoes: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."
Pallai, born in London in 1975, says her family's actual eating habits, which skewed toward meatloaf and stuffed peppers and eggs, were heavily influenced by her father's Hungarian heritage. But the recipes in her mom's collection opened up a delicious view onto a food culture that feels starkly different from contemporary tastes.
Not all '70s food is outrageous or stomach-churning, Pallai adds. The Baked Alaska, a confection of pillowy meringue and ice cream, is still around, at least on Cutthroat Kitchen. And the Crock-Pot, which hit the market in 1971, is enjoying something of a renaissance. (An Amazon search reaps 3,563 books of slow-cooker recipes; the chef Christina Tosi, of Momofuku Milk Bar fame, promises you can even make cake in the slow-and-steady appliance.)
Other retro vestiges — bananas cinched with herring and studded with parsley; a mold made from tomato soup pureed with cream cheese, mayonnaise and cooked ham — are less likely to be enduring crowd-pleasers.
In Pallai's experience, jiggly, questionably colored food evokes two strong reflexes: repulsion and nostalgia. "It's either, 'Oh, my god, how could people eat that?' or 'I remember that: My grandma, mom or aunt still makes that now,' " Pallai says.
As much as it's a roundup of some vile-sounding concoctions, the book is also a kind of love letter to the evolving institution of the dinner party. Pallai describes the '70s "showboat dinner party" as a tool for social climbing, in which upwardly mobile families bid to impress guests "via high-voltage, no holds barred, brightly colored and utterly insane three-course meals."
Flipping through cookbooks of the era, Pallai noticed how many of them championed an attention to detail. With chapters on everything from invitations to folding napkins and setting the table, these books were about crafting an experience, of which the food was just one component. In the context of a soiree, the dishes "were meant to be kind of spectacular creations," Pallai says. "I think that's something to be treasured."
The author doles out mocking, playful jabs, but her tone never punches down into jeering. She gives due credit to the theater of it all. The '70s weren't subtle, and tomato aspic and fussy coconut cakes are appropriately flamboyant. This is the decade, after all, that kindled the appeal of fiery food.
The jiggly foods of '70s Dinner Party, to Pallai, are a kind of answer to the contemporary clean eating trend. Heirloom organic produce is good for you, and beautiful, but it's not as appealingly bizarre as mashed potatoes piped like cake frosting, a wreath of carrot mash flooded with soggy peas, or chopped-up sausage suspended in translucent gelatin.
"Nowadays, most people's dinners are far less interesting to look at," Pallai writes. "And yet they are far more likely to take photographs of them and force other people to look at them."
Pallai's compendium is a reminder to have a bit of fun with food — even if it gets a little weird.