Like music, literature and other disciplines, the culinary arts occasionally look backward for inspiration. Thanks to a relatively recent revival, comfort food has firmly entrenched itself in the hearts and menus of American chefs. Whether it is the biscuits and gravy at Happy Gillis, the macaroni and cheese at McCoy’s or the great meatloaf sandwich at the Brick, hearty mid-century dinner staples are everywhere to be found. Higher-end dishes like steak tartare and crabcakes that were popular in the 1950s similarly came back from the depths of obscurity. However, some of old-school recipes have been somewhat overlooked by food trends. Here are a few foods that would do well for a proper comeback.
The monte cristo gets acclaim for combining the idea of french toast with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. How it has escaped the popular obsession with preposterous fried foods is beyond me. It is either constructed out of two individual pieces of french toast or entirely dipped in egg batter and deep fried. Often served with jam and dusted with powdered sugar, one could be forgiven for interpreting this as a breakfast item. Indeed the sandwich was long a reliable offering of all-night diners, where such lines are often blurred. The Monte Cristo is a classic American bastardization of the croque monsieur, which is itself simply a glorified French ham and cheese sandwich. You can order a Monte Cristo at a few places around town. Corpulent local blogger Chimpotle sampled a gut-busting version at Cheddar’s in Overland Park not long ago. I prefer the humbler version at Succotash.
French Onion Soup is not as polarizing as I expected it would be when I developed a taste for it in my late 20s. I suspect most people either love it or don’t think about it at all. Trust the French elevate the humble onion in such a manner. While available at French restaurants including Le Fou Frog locally, I always associate French onion soup with diners, steakhouses, chain-smoking grandmothers and playing jarts in the front yard as a child. A rich beef broth forms the base, which is combined with pungent caramelized onions, covered with Swiss cheese and topped with a giant crouton. Prior to delivery, the soup is broiled to golden brown in a dark ceramic ramekin. While the traditional preparation is divine, I could see chefs creating some stunning modern interpretations.
Our culture’s tiresome obsession with bacon managed to overlook one of the classic 1950s, faux-fancy appetizers: rumaki. Simply put, rumaki is (are?) chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and glazed with a sweet sauce. They are typically skewered with toothpicks and broiled until crunchy. Back when Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny were tearing up suburban hi-fi sets with their Polynesian-inspired tunes, housewives were busy serving up rumaki to houseguests, just as Betty Draper did in season 2 of Mad Men. A nice balance of sweet, crunchy, chewy and uh, livery, rumaki deserve another go-around on restaurant menus. I cannot think of a single place in town with rumaki on the menu, although a few caterers offer them sans-liver.
Pot roast is the dish on this list most likely to actually pop up on more menus. No, the gloriously textured Chinese pot roast from Blue Koi doesn’t count, I’m talking classic American pot roast: soft, stringy and accompanied by roasted vegetables and potatoes with a rich jus. The version at McCoy’s probably does the dish the best service locally. I have not tried the Friday pot roast special at the Corner Cafe in the northland but I’ll warrant it is worth checking out. One could argue that meat cuts like short ribs and cheek have picked up where pot roast left off. But genuine pot roast is pretty hard to find at good, local restaurants. I’ll bet Julian would knock this out of the park.
Have you seen the stuff people made out of Jell-o in the old Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks? Good Lord, those creations put the present-day fiddlings of molecular gastronomists to shame. Sure most of those dishes seem pretty gross, as they incorporate everything from olives to tuna fish to hard-boiled eggs, but Jell-o actually tastes pretty good when handled with care. While I enjoy straight up jello cubes with a dollop of cool whip, I would love to see what a truly talented chef could do with the stuff.
My honorable mention? Spam. Quite popular in Hawaii and parts of southeast Asia, the canned meat is actually made entirely from chopped ham and pork shoulder, not the assemblage of snouts and anuses people assume. And it actually costs upwards of $4 per can, more than a comparable amount of ground beef.
Thankfully I am not a chef and do not have responsibility for updating and preparing dishes like these for a fickle dining public. But these foods and many more from decades past have the potential to become legitimate food trends.