Nostalgic CuisineFeb 21, 2020 12:30PM ● By Tamsen Butler
Those who have never lived outside of Nebraska may not realize that few people outside the confines of the state know who or what Dorothy Lynch is. Outside of the Midwest, the idea of eating chili and cinnamon rolls together is strange, and most people in the United States have never heard of (or understand what in the world is) a Runza.
Every region has its own interesting cuisine that confounds outsiders. A stroll down a culinary memory lane yields an interesting menu of dishes that may have dropped from modern-day menus but haven’t vanished from taste bud memories.
Jell-O molds, now enjoying a resurgence despite an otherwise steady decline in popularity for years, were considered a symbol of status and wealth in the early 1950s because refrigerators were expensive, yet necessary for a mold to set. Molded Jell-O creations were either sweet or savory, and at times were topped with mayonnaise. Jell-O molds weren’t exclusive to the Midwest; in fact, Jell-O has been the “official snack food” of Utah since 2002. The powdered gelatin mix is an ingredient in a Nebraska holiday favorite: cranberry salad.
Everyone knows Reuben sandwiches originated at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha in the 1920s. Yet there are some who claim it originated in a New York deli in 1914. Corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing join forces atop marble rye bread for a classic sandwich with probably-Omaha beginnings. Nowadays, Reubens are served throughout the Omaha metro and across the country.
Snickers salad confuses people because it’s more dessert than salad, but as many Omaha natives claim, it becomes a salad when it’s placed with the salads at a potluck. The nutrients in the chunks of Granny Smith apples don’t really offset the whipped cream, vanilla pudding, and pieces of Snickers bars found in this dish but Nebraskans and Iowans alike serve it at communal meals—and then serve a dessert afterward.
A quick trip to Plattsmouth will yield a meal from the history books of Midwestern holiday cuisine. Mom’s Cafe serves chipped beef, and customers love it. Typically made with partially dehydrated beef slivers and a creamy gravy, chipped beef is served over bread or biscuits. It’s a hearty meal, but one that lost popularity over the years.
Puppy chow—not the dog food, but the human treat—has also been known as monkey munch, muddy munch, reindeer chow, or doggie bag, and almost always features Rice Chex and peanut butter. Served as a dessert or snack, the company that makes Rice Chex makes the claim that the recipe for what they call “Muddy Buddies” didn’t appear until the early 2000s, but many Nebraskans remember eating this treat long before then.
Some meals from the past are still quite common, with different names. What was once referred to as a “hot dish” is now a casserole, and what were once called funeral potatoes—frozen hash browns mixed with shredded cheeses, sour cream, and milk, then topped with potato chips or corn flakes—are now known as “cheesy potatoes.”
No matter what the name, these comfort foods, while they often defy nutritional guidelines, have a way of finding their way back to the buffet table year after year.
*Editor’s Note: The following recipes were cultivated from various cookbooks in the editor’s home.
Cottage Cheese and Jell-O Salad
Ingredients: 1 can crushed pineapple, well drained 1 pint cottage cheese 3 oz package of Jell-O, any flavor (lime was popular) 10 oz carton of whipped topping
Directions: Sprinkle dry Jell-O over the whipped topping and fold together. Mix pineapple and cottage cheese together, add to the whipped topping, and chill for at least four hours.
Ingredients: 3.4 ounces (one box) instant vanilla pudding mix 1 cup whole milk 8 ounces whipped topping 6 granny smith apples 1 1/2 cups chopped Snickers bars, equivalent to 6 full size bars
Directions: Whisk together the vanilla pudding and milk and let sit for five minutes before gently folding in whipped topping. Add in the chopped apples and Snickers bars and refrigerate for at least an hour until ready to serve.
Cranberry Jello Salad
Ingredients: 2 cups water 6 ounces raspberry Jell-O (2 boxes, 3 ounces each) 2 envelopes plain gelatin ½ cup cold water 28 ounces whole berry cranberry sauce (14 ounces each) 28 ounces crushed pineapple, drained (1 large can, 1 small can)
Directions: Heat the water in the microwave or on the stovetop until boiling. Dissolve the Jell-O in the boiling water and mix well. Empty 2 packages of plain gelatin in cold water and whisk together. Drizzle the plain gelatin into the raspberry Jell-O, whisking the entire time. Whisk the cranberry sauce and drained pineapple until the cranberry sauce is broken up and the mixture is well combined. Pour into a 9x13 baking dish. Chill 4 hours or until firm. Serve with whipped cream and chopped pecans.
Ingredients: 4 T unsalted butter 1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup) 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 30-ounce bag frozen shredded hash brown potatoes, lightly thawed 1 10.5-ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup 1 cup sour cream 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 2 cups shredded sharp yellow cheddar cheese 1 1/2 cups lightly crushed corn flake cereal or potato chips
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Heat 2 T butter over medium heat in a skillet. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant and softened, an additional 2 minutes. In a bowl, toss together the cooked onions and garlic, hash brown potatoes, condensed soup, sour cream, parmesan, salt, pepper and 1 1/2 cups cheddar. Spread the mixture in a 9-by-13 inch casserole dish. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Top the casserole with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese, corn flakes or chips and melted butter. Bake in the oven until it bubbles around the sides, about 1 hour.
Ingredients: 9 cups rice cereal squares 1/2 cup peanut butter 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Directions: In a saucepan over low heat, melt the chocolate; add peanut butter and mix until smooth. Remove from heat, add cereal and stir until coated. Pour powdered sugar into large plastic bag, add chocolate-coated cereal, and shake until well coated. Store in airtight container.
This article was printed in the 60Plus section of the January/February 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.