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Tastes Like Disco: A Meal from 1978

For my husband's birthday, I prepared a dinner of recipes from the year he was born. I immediately noticed a few differences from the way we eat today

Grasshopper pie. Photo courtesy of Lisa Bramen.

This weekend, for my husband’s 33rd birthday, I decided to borrow a fun idea from Sara Bonisteel at the Epi-Log and prepare a dinner of recipes from the year he was born. Bonisteel used the issue of Gourmet magazine from her birth month, but rather than tracking down the June 1978 issue I decided to use recipes from The New York Times. Even before I saw Bonisteel’s post, I had been kicking around the idea of throwing a series of decade-specific dinner parties inspired by The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda Hesser’s excellent and weighty collection, which I received for Christmas last year. It contains recipes from throughout the Gray Lady’s history, along with lots of other fun information like timelines and suggested menus.

I didn’t like the sound of any of the 1978 recipes from the cookbook, though, so I went to the newspaper’s searchable online archive. Because I am a few (ahem, seven) years older than my husband, I actually remember 1978 pretty well. My mother was clearly not cooking from the Times—her repertoire of fried tacos, baked cheese spaghetti and sloppy joes was shockingly absent from the archive. Instead, there were a lot of French-inspired dishes: anguilles au vert (eels in green sauce), médaillons de veau Argenteuil (veal medallions with mushrooms and foie gras), éscalopes de veau a l’anglaise (breaded veal scaloppine). Veal was obviously a lot more popular than it is today. There was also an article warning that a recipe for silky caramel slices that appeared in a recent cookbook was missing important information and, if followed, “could cause a serious explosion.” So I definitely wasn’t going to make that one.

I narrowed down my options to a few recipes that sounded typical of the era but fit into our dietary restrictions (I don’t eat beef; my husband won’t eat eel). My first choice was venison bourguignonne, which would have made him very happy, but I couldn’t find any venison. I finally settled on chicken véronique, curried rice, salad and grasshopper pie (the basis for this one—a brandy Alexander pie—appeared in the newspaper in 1970, but continued to be referred to with dozens of variations on the cordial theme, until 1978; Hesser revived them in 2006 and included them in her cookbook). I considered carrying the theme through the salad by using era-appropriate iceberg lettuce, but my garden is producing so much salad mix right now that I couldn’t justify using something store-bought.

Making my grocery list, I immediately noticed a few differences from the way we eat today. For possibly the first time in my life I had to buy two cartons of heavy cream—one for dinner and one for dessert. The chicken was fairly simple, if far richer than anything I would normally eat: chicken breast sautéed in butter, with cream, shallots, white wine and grapes. The rice, in addition to spices and chopped apples, called for three tablespoons of butter (I took the liberty of skipping the third one the recipe instructed to stir in at the end), but otherwise wasn’t much different from something I would still make. The grasshopper pie—a crème de menthe–flavored mousse in a chocolate cookie crust—was definitely the best dish of the meal, and the only one I’d consider making again. The heavy cream sauces can go back to 1978 and stay there.

But the pièce de résistance was the playlist I made of music from 1978, which I played during dinner: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Patti Smith and, of course, the Bee Gees. It’s not really an authentic late-70s dinner if it isn’t followed by disco dancing.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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