Ready to rock the night away with a '50s-style cocktail party? Well, tie on your frilliest apron and start preparing retro recipes ranging from the ubiquitous onion dip and chips to the more exotic Baked Alaska.
'50s Cocktail Recipes
It wouldn't be a '50s cocktail party without the drinks. Remember to stock up on those cute little paper umbrellas and swizzle sticks for an authentic touch. Just keep in mind that beer and wine were not super-popular potables in America in the '50s, so go straight for the mixed drinks.
Supper Club Drinks
For your party, you'll want to dredge up all the old supper club drinks. You know, the ones that are retro-chic these days -- gin drinks like the martini, Tom Collins, Singapore sling, sloe gin fizz, gimlet, gin rickey and a gibson. Then there are the rum cocktails like daiquiris, mai tai, rum and Coke, piña colada and planter's punch.
When it comes to vodka, the most popular '50s drinks are vodka martinis, vodka collins, vodka gimlet and white Russians. Whiskey cocktails include high balls, Manhattans, old fashioneds, Seven & Sevens and whiskey sours. Brandy is used to make two '50s favorites -- brandy Alexanders and sidecars.
If you really want to get into the '50s swing, try using Tang instead of orange juice in your cocktails. Tang was created in 1957 but first marketed in 1959 and continued to be a fad into the '60s. It will alter the flavor of your mixed drinks and not in an altogether good way. You might want to stick with more mainstream mixers in your drinks.
'50s Appetizer Recipes
Finger foods were a big cocktail party fad during the '50s. At their most basic, they included Chex Mix, celery stuffed with pimiento cheese or peanut butter, cheese and crackers, and salted sweet-and-spicy nuts.
In their fancier incarnation, they were known as canapés but, more often than not, they showed up as finger sandwiches or open-faced mini sandwiches, cream cheese roll-ups made with bread instead of today's tortillas, cocktail wienies wrapped in bacon and just about anything else wrapped in bacon, including shrimp, scallops, chicken livers, prunes and more.
- Finger sandwiches: Also known as tea sandwiches, this type of appetizer is easy and economical to prepare. A little filling can go a long way and the variations are limitless. The drawback is that they really need to be made the day of the party to avoid becoming stale.
- Deviled eggs: Stuffed eggs, also known as deviled eggs, were and remain a party-giver's best friend because they're so versatile. They can be enhanced with spices like curry and garlic, fleshed out with finely chopped ham or chicken and decorated with bits of red pepper, parsley and olives.
- Shrimp cocktail or caviar: For those with a generous party budget, caviar canapes and shrimp cocktail will lend a classy touch to your party. Back in the day, shrimp cocktail was the preferred starter at a '50s supper club, so a cocktail party with this as one of the featured munchables was considered très chic.
- Kabobs: Shrimp kabobs and fruit kabobs, especially made with tropical fruits in a nod to Hawaii's impending statehood in the '50s, are perfect for this type of party.
- Pigs in a blanket: This small bite of food has its beginnings centuries ago, but with the publication of a cookbook geared toward kids by Betty Crocker in 1957, they became a go-to treat for kids and adults. In the '60s, Pillsbury's crescent rolls made them uber easy to make and their popularity skyrocketed.
- Meatballs: Swedish, sweet-and-sour, porcupine meatballs are all fair game at a retro '50s bash. Instead of using a chafing dish, serve yours out of a slow cooker with a container of frilled toothpicks for plucking them out of the sauce.
- Stuffed everything: Stuffing foods with other foods was a biggie in the '50s. Stuffed mushrooms appeared in many guises -- with a simple buttered breadcrumb filling or those stuffed with escargot or crabmeat. Stuffed pea pods and stuffed celery were other contenders.
'50s Main Course Recipes
Party-givers serving alcoholic beverages often like to provide a light main course even if the event is clearly an appetizer and cocktails party. In the '50s, thanks to canned soups, meats, frozen veggies and other labor-saving products, casseroles and one-pot meals were big and for a party where table space is often limited, a dish that can be eaten with a fork while standing is perfect.
- Hot cheese dishes: Welsh rarebit, also known as Welsh rabbit, made with melted cheese, beer and seasonings served over toast was a hit in the '50s. It's a Welsh version of cheese fondue, which also experienced some popularity in the '50s, although the real fondue craze hit in the '70s.
- Noodle casseroles: Creamy chicken casserole or tuna casserole with either a breadcrumb or potato-chip topping was all the rage as were turkey tetrazzini and chicken à la king. And, because the meat is cut into bite-sized pieces, it would be a perfect dish for someone who is eating while standing.
- Croquettes: Salmon or chicken croquettes were probably the most popular types of this dish in the '50s but that doesn't mean you can't experiment with ham, lamb, beef, cheese or vegetarian versions.
- Scalloped dishes: Scalloped ham and potatoes is a recipe from the '50s that would do as a more substantial dish at a cocktail party. Chicken or turkey can be substituted for the ham for a nice variation.
- Creamed foods in pastry shells: In the '50s, ham, chicken and seafood like shrimp and scallops were often mixed with béchamel sauce and peas and served in puff pastry shells known as vol au vents in French. This is an example of the influence of European cuisine in the States after WWII.
'50s Salad Recipes
Molded sweet gelatin and savory aspic salads were all the rage and avocados started appearing in American salads in the '50s. Thanks to the flavored gelatins, cream cheese and ornate molds of the period, there was always at least one Jell-O mold at a party. Aspic molds featuring artfully arranged sliced or chopped veggies and, in some cases, pieces of chopped meat also were popular.
Not surprisingly, three-bean salads were all the rage because they were made with canned vegetables.
'50s Dessert Recipes
Dessert recipes ranged from simple chiffon cakes to flambéed classics like Baked Alaska, Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Crêpes Suzette and other French desserts due, in part to the fascination with the cuisine brought back to the States from returning WWII GIs.
- Baked Alaska: The showy-yet-easy dessert, Baked Alaska, had been around for hundreds of years before hitting its heyday in the '50s when Alaska was being considered for statehood. It's an easy recipe to prepare and makes for a show-stopping end to a cocktail party because, when flambéed and carried into a darkened room, the reflection in the windows makes for a dramatic presentation.
- Ambrosia: This dish, a cross between a salad and a dessert, was influenced by several '50s factors -- the fascination with tropical everything and flavored gelatins. Ambrosia recipes vary but can include mini marshmallows, sour cream, whipped cream, Cool Whip, bananas, mandarin oranges, pineapple, coconut and pecans. This is a make-ahead dish lessening the load of some of the day-of preparations.
- Airy cakes and pies: Angel food cake, chiffon cakes and pies, sponge cake, pavlovas and other meringue-based confections, all things banana, coconut and pineapple were hot in the '50s. These desserts are simple to prepare and can be made in advance with no loss in flavor or appearance.
- Bundt cakes: With the introduction of the Bundt pan by Nordic Ware in the '50s, this easy, moist cake took the nation by storm. Its possibilities are endless with flavors ranging from lemon to poppy seed and more elaborate flavors like chocolate hazelnut.
- Ice cream and sherbets: Frozen desserts including scoops of sherbet or ice cream (peppermint was a popular flavor) with sundae toppings or a simple maraschino cherry were popular party-enders but they are probably not the best choice for warm weather.
Events and Fads That Influenced '50s Cuisine
Entertaining in the '50s often centered around simple cocktails and food that was easy on the cook. Casseroles, gelatin salads and repurposed canned foods were all fair game and, often, the dishes had a Hawaiian or Alaskan theme when a new-state frenzy was going on with Alaska's admission as a state in January 1959 and Hawaii in May 1959.
Hawaii and its food and culture long held a fascination for the American public. After the end of WWII, tropical fruits like pineapple, banana and coconut and other ethnic foods GIs developed a taste for started appearing in everything from salads to main courses and desserts at backyard luaus and indoor parties.
Just Have Fun
If your cocktail party teeters on that fine line that divides '40s, '50s and '60s food trends, just go with it. Don't be a stickler for details but do try to get most of it right! For a little extra fun, serve up some frozen TV dinners on TV tray tables along with all your other '50s party treats.