While it may not feel like it, it’s been 50 years since the tumultuous year of 1968. In 1968, the Vietnam war raged, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Richard Nixon was elected president, and millions of Americans sat down to dinner every night with their families to discuss the events of the day and enjoy a home-cooked meal. But what, exactly, was on the table? What food products were new and exciting? What were the top conversation topics? And what was on TV?
The simple act of sitting down for a family dinner hasn’t changed too much over the years, even though fewer and fewer families are regularly dining together (a 2016 survey found that 47 percent of parents share fewer meals with their families than when they were growing up). Many dishes and dining options that we take for granted today simply didn’t exist in the late ‘60s (good luck tracking down authentic Chinese food in the suburbs in 1968), but home cooking was, and is, by and large still dependent on simple, easy-to-prepare, inexpensive dishes, made a little more convenient with the help of some packaged foods.
In many ways, sitting down to enjoy a meal with your family has never been about the food that’s on the table; it’s about taking the time to connect and break bread together. The dishes and conversation topics (not to mention the hairdos) have certainly changed over the years, but ultimately what we remember is the time spent together. Read on to learn what this experience would have looked like for many Americans 50 years ago.
According to a 1966 Los Angeles Times reader survey, the 10 tools most likely to be found in a kitchen of the time were a toaster, a coffee maker, a skillet, a waffle maker, a can opener, a hand mixer, a blender, a counter-top mixer, a knife sharpener, and a carving knife. Even though countertop microwaves were introduced in 1967, only 1 percent of households owned one by 1971. Ranges, both electric and gas, didn’t look drastically different from how they do now, but the ovens tended to be smaller.
If a first course was served before dinner, it was most likely going to be a relatively simple salad, most likely made with iceberg lettuce (romaine didn’t really catch on until the late ‘70s), sliced tomatoes, and maybe another vegetable or two. French, Russian, blue cheese, and Italian dressings were the most popular dressings of the day; Kraft and Wish-Bone were the most popular brands.
If a pre-meal cocktail was in order, it would most likely have been a Gibson, a dry martini, a Manhattan, a Rob Roy, a daiquiri, a sidecar, or a Champagne cocktail. Coke and Pepsi were already overwhelmingly popular, but diet colas were also becoming common; Diet Rite, the first diet cola, was introduced in 1963 and TaB was introduced by Coca-Cola in 1967. After dinner, some freeze-dried instant coffee from Maxim, Taster’s Choice, or Sanka might have ended the meal.
Popular new products in 1968 included Green Giant frozen peas, frozen bread dough, frozen pie crusts, Chiffon margarine, Seven Seas salad dressing, and Spaghetti-O’s and Shake n’ Bake (both introduced in 1965).
Pot roast, meatloaf, mac and cheese, tuna noodle casserole, chicken or turkey Tetrazzini (a creamy casserole of chicken, noodles, and mushrooms), Salisbury steak, pan-fried pork chops with applesauce, beef Stroganoff, shepherd’s pie, burgers, and hot dogs were among the most common home-cooked dinners of the day (possibly served with some defrosted rolls on the side). Corning Ware (with its “cornflower” pattern) and Pyrex were popular vessels for both cooking and serving. Leftovers could be stored in Ziploc bags, brand-new in 1968.
If a from-scratch dinner wasn’t in order, quick options included Kraft’s Egg Noodle with Chicken Dinner, Macaroni and Cheese, and Spaghetti Dinner; Chef Boy-Ar-Dee (either canned pasta or a pizza kit); and, of course, Swanson’s frozen dinners, in varieties ranging from the common (fried chicken, meatloaf, Salisbury steak, spaghetti and meatballs) to the less common (beans and franks, corned beef hash, sweet and sour “Polynesian-style” chicken and pork in orange sauce).
If you didn’t want to cook at all, your best options were probably dropping by a fast-food joint and picking up dinner. Leading fast-food chains of the time included McDonald’s (which rolled out the Big Mac nationwide in 1968, for 49 cents), Domino’s (which began franchising in 1967), KFC, Burger King, and the now-defunct Burger Chef.
Grilling was all the rage in late-’60s suburbia, and, as today, the most popular foods for grilling included steaks, burgers, hot dogs, and chicken (shish kebabs were also much more popular for grilling back then than now). Foil meals (in which all the ingredients would be wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked on the grill) were also very popular, thanks to marketing efforts by Reynolds.
US National Archives and Press Association/ Wikimedia Commons
What were people chatting about in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American history? The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, of course, but other popular dinner table conversation topics would have included the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the wedding of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower, the Vietnam War (and those protesting it), the infamous interracial kiss between Star Trek’s William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols, the election of Richard Nixon, and the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, in which black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists during the 200-meter medal ceremony.
NBC Televison/Wikimedia Commons
NBC, ABC, and CBS were basically the only options in 1968 for those who preferred to watch TV during dinner; the most popular primetime shows of 1968 were (in descending order) Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Gomer Pyle, Bonanza, Mayberry R.F.D., Family Affair, Gunsmoke, Julia, The Dean Martin Show, Here’s Lucy, and The Beverly Hillbillies.
The most popular homemade desserts of 1968 included the Tunnel of Fudge Cake (which become incredibly popular after winning the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off), Jell-O Whip n’ Chill, pineapple upside-down cake, Junket custard, ambrosia, grasshopper pie, and, of course, Jell-O. Boxed cake mixes (especially from Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Royal, and Pillsbury) were also super-popular, and not only for making cake.
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