You know it when you see it. It's anything that's held together by a generous layer of cream of mushroom soup. It's any recipe that uses more than two packaged foods in one dish. And it's all those foods that you remember from church suppers, wakes and Tupperware parties that had words like "surprise," "mix-up," "tiki" or "bake" in the name.
White Trash Cooking is as much a state of mind as it is a regional cuisine. The name was coined by Ernest Matthew Mickler in his seminal White Trash Cooking (volumes one and two) and in Sinkin' Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravin's. White Trash Cooking's roots go deeper into the South than a mangrove swamp, but yet you find it all over the United States. What was high cuisine back in the '50s is now what's known as White Trash Cooking. Crisco pound cake, potato chip sandwiches, tuna casserole and Jell-O salads are as common in both a Chicago suburb and a North Idaho logging town as they are to the backwoods of Arkansas.
As hilarious as these foods are by contemporary standards, though, it's hard to feel right about making too much fun. Scorn "shrimp salad," with its wilted iceberg lettuce, canned shrimp and astonishing cup-and-a-half of mayonnaise and you're talkin' trash about your own grandmother. These are ancestral eats; as revolting as they now seem they were once offerings of love and pride. They're guilty pleasures, to be sure.
A friend of mine pointed out that measurements in White Trash Cooking don't come in cups and tablespoons, but rather in terms of cans and packages. It's a reminder that while White Trash Cooking is certainly convenient, it also comes from a time when store-bought was considered better than homemade. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, canned vegetables were "fancier" than fresh, and the whiter the bread, the better quality it was.
Throughout these pages, you'll find some of our favorite "guilty pleasure" White Trash recipes. Some we included for the "ewww" factor; some are actually damn good eatin'. We've also included a helpful pantry stocking guide for making these and all sorts of other tasty nostalgia foods. n
Cream of Mushroom Soup -- It's a soup! It's a sauce! It's the secret agent in many a White Trash recipe. Cream of Mushroom soup has become such a staple of quick and convenient cooking that the cans now come with their own recipes on the labels.
Canned Green Beans -- Where else can you find such a gorgeous shade of olive green? Such a pleasingly tender texture? Canned green beans come in their own saline solution and are the No. 1 ingredient for that Thanksgiving Day favorite: green bean casserole.
Ketchup -- Ah, ketchup. Fries aren't the same without it, and the same could be said for much of White Trash Cooking. We found that it's not only a binding ingredient in many a recipe, but it makes a handy faux barbecue sauce when mixed with any of the following: pancake syrup, Coca Cola, brown sugar or Tabasco sauce.
Spam -- Monty Python was quite right in making a song about this stuff. Born in the 1930s as Hormel's Spiced Ham, this handy little loaf soon shortened its name to Spam and began to show up in all sorts of early White Trash recipes. Spam also has a great sense of humor. There's merchandise, an informational Spammobile, and the Web site, where you'll find such recipes as French Fry Spam Casserole and Singapore Spam Salad.
Canned Tuna -- It's as good in sandwiches as it is in tuna casserole. I've even seen it mixed with capers and bow-tie pasta for a sort of "nouveau trashe" cuisine kind of dish.
Jell-O -- Jell-O is the favored dessert of a bygone era. You can serve it kid-style (Jell-O Wigglers) or make it all fancy with pears inside or (ick) a dollop of mayonnaise on top. You can also mix it with cottage cheese and cool whip for something called "Ambrosia."
Cut up your chicken just like for frying and salt and pepper it a lot. Put all of it in a skillet at the same time. Cover it with a whole bottle of ketchup -- the size hamburger stands have on the counters -- then pour in a bottle of Coca Cola (no substitutes, please) and cook it over medium heat till it's done. You can sorta flake meat off the bone with a fork when it's done and it looks like barbecue sauce. You can tell if it's not done by tasting it. -- from Sinkin' Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravin's