Ancient Holiday Appetizers, Part 6!

Wellp, it’s time for my favorite Dino Drac feature. Get set for more weird holiday appetizers!

As is now an annual tradition, I dug into my vast collection of ancient recipe books, searching for snacks that’ve fallen out of fashion. I’ve been doing that for longer than I’ve even had websites, but you’ve been my excuse to stop marveling at the photos and start making the dishes.

I aim to select recipes that “sound” vintage, but aren’t so strange that they’re totally repellant by today’s standards. This isn’t an exercise in grossing you out. (To that end, more than half of the appetizers shown below are good enough to come with genuine recommendations!)

I found this recipe in a cooking magazine from 1985, when Chinese cuisine was super chic. (I don’t know much about the culinary zeitgeist from the mid ‘80s, but given what I see in these books, the easiest way to broadcast one’s fanciness was by messing around with snow peas and spare ribs.)

Shanghai Beef is a simplified-yet-souped-up version of fried rice. Brown steak strips in a little oil, dust them with cornstarch, and then add beef broth and soy sauce. Toss in water chestnuts, diced red pepper and some scallions. Once everything starts to boil, add a small box of Minute Rice and remove from heat. Stir like crazy, wait five minutes, and it’s ready to go!

SCORE: 9 out of 10. It’s ridiculously tasty — not exactly like standard fried rice, but somewhere in that family. Smells and looks wonderful, too. I’m amazed that I could get something this good on the table in under twenty minutes.

My parents used to make “Pocket Pizzas” all the time, so I knew they’d be a winner even before I started preparing ‘em. They’re arguably on par with what you’d take home from the local pizza parlor.

Lightly toast some English Muffins. Smear each half with pizza sauce, or plain tomato sauce if you prefer. Add some oregano. Top with a big slice of mozzarella cheese, and if you wanna do it right, an anchovy fillet. Broil in the oven until the cheese looks all good and burny.

First let’s address the engraulidae in the room. You don’t need the anchovies, but I do recommend them, even if you plan on yanking ’em off before eating the pizzas. The fillets impart serious flavor and help keep things nice and greasy. They’re fine to drop if you’re vegetarian or allergic, but if you’re only avoiding them because you grew up on sitcom jokes about anchovies, stop that.

SCORE: 9.5 out of 10. I live in a city famous for good pizza, but I’d be just as happy with these teensy pies.

They’re okay, but just okay. I follow these old recipes as closely as possible, but the frustrating thing with this dish was knowing how easily I could’ve improved upon it. More on that in a minute.

Mix cream cheese, minced onions and chopped cooked shrimp with salt, cocktail sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Spoon into mushroom caps and bake at 350 degrees for around 15 minutes. (You’re basically just waiting for the tops to look crusty.)

The situation is that twice-cooked shrimp are pretty flavorless, and there just wasn’t enough oomph to the rest of the ingredients to make these mushrooms stand out. They’re not bad, but something this messy needed to be over-the-top great.

I think the problem was in the proportions. My recipe only called for a dash of each sauce and half a teaspoon of salt, when it really needed TONS of those things. Were I to make these again, I’d go super heavy on the cocktail sauce and also add in some Tabasco, because these would be way better with a sincere kick.

SCORE: 6 out of 10. A solid first draft, but there was room for improvement. On the plus side, at least I now know that shrimp and cream cheese make a good start-point for funky mushroom stuffing.

I almost didn’t include these, since baked apples are still very much a thing. I’m giving myself a pass because they just look and feel so vintage. I assume the preparation has barely changed in over a hundred years.

Grab a bunch of red apples. The exact type doesn’t matter much, though if you can find apples that are more round than tall, pick those. Cut out the cores, but don’t cut all the way through to the bottom — just enough to scoop out the pesky seeds.

Fill the holes with a mix of sugar and cinnamon, and then add a pat of butter. Bake at 300 degrees, for however long it takes for your apples to resemble shriveled balls. (You’ll know they’re done when the flesh can be easily pierced with a butterknife.)

You’ve likely been in the presence of baked apples, but if you’ve never actually eaten one, please fix that! The sugar, cinnamon and butter soaks into the entire apple, which after baking tastes more like the midpoint between applesauce and apple pie. The flavor is sharp in the best way.

Baked apples can be employed as a side dish or a dessert course. If going with the latter, you can pair ‘em with Cool Whip. Honestly, these things are so good that it’s a shame we only remember them near major holidays.

SCORE: 10 out of 10. Sooo easy to make, and legitimately delicious. (Feel free to experiment with the “stuffing,” too. Everything from nutmeg to raisins is fair game.)

This one’s from a cookbook published in 1963, and boy does it look it. Hearty Clam Delight mixes a package of cream cheese with a can of minced clams (drained), along with some lemon juice, grated onion, chopped parsley, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and salt. It sounds gross and it looks like puke, but brother, it ain’t bad!

For a dip that includes a whole damn can of clams, it really isn’t all that fishy. I’m not even sure that I would’ve guessed “clam dip” had I not prepared this myself. That said, the clams do add a nicely uneven texture that makes every scoop full of prizes and surprises.

If you decide to prepare this, be liberal with the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and salt, because those things will account for most of the flavor. Also, while this was pitched as a room temperature dip, I can’t shake the suspicion that it’d be better after a light heating.

SCORE: 6.5 out of 10. It wasn’t good enough to consider a revelation, but the mere fact that I can mash cream cheese and canned clams into something edible easily warrants that score.

Here’s a proper dessert course to balance things out. I found this recipe in the same 1985 magazine that had the Shanghai Beef, and yeah, it’s so ‘80s. I feel like I’m looking at my elementary school birthday parties.

Prepare a package of strawberry Jell-O and let it chill for a while — just long enough to slightly thicken. Take half of it and mix with Cool Whip until it’s pink and fluffy. Add sliced almonds and quartered sweet cherries, and distribute into glasses.

Chill those glasses in the fridge for 15 minutes. Now take the remaining strawberry Jell-O, add more almonds and cherries, and then carefully top each glass with that mixture. Leave everything in the fridge until it sets. Just before serving, top each glass with a dollop of Cool Whip.

SCORE: 10 out of 10. I was actually alarmed by how delicious these were. You’ll be making your O-face after every bite. The bottom layer tastes like strawberry cream cheese. Unreal.

Even if none of those dishes floated your boat, I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to dip into older cookbooks to give some recipes a try. It’s so fun, guys.

I made these dishes in a single sitting, after a morning spent running all over a supermarket, trying to locate weird things that I previously never had to look for. All in, it was six or seven hours by the time I was done taking the photos.

It’s been that way since the first edition of this series back in 2012. The whole ordeal now ranks high on my list of favorite holiday traditions, so thank y’all for helping me justify the $100 grocery bill. It just isn’t Christmas until I’ve done strange things to anchovies and Jell-O.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5