The love of all things vintage and retro seems here to stay, with a continuing trend towards vintage-inspired clothing, home decor, and reboots of childhood movie favourites on the big screen. But what about vintage food? Like many things, food can be subject to fashions and trends, and while some vintage recipes might be best left in the past, others have stood the test of time, and a few could even be due a reboot of their own.
For a fascinating glimpse into era-defining foods from 1970 onwards, take a look at our article on 45 years and more of food crazes, but for now, it’s time to crimp your hair and pull on some leg warmers, as we take a look at what America was eating in the 1980s.
Vol au Vents
The '80s is sometimes referred to as the decade of decadence, and when it came to glamorous food, it just had to be French.
Gallic sophistication and small, exquisitely-prepared dishes were the key trends of the era, and the vol au vent offered both, all wrapped up in a delicious pastry casing.
The quintessential amuse bouche, vol au vents are light, bite-sized puff pastry cases, which can be filled with either sweet or savoury fillings. Their creation actually dates back to the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but the addition of some luxurious fillings - smoked salmon, anyone? - made them the perfect choice for the aspirational '80s host or hostess hoping to impress their dinner guests.
It seems like pasta salads have been around forever, but in the '80s they were still new and exciting. While it may have been less luxurious than a vol au vent, the pasta salad was still glamorous in its own way. It could include exotic ingredients like olives, tri-colour pasta, and salad dressing. America was just beginning to discover vinaigrettes and dressings in the '80s, and salads with raspberry vinaigrette or poppy seed dressing were the sign of a modern and sophisticated home cook.
Delicious, adaptable and easy to prepare, the pasta salad is still a popular dish today. If you’re looking for some inspiration for your next buffet or cookout, take a look at these tasty pasta salad recipes.
Pasta with vodka sauce
Also known as penne alla vodka, this creamy tomato pasta was a favourite of every Italian-American red-sauce restaurant of 80s America, and was apparently particularly popular with people returning home from nightclubs. Vodka may seem like an unusual ingredient for a pasta sauce, but it actually works surprisingly well, cutting through the richness of the cream and enhancing the fruitiness of the tomato. Although it never really went away, penne alla vodka has been enjoying a surge in popularity over the past couple of years, so if you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go.
A comforting all-American classic, the sloppy Joe sandwich was a staple in many '80s homes. Made from ground beef with onions, ketchup and Worcester sauce, it wasn’t the daintiest dish on the menu, but the combination of savoury beef and onion, sweet ketchup and umami-rich Worcestershire sauce was just irresistible. These days sloppy Joes are as popular as ever, with many popular variations, including sloppy Joe fries, sloppy Joe nachos and sloppy Joe pizza (also known as sloppy Giuseppe).
Although it had the allure of a foreign name, by the '80s your beef stroganoff was more likely to come from a packet or a can than a fine dining restaurant. Popular as a convenience food from the '50s onwards, even dinner party versions used shortcuts like tinned mushroom soup and ketchup.
In keeping with the vogue for exotic foreign dishes, this Italian antipasto was considered the height of fine dining elegance, although veal is always surrounded by controversy. Known as vitello tonnatoin Italy, this summer dish is made with cold, sliced veal covered in a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce that has been flavoured with tuna. It is served chilled or at room temperature.
While the nation was discovering dressings and vinaigrettes, we were also discovering dips, with packet-based ranch dips, spinach artichoke dip and guacamole all going mainstream during the '80s. The recipe for this Super Bowl party favourite was first printed in Family Circle in 1981, and also coincided with a trend for all things Tex-Mex.
Barbecue chicken pizza
Before the '80s, pizza toppings were pretty limited. Pepperoni, sausage, onions and peppers were usually your only options. But in California, pizzas were having something of a renaissance, thanks in large part to Ed LaDou, pizza chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Italian restaurant Spago.
LaDou was famous for using gourmet pizza toppings like duck breast and hoisin sauce, or marinated shrimp, and the rich and famous flocked to Spago to try them out. But it wasn’t until 1985, when LaDou teamed up with new chain California Pizza Kitchen that his creations began to reach ordinary people. Of all his new flavours, barbecue chicken was the most popular, and it remains on the menu at California Pizza Kitchen to this day.
Dip in a bread bowl
The craze for dips meant that no '80s buffet table was complete without a hollowed out loaf filled with homemade dip and surrounded by crudités. Popular choices of dip included spinach and artichoke, or crab.
Every September from 1983, The New York Times printed a recipe for plum torte to mark the beginning of the Italian plum season. The recipe became something of a tradition, and the deliciously sweet sponge cake was some consolation for the end of summer. No recipe appeared in September 1990, however - much to the annoyance of readers who had forgotten to cut it out - making The New York Times plum torte a specifically '80s phenomenon.
Everyone’s favourite Italian dessert made its US debut in the '80s, appearing on the menus of Italian restaurants across the country. Made from layers of espresso-soaked sponge fingers and mascarpone with a dusting of cocoa powder, tiramisù is actually pretty simple to make, and it soon became a dinner party favourite too.
The '80s also saw a huge fitness craze, making it the perfect time to introduce a low-calorie alternative to ice cream. Frozen yoghurt franchises set up all over the country, and by 1986 the industry was already worth $25 million. Customers flocked to try this virtually fat free ice-cream alternative, and the craze continued well into the '90s.
Sex on the beach cocktail
A typical '80s cocktail, sex on the beach is brightly coloured, cheerful and fruity, and it’s also the first of a string of cocktails with risqué names. Legend has it that the drink was invented during spring break 1987, which would probably explain the name, but nobody knows for sure.
Another brightly coloured '80s drink, wine coolers were a sweet, pre-bottled drink made from wine and fruit juice. They were a particular hit with young people, with popular flavours including peach, passion fruit, lemon and berry, but by the '90s they had been replaced by stronger, spirit-based coolers.
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