Book Reviews

Fake it till you make it: That signature dish


Somewhere, I think it was in a blog post offering advice to preacher’s wives, I came across the phrase “your signature dish.” There are two types, I’ve decided: The Take-Out and the Stay-Home. We’ll explore both in a minute, but let’s back up a minute….back up to the wisdom of the 1950’s ladies that I mentioned in my posts on Grace Kelly. They knew a thing or two about making a home, about gracious living and, believe it or not, about holding on to the most precious commodity of all: Personal Sanity. Yes, those ladies in short white gloves who knew how to wield a silver chafing dish and wash their fine china by hand, really did carve out lives for themselves beyond a husband and kids. I know. My Mom told me. Got her Mrs. Degree smack in the 50s.


Let’s take feeding the family, for example. Many a family lived with a set menu–like Taco Tuesday, but not as spicy, and daily. So while Sunday was pork roast and Monday was wiener wraps, etc. that might be boring but it worked. The more adventurous bought the monthly copy of Woman’s Day magazine for it’s pre-planned menus–like  SixSistersStuff does today, but in print and picked up at the Supermarket. A few even just planned special dinners all the time–like I do today pulling together a list that mixed it up a bit but kept mostly to family favorites. All of this saved time for Mrs. His Name to live a little. She applied the same logic to entertaining and “bring a dish” events, too. After all, setting your hair takes time and so does properly washing diapers. Save time where ever possible, right ladies? Still time to do your Royal Canadian Air Force exercises down in the rec room then.


Hence the idea of a “signature dish.” I would say this could be divided more–signature dish for husband’s professional dinner parties or a dish for friends coming over for dinner or for the night Johnny and Suzy invite friends over to dance to records in the rec room.  This makes GREAT sense today. While probably no one owns a chafing dish today, we all dream of one of those gym-sized kitchens to entertain and cook in, right? But who wants to clean it all up? So, being super familiar with a dish makes you neater. I know–I’m a messy and it works for me.


So our 50s ladies rustled up Beef Wellington ala Better Homes and Gardens (remember, Julia Child hadn’t hit the scene yet so no Beef Bourguignon) for dinner parties on the fine china to help hubby’s career or when friends came over they made their to-die for golden fried chicken and when the kids had friends over it was their fabulous spaghetti. All with signature side dishes and signature deserts, too. Today we’d call this our “go-to dinner” or something catchy like that.


This had a home counterpart too–home as in “just family.” When Bill actually CALLED home  stressed at the office (rare in the those days) then Mrs. Bill would change plans and magically produce that signature dish, her go-to dinner, that always revives him. (Today we’d call this “comfort food.”) She could sweetly purr down the rotary dial phone:

Not to worry, Sweetheart, your Manhattan will be a double, there will be smothered pork chops and mashed potatoes and oh, I think a really nice double chocolate cake, as well as a sweet new nightie I bought–all waiting when you make it home.

That sort of thing.

Never matter that it was 4:00 pm and Johnny’s piano teacher was due in 15 minutes and Bill’s car would pull in the drive at 6:15 on the dot. Mrs. Bill would floor the station wagon and make it to the supermarket and a department store just in time! And, she’d hit the florist, too, because gracious living is soothing. She’d worry about the bill tomorrow, like Scarlett O’Hara would. And who wouldn’t want to come home to such a welcome? (Just please don’t anyone look in the utility room closet where she stashed all the kids’ crap on the way out the door!)


Funeral? Church supper? Block party? Our 50s ladies had these covered as well. They took their famed, never-any-left overs,  Signature Dish: that Dark Cherry Jello Mold or their Chuck Wagon Casserole and they always had Bill’s business card Scotch-taped to the dish with “Mrs.” neatly written in front of his name. They would have that signature (“go-to” today) cloth to put under it and make it look great. Everyone would compliment it and after each event Mrs. Bill would get notes in the mail asking for the recipe. She would neatly write it out in cursive on a pretty little recipe card and send it to Mrs. Other Hisname for her family to enjoy. Today, of course, we have Pinterest. Same thing.

Believe it or not, I’m pretty sure most families still have these moments–and these meals. In my house, I have a “signature” dish for each family member’s “stressed” days. Or for those days when my dinner plans were too ambitious. The key is too always have the ingredients on hand. Ditto with the dish for new babies, funerals or church dinners. And, too, for dinner parties, though I haven’t given one since 2002 if memory serves. Here’s my son’s comfort meal–Bacon-Cheese Fries. I make sure there’s Ranch and BBQ sauce on hand, too. Cause that’s what the 50s ladies would have done. No “suck it up  Buttercup” in those days.


So for those 2016 ladies who aren’t as well schooled in this as the 50s ladies who adored Grace, I’m giving some go-to resources. Signature Cookbooks, if you will (or their blogs). Don’t be intimidated. You manage a 7-figure budget at work or you keep 7 preschoolers alive and away from the cat all day–you can do the signature dish thing, I swear!! In addition to the two resources linked above here are some resources to help you perfect your Signature Dish, tackle dinner planning, and sprinkle a little 50s homemaker-style love into your home. Even Dads can do this. Today, Dads do a ton of cooking. I know a few who have their own signature dishes which is fabulous. Bill would not have been able to make ice cubes so it’s great that men have evolved. Remember too, that Bill would have dealt with picky eaters by pulling out his fraternity paddle and wailing on the little dear! We’ve come a long way, baby! (Ooops, that was the 1970s).



Dinner a Love Story–I’ve written about this one before. It’s a good read as well as a great collection of easy recipes. This is my favorite–a simple pasta dish. It’s an alone night go-to dinner. Splurge–buy real Parmesan or at least the shaved kind. The 50s ladies would approve–its that extra touch that says “I Love You.” After all, they hid the good booze for their own drinks, so why can’t I have the good cheese?




Mrs. Bill would have loved this. Though very likely she had a dear little notebook devoted to this if she was at all organized. This one delivers just what it promises–a grocery list to supply good food for modern families. I liked this one so well I did a give-away at my old blog. The Stocked Kitchen.






Then there are the t.v. celeb homemakers. My favorite is The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drumond. (TV show link) (Books link). I found her blog the day it went live and have made tons of good stuff from it. What’s not to love about the Marlboro Man’s Favorite Sandwich? Old Bill, back in the 50s, would have pried open a can of Hamm’s and enjoyed it on a t.v. tray while watching Gunsmoke any week! And Mrs. Bill would have been so thankful it uses only one pan, she’d have worn that special nightie even though it wasn’t Wednesday.




While Bill would have collapsed if Mrs. Bill had served a meatless meal–even during Lent he’d get fish, if you prefer vegetarian meals then Moosewood cookbooks are SUPER. The recipes suit real families very well. I have several of the old ones done by Mollie Katzen. Moosewood…Cooks At Home



Do you have a go-to meal or Signature Dish? Leave me a comment with it–I’d love to know and I love hearing from readers.

Fake it Till You Make it will continue in coming weeks. I hope you enjoy the series!


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