The holiday season is here, and with everyone traveling for Thanksgiving and Christmas for big family gatherings, we often like to gather around the kitchen to cook and eat a lot of food.

What makes these gatherings so much fun for a lot of big families is remembering all the dishes we grew up eating. Dishes our moms and grandmothers and great-grandmothers were legendary for making.

Credit: Joe Cunningham
Credit: Joe Cunningham

At every family gathering, most of us can remember an assortment of dishes you probably wouldn't see anywhere else. Your grandmother or great-grandmother would lay out a colorful assortment of foods made from recipes they'd written on small recipe cards but in truth had memorized a good 30 to 40 years ago.

My family has a lot of recipe cards from past generations, and it's a lot of fun to look up the recipes we remember grandparents and great-grandparents making and serving at family gatherings.

But, there is one thing I've noticed: Many of those ingredients either aren't sold anymore or are a lot harder to find. The best-case scenario is that they are sold, but you don't know where to go because they aren't ingredients used by most families these days.

Oleo (Margarine)

Credit: Durkee's margarine ad.
Credit: Durkee's margarine ad.

It should be noted that a lot of the "old-fashioned ingredients" I started coming across most often were different types of fat. "Oleo" popped up a lot in the recipes I started looking through. The word is short for "oleomargarine" and that's what it is - margarine. It's long been a butter substitute, but it's not as common as it was. It's made up of vegetable oils, water, and salt, and it used to be sold with a food coloring packet to make it look yellow.


Credit: Walmart
Credit: Walmart

Another one of those cooking fats really born of necessity when people needed to use everything that came from the animals they ate, and it turned into a commercial success in the kitchen. Lard is still sold, but the panic in the later part of the 20th century over high-fat foods, among other concerns, saw people shift more toward alternatives like margarine and oils. But lard is used in everything from frying and sauteeing to making pastries like pie crusts.

Cake Flour

This one is probably more common than some of the others on the list, but in a world where we try to simplify everything, all-purpose flour is pretty much the norm for everyone these days. Cake flour, however, can be found in your mother's or grandmother's cake recipes.

Canned Fruit

I remember seeing canned fruit in everything whenever my grandmother would cook big meals. You had ambrosia salad, pear salad, congealed salad - really, a lot of different recipes that pushed the limit of what you could consider a "salad." But canned fruit was cheap and easy to toss into any recipe, and it could be used in side dishes and desserts with ease.

Baker's Ammonia

Back before baking soda was first created, there was baker's ammonia. It was the primary leavening agent - it's what helped baked goods rise. It looked similar but had a slight ammonia smell to it. Like some of these other ingredients, you can still find this one, but it's a lot less common and there have actually been debates over the years as to whether or not it caused health issues because of the "ammonia" part.

Evaporated Milk

attachment-pet evaporated milk old commercial
Credit: PET Evaporated Milk/YouTube

Here's another one you don't see often, but can still find in the grocery store. In fact, our family uses it a bit for some of the older holiday cooking traditions, but you don't see it much in modern recipes and cookbooks. However, it's a great addition to your pantry. It can be used in sweet and savory dishes to make them creamier.

Gelatin Powder

Gelatin powder is another of those ingredients that were used in a lot of older recipes, though it has a decent bit of use still today (especially if you love Jell-O). But gelatin powder was used because it was one of the most economical ways to make food last longer. "A housewife could stretch her family's leftovers by encasing them in gelatin," according to the website Serious Eats. "And, since sugar was already included in the flavored mixes, the new packaged gelatins didn't require cooks to use up their household stores of sugar." If you've noticed a lot of gelatin salads in your family recipes, that's why.

Dream Whip

Most of these ingredients, I had heard of before. But I had never heard of Dream Whip. This is a powder that you turn into a sweet whipped cream using milk and vanilla extract. Using a hand mixer, you whip it all together and it gets used in all sorts of desserts. You can buy ready-made whipped cream now, and I think there was a shift at one point from Dream Whip to Cool Whip as it became more widely available. You didn't have to take the time to mix it, which meant making those desserts ultimately took less time. But look back far enough in the family archives and you just might find it.

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