To unmold a salmon mousse from its fish-shaped tin requires 10 percent skill and 90 percent luck. You warm the copper fish tin with some hot water, jiggle the mousse around a bit, and gather your courage. You spent some time making this mousse, after all, and you want it to look good (as good as a fish-shaped mixture of smoked salmon, gelatin, and mayonnaise can look, anyway). So you set a plate on top of the mold’s open side, flip it over, and pray your mousse-fish comes out intact. Success!
This was the little drama that took place in my kitchen over the weekend. My unmolding happiness was fleeting, because I knew I’d have to go through the whole process again when I freed my lime Jell-O salad. (The YouTube tutorials featuring nice midwestern women were a big help.) I was hosting a “’70s” dinner party, which did not include bell-bottoms, but was instead intended to be a celebration of the delightfully horrible dishes that populate magazine covers, cookbooks, and recipe cards from the decade of 8-tracks and Farrah Fawcett hair.
“There’s something very fun about food from that time,” says Anna Pallai. “Food now is very virtuous and I don’t find that particularly interesting.” Pallai is, in many ways, the leader of this particular mayo-filled movement. Three years ago, she founded 70s Dinner Party, the now-infamous Twitter account that … let’s say honors the cuisine of the ’70s: peanut butter soup, ham and celery roll-ups, banana firecrackers — you know, totally normal food.
The account is a hit, and its followers have been inspired to glorify the decade’s food with their own parties, especially in Australia, the U.K., and New Zealand. “We had been chatting with friends about the hideous things we saw,” explains Samuel Sisti, who attended a ’70s dinner party earlier this year. For the party, Sisti made ham and banana hollandaise, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The food at these parties is everything that food right now isn’t: hyperprocessed, brightly colored, oddly flavored, and almost certain to include bananas or ham. (Or both.) To recreate the cooking of the ’70s is, as Pallai says, a “retaliation to puritanical wellness trends” of today.
I am all for wellness retaliation, and decided I had to host a party of my own in New York. I invited some friends — who were surprisingly game, mostly because I didn’t mention they’d have to eat fish-shaped mousse — and scoured books and websites for recipes. I wanted food that would be mildly upsetting to see, but also not terrible to eat. I ruled out front-runners like tomato aspic and the nightmare known as “snapper en masque.” The banana “candle” was tempting, but ultimately it seemed too gimmicky. Cauliflower lions and eggplant helicopters had great names but somehow felt almost too healthy.
Then I remembered something that Pallai had told me when I asked her about the worst ’70s dish she’d encountered. She did not hesitate: sandwich loaf, technically a dish from the ’50s, but which had something of a heyday in the ’70s. It’s like a cake-sandwich mash-up that manages to amplify the worst attributes of each. It was going to be perfect.
To make sandwich loaf, layers of sliced bread are stacked, slicked with mayonnaise-y fillings, and, to finish, covered with a cream-cheese frosting. It’s like something you’d see on a particularly bleak episode of Nailed It! Within the basic framework, the possibilities are endless, so I went with a version filled with chicken salad and “frosted” with cream cheese that’s spiked with grated onion and Worcestershire sauce.
Next, we needed a salad, so I went with a “creamy lime jello salad.” It required an entire package of cream cheese and almost a full cup of mayonnaise. Calling this a “salad” is like calling macaroni and cheese a “vegetable.” If I’d ever wondered what the opposite of “wellness” is, it was this salad, and I was loving it.
Of course, you can’t have a ’70s dinner party without a show-stopping centerpiece. Perhaps a platter of sandwiches made to look like tiny edible dogs, or what appears to be an entire head of iceberg lettuce stuffed with liquefied cheese balls. For my dinner, I knew I wanted salmon, whipped into a mousse and then molded and decorated so as to look, again, like a salmon. “If you wanted to eat salmon-shaped salmon,” you’re probably thinking, “why not just cook and eat some salmon?” It’s a valid question, but those rules do not apply here. If something does not include gelatin or like half a jar of Hellmann’s, it has no place on a dinner table of the ’70s. Molded mousse it was!
The thing about all the food is that it’s incredibly time-consuming to make, and so when my friends arrived I genuinely hoped they would like the things that I had spent an entire day stacking and whipping and unmolding.
“It tastes expensive,” said the brave soul who tried the mousse first. And, I had to agree: Even though it was shaped like a fish, it ultimately tasted the same as any smoked salmon dip that wasn’t shaped like a fish. Another guest mentioned that it wasn’t nearly as fishy as she thought it would be (I’ll count that as a compliment) and one person even went so far as to call it “lightly refreshing.”
Sadly, that was the end of the highlights. The sandwich loaf was as cold and creamy as you’d think, and Jell-O salad, it turns out, just tastes like Jell-O made worse by the addition of canned fruit. I can’t say I was surprised, or even disappointed, but I had hoped that the dishes might, in some ways, open my eyes to the potential of this food beyond kitsch. Maybe that was asking too much of a sandwich loaf.
In the end, it wasn’t a total bust, but it’s an experience I would recommend everyone try exactly once. If the idea of bananas and ham cohabitating on the same platter doesn’t get you excited, the reality of the pairing probably won’t, either. As I dipped one last chip into my mousse, one of my friends summed the food up perfectly: “It’s offensive to my eyes,” he said, “but only mildly insulting to my taste buds.” It was probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about fish-shaped mousse.