The 1960’s Backyard Cookout

Vintage barbecue grill

At presstime, we’re experiencing one of those sopping-wet March snow dumps we get in my area every couple of years. Two days ago, my wife and I were walking the dogs in 70 degree sunshine, today, I’m looking out at eight inches of white stuff.

No matter. The previous warm weather put me in mind of a wonderful ritual that would take place every couple of weeks during summertime in Miami, Oklahoma in the 60’s: the backyard cookout.

The ritual was simple, but profound: dinner, normally prepared on the stove, would be provided via dad’s flat barbecue grill. That, to a kid, made ALL the difference.

We had the luxury of a screened-in porch. That meant no flies, no mosquitoes, and less wind blowing the red checkered tablecloth around. But I also experienced many a backyard cookout in the real elements. My grandparents’ homes in Texas and Iowa were frequent sites, and the back yards were utilized as grand dining rooms in the highest sense of tradition. I would give anything to spend a 1967 summer day savoring the sights, smells, and tastes of a summer cookout. But memories are all we have. So let’s share a few.

First and foremost was the grill. In 90% of the cases, it was a simple inexpensive affair, purchased locally at a Woolworth’s or Western Auto. Our fathers and grandfathers knew that it wasn’t the quality of the cooking appliance that made the difference, it was the meat preparation, the waiting until the charcoal was perfectly ready, and most importantly, the love that went into the cooking that made it taste perfect.

I seem to recall my Texas grandfather having a nicer cooking rig. I wish my memories were clearer,perhaps one of my cousins can step in and confirm or deny. Anyway, Pop Tinsley had been cooking for kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids in that same back yard since the 20’s, so some fifty years later, it was likely that he had suitably durable equipment for the purpose. After all, he utilized a WWI-era practice bomb for a tree-hung swing!

While dad or grandpa handled the meat, mom or grandma would handle the side dishes.

This might be a big bowl of homemade cole slaw, potato salad, or a big pot full of pork and beans, or all three! There might be a big casserole filled with red Jello with banana slices, too.

A 1960’s barbecue party

Drinks would be Kool-Aid, iced tea, or lemonade. These would be served in paper Dixie cups. Likewise, the food would be eaten on thin paper plates. I might grab two to stack for more durability, but mom and dad would prefer I use only one. Surviving a Depression will do that to you.

Then it would be time to sit down. And no, it wasn’t a fancy glass patio table and padded chairs.

No, dinner would be enjoyed sitting on a real wooden picnic table. My frugal father sprang for a genuine redwood model, complete with decorative wrought iron frame. It traveled with us through three moves. The redwood finally rotted away in the 90’s, but I still have that frame. One day soon, it will once again form the foundation for a durable table that will be passed on to my own offspring.

The aforementioned red-checked plastic tablecloth, easily hosed off afterwards, protected the wood from spills from unsteady small hands. The wind would blow the edge up over the table if you didn’t watch it. However, that same wind would keep the flies and skeeters in check.

Once the feast was over, it was time for the grownups to sit and enjoy a smoke, a cold beer, and the sight of us kids playing. If it was a particularly pleasant evening, the festivities might stretch until dusk, when the fireflies would be seen rising from the lawn.

Nowadays, I have a wonderful back yard, huge in comparison to the tiny plots in the new middle-class subdivisions that have sprung up all over the country. And it has seen its share of pleasant cookouts, although the grilling was done over gas, the paper cups were plastic, and the wooden picnic table was, indeed, a glass model with padded chairs.

But I suspect that my own kids will someday look back in fondness, and perhaps wax philosophically about the days when their old man would fire up the grill and carry on a tradition that stretched back three generations, at least.

American Cheese

American cheese ad from 1951

There are a few basic staple foods that every single Boomer kid partook of, no matter the race, creed, or social status. For example, there was Campbell’s Soup. There were various incarnations of TV dinners. And there was the grilled cheese sandwich.

Today’s column isn’t specifically about the grilled cheese sandwich. No, rather, it was about the technological innovations that led to the ability of our mothers to open the fridge, pop out a slice of American cheese, put it between two slices of bread, and quickly and easily create a bit of culinary heaven.

I could trace history back to Bedouin shepherds who lived thousands of years ago, but instead, I’m beginning with James L. Kraft.

Kraft had moved to Chicago from Canada in 1903. He opened a cheese production business with the $65 he had in his pocket.

Kraft was a sharp cookie, and he soon devised a method of transforming cheddar scraps, which would otherwise be disposed of, into a processed cheese. It was so innovative that he patented his idea in 1916. Kraft’s cheese would also last much longer on the shelf than classic cheese, and consumers loved its taste!

Demand for Kraft’s new cheese was so great that he had to scale up production greatly. Cheddar that might otherwise sold on its own merit was now shredded and converted into Kraft’s processed product.

Traditional cheesemakers were outraged at the success of what they considered a bastardized insult to their trade, and demanded that the government pass regulations that would require Kraft, and any other manufacturers, to label their product as “embalmed cheese.”

Yum, yum.

Fortunately for Kraft, and the rest of mankind, the FDA instead ruled that the packaging read “processed cheese.”

During WWII, our fathers ate American cheese from their rations. The long-lasting, nutritious, tasty delight was perfect for the battlefield. Once the war was over, our fathers had our mothers pick up American cheese at the supermarkets. Thus, it became a part of the diets of even the very eldest members of the Boomer generation.

But it was an innovation that took place either in 1950 (according to, and other online sources) or 1952 (The History Channel’s

American cheese ad from 1967

Modern Marvels) that cemented American cheese as an item to be found in nearly every refrigerator in the US: sliced sandwich-sized singles.

Once again, the innovator was Kraft’s company. They began slicing the cheese into just the right thickness to go perfectly on a sandwich. Sometime later, they began wrapping each individual slice in cellophane.

Thus, the grilled cheese sandwich, a food that really took off during our generation, is also wildly popular among all of the generations that have followed. Even health nuts eat lower-fat versions of the delicious, slightly mysterious substance known as American cheese.

Oh, one last thing, four your culinary curiosity, here are the ingredients in American cheese, shouted for emphasis!


A&W Drive-Ins

A&W logo of the 60’s

It’s Tuesday night. Mom had a bad day teaching school. She came home and went to bed. Dad’s just walked in hungry and realizes that the kitchen is idle. What happens next?

We wake mom up, load everyone into the Plymouth, and head for the A&W drive-in!

In the mid 1960’s it seemed that every town with at least 5000 residents had an A&W drive-in. The chain was an intriguing anomaly: the only thing they all had in common was the fact that they sold the most delicious root beer on the planet. Their food menus were strictly up to each franchise!

I guess that wasn’t so strange. Franchise restaurants weren’t the commonplace sight back then that they are now. The business was still busy reinventing itself.

It’s hard to imagine, but McDonald’s was a rare sight in small town America back then. So were all of the other chains we see in nearly every town today.

But you were always close to an A&W. And while the food might vary in quality, you knew you had something heavenly to wash it down with.

As A&W’s ownership passed from one corporate giant to another, its identity changed. Many drive-ins either closed or dropped their affiliation during this metamorphosis. In 1978, a common menu was adopted for its franchisees. Also, A&W became officially known as a “restaurant,” not a drive-in. Carhop service was quite rare by this time.

If you are fortunate enough to have a local A&W, you probably visit it regularly to savor the taste of that unique mead brewed with a secret recipe. But it’s highly unlikely you get it carried to your car. However, if you remember JFK, I’ll bet you have fond memories of a local A&W drive-in.

When Food Was Delivered on Roller Skates

Carhop on skates

Going to a drive-in for a meal of burgers and fries was fun for a Boomer kid in a whole lot of ways. First of all, a hamburger, fries, and a shake tasted like heaven. Second, eating in the car was a blast. And thirdly, your food was deliverd by a cute teenaged girl on roller skates.

How much better could life get?

It all started back in 1921. Automobiles were beginning to be a ubiquitous sight in Dallas, Texas. A businessman named J.G. Kirby and a physician by the name of R.W. Jackson decided to take advantage of the fact that many people owned cars, and that many of them were also lazy, too lazy to get out of their cars to eat. They opened a restaurant called the Pig Stand.

Do you get the idea that these guys didn’t think a lot of their customers?

A&W, which began business in 1919, soon followed suit as drive-in restaurants became more and more popular. The A&W corporate website actually claims to have opened the first carhop restaurant in 1923, but Pig Stands had male carhops from their inception.

Soon, carhop-delivered food could be obtained in drive-ins all over the country. A particular hotspot was the Los Angeles area, a haven for car owners even in the early part of the century. L.A. probably had more drive-ins than any other urban location in the first half of the century.

Flash forward to the 1950’s. Drive-in restaurants had a population explosion, as fathers who fought in WWII were looking for places to take their families out to dinner that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Drive-ins filled the bill perfectly, as moms loved getting a break from cooking, and kids, well as I mentioned before, they loved drive-ins for a variety of reasons.

Car window tray

You would pull up to the drive-in, and a carhop would come skating out to take your order. Then, she would glide back into the restaurant, beauty in motion on eight wheels. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, she would return, carrying your order on a tray that was made to fit perfectly on your father’s window rolled up about two inches. Then, dad would distribute the hot, sweetly aromatic, paper-wrapped delicacies amongst the other inhabitants of the Plymouth.

I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything as delicious as carhop-delivered-French fries, circa 1967.

Drive-in restaurants with carhop-delivered food have declined since that golden Eisenhower decade. But they still exist. And the ones that are still around are doing quite well, thank you.

The one with the best food, IMHO, is In-N-Out, an L.A.-based chain that stretches as far east as Vegas, whose franchise unfortunately doesn’t feature carhops. But I remember carhop service at one in Azusa, California, about 25 years ago. Other chains that are still around (and that still have carhops in at least some of their locations) include Sonic, Dog-N-Suds, and the aforementioned A&W.

Some independents still have their carhops on skates. Workman’s comp costs have put the rest on sneakers.

So here’s to a cute teenaged girl bringing you your burgers, fries, and malts on a tray to your car window. For pete’s sake, leave her a tip, would you?

Eating on the Interstates

Howard Johnson’s

As you motor down the interstate highway these days, you are presented with a plethora of options as to what you will eat. The fast food joints have spread nationwide, and have located themselves in the middle of nowhere so that you are never more than a few miles away from a McDonalds, Burger King, or Taco Bell. There are also dozens of higher-end chains like Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc. which have located themselves in smaller towns with interstate highways passing through them.

What it amounts to is that you can get pretty much anything you want to eat, from bar-b-que to Mexican to Italian to Seafood to vegetarian, as you traverse I-40 or I-90 from the east coast to the west, and all points in between.

But jump back to the 60’s, and your choices weren’t nearly so plentiful.


What I remember were three places where dad would stop while on the road: Howard Johnson’s, Stuckey’s, and Nickerson Farms.

The restaurants were similar. They offered food and a gift shop, and sometimes gasoline. HoJo’s offered a place to sleep, in many cases, and today that is their primary focus. Nickerson Farms had no motel connections, and has slipped into oblivion. Stuckey’s is hanging on for dear life as a convenience store.

Nickerson Farms post card

I wish I could remember how delicious the food was at the familiar establishments, but with all honesty, I can’t. In all fairness to the chains, I wasn’t much of an eater in the 60’s. It seemed that most food didn’t appeal to me (except for candy, of course!). I could usually handle a hot dog under any circumstances, but I recall at least one of the three bringing me the humble frankfurter out on some sort of toasted bun that was like a rectangle, with thick squared-off edges. What a travesty!

Heck it was probably ten times better than a regular dog, but I found it unfamiliar enough to be naturally unappealing.

But the eateries were everywhere, and you could always count on finding one of the three every few miles, no matter where you were.

Today, you can hold out for sushi if you like. You’ll probably encounter an establishment offering the finest raw fish within a few miles. But go back to interstate highway travel of the 60’s, and your choices were much more limited, and quite similar to each other.