I was browsing through a junk sale here in Tokyo a while ago and happened to find a First Edition of the 1957 Sunset compliation cookbook, “Cooking Bold and Fearless”. The book is a collection of recipes sent in by the “Chefs-of-the-West”; male food enthusiasts from all walks of life, from pilots and retired military officers to plumbers and accountants, that submitted recipes to be published in Sunset magazine over the preceding decade.

Post-war 1950’s America is not really a place or period you would generally associate with male cooks, culinary experimentation or inter-cultural understanding (Arkansas was still using the National Guard to prevent blacks from enrolling in schools and Mickey Rooney was probably reading scripts to play Japanese stereotypes) but the recipes in this book show the desire of the contributors to explore other cultures and foods. There are recipes for Spanish rice, Chinese ribs, Lebanese dips, Slavic borscht, Japanese tempura, French stews etc., all cobbled together from what these cooks could find in their 1950’s supermarkets.

So in homage to that pioneering spirit, I made this using the kind of ingredients those 1950’s cooks would have used, and put it together in the style of the time. Economy of ingredients and processes; bold flavours, primary elements and a basic, geometric construction. This was not a traditional Italian lasagne by any means, but it had a different kind of authenticity to it. It genuinely tasted to me like how I would’ve imagined a 1950s Californian lasagna. I loved it, and really enjoyed the process of making it.

Today, an American lasagna differs from a traditional Italian lasagne in that the bechamel is replaced by a cottage cheese mixture (sometimes using eggs or shredded processed mozarella), but I think that was a development through the ’70s, so this recipe uses a cheese sauce like I’ve seen in some earlier American lasagna recipes. The original 1950 first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook had an American lasagna recipe but I have not been able to find it. If anyone has that recipe I’d love to have a look at it.

Each of the recipes in the book I found were also signed by the contributors, so I thought I’d do that too. Identity thieves please note that this is actually my real signature so I’d appreciate you not using it for forging cheques and buying imaginary houses and whatnot. Thanks a bunch.

1950’s American Lasagne

  • Meat Sauce: Vegetable Oil – Ground Beef – Onion – Garlic – Tinned Tomatoes – Dried Oregano – Dried Basil – Tomato Ketchup
  • Cheese Sauce: Butter – Flour – Milk – Dried Bay Leaf – Ground Nutmeg – Grated American Cheddar Cheese – Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • Dried Lasagne Sheets
  1. Start with the Meat Sauce. Chop the onion and garlic and saute with oil in a pot or deep pan until softened. Add in the ground beef and brown. Add in the diced tinned tomatoes, dried herbs and ketchup. Cover and simmer for an hour or so.
  2. For the Cheese Sauce, start by heating some milk in a saucepan with the bay leaf and half an onion (unchopped). Heat the butter in another saucepan and add in the flour when melted to make a firm paste. Cook through for a minute or two (without browning) and add in the hot milk a little at a time, working it after each addition to make sure there are no lumps. You need to cook the bechamel for around 20-30 minutes to cook out the raw flour flavour, so add more milk so that it doesn’t become too thick. After 20-30 minutes add in grated cheeses to taste and ground nutmeg.
  3. Cook the lasagne sheets in boiling salted water for a few minutes until softened. Lay these out on a damp towel while you wait.
  4. Build the lasagne (in an oiled pyrex dish for added 1950’s authenticity) with a layer of meat sauce, then cheese sauce, then pasta, etc. End with a layer of cheese sauce and add more of both cheeses to the top. Cover with foil and bake at 180C for around an hour, uncovering for the last 10-15 minutes to brown the cheese. Let the lasagne cool out of the oven for 20 minutes or so before serving with a salad.