A Rare Look at a Halloween Sweet Treat from the 1960s

Happy Halloween! In today’s post, we are starting off your holiday with a rare treat – a little something sweet from the files of food history.

In 1960, a bit of marketing magic happened to a specific sector of the food industry that no one ever saw coming. It didn’t burst onto the scene with immediate stardom but it was fresh and fun and set the stage for something much bigger down the road. This initial marketing campaign didn’t debut at Halloween, but it did get caught up in the fervor of the holiday and all the potential that trick or treating offered.

In celebration of this sweet treat day, in today’s post, I thought it would be fun to feature a vintage advertising campaign that centers around a very rare piece of Halloween ephemera that was almost lost to history. This one piece of found paper tells the story of a food, an industry, a holiday, and one group of clever individuals who had an unfailing love for one very specific product.

It all starts with the advertising campaign that began rolling out in 1960. This was a campaign that was not promoting a food or a recipe or a meal that was rare or coveted or exotic. It was actually the opposite. It was spotlighting a food that was quite humble and ordinary and pretty unremarkable in the appearance department. It was one of those foods that lies under the radar. Helpful, necessary, enjoyable, but not exactly glamorous, it wasn’t until a certain advisory board formed that this food’s reputation got a total makeover in the likeability department. Through clever ads, product placement, and innovative promotions, this group grabbed attention and shook things up. Eventually, two decades later the food they promoted would become a pop culture icon known by millions of people around the world. By then, it would be forever linked with a catchy theme song and a field of merchandise that stretched way beyond anything to do with kitchens and cooking. The Smithsonian Museum even took note and acquired it for their collection.

So what is it you ask? What is this magical food that went from simple to superstar over the latter half of the 20th century? Here’s a clue… it’s brown and wrinkly. It comes in petite boxes and big canisters. It’s used in baking and cooking. It’s sweet and small, mini and meaty. Can you guess what it might be?

It’s a raisin.

The group of individuals responsible for bringing the raisin into the limelight was the California Raisin Advisory Board, based in Fresno. Founded in the 1950s, the Board was crazy for raisins and wanted to share their joy of this dehydrated fruit with eaters everywhere. Their enthusiasm was backed by noble intent too. They wanted to help draw attention to the local raisin growers who were struggling to make a profit in mid-20th century California.

Typically, when you hear the words “advisory board” you don’t automatically think of whimsy and fun but the California Raisin Advisory Board (also ironically known as C.R.A.B.) proposed a marketing campaign that was full of joy from beginning to end. Their mission was to produce effective advertisements that targeted the heart of the home – the kitchen – and all the ways in which raisins could become a household favorite and a sustainable staple, cherished enough to support the industry that grew them.

This is still life painted by Clara Peeters in 1615 featuring a bowl of raisins and almonds.

Raisins of course had been an ingredient in cooking and baking since the 1600s, so in the 1960s they were not a new food, but the industry was struggling and the Advisory Board wanted to step in to help. They wanted to take the raisin out of the cabinet of yesteryear, dust off its stodgy patina, and give it some zing. With centuries worth of material to work with there was no shortage of ideas when it came to inspiration, but the Advisory Board wanted to focus on a fresh approach and universal appeal. So where did they start?

With bread. As in raisin bread. A sweet, studded cinnamon-laced loaf often enjoyed at breakfast, this baker’s delight was centuries old too, just like the fruit it featured. But in the 1920s, raisin bread received some new interest when it was deemed a “health food” by dieticians and nutritionists. Sugar aside, raisins hold a lot of vitamins and minerals in their puckered little shape including magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Added to the protein found in bread, the combination formed a magical collaboration of a seemingly decadent eating experience paired with a hearty dose of healthy goodness. That gave the Advisory Board a lot of angles to play with when it came to promotion. Raisin bread was nutritious. It was affordable. It could be store-bought or home-baked. It smelled like heaven when toasted. And it appealed to both kids and adults. Paired with some clever writing and marketing during National Raisin Bread Month (November), the Advisory Board launched a raisin campaign full of plucky personality…

A cookie campaign followed suit…

The Advisory Board was off and running. Throughout the 1960s, the Advisory Board launched a flurry of seasonal promotions that included National Raisin Week in April, summer picnic season in July, back-to-school snack packs in September, and the Raisins for Happy Holidays campaign in December. In-store grocery taste tests, advertisements, sweepstakes and giveaways encouraged repeat buyers and kept the noble raisin front of mind.

The California Raisin Advisory Board also churned out raisin recipes year-round for newspaper columns from their test kitchen. Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee, 1970.

When Halloween time rolled around each year, the holiday provided an additional opportunity to remind parents and kids how sweet a treat, a raisin was. Just like traditional Halloween candy, albeit healthier, during the month of October, the Advisory Board promoted the fact that raisins came in small boxes – a handy size for trick-or-treaters. Posters made for grocery stores and food shops hinted at Halloween excitement. This is an example of a very rare original grocery store poster featuring the California Raisins Advisory Board…

Measuring 25″ inches x 14.25″ inches it is a true survivor of history and a real-life example of the Advisory Board’s cute and colorful messaging. Most food store advertising was discarded in the trash promptly after a promotion ended to make way for new advertising in its place. Printed on thin, inexpensive paper these eye-catching advertisements were not made to last more than 60 days let alone six decades. Oftentimes, they were hung in store windows exposed to heat, sun,, humidity, and temperature changes which would cause them to crinkle and fade over time. When I found this one, it was in fragile and brittle shape and was held together only by hope and a dehydrated rubber band. Ripped and torn in so many places it was impossible to unravel it without it completely breaking apart. A quick peek down the interior of its rolled-up shape, yielded the image of a pumpkin face smiling back. How fun! Home to the Kitchen it came for further investigation and repair.

Carefully rolling out the paper, rehydrating it with a warm, ever-so-moist-paper towel, and then gluing it to acid-free archival poster board took a couple days of attention. Each time a ripped section was flattened out and smoothed over it was a small victory in revealing the bigger picture. Little by little, inch by inch, the poster’s overall image went from bits and pieces to one whole poster.

Finally put back together, for a year, the poster sat just like that – attached to the thick archival poster board with a big wide border surrounding it. Waiting to see if it would stay secured, retain its bright colors and not disintegrate, it was wonderful to see that 360 days later the poster looked exactly the same. Removing the excess matting by cutting it down to its original size, a wood frame was built for it using antique wood remnants from the 1750 House. Floating the poster inside the wood frame allows for all the imperfections along the top nad bottom edge of the poster to show – a visual record of its fragile history. The poster, although greatly improved from its original found state, still bears its wounds in Frankensteinish patchwork.

But what I love most about this poster now, is how despite all its rough and tumble elements, it still manages to radiate joy and a sense of enthusiasm. That was the power of the Advisory Board’s campaign. Raisins are fun.

Raisin drying racks. Fresno, CA. 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The first raisin farms in Fresno were started by a group of female schoolteachers in 1876. They decided to set aside four acres out of one hundred acres that they purchased so that they could grow grapes for a raisin harvest. Two years later, the first batch (30 boxes) was ready for market and a West Coast industry began.

In the early 1900s, Raisin growers in Fresno would make anywhere from $50-$125.00 per harvested acre.

By the 1960s, the US produced 250,000 tons a year, mostly from farms in the Fresno area. Foreign competition was tough though and the raisin growers were struggling to keep afloat. That’s when the Advisory Board stepped in with their breads and their cookies and their sweet, colorful, clever campaigns declaring raisins raisins raisins a wonderful thing.

As cute as the pumpkin goblin face was on the poster, it was not the imagery that launched the raisins to worldwide fame. That would happen in the mid-1980s when the Advisory Board approved an idea from a Foote, Cone, and Belding advertising executive who pitched an idea about raisins and a band and a signature song.

The California Raisins, singing Marvin Gaye’s 1968 Motown hit, Heard It On The Grapevine was born. Indicative of the Advisory Board’s continuous efforts to pitch their product in clever ways, the California Raisins soaked into the fabric of mainstream society like no other fruit campaign had done before. This is the first commercial that started the success…

Making up a whole world of claymation figures and storytelling, the California Raisin band was an immediate hit and could be seen everywhere – on tv, in print ads, and on cross-promotional advertising products across grocery store shelves. This was the kind of big-splash notoriety that the Advisory Board was after in the 1960s. With more and more customers buying raisins in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the singing sensations, the Advisory Board was fulfilling its mission.

Photo courtesy of Crazy for Costumes.

In 1986, the California Raisin became the most popular Halloween costume of the year. The Raisin band members were reproduced in figurine form and Heard it Through the Grapevine reached the top 100 song charts. When the Smithsonian acquired the original California raisin claymation figures in 1991, it firmly sealed the success of the Raisin Advisory Board. Their singularly beloved product was now beloved by all.

Unfortunately, the sweet taste of success didn’t yield the type of monetary compensation that was hoped for when it came to the raisin growers. The Advisory Board disbanded in 1994 after struggling to balance the costs between promoting the raisins and keeping the growers profitable. Creativity can be harsh that way. Sometimes clever doesn’t equal capitalism. But in this case, it sure did produce some fun art and a new way to look at the world, even if it was discovered decades later than intended.

Cheers to joyful advertising, loving what you love completely, and to our little rescued poster whose celebrating its 60th Halloween this year! Hope it added a little something sweet to your holiday. Happy Halloween!

The Lost Art of Paula Peck: Egg & Mashed Potato Pizza circa 1966

In 1966, these words described her cooking… creative, imaginative, inventive, eclectic, beautifully presented, and internationally inspired. Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor and a beloved favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen, said “anyone who truly cares about cooking is fortunate indeed that such a talent as hers can be shared on the printed page.” James Beard called her “the finest cook I know.” Newspaper columnist Elizabeth de Sylva deemed her the “free spirit of cooking,” and food writer Gaynor Maddox labeled her “one of the most exciting, competent, and delightful guides to better dining.”

Today, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are featuring a thoroughly modern-minded yet vintage recipe from the culinary repertoire of Paula Peck (1927-1972), who was a phenomenal but now forgotten cook popular during the mid-20th century. I use the word forgotten carefully. Since professional chefs today consider her cookbooks classics and since she still has a quiet army of devoted fans, she’s not lost to a select group, but Paula is definitely, surprisingly not part of mainstream cooking conversations like other famous names that traveled in her circle. Why is that? Was she overshadowed by bigger personalities like Julia Child or James Beard? Did her culinary prowess get dismissed over time? Her recipes simply forgotten?

In order to try to figure out why Paula Peck is not a household name today, we need to start at the beginning and explore the details of how she came to be the topic of conversation in mid-20th century kitchens.

It all started with her spouse.

Among the many causes he supported, James Peck participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961, which protested the segregation of African Americans on public transportation. He was attacked and badly beaten for his involvement, but continued to defend the civil rights of African Americans. He is pictured here, fourth from left. Learn more about this experience in a 1979 interview here.

Paula’s husband, James Peck, known as Jim, was a newsworthy civil rights activist who worked his entire life trying to bring people together for noble and decent causes. Involved with the War Resistance League, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Congress of Racial Equality among others, it was Jim who first inspired Paula to dive into the world of cooking after they were married in 1950. Up until that point, Paula knew little about how to create a meal. This was a bit of a tricky situation since she married a foodie. Unless she wanted to lose her husband to the local eateries of New York City night after night, she knew she was going to need to learn to cook. So as a young bride of 23, she set out on a mission to tempt her husband and his adventurous gourmet palate away from the restaurant scene, which he adored, and into the kitchen of his own home.

Paula Peck in her kitchen in December 1966. Photo: Newsday

As Paula started experimenting with food, she fell more and more and more in love with cooking. In trying to appeal to her husband’s enjoyment of international cuisine, in particular, she studied foods from all around the globe. She began collecting cookbooks, keeping track of recipes in a file box and gathering ideas about food preparation with friends. With every passing bite, Jim encouraged her explorations. Eventually, she gathered enough courage to take a cooking class with one of the country’s most celebrated gourmands, James Beard. From there, her culinary star rose bright and shiny, as the two struck up a friendship. One opportunity led to another. Paula became James’ apprentice and then his teaching partner. And then she went on to teach her own cooking classes.

Eleven years into her culinary journey, she published her first cookbook The Art of Fine Baking in 1961. After that, she was hired to work on the baking portion of the mega Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series along with a host of respected chefs, food writers, and culinary experts. In 1966, she published a second cookbook, The Art of Good Cooking, in which she espoused the physical beauty of the kitchen, of quality ingredients, of simple equipment, of the breath-of-fresh-air joy that became her signature cooking style.

Her recipes began to appear with frequency in newspaper columns nationwide. She did live in-person cooking demonstrations for various events. She conducted interviews. The industry was achatter with news about Paula, about her recipes, about her unique approach to food. By 1970, Paula, the twenty-something girl who was not so skilled in cooking two decades earlier, arrived in the form of an accomplished, confident culinary teacher. Swathed in accolades, with nothing but a field of potential and possibility in front of her, surrounded by skilled peers and influential connections, Paula’s trajectory was on course for iconic status. And then something terrible happened. Paula died. Sadly, she was just 45.

In the 1960s, Paula circulated in the culinary world a bit differently than her comrades. Unlike most well-known cooks of her day, she wasn’t necessarily focused on age-old techniques. She questioned things. She wondered about established facts of cooking, curious if there were other ways or reasons to approach techniques beyond the traditional. She wasn’t concerned as much with how things were done, had been done, or should be done. Instead, she gave herself, and then her students, permission to experiment with food intuitively and to play around with taste, texture, and time.

Taking little bits and pieces from other cuisines, from other places and adapting them in ways that were unique and interesting, Paula worked with food from the foundation up, building a recipe like an artist builds up a scene in a painting. Taking into account, color, subject matter, texture, time, origin, flavor, and the relationship between one ingredient to another, her food was dotted with elements of surprise and flourish. It was those bits of unexpected detail that wound up setting her apart from all the gastronomes of her day. And I think it was those bits of detail that make her food still very relevant today.

Take pizza for example. Everybody knows the age-old basic pie with its flour crust, tomato sauce, a sprinkling of cheese, and perhaps a topping or two. But in Paula’s midcentury mind, the word pizza could mean something else entirely too. It could look something like this…

Paula Peck’s Egg & Potato Pizza

As a prime example of Paula’s creativity in the kitchen, it is her recipe for Egg & Potato Pizza from her 1966 book, The Art of Good Cooking, that is being featured here today. Using mashed potatoes as a base, sauteed onions, peppers, garlic, and mushrooms in place of a tomato sauce, and sausage and two kinds of cheese as toppers, this entire dish is polka-dotted with raw eggs and then popped into the oven for a brief bake. Surprise, whimsy, and a delicious combination of flavors are the result.

In a decade when casseroles were king of the dining table, the presentation alone of this recipe most definitely must have felt like a delightful break from the ordinary in 1960s America. More like a popular modern-day sheet pan meal than a traditional pizza, this fun-to-make any-time-of-day appropriate dish has contemporary comfort food written all over it. Made with simple ingredients and easily prepared, it feeds six people, is satisfyingly filling, and is fun to present table-side. In other words, it contains all the hallmarks of a perfect Paula dining experience.

I made this recipe as-is except I substituted chicken sausage for Italian sausage. And one thing to note before you begin… this recipe is best served immediately when it comes out of the oven. If you leave it to sit for a minute or two the eggs will continue to cook to a hard-boiled consistency and will eventually turn rubbery, if you wait to serve it much longer after that. If you like your eggs runny, cook the potatoes and toppings minus the eggs just until the cheese begins to melt (about 17 minutes) and then crack your eggs in their allotted divots and stick the whole tray back in the oven for about 3 minutes.

Paula Peck’s Egg & Potato Pizza

Serves 6

1/2 cup olive oil

3 cups well seasoned mashed potatoes

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups mushrooms

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced

4 cooked sweet or hot Italian sausages (I used maple-glazed chicken sausage)

6 eggs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2/3 cup diced mozzarella cheese

Freshly chopped spinach for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large flat baking tray generously with olive oil. Spread the mashed potatoes evenly covering the entire pan. With the back of a spoon, make six indentions in the potatoes for the eggs which will be added later.

Bake the potato-lined pan in an oven for 30-40 minutes or until the potatoes seem slightly crisp on the bottom. Remove from oven.

While the potatoes are baking, slice sausages 1/4 inch thick and brown them in a pan on the stovetop. Set aside. Next, saute onion, garlic, mushrooms, and green pepper in remaining olive oil until soft.

After the potatoes have been removed from the oven, spread top of it with the sauteed mixture and sliced sausage, leaving indentations clear.

Break eggs into each of the indentations. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and dot with pieces of mozzarella cheese.

Return to oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until eggs are set and the cheese is bubbly.

Cut the pizza up into squares or wedges and serve immediately. Paula recommended a green salad as a side dish which is a great choice if you are making this for brunch or dinner especially.

Ideal for upcoming spring holiday breakfasts like St. Patrick’s Day, Easter or Mother’s Day, when onions and spinach are in season, this egg and potato pizza is a blank slate for your creative interpretations too. Add purple onions in place of yellow onions for additional color. Garnish with fresh herbs or scallions on top in place of spinach. Replace Italian sausage with prosciutto or smoked salmon. Serve it for breakfast, for brunch, for lunch, for dinner. Call it a pizza or a sheet pan meal or a one-dish wonder. Paula would be the first one to tell you to take this recipe and run with it till your heart is content. Interpret it as you like. That’s what cooking was all about in the Peck family kitchen.

“My belief is that tradition should not hamper us if we find a better way of doing things,” Paula wrote in 1966. Perhaps that very attitude is what has kept Paula’s recipes out of the widely circulated limelight of modern-day kitchen conversations. Instead of being stubborn, restrictive, and definitive about only one be-all-end-all way to approach food preparation, Paula encouraged exploration. She encouraged hands-on learning. And she encouraged continual education.

That type of exploration and freedom tends to breed a sense of confidence that builds over time through experience. A new cook might start out making one of Paula’s recipes exactly as she described, but then over time, feeling secure at the eventual mastery would adopt Paula’s methods of questioning and discovering. The recipe would get tweaked, augmented, adapted, enhanced. As it evolved, it would take on new forms, new ingredients, new flavors, a new identity. Attribution back to its original source, over time, would get muddied, fuzzy, forgotten, and then lost to history completely. I think that’s what happened to Paula and her creative approach.

In modern-day multi-cultural fusion cooking, in outside-of-the-box presentation, and in the pairing of unusual yet complementary flavors, I think today signs of Paula’s style of cooking are all over our culinary landscape. We just don’t realize that she was the source from which it all began. Paula Peck by name might not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, but her inspiring style of cooking still is.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as we did. If you decide to add your own flourish to this dish please send us a message or a photo of your finished affair. We’d love to learn how Paula inspired you!

Cheers to creativity in the kitchen! And to Paula for showing us what fun cooking can be when you add a little splash of imagination.