More time for the party: A 1960s make-ahead potluck

Although Mad Men is over, we haven't stopped loving the 1960s. But how would our 2016 taste buds fare with 50-year-old recipes? We headed to the kitchen, turned up the bossa nova, and threw a '60s-themed potluck to experience the convenience of the rapidly growing 1960s fridge for ourselves.

A black and white photograph of an office party from the 1960s. People in work attire hold plates with food on them as they gather around a table littered with cups and plates.

For the latest installment of our potluck series (we've cooked and shared dishes from the 1930s1940s, and 1950s), the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project team traveled back in time for a swingin' 1960s party. We scoured period cookbooks and prepared a menu chock full of olives, pineapple, and, that mid-century favorite, mayonnaise, inspired by the belief that sometimes it helps to get all five senses involved when trying to understand American history.

Convenience was key to our party prep—just as it was in the 1960s, when the growing availability of frozen foods and frozen meals allowed home cooks to make meals more easily and quickly. According to a LIFE magazine article from November 23, 1961, "The American housewife spends 11 hours a week fixing food for her family, less than 1/3 the time it took her when she used raw ingredients." We capitalized on that convenience as we prepared our potluck dishes.

On a table covered in a beige table cloth, there are a number of potluck-style dishes laid out on plates and in bowls and Tupperware. Many of the dishes come in bite-sized portions, like deviled eggs, or with crackers. Each one has a festive name tag propped up next to it.

Knowing we'd want as much time to enjoy the festivities as possible, we took our cookbooks' advice to put our fridges and freezers to work. As the Betty Crocker's Hostess Cookbook reminds us, "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the more tasks you can take care of well in advance of the party, the more relaxed and composed you'll be at zero hour." Hostesses should "study your menu with an eye to do-ahead dishes—and do them ahead."

A woman in a sleeveless striped dress holds a plate of food in front of her. The black and white patterned plate has a number of cupcake-like treats that are orange and look to be topped with cheese.

As instructed, our spread focused on "make ahead" options, which could be served directly out of the fridge or freezer, or only required a quick reheating. Many items took advantage of pre-prepared convenience foods or frozen ingredients to cut down hands-on cooking time. Jocelyn's Pizza Snacks, which used refrigerated biscuit dough as the crust, were a perfect example—"They were so easy! It only took me 15 minutes to make."

A salmon-colored food made from a mold that looks like a jumping fish sits next to crackers and a mass of dill on a clear serving tray. Its eye is represented by an olive slice.

Some items took a bit longer to prepare but used the fridge to increase presentation value. Take, for example, the Salmon Mousse.

Combining canned salmon, heavy cream, gelatin, and mayonnaise (the makings of any good dish), the Salmon Mousse was a crowd favorite—if not for its taste, then for its appearance. The Mousse took shape while chilling overnight in a mold. With the last-minute addition of an olive eye and a sea of dill, the fish was ready for the buffet table.

A pie in a dish that is crustless and looks like cream with pieces of fruit mixed in. In the middle are a number of pieces of fruit (the type that come in a fruit cocktail) piled up and the pie is lined by a ring of Nilla wafers.

Unfortunately, not every dish came out as we'd hoped. Better Homes & Gardens' Fruit Cocktail Parfait Pie promised a "glamorous result" from combining "four simple desserts—canned fruit, gelatin, ice cream, and cookies." Our actual experience was less than appetizing, as the canned fruit cocktail changed the filling from snowy white to an unappetizing shade of beige.

A close-up look of the table of potluck items from the earlier photograph. This picture is focused on the "vichyssoise" in a clear glass bowl as it sits among the other surrounding dishes. This dish is white and liquidy and looks a bit like a creamy cottage cheese. Next to it is a ladle.

Even haute French cuisine could be cold . . . and convenient! Shortcuts could be added to almost any kind of dish, even those adapted from the culinary traditions of other cultures. A French-inspired dish made it to our potluck: Vichyssoise. Traditionally, you make the chilled soup by boiling whole potatoes; Fernanda followed a 1967 recipe that called for dry mashed potatoes, a time-saving convenience.

Two young women hold up dishes in pans to the camera. One is a light pink color and is in a pie tin with a crust peeking out. The other appears to be made out of strawberries, and sits in a rectangular metal pin.

Two frozen desserts, Frosty Lemon Pie and Strawberry Fluff Pie, were unquestionably the crowd favorites. Each took advantage of the 1960s' large freezers—big enough to pop a pie pan in next to your TV dinners. The growth in freezer capacity reflected the growth of the frozen food industry. From 1930 to 1950, businesses established more than 1,000 frozen food companies in America. The Quick Frozen Foodstrade journal reported that in 1965, "the industry had enjoyed . . . the largest single increase in both dollars and poundage in frozen food history. Products were now valued at $5.2 billion and production estimated at close to 10 billion pounds." All that frozen food needed a place in the home, and refrigerator companies accordingly promoted the impressive size of their freezers.

Fridge advertisement with a photo of a very full fridge and a husband and wife talking to each other.

Two juxtaposed photographs. On the left is a teal fridge with its door open. You can see several drawers that appear to slide in and out and a few racks. On the right, there is a toy fridge of a similar color. Its doors are opened to show lots of colorful foods linking its shelves and sitting in a number of shelves and baskets.

Today's refrigerator-freezers are even bigger than those in the 1960s, and on the day of the potluck, we filled them to the brim with our historical dishes. We definitely welcomed the cookbooks' promises of convenience, as we were able to tuck our delicacies away for the length of the workday with little additional prep needed come party time. Not every dish turned out deliciously (a telling amount of olive-cheese ball remained at the end of the event), but the group agreed that the 1960s were the most palatable decade yet!

Melissa, Laura, Mary Kate, and Bianca are graduate students in The George Washington University Museum Studies master's program. As summer 2016 interns for the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project they researched innovative things that shape everyday life in America.