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A New Look at the Old Blue Plate Special

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

A classic diner.

A classic diner.

Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.

— Eli Brown "Cinnamon and Gunpowder"

What Is a Blue Plate Special?

Before there was Pizza Hut, before there was Burger King, before there was McDonald's, there was the blue plate special—a hearty and inexpensive stick-to-the-ribs meal.

The story of the blue plate special goes back many decades, but to fully understand the significance of this “dinner-for-a-dime,” we will need to turn back the pages of history. So, where did the term "blue plate special" come from? The origin of the expression is somewhat murky. Some people believe . . .

It Was the 1930s

The time: 1930

The place: Anywhere in America

In 1930 the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Industrial production had been cut in half and 4 million people were out of work. The average income of the American family fell by 40 percent.

One in every four workers was unemployed, and those who were lucky enough to hold onto their jobs found their hours severely cut. Keep in mind that in the 1930s there was no unemployment insurance, no welfare, and food stamps were non-existent.

My mother told stories of men who had lost all hope, knocking on the back door, offering to chop wood or do any other work needed around the house in exchange for just a sandwich.

People lining up for free coffee and donuts.

People lining up for free coffee and donuts.

Perhaps it takes the worst of times to bring out the best in people. If any positive can be found in this dark time of our Nation’s history, it is that neighbors helped neighbors. They shared what little they had with each other—perhaps a few eggs in exchange for some potatoes or onions. Retailers did the same, extending credit, trusting in the honor of people in need.

And in cafes and diners, those who could scrape up 25 cents (or less) could have the blue plate special; a nourishing meal with a generous serving of meat and potatoes, vegetables, bread, and a drink.

Or, Maybe It Was the 1920s?

Perhaps we need to journey back a bit further.

On May 27, 1926, an advertisement appeared in The New York Times for “The Famous Old Sea Grill Lobster and Chop House.” This establishment promised “A La Carte All Hours, Moderate Prices, and Blue Plate Specials.”

Or Even Earlier

The late Daniel Rogov, acclaimed Israeli food and wine critic, provided this definition to the website World Wide Words:

"The first use of blue-plate special was on a menu of the Fred Harvey restaurants on 22 October 1892. These restaurants were built at stations to serve the travelling public on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and it seems the blue-plate set meal was designed to rapidly serve passengers whose trains stopped only for a few minutes. As to why the term ‘blue plate’ — no mystery here. Fred Harvey bought nearly all his serving plates from a company in Illinois. Modeling their inexpensive but sturdy plates after those made famous by Josiah Wedgwood ... these were, of course, blue in color. Thus, quite literally, the ‘blue plate’ special."

a-new-look-at-the-old-blue-plate-special

It's Comfort Food

So, whether you believe that a blue plate special was a quick meal for hungry railway travelers, a satisfying dinner at a New York eatery, or a hearty meal for those struggling with the financial crash of the early 20th century, one thing is certain—the blue plate special provided “comfort food.”

I have revised some of those common comfort-food staples. Here are a few recipes from the Carb Diva cookbook.

Menu 1

ᵒ Ground Turkey Meatloaf (recipe below)

ᵒ Mashed Potatoes

ᵒ Buttered Carrots

ᵒ Dinner Rolls

Ground Turkey Meatloaf

Ground Turkey Meatloaf

Ground Turkey Meatloaf

Ingredients

  • 20 oz. (1 1/4 pounds) ground turkey (7% fat)
  • 1/2 cup romesco or marinara sauce
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs (from an artisanal loaf)
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup dry stuffing mix (I used cornbread) or dry breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup homemade or jarred pesto

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
  3. Place ground turkey in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Combine romesco sauce, bell pepper, water, and fresh bread crumbs. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  5. Add sauce/bread crumb mixture to turkey. Add remaining ingredients and mix gently.
  6. Form into a large oval on a prepared baking sheet. Bake 1 hour 10 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before slicing.

What Makes This Meatloaf "New"?

The traditional meatloaf on the blue plate special would have been made from a combination of ground beef and ground pork. I have substituted ground turkey to reduce the amount of saturated fat in the standard recipe. If you can find romesco sauce, please use it. The smokey flavor of roasted red peppers provides a rich umami flavor that might fool the ground-beef lover in your family.

Meatloaf Fun Facts

  • Meatloaf was mentioned in a 5th-century Roman cookery collection.
  • In Medieval Europe, meatloaf was made with nuts, spices, and fruits.
  • Meatloaf became much more popular to make with the invention of the meat grinder.
  • American meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal.

Menu 2

ᵒ Tomato Macaroni and Cheese (recipe below)

ᵒ Green Beans With Bacon

ᵒ Dinner Rolls

Tomato Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients

  • 16-oz. dry elbow macaroni
  • 2 (14-oz.) cans petite diced tomatoes (DO NOT DRAIN)
  • 6 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 4 cups shredded pepper-jack cheese
  • 2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil over high heat in a large pot.
  3. Add macaroni to pot; stir to keep from clumping together. Cook for about 6 minutes or until al dente (do not cook until done).
  4. Remove from heat. Drain pasta in a colander and return to pan.
  5. Pour tomatoes and their juices into the pan with the pasta.
  6. Return to the stovetop. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed (about 3 to 5 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside.
  7. Next, prepare the sauce.
  8. Melt butter or margarine in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in milk and broth until smooth. Turn up the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil, then return heat to medium.
  9. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.
  10. Remove from heat. Add cheeses and whisk until melted. Pour over tomato-macaroni mixture and stir to combine.
  11. Coat bottom and sides of a baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Spoon macaroni mixture into prepared pan.
  12. At this point, the casserole can be covered and stored in the refrigerator to serve up to 24 hours later.
  13. When ready to prepare, bake in preheated oven 20 minutes or until hot and bubbling. (If preparing casserole stored in the refrigerator, add 10 minutes to baking time).
  14. Remove from oven; let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

What Makes This Macaroni and Cheese "New"?

Traditional macaroni and cheese consists of cooked elbow macaroni folded into a cheese sauce made with cream and Cheddar cheese. In this recipe, whole milk replaces the cream. And we cook the macaroni (or pasta of your choice) with canned tomatoes and their juices. This new step really ramps up the flavor and also adds some fiber to an otherwise guilt-ridden meal.

Macaroni and Cheese Fun Facts

  • Macaroni and cheese is the #1 cheese recipe in the U.S.
  • In any given 3-month period, one-third of the population of the U.S. will eat macaroni and cheese at least once.
  • Kraft introduced its famous blue box of macaroni and cheese in 1937 (it cost 19 cents). During that first year, 9 million boxes were sold. Today Kraft sells more than 1 million boxes every day!
  • In 1993 Crayola named one of their crayons “macaroni and cheese."

Menu 3

ᵒ Scallop Chowder (recipe below)

ᵒ Grated Carrot Salad

ᵒ Corn Muffins

Scallop Chowder

Scallop Chowder

Scallop Chowder

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, minced
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 6 slices turkey bacon, finely diced
  • 1 pound bay scallops
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 14-oz can reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 1/2 cups half and half
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon dry cooking sherry
  • chives to garnish, chopped

Instructions

  1. Place onions, celery, and olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Cook about 2 minutes, or until vegetables begin to soften.
  2. Add turkey bacon and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until bacon begins to brown and becomes crisp. Remove bacon and vegetables from pot and set aside.
  3. Place one-half of the scallops in a stockpot and cook without stirring for one minute. Stir gently to loosen scallops from the bottom of the pan and cook 30 seconds more. Remove from pan. Repeat this process with the remainder of the scallops. Remove scallops from the pot and set aside.
  4. Add butter to the pan. As soon as it has melted, stir in the flour; whisk constantly. (Constant whisking ensures that there will be no lumps.)
  5. Add white wine and potatoes to the pot and simmer until the wine is almost evaporated. Stir in broth and continue to simmer until the potatoes are very tender.
  6. Stir in half and half and simmer until heated through. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
  7. Just before serving stir in cooking sherry. Sprinkle chopped chives on each serving.

What Makes This Chowder "New"?

The standard chowder of the roadside dinner was made with clams, cream, and fatty bacon—white, bland, stick to the ribs (and probably to the wall as well). This new chowder is luxurious; rich and creamy without the cream and smokey without the pork bacon.

Chowder Fun Facts

  • New England clam chowder shares the number one spot of most served soups in the United States with chicken noodle.
  • The name chowder originated from the French word chaudière (a heavy pot used by fishermen to cook soups and stews).
  • The biggest clam ever recorded was around 750 pounds in weight! It was discovered in Okinawa, Japan, in 1956.

© 2015 Linda Lum

Comments

Jill Spencer from United States on July 29, 2015:

Thanks for the wonderful history lesson! And the recipes are wonderful. Who doesn't love comfort food? Is the blue plate shown one of the Fred Harvey plates?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 23, 2015:

Thank you Flourish. Have never been a fan of ketchup--far too sweet for my taste.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 23, 2015:

I enjoyed the bit of history that I had never pondered before and that recipe for turkey meatloaf is one I could love. I like that it doesn't involve ketchup.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 17, 2015:

Thank you Eric. That's what I'm here for!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 17, 2015:

A wonderful combination of history and recipes. Hmmm, youngest of six growing up I ate a lot these specials for dinner at home, if I was lucky enough to line up in time. Great suggestions to change the ordinary into a culinary delight!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 08, 2015:

Hi Paintdrips - It was fun doing the research. You are welcome!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 08, 2015:

Wow this was interesting. I love little tidbits of Americana history. Thanks so much.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on July 08, 2015:

Thank for reminding me of that. I think healthy food isn't always the most comforting. lol Just my opinion.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 08, 2015:

Hi Rachel - I failed to mention in my hub (maybe I should go back and insert) that blue plate specials still exist today. Maybe not the healthiest of food, but certainly filling and tasty. Thank you for your support.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on July 08, 2015:

Hi Carb Diva, I was a waitress in the mid 60's at Woolworths, and there were Blue Plate specials then too. In those days us waitresses had to make up the dinner ourselves after taking the order. The dinners were just as you described it. One my favorites was Chicken Corquetts with mashed potatoes and green beans. lol Boy, did you hub bring back memories for me. My father was the boss and I started working for him at 16 years old. Thanks for the reminding me. I voted up and interesting.

Blessings to you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 07, 2015:

Bill - I know I can always count on you to comment, but praise from you has to be earned. I am so flattered that you liked this hub. Thank you so much for your kind words.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 07, 2015:

I bow in your direction, Linda. I had no idea what the history of the "blue plate special" was until this moment. For that reason alone this article was a winner....but there were other reasons too numerous to mention. :)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 07, 2015:

Thank you Jodah. I always appreciate hearing from you. Let me know how the recipes turn out for you.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 07, 2015:

Wow! Very comprehensive hub Carb Diva. Thank you for sharing the history of the "Blue Plate Special". The recipes were great too. Voted up.