Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Frozen Food - It Just Tastes Expensive!

A circa 1964 shot of a frozen food case in a Chicago-area Jewel Food Store. The title of this post is taken from a Banquet frozen pie ad from about the same time. Clarence Birdseye, the pioneer of frozen food technology, had first marketed his frozen foods in 1930. By the 1960’s, a dizzying array of frozen vegetables, desserts and full meals (that great American institution, the TV Dinner) beckoned from cases like this in supermarkets everywhere.

Among the brand names visible in this photo – Mrs. Paul’s, Banquet, Pepperidge Farm (desserts on the upper right), Morton’s, Pet-Ritz, etc., are two Chicago legends – first, Sara Lee, which was founded in Chicago and named for 8-year old Sara Lee Lubin, daughter of founder Charles Lubin. By the time of this photo, the Kitchens of Sara Lee had become a division of Consolidated Foods and Sara Lee had long since become a national brand. Years later the entire corporation would adopt the name Sara Lee. The second legend I’m referring to, with a market base closer to home was Dressel’s, the makers of a superb line of frozen cakes including a very popular whipped cream cake. It was always a special treat when Mom (or Dad, as was frequently the case) would show up home with one of these.

One more note – the initials “E.V…” which are visible on the fascia behind the frozen food case stood for “Extra Value Trim”, Jewel’s meat trademark of the time. And dig that great tile pattern!


  1. Oh, those Dressel's cakes! My grandmother's chest freezer always had a stock of the imperfect cakes purchased from the Dressel's outlet store. (She was a big fan of the Strawberry Whipped Cream cake for "coffee and..."). I have tried some recipes found online that attempt to duplicate the chocolately goodness of the Whipped Cream Fudge cake, but they just don't come close to those boxed beauties that came from the 67th & Ashland plant. I heard a rumor a few years ago that someone was trying to resurrect the Dressel's brand but I guess that never came to fruition, sadly.

  2. Having 20 years experience in Frozen Foods I can tell you those open multi-teir cases are a big headache. The store I work in is older so we have an aisle of these cases, allways a problem with product icing when moisture gets into the cases during defrost cycles especially when the humidity is high outside, not a problem with the glass door upright cases. They also need to be manually defrosted sometimes with a hot water hose when the coils get too must frost build-up. That's why you don't see these open cases much in newer stores, maybe just for end displays. I like the open look and they are easier to restock (no doors in the way)but hard to keep the product in good shape.


  3. Dig that early sixties aqua blue hue! I hope that comes back someday before I kick.

    Back then, all the frozen dinners and sides came in aluminum containers and had to be cooked for up to an hour in the dry heat of an oven.

    Microwaved meals, in all their fast yet bland tasting and soggy textured glory, can't hold a candle to those frozen meals of yore. Not that they were all that good to begin with.... but they had a purpose and filled the bill back then.

    Does turkey taste better when it's "Chef Cut"? I thought chefs delegated that drudgery to the underlings.

  4. I know this is from a Jewel store, but it reminds me so much of the frozen and refrigerated cases at Winn-Dixie. Their '60s era stores always seemed to have freestanding open case, while everybody else around there put theirs against a wall.

  5. Adrienne - A Dressel's outlet store! Wow, didn't even know one existed. I do remember the Sara Lee factory outlet store (when I believe there was only one, before they became a chain) where you could buy their great cakes in huge sheets. One year my mom bought a chocolate sheet cake for my birthday after I begged. The Dressel's Whipped Cream Fudge cake was our favorite, for sure. I can imagine it would be hard to duplicate that taste at home. Seems I heard something about the failed attempt to bring it back as well. I'm surprised that a major food company didn't buy them out way back when and try to keep the brand going. Wish it was still around!

    John - I can remember as a kid the huge frost build-up that the open cases sometimes had. I'd have to think that the closed door ones are also cheaper to operate, but the open ones did look nice. In some of the older, vintage grocery stores the freezer and cooler cases are the only recognizable original elements oftentimes.

    Captain - I agree, the bold colors of that era can't be beat. Today these things are usually beige or occasionally "dramatic" black.

    Some of the frozen dinners were pretty good - I dug the brownies (and I'm almost ashamed to say the mashed potatoes, with their industrial strength butter pat)in the old Swanson and Banquet TV dinners. And you're right - the meals weren't soggy. The hour it took to cook them would seem like an eternity by today's standards.

    And every Jewel turkey was prepared by a licensed chef!
    (...just kidding. I really have no idea. But it sounded good.)

    Steven - The vintage look of Winn-Dixie was fantastic. They were our food headquarters on trips to Florida, that's for sure. My grandparents also shopped at them in Atlanta, in addition to the Big Apple and later on, Publix.

  6. "Dig that early sixties aqua blue hue! I hope that comes back someday before I kick."

    That is the funniest thing I have read all day. i agree. We need to bring back color in the coolers!

  7. Well, to all you Dressel's fans, I have good news. I too LOVED Dressel's cakes - especially the chocolate cake with candies on the outside. My mother recently made me aware of a bakery where you can get Dressel's cakes (I'm not sure if they have all of them). You do have to specifically ask for them, however.

    Baumann's Bakery
    12250 S. Harlem
    Palos Heights


    I just tried reaching them, but they are closed for vacation until 7/22.

    Good luck!

  8. Thanks for this blog. How exciting to find you, because I have developed strong craving for a Dressel's cake based on wonderful, everlasting memories of Dressel's cakes. My Birthday cakes even played a music box, to be carefully returned to the bakery later. I live now in Arizona but grew up in Chicago, from old Chicago families. My mother, who would be 103 years old if still living, grew up in the old German neighborhood near Chicago's Chinatown. She talked about being in school with the Dressel kids, whose parents had been bakers in Germany before bringing those unforgettable cakes to Chicago.
    Awesome to know I have company in wishing for another cake. If anyone ever knows of a doable home recipe, or a company making the cakes again, PLEASE let me know via this blog if that is ok.
    Thanks so much.


  9. Anniemm - Thanks, and glad you stopped in! That's a great story! My own grandmother would have been 103 this year as well, she lived to be 94.

    Hopefully someone will respond with a good recipe!

  10. God I love the Dressler's Chocolate Whipped Cream Fudge cake .The frosting was awesome ! Does anyone have a recipe for the frosting ? I last ate one around 1990 .

  11. I can't believe that no one has even mentioned Dressel's creme-filled chocolate cupcakes with white creamy frosting and covered with coconut each made a different color (hot pink,emerald green, sky blue and sunny yellow). They were huge, sold as a four or six pack and they were delish!