On the first day of Christmas, my true love baked for me: a deviled ham sandwich tree.
If sugar plum fairies are what late-December dreams are made of, then some old-school creations will surely inspire nightmares. I taste-tested three bizarre vintage Christmas recipes that are guaranteed to keep Santa far, far away from your chimney.
Christmas Candle Salad (1958)
I made cranberry candles for Thanksgiving, so why not give bananas a go, too? I couldn't resist recreating this Christmas candle salad, if only to explore its period-appropriate interpretation of the word "salad."
This recipe begins with a hefty dose of—what else?—gelatin, which was required by law to be included in all mid-century recipes thanks to an executive order from President Eisenhower. I heated the softened gelatin in a pot with two cups of cranberry cocktail.
I don't know whether the sugar content or some commercial additive is to blame, but the smell of boiling-hot cranberry juice cocktail proved to be positively urinary. I poured the bubbling mixture into silicone molds and, holding my nose with one hand, shoved them into the freezer with the other.
Soon my candle bases were set and, thankfully, odor-free.
I cut holes in the center of each frozen flower and jammed half a banana inside. I don't know how the recipe card got its bananas looking so straight. Mine were decidedly curved, and decidedly phallic. Keep it together, bananas; this is a family holiday.
The final step involved adding dabs of mayo to represent "melted wax" and an almond "flame."
I immediately regretted all the choices in my life that had led me to this moment.
If these images look familiar to you, please, call your doctor.
Underwood Deviled Ham Sandwich Tree (Undated)
I'd never had—never even heard of—deviled ham before, and this ad did little to illuminate me. Like ancient runes partly weathered away by the sands of time, the recipe isn't complete. It isn't really even a recipe, exactly, so much as a series of vague suggestions, almost as if Underwood's marketing department didn't really expect anyone to take them up on this.
Before wrapping my brain around the concept of deviled ham, I prepared the mix-ins for each of the sandwich tree's four layers: chopped olives and grated asiago cheese, sour cream and sweet pepper relish, chopped green pepper and onion, and chopped apple and walnuts. Out of context, they seem pretty appealing on their own. Someone, somewhere, could make these ingredients into something that tastes good, but I am not that person, and the sandwich tree is not that something.
I mutilated a loaf of bread with a pair of scissors and a steak knife.
I have no idea how they made their star looked so neat in the advertisement. This was literally my third attempt at cutting a star and it is still irredeemable garbage.
Deviled ham, as it turns out, is a mushy spread of cured ham and spices like mustard and turmeric.
Beneath the label, the Underwood can looks suspiciously generic, and I felt like I was about to fall victim to a cruel prank.
It's no prank, but I almost wish it were. Deviled ham bears an uncanny resemblance to cat food.
Again, the so-called recipe (I like to imagine that it's the semi-coherent manifesto of a disgraced former cookbook writer now lost in the depths of insanity) offers no advice in terms of measurements or proportions, so I did my best to eyeball it. Considering everything about this looked fairly grotesque to begin with, my eyeballs were of little assistance.
First up was the olives and cheese layer.
Then came the sour cream and sweet pepper relish layer. If cotton candy is served in hell, this is probably what it looks like.
The third layer was green pepper and onions.
And finally, a topper of apple and walnuts.
Sandwich tree, you were too pure and beautiful for this world. My creation toppled shortly after it was complete, but I was able to rebuild it with the help of half a dozen toothpicks. As you'll read, toothpicks became a major theme of this meal.
Coconut Snowman Cake (1958)
There's nothing inherently disgusting about this recipe, which simply calls for boxed cake mix and generic frosting. That said: Why, why, why did they feel compelled to give him a name? Roly Poly the Snowman promises he'll "only melt in your mouth," which, I'll pass. Baked goods are best when kept anonymous.
The bright yellow cake batter looked just like mother used to make, if your mother happened to be a Pillsbury food scientist. (And if she is, thank her, because she's doing god's work.)
The recipe card dictates hilariously specific dimensions for the various sections of the snowman's body, which I interpreted as a personal challenge.
After letting the cake fully cool, I pulled out a tape measure and went full Pinterest on this thing. I'm coming for you, snowman.
Once the dissection was complete, I rounded the corners of each slice of cake and stacked them as directed.
It's at this point that I started to get a little cocky, because it was actually looking kind of good.
I quickly developed an attachment to my adorable, carb-based homunculus.
The frosting stage is when everything went rapidly downhill—and I mean that literally.
Not only did the snowman vaguely resemble Claude Rains' bandage-swaddled Invisible Man (or maybe a bargain-basement mummy), but each of the sliced surfaces of the cake turned into a gritty, crumbly mess when I applied frosting.
Worst of all, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, my snowman began to slouch.
Next came a dusting of shredded coconut. The snowman's head took on an increasingly solemn bow.
In an attempt to keep the snowman standing, I jammed him with something like twenty toothpicks, rendering him a three-dimensional minefield of sharp booby traps for anyone foolish enough to eat him.
But it wasn't enough. By the time I gave him a construction paper hat and tacked on some decorative M&Ms, the snowman could hold himself upright no longer.
Less than a minute later, he collapsed. I had flown too close to the holiday baking sun.
I salvaged the remains to the best of my ability, like a funeral director equipped with vanilla icing and seasonal candies in lieu of formaldehyde.
This is clearly the face of a coconut snowman cake who is praying for the sweet release of death.
Later, I realized that I could use chopsticks as dowels for support. I rammed three into his coconut-dusted skull and down through his base. It worked, although between the chopsticks and the toothpicks, he was arguably more wood than he was dessert by this point.
The taste test
My retro Christmas dinner was finally complete. I'm hoping a studio options this photo as the premise of a holiday-themed horror movie.
It's not that the Christmas candle salad isn't bad (don't get me wrong, it is very bad), but it's actually no worse than the sum of its parts.
Unlike the edible candles I made for Thanksgiving, in which the mayo and cranberry sauce were directly mixed together in an act of unspeakable perversion, these candles make me think of the kind of batshit dish an unsupervised kid would prepare and then insist her parents eat. They taste more confusing than they do disgusting. (Their appearance is off the charts in both categories.) That said, there's no conceivable reason why a human should eat them.
I soon discovered that it is literally impossible to eat the sandwich tree without either unhooking your jaw or fully disassembling it. I reluctantly chose the latter.
I should offer a disclaimer before we go any further: I really like Spam, and I really like tuna salad. Crossbreed Spam and tuna salad and you'd have something not too different from deviled ham.
So: I hope we can still be friends now you know that I actually kind of enjoyed this. Not all of it! But parts of it, particularly the olive and cheese layer and, to a lesser extent, the pepper and onion layer. The brine and the acidity cut through the ham chum nicely. But I'm afraid tackling the other half of the sandwich tree was not a fun experience—on a revulsion scale of 1 to giant football-shaped blob of frozen vegetables and salad dressing, I'd give the sour cream and apple layers a 6 and 5, respectively.
I think I'll miss you most of all, snowman. When you close your eyes, Roly Poly tastes exactly like the processed cake mix and icing he's built with, which is to say that he's delicious.
With your eyes open, it's a different story. Cutting a slice of the cake requires expert toothpick evasion skills. It also involves disemboweling the poor little guy.
I'm so sorry, buddy.
Perhaps as a final act of protest, Roly Poly, his yellow cakey guts exposed to the elements, keeled over once more when we were halfway through dessert. Happy holidays!
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.