The term shish kebab was familiar to Americans as early as the 1940s. A popular recipe during World War II’s meat rationing was Spam-kabobs, which involved chunks of Spam and canned pineapple.
In the 1960s, at least in California, shish kebab was widely understood to be red meat marinated in red wine or a mixture of wine and vinegar. You expected the meat to have a grayish-pink color (because of the effect of the wine acids) streaked with Zinfandel red before it went on the skewer, where it would alternate with cherry tomatoes, mushroom caps and pieces of onion and bell pepper.
In between these periods of vague awareness and quasi-Greek standardization, shish kebab had a run of exuberant fashionability. It offered exactly what people in the ‘50s were looking for--it was casual and a little exotic, a slightly elevated version of the back-yard barbecue. Many a restaurant made it very elevated by grilling the meat on huge sword-like skewers that were served flaming.
Late in the ‘50s, “The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook” featured lamb shish kebab as one of the four main courses a thrifty housewife could squeeze out of a single leg of lamb. (Unfortunately, it recommended using meat from the shank end of the leg, which is pretty tough for grilling. The marinade was simply French dressing.) But this was for the unadventurous.
“The back-yard grill has given the Middle-Eastern shish kabob a whole new look and taste,” wrote Better Homes & Gardens. “Anything that can be cut into cubes, put on a long skewer and cooked over charcoal is. It’s a meal on a stick, and fruits and vegetables join meats in the lineup.”
BH&G; wasn’t kidding. Among recipes for Hawaiian kabobs (lamb or beef marinated in soy sauce, dark corn syrup, garlic, mustard and ground ginger), Angus beef kabobs (marinated in soy, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire and garlic) and vagabond kabobs (ring-style bologna alternating on the skewer with onions and dill pickles), it gave instructions for cake kabobs. Yes, cake . You cut cubes of pound cake or angel-food cake, dipped them in currant jelly, sweetened condensed milk or a mixture of honey and lemon juice, then rolled them in coconut flakes, put them on skewers and toasted them.
If only there had been a way to make salad kabobs.