02/07/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

How We Ate in 1964: When The Beatles Were on Ed Sullivan vs. Now

Belle Cushing, Bon Appétit

Fifty years ago this Sunday, 73 million viewers tuned in to watch The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the largest TV audience to date. In 2014, last week's Super Bowl clocks in as the most watched event, attracting 111.5 million viewers -- more actual eyeballs glued to the screen in 2014, to be sure. But in terms of relative influence, of percentage of all eyeballs in America huddled around a TV set tuned in to the same station, of how truly important this live event was -- well, today's TV doesn't even compare.

SEE MORE: What You Should Cook in 1964, According to Vintage Bon Appétit

In celebration of the 50th anniversary, CBS will pay tribute to the performance this Sunday; many, if not quite as many, people will gather around screens big and small to watch the Fab Four. Many of them, as in 1964, will likely be eating dinner, but what they'll be eating and how they'll be thinking about it feels worlds away from what the cool cats and skirts were eating back in '64. Heck, there's been a whole food revolution since then! The sixties saw the rise of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and a slew of crunchy granolists. There were still some Jell-O molds kicking around the suburbs, and eaters were also wowed by insta-dinners and the novelty of diet fizz. There was an affinity for all things French, no one respectable ever ate in Brooklyn, and intrepid eaters took their first tastes of global cuisine at the World's Fair in Queens -- and proclaimed it pretty boss.

Here's a look at how we were eating in 1964, and how it's changed--or hasn't--today.

  • Dinner, Telly-side
    Break out the tray tables: Ed Sullivan's on! In 1954, its first year of production, Swanson sold 10 million of its trademarked TV dinners; a decade later, the compartmentalized tray was already iconic. The association with television and the freedom it gave to dinner-making moms made these frozen meals a luxury. Today, you're more likely to tap a few buttons on your phone to get a Thai feast delivered to your door in 25–40 minutes, but munching mindlessly with eyes glued to the tube—well, some things never change.
  • French restaurants
    The sixties were, among other things, the golden era of Le and La restaurants (and one Lutèce), venerated French establishments where you ate sole grillé on perfectly pressed white tablecloths and ordered soufflé from a cart: Le Pavillon, La Côte Basque, La Caravelle, and of course, La Grenouille. Founded in 1962, La Grenouille is the last great standing, still serving clams corsini amid monumental flower arrangements on East 52nd Street. Far from the farm-to-table'd menus and artisanal pickles of Brooklyn, La Grenouille today may be an anomaly, but it's monument, and a steadfast one.
  • Old Global Cuisine
    The World's Fair of 1964 was essentially America's first food court. The global scene we're so accustomed to today, that spectrum from Americanized ethnic chains in the mall to artisanal food halls like Manhattan's Gotham West or West End Market in Cleveland—that all began in Queens. Because of some bureaucratic snafu, it was the smaller countries that landed pavillion space, rather than the usual European suspects. Just 99 cents got a visitor his first taste of saag paneer, or of sushi, kimchi, lo mein, tandoori. And we never looked back.
  • From Waffles to Cronuts
    And during that World's Fair, the most influential item of the year: the Belgian waffle. “It was a tidal wave," says Bill Cotter, author of The 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy, "and everybody had to have a waffle stand by 1965.” Sound familiar? Ah yes, the cronut craze. It's nice to know we're not the first generation to be swept up in sugary trends; other contenders for The Belgian Waffle of Today include, well, waffles (or pancakes), regular doughnuts, frozen yogurt, macarons, or even—oh dear, who remembers the cake pop?
  • Diet Fizz
    1964 saw the game-changing invention of Diet Pepsi, in all its artificially sweetened glory. (Aspartame was invented the following year, and eventually made its way into the drink, but it wasn't for another 18 years that Diet Coke joined the club.) Fast-forward 50 years, and there's not just Diet Pepsi in a skinny can, but also Pepsi Max, Pepsi NEXT, Diet Mountain Dew, and all of their fizzy offspring. When we can make our own soda with SodaStream, and have a national debate predicated on the star of one of their ads, Coke from a Keurig machine is not far off.
  • Family Fun Sells
    A viewer in 1964 might have seen this commercial for a newfangled, borderline-futuristic snack: the Pop Tart. You can eat 'em in the park, eat 'em in the dark, eat 'em on a rollercoaster! And with that, breakfast would never be the same. Fifty years later, another breakfast item spot aired during the current reigning most-watched event: the oh-so-adorable, how-could-this-be-controversial, part-of-this-complete-breakfast Cheerio's family.
  • French Chef to Iron Chef
    Julia Child's "The French Chef" had been on TV for a year by the time viewers switched over to CBS to watch Paul, John, Ringo, and George. Still a tribute to America's love affair with France, Julia Child's presence also marked the movement of la grande cuisine into the home. Could Julia have imagined that half a century later, primetime foodie entertainment would consist of Gordon Ramsay yelling at kids, and the kids yelling right back.
  • Liquid Lunch
    Ah, the good old days. When lunch was three martinis deep and the fates of many were decided three sheets to the wind. Today, the drinking is as hard as ever, and involves skipping the high-powered steak in favor of sucking down liquid kale during a 10-day juice cleanse. It's still up for debate which is more detrimental, though—decisions made under the influence or while in a food-deprived state.
  • We still love melty cheese
    In the '60s, fondue was cooler than cool. So European, so sophisticated, so cheesy, chocolatey chic. Look magazine called it "the new hip dip"; Craig Claiborne declared it "one of the most interesting developments in the field of food within recent years." Fondue today may not claim the same fanbase, but the taste for bowls of melted cheese has by no means gone away.

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