A Thumbs Up Book Review
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
By Laura Shapiro
Reviewed by Katherine Czapp
Laura Shapiro’s graceful, well-researched, and delightfully entertaining social history of American post-war home cooking and the commercial food industry is revealing in some unexpected ways regarding the progress of this history. Inspired by the connection between women and cooking, an association, she suggests, that is “tantamount to a sex-linked characteristic, less definitive than pregnancy, but just as difficult to deflect,” Shapiro asks whether women actually like to cook, and whether it is important that they do cook. Furthermore, she casts a discerning eye on how the relationship between the cook and the food has changed over the past 50 years.
The commercial food industry had been making steady headway into American kitchens and pantries in the decades before World War II with such familiar and accepted products as canned meats, soups, factory-made fluffy white bread, powdered gelatin mixes and ketchup. Because of the limitations of factory production, however, such considerations as flavor, texture and authenticity fell by the wayside, and were even deemed irrelevant compared to qualities at which the industry excelled: sanitation, uniformity and blandness. The more these factory qualities found their way into home cooking, the more accepted they became, and “millions of American palates adjusted to artificial flavors and then welcomed them; and consumers started to let the food industry make a great many decisions on matters of taste that people in the past had always made for themselves.”
Immediately after the end of the war, the food industry set its sights squarely on home cooking, determined finally to separate the cook from any connection at all to the raw ingredients of dinner. Much of the impetus for the great surge in packaged and highly processed foods that followed World War II came from the wartime momentum of the industries that had been created to provide field rations for US soldiers. The industry was confident that it had ready and waiting customers for the barrage of frozen, canned, dehydrated, powdered, and reconstituted food items that it could so easily mass produce.
The excitement of the industry as evidenced by its endless, bewildering innovations was palpable, but the products themselves were often hilarious duds. Dehydrated orange juice, coffee, and potatoes had led to the novel, but failed innovation of dehydrated wine, and, inexplicably, dehydrated mineral water (just add water?). Meanwhile, the prototype of the TV dinner was the airline meal, featuring a divided metal tray and lumps of barely recognizable animal and vegetable.
What the food industry had not anticipated, however, was that its advertising spin on ease of preparation (“You don’t cook it!”) might put off home cooks who, although not averse to labor-saving devices, nevertheless considered it a matter of pride and self-identity that they indeed did actually cook the meals that they placed before their families. “Cooking,” notes Shapiro, “had roots so deep and stubborn that even the mighty fist of the food industry couldn’t yank all of them up.” Further, many of the new products hurried to market were just too peculiar for homemakers to embrace, such as deep-fried hamburgers in a can.
A long, strategic and largely behind-the-scenes battle ensued, as the food industry schemers, abetted by marketing psychologists and magazine and newspaper journalists devoted to their industry advertisers, devised more and more insidious ways to break down the resistance of the American homemaker to their products.
It comes almost as a shock to learn that at the same moment that Spam and frozen fish sticks were becoming fixtures in the American diet, such icons as Julia Child and James Beard were publishing their books on authentic European cuisine to a ready and enthusiastic audience here at home. Shapiro charts the careers of some of the best cooks in the nation as they wrote books and hosted television programs with the intention of introducing American home cooks to the simple secrets of traditional European cuisine: fresh, honest raw ingredients, spices, wine, butter and cream. In short order, though, most of them found it economically expedient to bend to the influence of the packaged-food sponsors of the programs that provided their paychecks. “Quick” meals and menu shortcuts with brand name references to these packaged and “ready mix” foods found their odious way into even “gourmet” recipes. Meanwhile, in home economics classes in public schools, the industry provided teaching materials and course syllabi for students. “These mixes eliminate much of the tedious, uninteresting part of the work for students,” explained a 1955 magazine article. “Then, too, mixes are in keeping with our speed era.”
Food industry advertisers kept up a relentless assault on the homemaker, as the foundations of traditional American home cooking began to erode. At the same time, farming methods in this country were undergoing a similar assault from “scientific” academic quarters. Small, mixed farms were giving way to the industrial model of chemical-dependent monocultures. The homemaker no longer would choose foods because of season, climate or the regional produce of her hometown. Frozen, canned and boxed foods were available year round, and by the 1960s even fresh vegetables, fruits, meat and poultry had been so rigorously standardized by factory farming that their blandness and disappointing texture would defeat the technique of the most accomplished cook.
It looked as though the food industry finally had what it had always wanted: a captive generation of consumers separated from both the origins of fresh food and its traditional preparation, with no taste memory of authentic produce. Raw food had been conquered. The home cooks who had originally been deeply suspicious of the newfangled packaged foods were now unfamiliar with anything else and had found their role as food preparers for their families diminished and marginalized in the bargain. It had been a tough struggle, though, and pockets of resistance remained.
Shapiro brings into focus two important events that occurred in February, 1963: Julia Child’s television cooking program “The French Chef” aired for the first time, and Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique was published. Avid audiences were ready for both, and although Child’s viewer and Friedan’s reader might not have been the same woman, Shapiro points out that they were both “hearing the same words: You can do this yourself, with your brains and your own two hands. You don’t need to get it from a package. You can take charge. You can stand at the center of your own world and create something very good, from scratch.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2007.