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Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

Penguin, 2005, 336 p.
Annie Hubert

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1This very intelligent book, relates and analyses, not without humour, what happened in the American home kitchens in the 1950’s. After the Second World War, when many women went to work in various armament factories, a reinforced and even more idealised image of woman came into force. It took up some of the older Victorian ideals of the feminine and put it to a more modern taste. Women were ideally supposed to care for their families, in lovely suburban homes, full of appliances to help with house work and bring forth lovely dinners steamy from the oven.

2The industry had taken this ideal American woman as a good consumer target.

3Some observers, a few national consumer enquiries, had put out a peculiar image of this “woman”: she disliked cooking and house chores, yet of course, it was these very activities that were her “raison d’être”. Besides the industrial rush to provide ever increasing and complex appliances, the food industry, having to somewhat transform its policies after the war, set out to provide food for the family in order too liberate women from the awful chore of cooking. And in doing so, they changed for a long while the tastes of a whole nation.

4Not that the women hated to cook: actually several serious sociological studies showed the opposite, of all house work, cooking was the one they liked best. Nevertheless, convenience food appeared more and more abundant and more and more varied. Canned soups, jelly, canned spaghetti, canned almost anything, culminating in the TV dinner: all in one plate, only to be reheated. It was the era I have briefly known, of the unmistakable jello salad with marshmallows, mayonnaise, pineapple and tomatoes. An unbelievable and rather atrocious culinary no man’s land taken over by industrial sponge like bread, margarine, tasteless fresh produce and recipes necessitating the use of canned soups of all sorts. Mixes of various kinds helped make cakes, pancakes and biscuits, although the latter had been on the market since the beginning of the XXth century. Americans acquired the permanent taste for ketchup, sweet salad dressing, iceberg lettuce, industrial ice creams of all sorts, breads and pastries loaded with sugar and lipids. The industry indeed made a profound mark on the tastes buds of a whole nation.

5However: women continued to cook, and liked doing it, they did make use of all these convenience food, but in their own way, and they tried very hard to conform to the ideal model: the lovely wife and mother in the perfect home. At the same time, women’s magazines, and all the media carried out the idea that this ideal woman was always frantically busy, had never enough time, and therefore was in sore need of all these convenience foods and appliances. Recipes were needed for quick meals, but at the same time the meals had to be attractive and imaginative. Needless to say, recipes flourished in the magazines.

6The author gives us here the excellent portrait of a long forgotten cook book and recipe writer, called Poppy Cannon. She had her glorious days in the fifties, and became widely popular with books such as “The I Hate To Cook Book” and “The Can Opener Cook Book’. Her point was creativity in the kitchen, but creativity thanks to convenience foods and ersatz of all kinds: very representative of the times.

7However, women were working also, many had not given up jobs after the war, and many worked after the children were grown. They were a silent not so small minority, and did not conform to the ideal image. The dark times of McCarthyism did nothing to dispel that ideal stereotype, and working women were seen as dangerously “red”. The society was living a hidden and nameless crisis among the women of the nation. They were torn between the imposed role of wife and mother at home, and the desire for work outside of the house, and intellectual stimulus. Many of them had higher education and were bored and tired at home. Magazine began to run a dissatisfied suburban wife trend of stories.

8A brilliant exception in those years, who had actually appeared in the late thirties, was MHK Fisher, possibly the best food writer of all times, who wrote as an independent professional woman, on food and the love of food. She was the one exception confirming the rule.

9This existential crisis was overcome by two women, today icons of the American heritage. These were Julia Child and Betty Friedan. Julia Child, wife of an American diplomat, lived a few years in France, got interested in food and cooking through her husband, and decided that what was needed for American women, was confidence in the kitchen through know how and technique. She attended a prestigious cooking school in Paris and attempted to share her experience and knowledge with American women at home. Cook books and a widely popular television show called French Chef, were one of the greatest hits nation wide, and contributed enormously to the transformation of the American kitchen. Julia Child became a familiar kitchen God in most American homes. Tastes began to change, middle class America discovered real food, women felt more secure in their kitchen and feared no longer to start things from scratch. The demand increased for really good produce, women like Alice Waters in California, did much to establish farmers markets everywhere. The demand became so strong that the industry had to take all this into account and had to amend its ways, catering for this knew American taste in food. Granted, that it cut through the middle class particularly, the rich had their own ways and had known more European tastes for a long time.

10Meanwhile women went to work, if not before, at least after the children were grown. They had long desired to, especially all those who had had a college education and had let it gone to waste. A few were happy with their role as home makers, but they were far from the majority. Betty Friedan, possibly one of the initiators of feminism in America, was one of those housewives who were also working women. She wrote an immensely populated book, The Feminine mystique, who hit her compatriots right on their problem. It did not innovate, it talked of “the nameless problem” of all these women, and their suppressed desires and aspirations. This liberated most of them and today, it is finally totally normal in America for a woman to want to work. Thanks perhaps to Betty Friedan because her book was not an academic book, and thus managed to reach wide and large.

11The American kitchen was transformed, deeply so. Men could cook, and participate in house work. Tastes changed for the best, and the all powerful industry was no longer the one to decide what tasted good or not and what women wanted or not.

12But this decades long American reliance on their food industry has had far reaching consequences. Today’s obesity epidemic is quite likely due to this trust and reliance, and there is still much to do to train men and women not to mention children, in a critical view of what this industry has to offer them. Change has taken place, but it needs to develop further into the minds of all.

13An excellent book, giving a good analysis of an obscure period, little studied by historians in this particular aspect. How tastes are created, challenged and transformed, by what vectors the all powerful industry has had to mark its limits, and how a nation awakens to better cooking, better eating, and more self reliance in the kitchen.

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References

Electronic reference

Annie Hubert, « Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America », Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 30 May 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/233

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About the author

Annie Hubert

CNRS, Marseille

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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