August 22, 2004

Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro

Subtitle: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

There are plenty of books on the collision of advertising, technology, and mass production with changing labor arrangements and feminism and changing taste. The two strengths of this particular one are, first, its attention to how advertising led the shift to modernized, not-from-scratch cooking habits; second, some entertaining and relevant biographical details about popular cooks of the 20th century.

The strength of the biographies comes from the paradox of being a 'great chef' in the Mass Age. James Beard, for instance, comes off much worse than I would have thought, for decrying popular taste and mass production while working for the producers. Some less-lasting cooks ruined their food but saved their intellectual honor by trying to find decent food in the redoubling pile of goo.

The story starts right after WWII, because the new technology needed a use to pay off:

What the industry had to do was persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.

This wasn't easy, because most of the food tasted awful and wasn't all that much cheaper than fresh; as Peter Wimsey learns in Murder Must Advertise, you don't have to advertise butter; you only have to advertise margarine. It can't have helped the advertisers of the day that food labs were producing dehydrated sherry and breaded lima-bean-sticks; Pompayne is a far more natural sell.

The history of processed food is thus a little like the history of The Zipper, which neither worked well when invented nor met a need. The zipper was sold on its modernism while it was still being developed; only much later were zippers so much better than rows of buttons that new garment design could happen. Frozen food needed lots of things to happen. Non-farm families needed to get freezers. The food needed to taste better and get cheaper. Women needed to be persuaded that they were just as good and loving if they served defrosted food; since the postwar period was also rife with expostulation that women needed to leave paid work because a woman's touch was vital to the home, and at the same time it took most of a decade for even the US economy to really get going and support consumerism, this was a bit of a rough start.

There's a lot of argument that the consumerist habits of modern America are supported by feminism, more specifically by women's increased earnings and decreased time for thrift; but the ad frenzy is older than The Female Eunuch. I can't remember how much I've read arguing that consumerism accidentally pushed women out of the traditional directly productive rôle in the house and into middleman-heavy paid employment, to support consumption.

I've veered from Shapiro's actual book. The next section to catch my imagination was on the fashion for "glorifying" goshawful, canned-soup-casserole type recipes in the '50s. This seems to have done well partly because advertisers pushed it, partly because it was the least effort that felt like "home-making", and maybe because the 1950s are more responsible for the death of skill than I had previously thought.

The oddest figure is Poppy Cannon, who was a gourmand and acquaintance of James Beard, but a much more openhearted ally of the food industry. Shapiro defends her:

At the center of Beard's culinary life was a glorious heap of fresh ingredients—the meats, fish, vegetables, and herbs that needed only his talented hands to release their goodness. At the center of Poppy Cannon's culinary life was an American housewife, and she just got home from work.

Both half right, I think.

Cannon's prose was awful, and her food sounds worse; her most popular book was The Can-Opener Cookbook. She was ambitious and successful overall, though; she expected and achieved a home and a career and romance. The last was her long, long attachment and moderately-illegal-then marriage to Walter White, a famous civil rights activist.

Cannon knew Alice B. Toklas, and Gertrude Stein's rapture over a Mixmaster. Toklas in turn was the avant-garde for Julia Child. Child wouldn't have written her astounding book if she hadn't been shut out of the male ranks of Parisian cookery; without her systematic and gentle ordering of techniques, characteristic of people who learn cooking late or painfully (Isabella Beeton; Irma Rombauer), the American backlash against bland processed food would have happened differently, and later.

ISBN: 0670871540

So wrote clew in Cookery. , History (20th c.). | TrackBack
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