Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

Cantrell, Kelly

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. By Laura Shapiro. (New York: Viking, 2004. 306 pp. Cloth, $24.95 ISBN: 0670871540; Paper, 2005, $15.00, ISBN 014303491X.)

Laura Shapiro begins her study of post-World War II American food culture by asking the provocative question, “Do women like to cook? Shapiro answers that while quick meals and packaged foods created a revolution in food preparation after the war, middle-class women held onto traditional methods of cooking through the 1960s. Expecting to debunk the stereotype of the 1950s housewife, Shapiro instead found evidence that confirmed “her” existence. Middle-class women, juggling both homes and careers, continued to cook in conventional ways, proving that the so-called 195Os revolution in food culture was instead a slow evolution that did not culminate until the 1960s.

While at times Something from the Oven reads like a collection of separate essays rather than a coherent whole, it contains so much information on middle-class women, usually elusive historical actors that readers probably won’t notice. Keeping her focus squarely on women’s responses to changes in food and the meaning of cooking, the author blazes insightful paths into the psyche of the 1950s housewife through discussions of leading popular chefs and food figures, cookbooks, newspaper food forums written by women, novels, and popular magazines.

For Shapiro, the career of Poppy Cannon reflects the struggles between women and the kitchen during the food revolution. While already a long time gastronome, Poppy Cannon’s career as a cookbook writer commenced with the 1952 publication of The Can Opener Cookbook. As the title suggests, the book revealed hundreds of cooking shortcuts utilizing the latest edible innovations of the food industry. Cannon’s work boldly declared that an average cook could “add a spoonful of sherry to Cresca Bisque of Shrimp” for a result that “any haughty Creole cook would be proud of” (28). As far as the food industry was concerned, the era of prepackaged, frozen, and even dehydrated dinners had arrived.

Yet while Poppy Cannon and the food industry constantly pushed American women to rely on packaged food, Shapiro found that women resisted with gusto. For example, cake baking (tricky even for experienced cooks) remained a largely homemade endeavor throughout the fifties, even after the introduction of prepackaged cake mixes. Shapiro points out that even the manufacturing companies admitted, “through the later years of the 1950s the number of home cooks using cake mixes hardly budged” (73). Women avoided prepackaged mixes due to feelings of domestic guilt; which Shapiro claims “to this day…follows many of those boxes home from the supermarket” (79). After the novelty of prepackaged foods wore off, American women began to seriously question their effect: both on feminine roles within the family and on women’s worth as homemakers.

A new genre of literature, one that, according to Shapiro, perfectly expressed the feelings of many postwar middle-class women was born out of the stress of new-found job responsibilities. These books, known as domestic chaos novels, explored the stressful situation of women trying to balance lives of home and family with tasks in the working world. Women’s fears of loosing their time-honored roles in the family were not solved by the food revolution, despite self-laudatory, corporate claims to the contrary. In actuality, women saw quick and easy prepackaged meals as instruments destroying traditional roles inside the kitchen. In order to preserve their position within their families and society, women baked homemade cakes (or at least added fresh eggs to mixes), and cooked from-scratch dishes. By 1961, with the publication of Poppy Cannon’s Eating European Abroad and at Home, a transformed Cannon came to embrace the flavors and smells of high cuisine, as she partially abandoned the easy fixes offered by the food industry.1 Thus, alongside the craze for marshmallow salads and cream-soup casseroles arose a strong and enduring interest in the flavorful, French-inspired food of Alice B. Toklas and Helen Evans Brown.

In the final chapter, Shapiro traces the growth of gender specific cooking in American households. In an attempt to uncover the beginnings of the feminist movement, she argues that in the 1960s, cookery lost its feminine façade. Men took control of dinner by producing main dishes with their barbeque grills, while women hid in the kitchen making mere side dishes. Even the leading figures of integrated home cooking (the technique that married traditional methods with prepackages ingredients) became gender confused. As an example, Shapiro cites the less-than-feminine images of Betty Crocker and M. F. K. Fischer. Housewives found interesting and appealing ways of combining long-established home cooking methods with modern prepackaged foods to combine the gendered chore of meal preparation with the art of high cuisine. Thus by the mid-1960s, the scents wafting from kitchens held both notes of the quick meals advocated by the food industry as well as the inspired dishes of personalities like Julia Child. Consequently Shapiro proves that while the food revolution had taken hold by the 1960s, its success was not as quick or complete as the food industry had planned after World War II.

Overall, Laura Shapiro presents a comprehensive picture of typical middle-class housewives in transition, from the 1950s stereotype to the mid-1960s proto-feminist. The author’s ready wit and sparkling prose immeasurably enhances the sometimes dense detail of the work. For a generation nurtured on the seemingly contradictory fare of fast food and food television, Shapiro’s book offers an important glimpse of women’s struggles with a changing food scene amid the larger transformations of society and culture in Cold War America.

NOTES

1 Shapiro conveniently omits any discussion of Cannon’s The Electric Epicures Cookbook from her argument, which was published the same year as Poppy Cannon’s Eating European Abroad and at Home. It espoused speedy meal preparation through the use of appliances, which actually strengthens Shapiro’s theory that the 1950s represented a transitional period for women.

Reviewer Kelly Cantrell is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Southern Mississippi and is working on a dissertation about the changes in American food culture during the Great Depression and World War II and the opportunities those changes created for women in the postwar years.

Copyright Southern Quarterly Winter 2007

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