Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

by Laura Shapiro

Published by Viking Press

306 pages, 2004


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Fast Food Fantasy

Reviewed by Summer Block

 

In America's thoroughly consumer culture, it should not be surprising that literal consumption is a cultural battleground, whether fought over the puritanical rigors of veganism, the hypochondriac mania of food sensitivities, the slow self-destruction of anorexia and obesity, or the righteous decadence of gourmet organics. In her fascinating and imminently readable new book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro details a pivotal chapter in the popular history of American cooking: the creation of pre-packaged foods.

Pre-packaged foods, Shapiro explains, originated with wartime supplies, dehydrated meals for soldiers during the world wars. When soldiers returned home from the front to considerably preferable home cooking, manufacturers of canned bacon, dehydrated potatoes and powdered orange juice were suddenly out of a job. Marketing executives scrambled to persuade homemakers that there was a need for all-terrain meals in peacetime homes.

Cynics today might assume that big business handily convinced the gullible and lazy that fish sticks taste better than grilled fillets, but this was hardly the case. Pre-packaged foods fought long and hard to carve out a market niche -- and they are fighting still. The popularity of modern conveniences in 1950s cuisine was matched by an equal emphasis on what was often deemed "gracious living." Home ownership was the goal of many American families, a goal increasingly attainable in the burgeoning post-war economy. Buoyed by high employment rates and rising salaries, African-American families heard Ebony magazine proclaim that "the Negro mother has come home," free to prepare meals for her own family instead of her white employer's.

The Pillsbury Bake-Off served as the most popular emblem of the homemaker's dream. Shapiro invokes with admirable sincerity the bake-off phenomenon: hundreds of thousands of American cooks competing to win $50,000 from the hands of notables like Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duchess of Windsor. For women who cooked day in and day out for unappreciative husbands and children, this was a chance to gain nationwide recognition for a job well done. As one runner-up said touchingly, she had won, "'my first plane ride, my first electric range, my first mixer, and my first experience winning ... the precious feeling of suddenly having fortune smile on me -- really and truly so.'"

To compete with this sort of glamour, manufacturers of pre-packaged foods needed to come up with a new angle. Homemakers still wanted to put something of themselves into their gracious entertaining, but pre-made foods excused them from mixing and measuring. Instead, they added "creativity" -- garnishes, decorations and often stomach-churning embellishments on a foundation of packaged ingredients. "All it took to become a gourmet the easy way," Shapiro explains, "was a simple technique known as 'glamorizing.'" Popular food writers like Poppy Cannon turned the kitchen into the hectic scene of a zany gourmet comedy where young modern women could "'stir like crazy'" or "'fling' ingredients together" with all the exuberance of a chick-lit heroine.

Another successful tactic adopted by the packaged food industry was the myth of the busy mom, a myth that survives until the present day, alongside equivalent images of working women "on the go." "Rushed every day with housework, children, the PTA," this harried mom would leap at the chance to replace a multiple-course meal with a TV dinner. Of course, the facts proved otherwise. Surveys of housewives showed that they enjoyed cooking and felt they had plenty of time to do it: in this modern era, "women could buy their chickens plucked and ready to cook, their vegetables sorted and trimmed; they had butter and milk on hand in the refrigerator."

Even women who were genuinely pressed for time often felt guilty about "cheating" at one of a wife's most traditional jobs. Far more than laundry or housecleaning, cooking carries an emotional weight that extends far beyond simply filling stomachs. Consumer researcher Ernest Dichter hit upon an ingenious solution: the egg theory. Originally cake mixes included every ingredient a cook required -- only water had to be added. New mixes required the baker to add her own eggs, and with it her own personal value.

In a thoughtful and balanced book, Shapiro nevertheless takes time out to make a lighthearted list of some of the worst of Baby Boom cuisine, where the woes of bland conformity paled in comparison to sudden bursts of "creativity." Dehydrated wine may raise eyebrows, but it's nothing compared to "frankfurter rolls cut in half-inch slices, toasted, and then rolled in butter, cinnamon, and sugar; half a doughnut covered with a slice of canned cranberry jelly, topped with cottage cheese," the "wholesome combination" of 7-UP and milk.

Happily, American cooking never adopted sugarcoated hot dogs, but package foods made a lasting impression on future generations, touted by gourmet chefs and even utilized in home economics classes. At the same time, cooks like Julia Child, Alice Waters and James Beard created a new awareness of fresh ingredients and gourmet nuances. These two strong and contrary impulses continue to fight it out today, in McDonalds and Chez Panisse, with Fast Food Nation and the Atkins diet. Shapiro weaves vivid biographies, personal histories and an impressive array of facts into an absorbing investigation of a continuing American obsession. | June 2004

 

Summer Block is a regular contributor to several newspapers and journals, including The San Francisco Chronicle and Rain Taxi. Her work can be found at summerblock.com.