What thoughts, words and images come to your mind when you think of 1950′s food? If, like me, you weren’t alive at that time, perhaps your brain conjures up a picture of packaged wonder products, a poor understanding of nutrition and a society-wide preoccupation with conformism, all glossed over with black-and-white scenes of happy, smiling housewives serving meals to happy, generic families. If that descriptions sounds about right, please hold that thought; there is a very good reason why you and I ascribe to this common, yet not especially true, view of the 1950′s food scene and that is the subject of a remarkable book I’ve just read and would like to recommend to all readers. Laura Shapiro’s Something From The Oven is almost guaranteed to provide food for thought to anyone born in the last 50 years – as well as to those who lived through the fifties and remember them well.
Shapiro’s thoroughly-researched and engagingly written book makes it plain that any effort to understand food history in the mid-20th century must include the existence of two very different camps. The first camp belongs to the women – the people who did most home cooking. Newly-liberated from the food rationing of WWII, 50s cooks could walk into the kitchen secure in the knowledge that they could procure and prepare almost any food they could afford to buy. This was an obvious moment for celebration, for reveling in ease and luxury. Simultaneously, we have the camp belonging to industry: the frozen food companies, chemists and growing agribusiness empires, suddenly liberated from the profits of which they had been assured during the war, producing rations for soldiers.
The marketer’s job was clear – he had to find a way to convince the American housewife that new convenience foods were her only hope in coping with the fast pace of modern life and her chronic lack of time.
There was only one problem with this, and this is where Shapiro’s book will take many of us into uncharted territory: few 1950′s housewives felt they didn’t have enough time, and rather than embracing the new packaged foods with the joy depicted in popular media, they viewed them with suspicion.
This came as a tremendous surprise to me. I was utterly hooked into reading this book once I understood that this was its chief premise. Shapiro’s evidence is ample. Both polls from the times and her contemporary research indicate that women did just the opposite of what advertising has taught us to believe about the taste, discretion, intelligence and critical thinking of 1950′s home cooks. Some few products were welcomed – frozen orange juice concentrate, canned pineapple and, after a lot of work on the part of food corporations, cake mixes. But, these were the exceptions. Here are some facts that might surprise you:
- Despite what you’ve seen in old advertising, sitting down to TV dinners was not the reality for most families. Women thought they were convenient for a few, small scenarios (leaving children with a babysitter while the parents went out at night, or husbands being left at home to feed the family one evening), but those images we all have in our minds of black-and-white family groups sitting down with their compartmentalized trays are nothing more than hopeful industry hype.
- Frozen foods were something of a flop for many years because most Americans who owned freezers were farmers who often held them in cooperatives for freezing their own harvests – not for preserving someone else’s frozen chop suey.
- A surprising majority of 1950′s women, when interviewed, attested that they did not feel they had really cooked anything if they were just opening cans and packages. There was no reason to feel proud, and because of this they looked at processed foods as being guilt-inducing foods.
How different this picture is from the ad and magazine copy of the times which wishfully insists that every woman is harried and frantic, unable to cope with running a household without corporate intervention. The personal recipe files, letters to newspaper cooking columns and small community cookbooks speak of countless women who took tremendous pride in their from-scratch dishes and who certainly weren’t going to give up their arts and skills for canned hamburgers and instant coffee.
For me, the takeaway lesson from Something From The Oven is the one I’ve learned so well from living in my own times, but one I hadn’t known applied with equal accuracy to the 1950′s: beware the mirage of pictures painted by industry and media; find out what real people have to say about themselves and their circumstances.
Every day, each of us finds himself confronted with the spins of industry through major media. It’s only when we dig beneath the surface of symbolic news that we discover the genuine experiences of individual human beings.
After finishing Something from the Oven, I asked my mother about how her mother, aunts and other female role models cooked in the 1950s and her depiction of this was strikingly like Laura Shapiro’s. Most of the adults she knew cooked mainly from scratch. One grandmother, an immigrant from an Ireland ravaged with oppression and hunger, did take a shine to the wonder foods and believed in the media message of convenience, but the rest of the women whom my mother watched cook were fairly skilled in the kitchen and turned out meals from raw ingredients three times a day.
That’s not to say my mother said they cooked deliciously. Her negative memories of food taste and quality in the 1950′s are shared by many, and in fact, Shapiro’s book cites famous chef James Beards’ horror over the rapid decrease in food quality. He complains of tasteless meats and vegetables, remembering their pre-war, pre-industrial-agriculture flavor, as did everyone else in the country. When industry replaced the good harvests of small farms with the pesticide-laden, endless-shelf-life products of agribusiness, Americans’ efforts to eat with health and pleasure suffered a deadly blow, surpassed only by our modern crisis of genetically modified foods.
Within a few decades of the Second World War and the subsequent onslaught of wartime production methods and chemicals into the American food supply, our most intelligent cooks, both male and female, were starting their own gardens and avidly seeking out farmers markets wherever they could find them. In the 21st century, the endless aisles of worthless, processed foods in our supermarkets and the epidemic of obesity in our nation certainly do evince that the marketers successfully caught and held a segment of our population. Some families are now generations deep into gaining their chief sustenance from the package, the can and the microwave. But there is the other side to the story.
A couple of days ago, I spoke with a woman who is organizing the citizens of a local town to set up a local grain mill. Families and farmers will be able to bring their raw grain right to the mill for processing into meals and flours. Imagine that! It’s about as far as you can get from those plastic wrapped, compartmentalized trays corporations would like you to send with your children to school, encouraging you to ‘make fun of lunch’. I see a vision forming in my mind of a next generation of children eating their sandwiches on homegrown, homemade tortillas, and while it’s not the one industry will pay the media to promote, it’s the one I’m going to seek out and grab firm hold of.
As a woman with a very deep interest in everything related to food, I’ve read so many books on the subject, I’ve forgotten half of them. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting Something From The Oven, because it has convinced me that our heritage as food-dependent humans has never really been broken. Not everyone forgot to to cook from whole foods, despite the glaring glamor of advertising. From my kitchen, back, back, back to generations uncounted and unknown, a long and unbroken line of cooks kept the fires burning. If you would like a really entertaining read that is almost sure to hold a few surprises for you, why not give Something From The Oven a try? I am grateful to Shapiro for highlighting some of the women who thought for themselves right through the 1950s, ensuring that a woman of my day need not tread completely unfamiliar ground when I seek out the best from my farm, local farmers or natural foods market to put something really good on the table. We women have been doing this for a long, long time.
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