Changing the taste of dinnertime
Former Newsweek writer Laura Shapiro continues her exploration of America's relationship with food in Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. Part women's studies, part cultural study, Shapiro's entertaining and enlightening book charts a revolution in food creation and preparation. Ready-made food proponents were baffled when their "wave of the future" failed to catch on immediately. After all, didn't women hate to cook? (Surveys from the 1950s show that, in fact, cooking was consistently among the top two favorite household chores.) This food was easy to make, and, often, cheaper than fresh alternatives. What manufacturers didn't realize was that while prepared foods (which originated from soldiers' rations during World War II) were definitely time-savers, quality and taste varied, and it was difficult to find a place for them within America's strong notions about cooking for the family. Cooking was an integral part of the "perfect wife" package, and women who used pre-packaged foods even those as commonplace as instant coffee were perceived by their peers as lazy. Advertisers fought back. Prepared foods, they proclaimed, made gourmet taste accessible to the everyday cook. Soon, food writers began incorporating this message into their recipes. Shapiro comes to a different conclusion. Far from liberating cooks, pre-packaged foods were often another way of restricting them, changing cooking from an enterprise where the cook had the power to a practice devoid of creativity, a step-by-step, follow-the-rules procedure. Still, pre-packaged foods were seen as the way forward. It wasn't until the publication of two seminal works Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Julia Child's The French Chef that cooking would regain its equilibrium and offer choice once again. Shapiro's comprehensive study of a watershed moment in America's past evokes the paradoxes of post-war life, and makes the reader contemplate the history behind the question, "what's for dinner?"