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Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century ( California Studies in Food and Culture #24)

3.71 of 5 stars 3.71  ·  rating details  ·  222 ratings  ·  37 reviews
Perfection Salad presents an entertaining and erudite social history of women and cooking at the turn of the twentieth century. With sly humor and lucid insight, Laura Shapiro uncovers our ancestors widespread obsession with food, and in doing so, tells us why we think as we do about food today. This edition includes a new Introduction by Michael Stern, who, with Jane Ster ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published February 20th 2001 by Modern Library (first published 1986)
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Jen B
Whoops! Finished this several weeks ago and simply forgot to log it.

In all honesty, this started out well, got dry, and only became fascinating toward the end because of the Nanny-State tendencies of the women who near the end of the period covered gained control of the movement, and that just angered me, since these control-freak (at best) and tyrannical (at worst, and it's not so far from one to the other) types remain with us, always veiling their insistence that everyone eat the same, unifor
Shapiro is sympathetic to the women who began the domestic science movement, but also debunks the movement's roots in gender-essentialist assumptions. The book is interesting and well-written; never condescending in tone, never pandering to the appetite for simplistic pop-history, the writing nevertheless flows smoothly and is enjoyable to read. Shapiro structures her book carefully, using a combination of chronology and concept to seamlessly outline the way the domestic science movement became ...more
Kelly Wagner
This was a re-read for me; I shouldn't have wasted time on books I've already read, but there it was, and it's fun to read. Horrified fascination, much like reading memoirs of bad families - the whole idea of scientific cooking, where taste and pleasure are not only unimportant, they are regarded as slightly dangerous, since they may interfere with getting people to eat a perfectly balanced diet - is sort of creepy, and the invention of the profession of home economics is certainly a horror stor ...more
Ami Stearns
Loved this feminist/history/food book- so much fun to see how cooking and the kitchen were transformed by modernity at the turn of the century. Everything traditional, European, or made without recipes was thrown aside in favor of recipes which were standardized to always taste the same. Add ketchup and whipped cream to everything! This was really fun to read, not at all light reading but not too heavy. Could have gone a little more theoretical if she'd tried.
It makes me want to write a paper
I would move this to my "read" or "2008" shelf, but that would be dishonest, because I couldn't finish the book. If I had been required to read it, for class or something, I might have gotten through more of it. I found the writing dense, much of the topical coverage uninteresting, and the 1/2 or 3/4 that I read largely scattered. I wish this book had lived up to its promise to "uncover[] our ancestors' widespread obsession with food [and] tell[] us why we think as we do about food today..." but ...more
Nonfiction book about basically the history of home economics, women, and cooking in America, in the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century. You will see the origins of such bizarre foodstuffs as carrot-raisin-mayonnaise salad and other "old fashioned" dishes. At one point, there was a whole "white sauce" craze, where absolutely everything was doused in a sauce of milk, flour, and butter, I think? Lots of interesting little tidbits like that.

I found this book a bit dry, but there were some very
A look at the food science/domestic science movement that went from about 1880-1914, which tried to make science/chemistry/calories the driving force behind food and therefore revolutionize the future of women and the domestic sphere while improving the lives of the poor especially. (Essentially taste and preference were seen as bad, and food was merely chemical reactions forming proper energy.) The facts were interesting. The writing was dry. It's from 1986 and began with, "The domestic science ...more
Laura Shapiro traces the social history of the domestic science movement and in doing so, explains the movement's considerable influence on American eating habits. As a reader in the UK, it was interesting to see how this movement must have influenced this country, though not to the same degree and in all areas.

There is clearly a large amount of research material in this book, and it is a real achievement to have made it so readable. The social history is narrated through the characters that wer
I thought this would be better. I loved Ruth Reichl's introduction. I was all set for a fabulous, interesting book. Instead, I found it rather dry. I did learn some things and there were some good parts but all-in-all, the introduction was the best part of this book.
America has been royally screwed up in how it relates to food for way longer than I ever imagined. Yikes!
Anna Bond
The current trend away from processed foods and toward the fresh, simple, and low-tech can make you wonder: how did we end up here in the first place? Why were canned vegetables ever even considered a good alternative to fresh when both were available? Shapiro's mini-history of early cooking schools, dieticians, and "food consultants" explores how Victorian values and Protestantism manifested themselves in the shaping of our country's ideas about food and its value.

She stays away from heavy theo
Kristen Northrup
I'd already read Shapiro's follow-up to this, Something From the Oven, and it was a hoot. This one was much drier. In part, probably, because it wasn't as goofy an era. I did bog down a few times, but then it would pick up again. There weren't as many specifics on the food as I would have liked. You heard over and over again what the home economists were assigning people to eat, but not much about what the public was eating instead and really not much about the reasoning behind those healthy sel ...more
The story was pretty new to me - I knew the general story of women becoming active in professional reform organizations near the turn of the 19th Century, such as Jane Addams at Hull House, but I'd never heard much about this aspect of it. It certainly explains many things about American food - such as the weird propensity for mixing stuff with mayonnaise and calling it a salad - like the thing my mother-in-law calls Ambrosia Salad, which is some monstrous combination of canned fruit, nuts, and ...more
What a fascinating little volume! In sort of a cross between sociology and history, Laura Shapiro reviews the views of cooking and domesticity that were popular around the turn of the 20th century. Turns out domestic science (later known as home economics) evolved as a way to get women into real university courses under the guise of having a legitimate career field for them. Domestic scientists wanted housewives to view their roles in purely scientific terms, learning topics like chemistry (for ...more
This is a very interesting historical account of the development of the domestic science movement, scientific cooking, and the often bizarre food that these leading women cooked. Rather than the home ec classes we experienced in school, the roots of the domestic science movement, which culminated in the field of home economics, focused on creating an academic home for women that had never before existed, applying scientific principles to work in the kitchen. Shapiro claims that the ultimate fail ...more
A social history of changing attitudes towards cooking and other aspects of homemaking, specifically the emergence of domestic science aka home economics towards the end of the 19th century. The re-imagining and re-purposing of housework (women’s work) as a matter of scientific logic and precision (men’s work) had some interesting social and culinary consequences (some of which Shapiro covers in another excellent book, Something From The Oven).

The title comes from a recipe for chopped vegetables
cynthia Clark
Not as good as I expected. Very repetitive at times. Most valuable insight was just how unscientific cooking used to be, before the days of gas ovens with temperature controls or standardized measurements. And, not that I'm supporting mass-production and distribution of food, it must have been even trickier to get predictable results when local ingredients like eggs, butter and flour varied greatly in style and quality. The relationship between the "scientific homemaking" and the feminist moveme ...more
A really interesting look at the birth of "domestic science" and how it changed the way Americans eat. It reminded me of Medieval humoral cooking, and the way "science" trumped taste back then too.
Stephanie LGW
This is an interesting look into the changing culture of cooking from the late-1800s to the mid-1900s. It also shows how the food industry changed with the times. Kind of interesting how people (okay, well, me...I know there are others but I don't want to speak for them) are moving back to a whole foods, home-cooked meal place, similar to the theory behind the original cooking schools.
I really enjoyed a lot of the info in this, but it was a bit too prescriptive and judgey about The Right Way To Do Feminism for me. Skip the first and last chapters; the middle sections about the rise of domestic science, 19th century novels about Christianity and cooking, health movements, and women trying to solve poverty through nutritionism in the US were absolutely brilliant.
An interesting and informative history of the domestic science movement, a topic I did not have any interest in before reading this book. I saw a recommendation for this book in the reader comments of The Sweet Beet blog. I was surprised by the attitudes and aims of many of the early pioneers in this field. Now I want to go check out some more books in this series.
A great book about a fascinating subject: the birth and early history of domestic science and home economics in the United States.

Of note: historically, jello (gelatin) was a SALAD.

[This book came up in a discussion of jello (dessert, salad, or other?) in Rav. Sounds interesting!]
Clearly, I have thing with food writing, so my reviews on such topics might be biased. This one, though, should appeal to techie and history buffs, as well as foodies. Jello molded into banana peels to construct a big pea pod? Yes, people really once thought that was haute cuisine.
Highly recommend this for anyone interested in the social climate surrounding food during the turn of the century and/or the founding of the Boston Cooking School. Get the revised edition to read the afterward added in 2008.
This is a pretty fascinating look at how we as a culture got from boiled beef to aspic and beyond--and how that's all mixed up with feminism, essentialism, and all those other isms we thought we'd left back in undergrad.
An excellent discussion of cooking, the rise of home economics and its intersection with feminism and the education of women, and the changing way Americans eat. I found it completely fascinating.
Jul 19, 2007 Pamela rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: food loves
Shelves: foodwriting
Except I didn't like this book. I thought it would be interesting, but it was all about green jello. I am exaggerating here, really, green jello is not food.
Sandy D.
Very entertaining - my review is here on my blog.
This books was really fascinating, but I'm not sure what I think of the political/feminist argument she is trying to build out of it.
I read this book a while ago, but I remember being really into it at the time. The recipes are really revolting. It makes you think.
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Laura Shapiro is an award winning author who worked at Newsweek for over 15 years.
More about Laura Shapiro...
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