Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
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Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  380 ratings  ·  79 reviews
In this captivating blend of culinary history and popular culture, the award-winning author of Perfection Salad shows us what happened when the food industry elbowed its way into the kitchen after World War II, brandishing canned hamburgers, frozen baked beans, and instant piecrusts. Big Business waged an all-out campaign to win the allegiance of American housewives, but m...more
Paperback, 306 pages
Published April 28th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published 2004)
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Bob Redmond
Shapiro writes a fairly engrossing book about domestic food culture in the 50's. Her prose alternates between breezy and academic--with uneven results--but her nose for a good story and compelling information wins out in the end.

She describes (to this reader's horror) how manufacturers of Army rations in WWII would, despite absolutely no demand, eventually win their way into the American kitchen with products like SPAM and vienna sausages. Even more disturbing, they changed public perceptions of...more
Laura
Shapiro's book is at its most interesting when she is discussing the cultural trends that created the packaged food industry and such icons as Betty Crocker. I was less interested in the section of mini-biographies of "big names" in the food industry such as Poppy Cannon. I also found myself disagreeing with a few of the conclusions that the author comes to, namely that the combination of Julia Child and Betty Friedan together "liberate[d:] the American kitchen ... from the grip of the food indu...more
Maryalice
How did the food manufacturers and Madison Avenue convince the American public that convenient food = desirable food? How did they get housewives -- who prided their cake-making expertise as an important work skill -- to accept cake mixes? What food (and foodstuff - gotta love that word) took off, and what fell like a home ec student's first souffle? And WHY? This book tackles these questions and more, in a very entertaining way.

If you are captivated by the idea of Cold War-era domesticity -- or...more
Paula
Fascinating history of the food industry's determination to make women want packaged food. Manipulation at it's cleverest. Apparently even working women preferred homemade dinners until they were convinced otherwise. Shapiro is especialy good discussing food writers like Peg Bracken and M.F. K. Fisher. The section on the Julia Child phenomenon is great.
Emily
I loved Shapiro's Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century and Something from the Oven continues the story, focusing on the 1950s. Equally well-researched and compulsively readable, I am nothing short of a fan.

In this work, she tackles both the larger themes and social trends going on during the 1950s -- such as, the rise of the convenience food industry, the increasing number of women in the workplace, and women's roles more generally -- and mini-biographies of some key f...more
Karyl
I found myself hardly able to put this book down! Something From the Oven is a fascinating look at what it meant to be a 1950s housewife and therefore the preparer of meals for most households. From reading this book, I have learned that just about everything we have been taught about 1950s housewives is utterly inaccurate. By looking at advertisements from that era, we can surmise that most women were using all kinds of convenience foods to help streamline their time in the kitchen, when in rea...more
Kristen Northrup
This book is basically about the classic 1950s+ convenience meals and how what was marketed (and thus what we remember) doesn't entirely match what really happened. Women kept making things from scratch (and enjoying it) at a higher rate than pop culture history has you believe.

She does a ton of research. One really interesting contrast, as an example, are the articles and recipes in major newspaper food supplements (or magazines) compared to the reader recipe requests and submissions in the sam...more
Kate
This book is partly about food, and partly about the lives of women during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It uses food and cooking to track the daily lives and expectations of women during those decades -- and also some of the marketing and media driving the status quo. But most entertaingly, it goes a long way towards explaining WHY it is that 50s food was so....weird.

[Take, for instance, "Red Crest Salad" -- chopped tomatoes, pickles, and strawberry Jell-O. Or an "unusual treat" of tomatoes with che...more
Betty
Very readable social history of the American culinary landscape during the 1950's. Despite the increasing prowess of heavily-marketed factory-produced food products many women back then were negotiating the postwar society by trying to figure out how to balance work and household duties such as feeding the family. The iconic imagery of happy housewife proves to be a marketing device that veils the everyday realities of "domestic chaos". Just as we have our baby blogs which details the joys and t...more
Dixie Diamond
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Richard
This was great! An interesting cultural history about food in post-war America. Often funny too. Much of the book concerns the way the food industry kept trying to push their products at skeptical housewives. Corporations, in league with women's magazines and newspaper food columnists, kept assuring women they hated to cook, only to have their quarterly earnings plans stymied when those same women refused to fall in line. Of course, some "food products" did prove successful (TV dinners, cake mix...more
Alex
Excellent book on the delta-food in American culture from 1940ish to 1970. Frozen, canned, etc - the way the american table changed was complex and very corporate driven (perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise...) and Shapiro does an excellent job of laying out how it all happened with a focus on the women and men who drove the change and how they were well bought and sold in many cases. Since it's about food, tho, she doesn't just focus on the food but brings it out to encompass American cultural...more
D.
I've always had a weird obsession with the 50s--the food, cocktail culture, the kitchenware--so I was excited to see this book. I found it quite interesting because it explained so much about why we eat the way we do, both on a national level and on a more personal level (my grandmother's ambrosia salad, casseroles, etc). The book is an entertaining mix of food history and feminism.
Ellen
This book was interesting but reading it I felt manipulated by the food industry. Then annoyed that women's lib-ers seem to think that cooking is a waste of time or somehow not fulfilling for women. It mostly left me wanting to cook a lot and especially from scratch.
Rj
Continuing in the food vein is Laura Shapiro's Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Viking, 2004). Shapiro looks at cooking, kitchens and housewives in the 1950s and the battle by big food to try to get housewives to buy their products. In one chapter she studies how big food tried to figure out why cooks would not buy their frozen products discovering that how women interpreted those who used such products. It is a light and fun study of post-war cooking as it...more
Al Martin
I have read a lot about changing culture in this era of the US, so I realize the content here is probably less revolutionary to me than someone taking up the book for the first time. Still, I like reading other authors' takes on this familiar subject area, because invariably there is something new mixed into the familiar for me. That's true of this book, but even though the perspective was interesting, I couldn't get drawn in. I felt the book lacked a clear organization; we seemed to jump around...more
Samantha Koller
I really enjoyed learning about what cooking was like in the 1950s, and this book did a great job of setting the story--it explained how manufacturers created a market for convenience foods and how ladies' magazines incorporated them into their recipes. Before women were told that they didn't have time to cook, they actually reported that they enjoyed cooking more than other household chores (including caring for children) and did not feel like they were too busy to prepare food. Another study t...more
Carolyn
A non-fiction book which was so much more then just cooking in the 1950's.

I liked this book, but then I was interested in the subject of cooking, plus I really enjoy the history of the 1950s.

Shapiro writes well, both acedemically and humorously. The first part of the book took a look at how the food processing world changed after World War II (you mean hamburger didn't always come ground and women had to pluck their own chickens?). As well as obvious changes with the invention of the blender, tv...more
Zack
French farmers bulldozing McDonald's restaurants to protest Globalization. Activists organizing tomato boycotts in solidarity with modern-day slaves employed by unscrupulous Florida farmers. Genetic engineers seeking a cure for famine by tinkering with the DNA of grains and fruits. Locavores pursuing a low-carbon lifestyle by switching to a 100-mile diet. To coin a new platitude, Food is Politics these days. It's enough to make one nostalgic for a mythical time in American cultural history, when...more
Nico Scheidemantel
One of my favorite genres to read is what I call "culinary anthropology." I think it's fascinating to explore food history, and this book leads the reader through several facets of food culture and the evolution of dinner in the 1950's. This decade is a favorite time for hip kids to wax nostalgic about, and anyone with a desire to delve into decoding that nostalgia would surely enjoy this book. Laura Shapiro seems to have a few favorite topics that she has researched and collected together for r...more
Stephen
The latter half of the 20th century saw the United States convulsed with social change. Millions of women and blacks who found their role temporarily elevated during the Second World War, when they were called upon to serve in uniform and in the factories, could not simply return to being second-class citizens after war’s end. In Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in the 1950s, Laura Shapiro covers the beginnings of women’s liberation and the feminist movement in the context of America...more
amy
A fantastic book about the relationship between food and feminism in 1950s America. The actual period covered includes wartime and postwar habits of American home cooks, and ends with the nearly simultaneous and similarly explosive debuts of Julia Child's The French Cook and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, in 1963.

Shapiro takes a multi-pronged (can I get away with this word?) look at the 1950s housewife: as a woman with a veritable laundry list of a job description; as the target audience...more
Dina
Shapiro tackles a metric TON of material her 254 page (with 30 additional pages of notes!) book on the cooking revolution of the 1950s, a time she frames from the early years after the War to round about the mid 1960s. From the food industry to cookbook trends, from 'harried housewife' fiction to the women that wrote it, Something from the Oven is something of a magnum opus and I'm a little jealous I didn't get around to writing it first.

Shapiro does a great job of describing the lengths gone...more
Jodi
I found this book on my bookshelf. I don't remember buying it or where I even got it. Which is like the book itself, in other words--forgettable. Parts were interesting and parts were dull. I couldn't figure out the point of the book really. I did find the push of processed food by manufacturers through advertisers intriguing, especially since they continue to push their trash today. I find it liberating to thwart them by making my own food from scratch. I never did like being told what to do. :...more
Aubrey
This was a fun overview of the rise of the processed food industry and what its relationship was with cultural change, namely the economy, new technology, and feminism.

I wish there had been more in depth information on the reasoning behind some of the processed food choices, the technology that created them, and who was making the most money off them besides the companies like General Mills. But, it was fun to read about the personalities both enthusiastic and motivated home economists and inven...more
Robert
Two stars is a gracious rating. Let me sum up the reinvention mentioned in the book, cake mix. And that is it. Otherwise the author waxes eloquent, and at times too damn eloquent, on the sociological and psychological impact of certain women writers driving more women towards French cooking. As far as all of the technological advances in food mix production and sales the author quickly glosses these and other advances over. Only to go in depth into the romantic and turbulent life of yet another...more
Bonnie Fazio
I especially enjoyed reading about people who influenced American cuisine and food writing, such as Poppy Cannon. Less enjoyable to me were portions of the book supporting Shapiro's theses about food trends. Still, a fine read -- and a mini-education -- for almost anyone interested in food and cooking.
Val
Overall it was a disappointment. Less about dinner in 1950's America, and more about the role of women in society. Lots of statistics on the percentage of women working. Also, lots of biographical info on real and imaginary cooking "authorities" - including Poppy Cannon and Betty Crocker. Included a section on women authors - such as Jean Kerr ("Please Don't Eat the Daisies") and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey ("Cheaper By the Dozen") - and how the life they wrote about differed from the life they liv...more
Bob
I'm not sure where I started to find this less interesting (probably after the chapter on the emergence of frozen dinners) but somewhere along the way it lost my interest.

The first handful of chapters had me captivated. I love nostalgia and this was a big dose of it, combined with the real-life facts to prop it up. I loved reading about the emergence of space-age foods and the differences between what the magazines portrayed a woman wanted vs. what women actually wanted.

A pretty good read and I...more
Christina Dudley
Author Shapiro tackles nothing less than America's cooking landscape in the 1950s, from home-cooking philosophies and habits, to food company inroads, to cooks and public figures with a big impact on all of the above. I most enjoyed the discussion of home-cooking habits and the changes wrought by the food industry.

The bits about French attitudes toward food and cooking dovetailed with French Kids Eat Everything. I see why Michael Pollan references Shapiro's book in his Cooked, but I also see wh...more
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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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“Toward the end of February 1954, James Beard was at work in his Greenwich Village kitchen doing what he most loved to do: cooking delicious meals.” 3 likes
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