Zack's Reviews > Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America

Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro
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Aug 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2011
Read from August 17 to 29, 2011

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 the family all ate dinner around the same table, when every suburb could boast scores of home-made apple pies cooling on identical window sills, and when stay-at-home mothers employed the skills they learned from their mothers and their high school Home Economics classes to keep their husbands and children well fed and happy: the 1950s. Of course, nostalgia has a tricky way of standing in place of real history, and the years between 1945 and 1962 were not marked with so much homogeneity and domestic goddess-ness as we might think.

Laura Shapiro aims to cover a lot of ground with this book: from the rise of frozen prepared dinners (created by food companies looking for a way to maintain cost-effective wartime production methods) to the first episode of The French Chef, the author provides a timeline of how American foodways changed in the mid-20th century. Vitally intertwined is her exploration into the changing identity of the American housewife, and the struggles that women faced as they valiantly juggled marriages, children, household chores, part-time jobs, and personal growth. Shapiro profiles notable celebrities like Julia Child, Alice B. Toklas, and Betty Friedan, whose lifestyles and careers resonated with an audience of homemakers trying to make sense of the meaning of their domestic lives. Just as fascinating, I thought, were the chapters about the creation of Betty Crocker (the celebrity spokesperson and the brand-name) and the biography of Toklas' one-time friend Poppy Cannon, who made a career in food writing and cookbooks despite having no aptitude or even real enthusiasm for cooking.

A cultural landscape portrait of gender roles and food in the 1950s seems an awful ambitious task, and at times I felt like Shapiro was trying to cover too much ground in too few pages: there are some sections that went by in a blur of statistics that meant little to me, while other parts I felt could have used greater elaboration. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and at times even amusing read (two words: canned hamburgers), and good enough to make me want to pick up her earlier book, Perfection Salad. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the postwar years, food culture in America, feminism, or any combination of the above.
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