Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When Cooking Became Optional

A few weeks ago I picked up the book Something From the Oven. Written by Laura Shapiro, the book chronicles the evolution of American home cooking in the 1950s as more and more convenience foods found their way into American kitchens. As Shapiro notes, post-World War II, “the food industry found itself confronted with the most daunting challenge in its history: to create a peacetime market for wartime foods.” It was an uphill battle, because most of the frozen and canned food, frankly, didn’t taste that great. (And some of the things the marketers attempted to sell – frozen coffee, dehydrated wine – never caught on.)

Convincing American women to purchase these products was also a challenge because, at the time, many women felt that using convenience food was cheating, taking the easy way out, and that part of their responsibility as a wife and a mother was preparing food from scratch for their families. As the decade progressed packaged foods made their way into more and more kitchens as advertisements and women’s magazines persuaded women that they weren’t shirking their duties by opening a can of soup. One of the ways food writers convinced women to use convenience foods was by encouraging them to “glamorize” the food to make it more sophisticated. Examples included flambĂ©ing canned peas in sherry, and concocting recipes like Gourmet Crab: canned crabmeat, frozen spinach, cream of mushroom soup, and Cheez Whiz.

What strikes me the most about this era in American cooking is that it’s the period when, for the average family, cooking became optional. For some people, women in particular, that was probably liberating. But, I think it’s clear that, as a country, we followed the food industry too blindly and too far. One of my favorite passages from Something from the Oven comes near the end:

“By now the steady accumulation of packaged grease, salt, and artificial flavors in the American diet [from packaged foods] constitutes a genuine threat to health and culture. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, we began the long process of turning over to the food industry many of the decisions about what we eat, in the name of habit or convenience or taste. Today our staggering rates of obesity and diabetes are testimony to the faith we put in corporations to feed us well. But the food industry is a business, not a parent; it doesn’t care what we eat as long as we’re wiling to pay for it. Although some people think of cooking as a choice now, no more necessary to learn than sewing or shoemaking, that perspective holds up poorly when we gaze around a mall or an airport at Americans en masse. Home cooking these days has far more than sentimental value; it’s a survival skill.”

My sense is that today people are starting to make their way back to the kitchen. Maybe they don’t cook from scratch every day, or they’re following the “semi-homemade” strategy, but I do think there’s a hunger to take our appetites into our own hands, to take responsibility once again for what we eat.


A couple of odds and ends:

If you haven’t seen it, check out my piece on iVillage about convincing my daughter to eat spinach.

Did you know Coolio had a cookbook? For a big laugh just read this page. I was quoted commenting on the celebrity cookbook trend in The National, an Abu Dhabi paper.