Looking forward to the demise of the ’00s, I was thinking back to when the ’50s expired–1961, when Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out. Or maybe it was 1963, when The French Chef went on the air. And so too, the ’00s will pass.

The ’50s had been a dismal time for food in America. With the exceptions locked in ethnic enclaves or lavished on the tables of the very rich, there was a bland uniformity to the American diet; processed foods had conquered the supermarket. Deviations from meat, potatoes and limp vegetables were disparaged as either poor folks’ food or high-falutin’ pretentious food.

It was BJE (Before the Julia Era). Cooking lessons in the magazines (the women’s magazines) and even on television oscillated between canned onion soup creations and ostentatious constructs destined for flambeing. Gourmet magazine, which tilted toward flambe, also didn’t bother worrying whether their recipes worked.

Yet there lurked a pent-up demand for something else. And Julia was something else.

Or so the story goes. And as a vignette, it’s not bad. But it leaves out a lot. A lot of context, a lot of history, a lot of precursors. It leaves out answers to questions like: Why Julia and not James? Is it relevant that 1963 was also the year that The Feminine Mystique was published? And from whence the pent-up demand?

The fuller, more complex story is told in Laura Shapiro’s second wonderful book on women and American cooking, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (Viking, 2004). (Her first book, Perfection Salad, covered the advent of “scientific cookery” in the late 19th century.) Biographies of Julia Child may answer the question, “Why was Julia ready to be Julia?” Shapiro’s book goes after the question, “Why was America ready for Julia?”

Here’s Shapiro’s contrast between the simple received account and the complicated reality: “[E]veryone knows the story …: Conscientiously happy housewives gave over their days to fussing with cake mixes and marshmallow salads, never imagining any other life … kept in line by a culture that ferociously enforced the laws of traditional femininity. It took only a little reading to discover the shortcomings of that image. In the course of the 1950s, a rapidly increasing proportion of mothers went out looking for jobs … and the same women’s magazines that ran stories on the matchless excitement of planning birthday parties for 5-year-olds were also running stories on the satisfactions of paid work. As for marshmallow salads, they showed up … but so did a wide array of dishes made from scratch, including green salads with vinaigrette … and entrees that ranged from meat loaf to shashlik.”

What Shapiro documents is a history of women, many of whom worked outside the home, who also then went home and cooked actual food. And they did so while “under assault from the food industry. Magazines, newspapers, and radio announcers explained over and over to housewives that a welcome new era of effortless food preparation was at hand. ‘You don’t cook it,’ promised an ad… .”

There was an onslaught of cake mixes, blender recipes and, generally, a constant din of assurances that experience and skill in cooking could be replaced by some industrial product, whether a mix or machine. And yet, as Shapiro points out, cooking had roots so deep and stubborn “that even the mighty fist of the food industry couldn’t yank all of them up.”

Shapiro’s deft delving into such sources as the women’s cooking advice columns in newspapers reveals the tension between the pull of official popular culture and an underlying resistance.

One piece of received wisdom is that convenience foods found a ready audience in women overburdened by the demands of the workplace–demands aggravated by the burden of domesticity. But in fact, working women differed little from their stay-at-home counterparts–their buying habits, with respect to convenience foods, were the same.

Another important disjunction Shapiro charts is between the recipes widely promoted in women’s magazines, on packages and in newspapers and the recipes home cooks actually used.

It turns out that, for a complex of reasons, women were resisting the lure of total convenience. But what the food industry learned was that home cooks would accept convenience foods as ingredients (a canned soup here, a pancake mix there). More importantly, the long tradition of prepared foods had succeeded not so much in the realm of cooking, but in the realm of taste. The American palate perceived imitation “as plenty good enough.”

Shapiro goes into these matters in lovely detail, unraveling the cultural complexities of cake mixes; the Pillsbury Bake-Off; and the fictitious, but almost real, Betty Crocker (one of many such corporate creations). The thread running through much of this is the fascinating tension between the actual world of working women and the official story of unadulterated domesticity. The food industry took a long time sidling up to the notion of promoting its wares to working women.

But my favorite chunk of the book is the one devoted to Poppy Cannon, a cookbook writer, TV personality, food editor and celebrity of great fame. Great and transitory fame, since you are now saying “who?”

Cannon’s life and work perfectly encapsulates the contradictions that the ’50s wove around cooking and women. Cannon was widely traveled and knew and appreciated the foods of many countries. She had an extensive food library and used it. As a young bride, she embarked on an on-and-off affair with Walter White, a rising official in the NAACP. Three marriages later, they finally married, scandalizing both the white and black press. She collaborated on a cookbook with Alice B. Toklas. She was a true gourmand, dedicated to the ideal of good food and its importance in people’s lives.

What she wasn’t, was a cook.

Moreover, she was determined to make cooking for the working woman, which was what she was, practical.

“It was as if she cooked with a willing suspension of disbelief … swathed in the illusion that garlic powder tasted exactly like garlic and a canned string bean was the same as a fresh one,” writes Shapiro. “These warring allegiances to fine food and convenience fought their way across Cannon’s working life for decades.”

Cannon never resolved them and ended up being remembered more for The Can-Opener Cookbook than for Eating European Abroad and at Home, in which her palate overrode her desire for speed and convenience.

What Julia brought to the table was Poppy Cannon without the ambivalence and with real cooking chops. Julia wasn’t cooking to accommodate domesticity; she was cooking so she could sit down and eat. All that was missing were real ingredients, fresh and delicious. But that would have to wait for Alice Waters and the next wave in the complicated history of women and cooking in America. Maybe that’s Shapiro’s next book.

Food and the election
What’s my post-election dining prognosis, now that W has been not-re-elected? Well, people in the blue states and in blue urban enclaves (count me in) are going to need lots of comfort food, as well as carbs for political energy. And, as the economy tanks for the middle class, wages sink further and debt balloons, the cheaper ingredients found in comfort foods will be all the more appropriate. So it’s the wide, wonderful world of stews, grains and legumes for those of us feeling bluish.

In the red areas, home to exclusively groin-centered morality, I propose a groin-based cuisine, whose details I suppress in this family-oriented paper. (Menu for the I Just Want to Teste-fry Diner available upon request.)

Red or blue, the dollar will be going down, down, and oil prices, up, up. And that’s the silver lining–for our local market farmers and for locally sourced food generally.

Thematically, we could look to the cooking of the late Weimar, or perhaps Iran of the early ’90s. Although, neither of those achieve the right balance of fascism and theocracy for the coming years. Can anyone share recipes from apartheid South Africa? Franco’s Spain?

Send your suggestion to David Auerbach at auerbach@unity.ncsu.edu.