Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
© 2004 Laura Shaprio
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’s changing food market, bookending the text with the question: do women like to cook?
Initial previews led me to believe this book’s subject was the changing food market itself: an industry that had to meet the demand for food that could be safely shipped around the world to follow the Allied armies found itself at war’s end with a lot of output and nowhere to sell it — unless the civilian market could be expanded considerably. To do that, advertisers had to convince women to accept their TV trays as dinner, and their new confections as real food. They urged women to reconsider what cooking meant as a craft when women were already beginning to question what cooking and homemaking meant to their lives in general. What did it mean to be a woman?
Women were not altogether excited to adopt the new foodstuffs. Despite food magazines’ almost-triumphant declaration that old-fashioned cooking was dead, defeated by Scientific Progress, those same magazines’ letters reveal that women were still looking for traditional recipes. They added the novel products in sparingly, as substitutes for the “real thing”. It was not until the mid-to late fifties when another generation of women came of age – women who, as children, ate the new processed foods without judgment and regarded them as normal – that the substitutes started gaining more traction and replacing the ‘real thing’ in regular use. Similarly, women reappraising their own role in the home did so at first only reluctantly, until the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminnine Mystique spotlighted the “problem with no name” – and gave women the courage to start speaking more stridently. Shapiro sees women as coming of age in this period, and their changing relationship with food reflected this. Cooking would not define their lives, but they would also not be patronized to by businesses which attempt to reduce their role in the house to that of simply warming up product from the grocery store. Cooking was a skill to take pride in, and ultimately women triumph in Shapiro’s narrative by becoming the arbiters of both how to incorporate novelty and tradition, and of their own fates.
Something from the Oven is a bit like gazing through near-transparent stained glass. The food market is certainly an interesting lens to view the birth of feminism through, but unlike a telescope, here the lens — like stained glass — is visible, and sometimes it got in the way of the focus on women. This is a book about women and feminism, but culinary marketing and food culture sometimes overshadow the main subject, so the essential point of the book never comes into sharp focus despite appearing very interesting. It’s fascinating, yet frustrating.