PERFECTION SALAD: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro

PERFECTION SALAD: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century

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How the home economists did in haute cuisine in the name of science. Shapiro traces the standardization and blandness of American cuisine back to a turn-of-the-century women's movement to ""professionalize"" housewives. These self-anointed ""domestic scientists,"" she says, aimed to turn every home into a little laboratory that dispensed ""scientifically-prepared"" food in as efficient and germ-free an environment as possible. They were convinced that American housewives could put an end to poverty, disease, alcoholism and unemployment by feeding their families and raising their children according to scientific principles. The movement began with cooking schools and spread to women's magazines that featured monthly menu tables and articles on scientific housecleaning and tidying. The menus stressed nutrition rather than palatability, All-white meals were prominently featured: a sample menu might include boiled cod, mashed potatoes, rice and, for dessert, macaroni pudding. One magazine editor suggested sinking a boiled chicken into a bed of popcorn and smothering it in white sauce. Leafy vegetables had little of the then-known nutrients, but were included on the theory they possessed ""saline substances"" useful for digesting heavy meats. If cooked, they were minced, and served in little cups; drenched in white sauce, or if raw, such as lettuce, were carefully reassembled back into their original shape after being coated with dressing. ""Messiness"" of any kind was out, as were such traditional dishes as ""old-fashioned"" pie and chocolate cake. In 1899, the women professionalized themselves as home economists. Before long they had convinced most colleges and universities to establish home economics departments, many of which even granted doctorates. Their graduates fanned out into public schools, spreading the gospel of white sauce and how to combine commercially canned or bottled goods (superior because they were ""scientifically"" prepared) into nutritious, if tasteless, dishes. The home economics movement reached its apotheosis, says Shapiro, with the advent of the TV dinner. A lot of ingredients are juggled here but, unfortunately, like a home economist's menu, Shapiro is unable to present it as palatable or even digestible reading fare. Its aftereffect is dyspeptic.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 1986
ISBN: 0520257383
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux