Following Perfection Salad (2001), a report on how science, industry, and media changed the American kitchen and women’s roles in the first part of the 20th century, Shapiro explores aspects of the same phenomenon in subsequent decades.
In her wandering storyline, “1950s America” lasts from the end of WWII until the mid-’60s. The period began with the food industry trying to convince American housewives to embrace new products developed for troops fighting in Europe. Frozen orange juice and fish sticks worked; frozen whale steaks (“Papal approved” for Fridays) did not. Tapping the hope and frustration expressed in contemporary trade journals and letters to local newspapers, the first section serves up tangy social history, flavored by the quirky recipes promoted by industry PR: peanut butter in sweet potatoes, ketchup meringue, oatmeal with a candy bar in it. In later chapters, Shapiro takes a different tack, presenting mini-biographies of women involved in food media: Poppy Cannon, whose breezy food columns get less attention than her controversial marriage to an NAACP leader; Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, coauthor of Cheaper by the Dozen; Peg Bracken, whose I Hate to Cook Book anchored the humorous housewifery genre; M.F.K. Fisher, still our best food writer; and Julia Child, who brought French cooking into the mainstream. This portion of the text presents a deeply felt polemic, but conflicting dialectics make it hard to discern the precise nature of the author’s argument. At first, she shows bland, sugary, and bizarre new products assailing the honest foods and integrity of the traditional housewife, but then she depicts that integrity as stolidity in the face of French cuisine. Throughout, Shapiro presents statistical and anecdotal evidence that the picture presented in The Feminine Mystique of housewives trapped and frustrated by their domestic fate was neither an original nor an accurate observation: women were in the workplace all along.
Entertaining and well researched, but disjointed. Despite common themes, the parts don’t cohere into a consistent whole.