Books June 2004

What’s for Dinner?

Convenience foods have been doing battle with old-fashioned cooking for half a century. Which side is winning?
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My nephew once came back from a neighbor's house all excited about the beef stroganoff he'd had for dinner. Since he tends not to like new foods, his mother asked the neighbor for the recipe. When she made and served the dish, my nephew blurted out, "This is horrible! It's nothing like what I had at their house." His mother called the neighbor to see if she'd made a mistake—at which point the neighbor admitted that what the family had actually eaten was Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff. She had been too embarrassed to confess the truth the first time around.

Let me cheer that neighbor up by admitting that I, too, keep Hamburger Helper in the house. I like Hamburger Helper. I also hate myself for liking it. It's the same with all the convenience foods I buy. Nothing is more embarrassing in the checkout line than a neon-red bag of Ore-Ida Tater Tots or a family-size box of Stouffer's lasagna. I tell myself I can hardly be the only person buying this stuff. Look at the Ore-Ida products alone—that freezer's as big as a barn! But deep down I know I'm the worst mom on earth. I'm lining the pockets of Industrial Food and poisoning my family ... all because I'm serving them something they like.

The ambivalent relationship between Americans and what they eat is one of the main themes of Laura Shapiro's Something From the Oven. How did we travel from the fresh, wholesome food our forefathers ate—if that is what they ate—to the endless array of processed crap we eat nowadays? How did housewives feel about themselves when they abandoned their fifty-pound bags of flour in favor of cake mixes? What drove the changes—the food industry's pushiness, advertisers' wiliness, or consumers' eagerness to wolf down trainloads of salt, sugar, and preservatives?

Shapiro began this saga in an earlier book, Perfection Salad (1986)—a charmingly idiosyncratic look at the way home cooking changed in this country during the early part of the twentieth century. Perfection Salad covered the horrors wreaked on middle-class food when nutritionists, home economists, and other "domestic scientists" got hold of it and turned everything into Jell-O salad and white sauce. Something From the Oven picks up the story after World War II, when standardized food was already entrenched in America. (Shapiro considers the 1950s to be the period from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.)

As Shapiro tells it, the post-World War II food industry, bursting with tricks it had learned for feeding soldiers overseas, was eager to train Americans "to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like food rations"—dried, reconstituted, indestructible. The offerings included dried wines, a potato snack called Tatonuts that was touted as having "strong resistance to weather conditions," canned hamburgers, and—I swear—frozen concentrated mineral water. Meanwhile, magazine and newspaper publishers did all they could to persuade the American housewife that she had no time to cook.

"When the food manufacturers moved into the kitchen, the housewife was waiting with outstretched arms," a 1952 Business Week story claimed, and a year later Fortune reported, "The loathing with which American women seem to regard prolonged labor in the kitchen has been often noted and much interpreted." But only by magazine editors, it seems. Actual women obstinately refused to loathe cooking. "It was true that by the '50s the staple products Americans ate all the time had undergone some degree of processing and packaging before women bought them," Shapiro writes.

But when it came to partially prepared foods, the ones that needed only to be heated or mixed with water, the real picture was very different. Far from standing in the door with outstretched arms welcoming the new foods, housewives tended to be deeply suspicious of them, as the frozen food industry kept discovering.

American housewives might use convenience foods to save time—Shapiro cites (a few too many) independent researchers and sociologists who all observed the same thing—but they didn't respect themselves in the morning. Still, the food industry kept trying to force-feed its public. Nabisco claimed that saltines spread with cottage cheese and strawberries made an easy dessert; the Quaker Oats Company suggested topping its oatmeal with broken-up candy bars; companies that made fruit cocktail suggested using it in coleslaw.

I don't know anyone who ever put candy bars on oatmeal, although my Aunt Gail put Sugar Smacks into her coleslaw, and breaded her chicken with cookie crumbs. But if all the housewives except Aunt Gail were rejecting these new ideas, how did the ideas take over? If they did, that is? Shapiro suggests that part of the trick had to do with "glamorizing"—using, say, a teaspoon of cognac and a pinch of garlic powder to add an ineffable French flair to a can of Dinty Moore beef stew. Other glamorizing ingredients included pineapple, A-1 sauce, and curry powder—which, I must confess, still seems fancy to me.

Much of Shapiro's book has a one-step-forward-two-steps-back quality; this is most apparent in a chapter on Poppy Cannon. The queen of 1950s glamorizing, Cannon was a magazine editor and the author of eight cookbooks, the most famous of which was The Can-Opener Cookbook. Her creed was that "a flurry of fresh coconut," "a drift of caraway seeds," or a slug of sherry could turn any premade food into a gourmet extravaganza. The following passage from a Mademoiselle article captures her sensibility:

Fair reader, sometime or other you have to eat. Granted you haven't the time or the space or even the mood to dream up an angel cake. Nevertheless, you can serve food—good food, too—exciting, interesting victuals. A smooth cocktail party, a buffet supper, an evening snack, intimate little dinners for two ... It's all out of tins—but with verve, my dear, with dash.

In many ways Poppy Cannon is this book's cornerstone. She might have been created to embody the conflict between quality-first and convenience-first cooking. James Beard couldn't stand her work, and it's easy to see why. Cannon was fond of recipes for things like "Hungarian salami goulash" (canned sweet-and-sour cabbage with salami and canned potatoes) and lemon Jell-O hearts floating on a "small golden sea of soft Royal Custard sauce." Yet for many years she and Alice B. Toklas—who had an unwavering allegiance to French cuisine—were friendly. (Cannon sent Toklas a Waring blender in 1954. Toklas wrote her friend that the blender, which she used constantly, was "a perfect center-piece for the Tuscan Renaissance table," adding, "How can I ever thank you enough for its magic, its beauty.")

Cannon loved crappy convenience foods, but she loved fresh ingredients even more; she couldn't stop cooking with convenience foods, but she traveled through Europe writing about only the finest gustatory experiences. Perhaps because of this back-and-forthing, it's hard for Shapiro to show to what extent Cannon really influenced her era. The Can-Opener Cookbook outsold Cannon's more respectable books. Does this fact prove that she inspired Americans to open cans?

Similar questions keep popping up. Perfection Salad could make a clear argument because it described a clear before-and-after situation. The standardization and mass production of American food really did begin at the turn of the century. Something From the Oven is vaguer and more diffuse. For every trend Shapiro writes about, there was a countertrend. Housewives in the 1950s embraced frozen fish sticks but were ashamed of themselves for buying TV dinners. (They flatly turned down frozen whale steaks, even though these were "'Papal approved' for Fridays and Lent.") The Pillsbury Bake-Off brought in 700,000 new customers for plain old flour, but housewives fell on cake mixes with cries of joy. And then cake-mix sales began to dip ...

Walk through any supermarket today, and you can make the case that convenience foods have demolished honest, old-fashioned cooking. You can also make the case that old-fashioned cooking has triumphed. Judging from the produce and flour sections alone, American home cooking is more diverse and more interesting than it has ever been. As Something From the Oven progresses, one begins uneasily to feel that Shapiro isn't sure just what case she wants to make.

Shapiro clearly aimed to write a scholarly analysis of a time when women's roles and their ambivalence toward domesticity were just beginning their seesaw route toward the present day. And she has written a solid, admirably researched study. Still, I can't help thinking that her book would have been a lot more engaging if she'd left the library and visited a few of those women in their kitchens—if she had given us their take on what was on the table.

Ann Hodgman is the author of three cookbooks and of I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus, to be published this fall.
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