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Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (March 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670871540
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670871544
  • Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

In the fifties, we're always told, the food industry barged into the American kitchen, waving TV dinners, and destroyed home cooking. Not so fast, Shapiro says. As she reveals, women refused many of the new convenience foods. Fish sticks they accepted, but not ham sticks. Canned peaches, yes; canned hamburgers, no. The industry people hired psychologists to help them combat such resistance; the women's magazines, fond of their advertisers, told readers how, by splashing some sherry over the frozen peas, they could still make dinner look as though they had cooked it. The book is very funny, and also subtle. The most interesting character is Poppy Cannon, the foremost food columnist of the period, who, though she started her mint-jelly recipe with lime jello, was a serious feminist and had a long affair with—and eventually married—the head of the N.A.A.C.P. After American cooking passed her by, Cannon threw herself off the balcony of her apartment. This chapter reads like a Russian novel.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

From Booklist

When World War II ended, American industry was left with overcapacity in food manufacture and preservation. Before this could be transferred to domestic use, food manufacturers had to distinguish between what a soldier needed to eat and what a family wanted to eat. Canned and frozen foods appeared in groceries, but American housewives initially rejected most of them. Marketing and modern food science soon overcame objections, television advertising spread the gospel of efficiency, and the 1950s American kitchen and diet were transformed. Shapiro delves into this period of rapid change and comes up with absorbing stories of the era's women. In addition to the familiar tales of the fictional Betty Crocker and cultural icon Julia Child, Shapiro relates the astounding stories of other mid-century foodies such as Poppy Cannon, who publicized convenience foods while falling in love with Walter White, influential NAACP leader, in a time still suspicious of interracial marriage. She also tells of Freda De Knight at Ebony, who studied at the same Parisian cooking school as Julia Child and then brought French haute cuisine into the middle-class African American kitchen. Shapiro's graceful, flowing prose makes this history of both cooking and women utterly compelling. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in American culinary history and its myths.
B. Marold
She also talks into great extent how home cooking was seen as a woman's job but gourmet food was only prepared by men, for men.
R. Lamparter
There's little need for me to say more except that the book reads like a good novel and I found it fascinating.
Patrick W. Crabtree

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on May 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
If Laura Shapiro does nothing more (and she does much, much more) it will have been a very valuable service to rescue Poppy Cannon and her Can-Opener Cookbook from the infamy of '50s dreck. The author, in Something From the Oven, does a superb job of taking the idea of a '50s dinner and making it a more complex and multi-layered idea than is usually represented. She peels away all the stereotypes the decade has been dragging behind it and shows the truth. Canned and frozen foods(including my mother's favourite, the TV dinner) make appearances but the author show how women did not blindly follow every marketing scheme tossed at them. And Poppy, along with such luminaries as Betty Crocker and Julia Child, help populate this rich tale with great personalities, in addition to the many anonymous readers and letter writers to women's magazines and food columns. This is a well researched, enjoyable book that makes the 1950s come alive.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By B. Marold HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on September 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
`Something from the Oven' by Laura Shapiro is subtitled `Reinventing Dinner in 1950's America', referring to the conventional wisdom that home cooking in the 1950's was all about cooking with packaged, canned, frozen, and other commercially prepared foods. Oddly, the most interesting message I get from this book is that in spite of the great expansion of such preparations, home cooks, primarily housewives, did not embrace this trend and generally considered cooking with frozen foods and baking with cake mixes to be a second rate expedient to true home cooking. American home cooks in the 1950s still based much of their cooking on fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits.

One of the other more interesting topics in this book is the fact that the packaged food marketing trend of the 50's was based to a great extent on the efforts the food packagers made to prepare instant food preparations for the American army during World War II. The most famous of these preparations was Spam, which survives to this day, although in the 1950's the book recounts a good half dozen similar brands. Another great impetus to the prepared food movement was the introduction of frozen foods before the war, which reached its apotheosis with Swanson's creation of the TV dinner, created as a solution to the company's being stuck with an especially large shipment of frozen turkeys. As I recall only too well, frozen food simply did not take off as well as we may believe from the vantage point of 50 years later. Most homes simply did not have large freezers and the technology to successfully freeze a lot of foods was simply not there yet.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Something From the Oven covers almost everything about American food culture during the post-World War II years until the mid 1960s. There are accounts of the advent of convenience foods, the literature of food, the rise of cooking shows on TV, and the phenomenon of cooking contests such as the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

The topics seem loosely connected, with no particular conclusions drawn. But it's a pop history book, not an academic tome, so sit back and enjoy an entertaining look at food from several historical angles.

Shapiro talks about the post-war need for convenience food. At least, manufacturers wanted there to be a need for convenience foods, whether American cooks agreed or not. There were a lot of experiments in the first days. Successful products included concentrated frozen orange juice and fish sticks. Unsuccessful product proposals included canned deep-fried hamburgers and concentrated distilled water. (I suspect if Shapiro is having us on with that last idea.)

The section on domestic literature was especially fun, although a lot of it had little to do with food. Shapiro discusses Shirley Jackson, Erma Bombeck, Peg Bracken, Bette MacDonald, Jean Kerr, and the Gilbreths of Cheaper By the Dozen fame, among others. She reveals that there was often a big difference between their supposedly non-fiction works and their actual lives. I look forward to rereading these old favorites with this new information in mind, as well as looking up some authors Shapiro mentions that I was not aware of.

The mini-history of Julia Child's career is entertaining, and the extensive bibliography is a treasure trove of further reading ideas. Recommended!
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By E. Voves on July 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm usually not into this sort of thing.
But I causally picked up, " Something From the Oven
: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro,
and couldn't put it down.

It is cocked full of fascinating and almost forgotten history,
as well as being superbly written. Shapiro has read and
researched reams of source material and has come up
with a treasure trove. Ms.Shapiro's wit is a treasure too!
I actually read parts out loud to my husband...who asked for more!

Don't miss it
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A reader in Upstate, NY on July 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
There isn't much more to add to the other reviewers, but I did want to say that I picked up this book fearing it would be a bit too "academic," but the author did a great job presenting the history and research in a way that was a true pleasure to read. She made me think about issues like women in the workforce, the importance of the kitchen as the center of the home, the creative way cooks have always found shortcuts, and the like. Lots of fun stuff you wouldn't believe, too -- like all the ways to cook with Jell-O. Thumbs up.
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