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Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America Hardcover – March 25, 2004

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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (March 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670871540
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670871544
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #576,722 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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30 of 30 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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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By B. Marold HALL OF FAMETOP 500 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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12 of 12 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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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By 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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on October 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Conventional wisdom about the 1950s is that it was the decade in which everything went bad, and the fear of non-conformity and Communism made everything about American life bland, nowhere more so than in the kitchen, where white bread and TV dinners took over and banned fresh food and gourmet cooking from fashion. Laura Shapiro's new book SOMETHING FROM THE OVEN argues convincingly that this generalization has been absurdly overstated and that none of it is true in the least.

Her previous book PERFECTION SALAD was good-the rise of "white foods" at the turn of the century, the moment when cook books started specifying amounts in their recipes as "science," or an absurd version of it, became desirable in the kitchen.

But SOMETHING improves on PERFECTION, as it were. Shapiro plunges right in with the invention and promulgation of frozen foods, showing how American housewives took to them slowly and with the utmost discrimination, rejecting the ones that didn't taste good. She shows how serious chefs like James Beard and Dione Lucas started out scorning convenience foods but they, too eventually came to approve of some of them, using the same intuitive responses as the mass of US housewives. She then opens up the story by writing a gimlet eyed account of the original Pillsbury Bake-Off, showing how marketing and drive made the Bake-Off a double-edges sword, by promoting Pillsbury's convenience food but also showcasing the creativity and ingenuity of US home cooks.

Shapiro also reminds us that the 1950s was the age in which Alice B. Toklas published her famous cookbook. A sequel was prepared with the collaboration of the food writer Poppy Cannon, although it didn't do too well.
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