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From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals Hardcover – April 2, 2002
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Barbara Haber's fascinating From Hardtack to Home Fries bills itself as "An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals." More exactly, it locates the recurrent intersection of American women's history and culinary practice and shows how one shaped the other. In lively chapters like "Pretty Much of a Muchness: Civil War Nurses and Diet Kitchens" and "The Harvey Girls: Good Women and Good Food Civilize the American West," Haber focuses on the untold female contribution to 19th- and 20th-century food culture, an engrossing story. Readers not only encounter great anecdotes--Civil War nurses guarding barrels of whiskey from thieves, for example, or pioneer chain-restaurateur Fred Harvey's female service corps in action--but discover a hidden American history.
The vividness of the narratives results, largely, from Haber's excerpts of contemporary diaries and memoirs, like that of World War II POW Sarah Vaughan, who was held by the Japanese in Manila. ("There is a great rush for spinach juice," Vaughan reported, "on the days this is served.") In addition, Haber supplies pertinent recipes, like Ella Kellog's Savory Nut Loaf, a chilling example of 19th-century food-reformist fare, and Baked Fudge, the formula of Cleora Butler, whose unsung cookbooks first explored African American food in the Southwest. These documents tell truths as no others can. Haber's final and most personal chapter, "Growing Up with Cookbooks," explores the importance of cookbooks more explicitly, revealing their "intimate power to make connections between people"--to make culture itself. The authors of most of these recipes are women, a fact not lost on Haber, as the delightful Hardtack shows. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
The tasty graham cracker, a beloved bedtime snack of many children, began its life as the linchpin of its originator Sylvester Graham's fanatical early-19th-century health campaign to curtail sexual excess, especially masturbation and more then once-monthly marital coitus. Facts such as these, interwoven with informed, witty discussions of social, political and economic history, make Haber's tour through the history of American food so entertaining. Since food has so often been consigned to the domestic realm of woman, Haber's study is in essence a history of American women: the "Harvey Girls," who worked in the chain of reasonably priced railroad depot restaurants that revolutionized public eating in the 1880s and '90s; how Eleanor Roosevelt and her general housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt had to balance White House menus, which had to seem both fancy and economical during WWII; the role of a small tea shop, started by faculty wives in Cambridge, Mass., as a boon to women refugees in the 1940s. While Haber doesn't explore issues in depth (her discussion of why Irish immigrants were antagonistic to African-Americans would have been helped with references to Noel Ignatiev's 1996 study How the Irish Became White), she does cover a wealth of material with a breezy style and a fine eye for historical detail.
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Although I have never actually sat down and read a cookbook, I was familiar enough with the diet books to enjoy Haber's exploration of them. I, too, enjoy "fat narratives," but had never before considered diet books as "barometers of culture" It was also interesting to learn more about familiar names: Kellogg, and Graham, for example. And I, too, shared the hope that the magic idea of merely reading diet books would solve weight problems.
It was neat to learn more about the Harvey Girls, whom I only knew through the 1946 Judy Garland movie. The FDR story -- completely unfamiliar to me (and I would guess, most readers) -- was hilarious, and interesting throughout. What a glimpse behind the scenes with Mrs. Nesbitt, the inept White House cook.
My favorite moments in the book, however, are when the author steps out and speak personally about her own life and work, and I wish the book had more of this personal voice.
Laced with recipes culled from cookbooks, memoirs and diaries, this book a unique contribution to women's history
In describing the exploits of a civil war nurse, Haber asserts that Mary Ann Bickerdyke went to extreme lengths to find decent food for wounded union soldiers captured in enemy territory. "On one memorable occasion, after searching Tennessee farms in vain for enough fresh milk and eggs, she took off for St Louis by way of Memphis and returned at the head of a procession of more than hundred cows and a thousand chickens." How, considering we're talking about the 19th century with its slow-moving news media (many Americans had no idea Abraham Lincoln was assassinated until days after the event), unreliable transportation systems, sexist roles, etc. did she accomplish this?
These are just two examples of outrageous "facts" I came across in this book. It seems that Ms. Haber, like many a journeyman historian, just copied things down she found tantalizing from sources she came across without ever questioning their historical or practical validity.