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Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (California Studies in Food and Culture) Paperback – October 2, 2008
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Perfection Salad, a dish that won its creator first prize in a 1905 cooking contest, consisted of pristine molded aspic containing celery, red pepper, and chopped cabbage. Laura Shapiro, author of this eponymous social history, part of the Modern Library Food series, takes the salad as a model for the domestic science movement, an intriguing women's crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bent on convincing housewives that the way to domestic order lay in cooking "dainty" nutritional meals from sanitary ingredients in "scientific" kitchens, the movement helped give birth to our mass-market food scene, with its reliance on home economics precepts, processed convenience foods, and no-cook cooking--our cuisine of boil-in bags and microwave frozen dinners. Entertaining and informative, but also unexpectedly moving, the book chronicles in numerous intriguing stories the ways in which an impulse to liberate women from the drudgery and imprecision of daily food preparation led to its debasement. It's a fascinating story, of interest to anyone who wonders why and how we cook and eat--and think about food--as we do.
Beginning with portraits of early domestic movement reformers such as Catherine Beecher and Mary Lincoln, and investigating institutions like the Boston Cooking School, home of Fannie Farmer, the Mother of Level Measurements, the book then pursues "scientific cookery" into its mid-20th-century manifestation. "With the help of the new industry of advertising," Shapiro writes, "the food business was able to reflect Mrs. Lincoln's values [of food-production uniformity] by keeping its achievements in packing, sanitation, convenience, and novelty at the forefront." But greater ills ensued: the effect of the reformers, Shapiro contends, was to encourage women to become docile consumers tethered to commercial interests--and to rob our vigorous cooking and eating traditions of their rich life. In making that point, Perfection Salad reveals its true subject: the cultural priorities that defined American 20th-century life and, finally, the sorry nature of the order they established. --Arthur Boehm --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
A journalist who has written extensively on aspects of feminism, Shapiro presents a well-researched history of women as nutritional revolutionaries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This serious study is lively entertainment, spiced by the author's wit and wry perceptions. Through her, we discover clues to the motives of women who turned American kitchens into laboratories, run according to the dicta of the Boston Cooking School and similar establishments that proliferated across the country. The most memorable of the culinary movers was Fannie Farmer, whose cookbook was published in a modest 3000-copy edition in 1896. Stories about Farmer and other domestic scientists of the period add strong appeal to Shapiro's report. So do the parallels between early feminists and today's advocates of equal rights. It is somber to realize, as the author emphasizes, that fear of significant power for women "even over themselves" kept their aims restricted. By 1900, they had settled for the status of experts in home economics instead of independence.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Shapiro is both very informative and amusing about all this. Like caller the book after one of the most horrible dishes ever invented: yes, I have tasted "Perfection Salad"- my mother used to make it- and it is dreadful. Grate up raw carrots and celery and cabbage, and immerse them in lime Jello. Imagine the joy.
But- it gives a solid historical look at what the whole "Slow Food" and locavore movements are trying to counter, and how the passion for processing (to the detriment of taste and nutrition) developed.
Plus- it's great fun to read. The first time I read it, I kept buttonholing my poor husband to read him selected bits (and I mostly don't do that).
I am sorry the current price is so high; it makes this book less accessible. Still, if you are an interested cook wondering how we got to where we are with industrial food production- this is an excellent place to start- especially since it's so much fun!
American cooking is a unique beast--especially cooking from that era between 1850-1950 when food became possible to engineer, meaningfully study, and industrially process. As Americans struggled with putting into action the high and lofty ideals of their forebears, as our nation shuddered through a civil war, women themselves struggled between two differing aspirations: equality or carefully-outlined, carefully-sequestered, overly-sentimentalized, sickeningly-sweet and sanctimonious ultra-femininity. Housekeeping--specifically cooking--was seen as a way to elevate women and even society as a whole spiritually and morally, to assimilate a growing horde of immigrants into American culture, to civilize the poor, and to make women happier with their own inequality. As Ms. Shapiro points out time and again, that struggle resulted in the weird pseudo-empowering movement known as Domestic Science or Home Economics. The result is something that women even today have to fight against--the sequestering of women in "women's work" and "women's careers", and the elevation of men as not only the recipient of all that work but also the ideal to emulate.
Anybody who's ever wondered about Jell-O salads or what one food writer, Sylvia Lovegren, called "the constant drumbeat of marshmallows throughout a meal" featured in the worst American cooking, or why it is that Americans seem so content with horrible-tasting, adulterated convenience food laced with thousands of weird additives and preservatives, this book carefully and I'd even say painstakingly traces the evolution of American appetites from simple fireplace cooking to where it sat at the dawn of our awakening in the mid-1960s with Julia Child--and even beyond, because even that awakening is an outgrowth of and reaction to Domestic Science--to where we are today. But it's all done with friendly, accessible writing by someone who very clearly is comfortable with the history involved here (and with cooking itself). She highlights the many leaders of the Domestic Science movement, the creators and instructors in its cooking schools, and the committees of women who put it all into motion. And she explains exactly why these women veered from the dead-boring to the unthinkably grotesquely wacky in creating the foods they did, and why they got into bed so quickly and so thoroughly with food manufacturers. The entire direction of the movement changed once that last part happened, and Ms. Shapiro very effectively outlines just how cooks all over the country became servants to those manufacturers' increasingly-awful product offerings.
If you've been hearing about this book for a while and haven't read it yet, let me encourage you to do so. This book is entirely appropriate for any reader capable of following the information presented, probably late teens and upward. A previous knowledge of American history is not required. This is not a cookbook and does not feature recipes.
I love to cook, but among other working moms I'm friends with, I'm the exception. Women either hate cooking, don't mind cooking but don't know what to fix, or just flat out don't know how to cook. An awful lot of my friends rely heavily on fast food or packaged meals on a regular basis to feed their kids. I have long thought that there was a place in the schools for a revival of home economics, done better than what I and my classmates got in 7th grade - one year divided into a semester of sewing (let me tell you, that didn't take - almost no one I can think of sews), 1/2 a semester of cooking, and 1/2 a semester of a combination "household economy" (budgeting, nutrition, etc.) and sex education unit. Our cooking teacher freely admitted she hated cooking (she also wasn't exactly informative in the sex ed component either - her advice was "wait until marriage" and she showed her own childbirth video in class, if you can believe that) and her own distaste for cooking certainly didn't help us learn. By the time I got to high school, home ec was the "easy A" class you only took if you weren't in the college prep track (we had three coursework tracks - college prep, A and B, and home-ec was in the "B", or lowest, track). That meant that myself and my fellow students got through 8th-12th grade, four years of college, and possibly grad school, our 7th grade home ec year was far behind us. I always felt like there had to be a better way to teach people about the necessary life skills of cooking, household management and nutrition - something that would be more practical and stick with people a little better.
Now, after reading Perfection Salad, I understand why my home-economics class was so worthless and I've changed my mind about reinstituting home ec into high schools - I think it would be a throwback to some very bad traditions that are better off left in the past.
Home economists were responsible for basically enslaving women in their homes - convincing women that the home and the kitchen was the only place they would find moral, religious, or emotional fulfillment; that they had no place in man's world, and that the ills of society (poverty, disease, alcoholism, malnutrition, truancy, delinquency, infidelity, etc.) were due to women's failings to fully embrace their moral duty to keep a clean house and cook "scientific" meals for their family. If you want to know why women got so fed up with being at home - fed up enough that they left their homes for the workplace in the 60s and 70s - it's all here. And it turns out that the decline in home cooking - that so many conservatives have blamed on the women's movement, and held up as the reason for the obesity epidemic - actually began in the 1950s, when home economists put a full-court press on women to give up the "old ways" of preparing food and to use "convenient and hygenic" prepackaged foods. It turns out that in the 1950s, women were told cooking wasn't as important as being sexually attractive to their husbands. So much for the "feminists are to blame for all the world's ills" theory.
This is an absolutely wonderful and amazing book. I can't speak highly enough about it. It explains so much about why we have the attitudes towards food that we do, and how we might be able to find our way back to a healthier way of eating. Back in the timeframe the book discusses, it was actually seen as a good thing that women would buy prepackaged meals from the market rather than cook "unscientific" food in "unhygenic" kitchens. Now, women are doing just that and we've found out it's bad for us. I have a particular aversion to people like Christopher Kimball from Cook's Illustrated, who purports to have the "best" recipe and method for cooking anything, regardless of culinary traditions, cultural differences, and personal taste, and is extremely strident in his promotion of his own product over others (recently writing with obvious disgust in the New York Times about user-contributed recipes on the web, which aren't as scrupulously developed as his own). Now I realize there have been New Englanders like this for over a century, trying to tell women they know better and that women should put their own instincts about how to feed their families aside in favor of "researched" methods. I honestly believe that a huge part of why women don't cook more now is that they're intimidated by culinary perfectionism and mixed messages from people like Kimball - put dinner on the table, but do it our way, which may require more time or skill than you have, but that shouldn't matter, if you want to do the "right" thing.
If you like food, like cooking, and want to understand a LOT about feminism, food politics, the history of the women's movement, etc., you cannot miss this book. I can't wait to get Something From The Oven, Shapiro's book about cooking in the 1950s.