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Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (Modern Library Food) Paperback – February 20, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Food
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Reprint edition (February 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375756655
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375756658
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,626,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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It's a rare book that brings you into the subject deftly, can explain details without getting lost in them, and reserves most judgment until the end, and then provides insightful and thought-provoking commentary. This book is a fascinating exploration of how, in the interests of preserving American cuisine, the home, and women's place in it, home economists came into vogue in the early part of the 20th century, and damn near came close to wrecking everything they set out to save.

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).
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Foodies and feminists alike should read this book. As part of the Modern Food Library reprints, chosen by Ruth Reichl (who is known for her good taste and her own laudable literary contributions - "Tender at the Bone" and "Comfort Me with Apples"), "Perfection Salad" describes all the elements present at the turn of the century that combined to forever change the way Americans view food. Food, its preparation and presentation became a female obsession in an time where the kitchen was really the only arena in which a woman could rule. The female nutritionists and cooks from that era seemed bent upon exerting control on SOMETHING, and that something turned out to be food - with sometimes terrible consequences. After reading "Perfection Salad", I understood the recipes that my grandmother (born in 1898) and my mother after her learned and served. Don't be frightened by the scholarly look of "Perfection Salad" - there are hilarious nuggets in the text - like color-themed menus (everything green and white, for example), putting everything into gelatin for the sake of "daintiness" (no messy lettuce leaves hanging out of your mouth) and covering absolutely anything and everything with "white sauce". For more laughs, peruse "The Gallery of Regrettable Food" by James Lileks in which he has gathered some of the most revolting-looking photos of the consequences of "Perfection Salad".
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Format: Paperback
I found Perfection Salad in a used bookstore in Manhattan ten or twelve years ago. I read it, was fascinated and stirred by its tale of the psychological manipulation of women - particularly, the women who were new immigrants to America at the turn of the century. I loaned the book to someone who never returned it, and have been quoting it -- and longing to re-read it -- ever since. I have just re-ordered the "back in print" edition...Here is what is important about this book: it details an overlooked, but critical, thread in the fabric of family and community life -- a thread that was quietly pulled until the greater tapestry unraveled.
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This highly readable, beautifully researched book provides a fascinating look into American "cuisine" circa 1850-1920. The Boston Cooking School and other institutions promoted Americanization through cooking conducted on scientific principles, although immigrants proved reluctant to give up their "coarse and unsavory" meals for triumphs of digestibility such as the following, served to President Wilson on his first day in office: "cream of celery soup, fish with white sauce, roast capon with two white vegetables, a fruit salad,and a dessert made with gelatin, custard, and whipped cream"(212). Other triumphs included a salad made of bananas and pimentos bound together with mayonnaise and whipped cream and, later, grapefruit pieces mixed with dessert mints. Often funny and always interesting, this book
also helps readers to understand the convenience food mania of the 1950s.
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Sometimes reviewers overuse words about books, but this one deserves all the best ones. It truly is deft, witty, sparkling, thought-provoking, and groundbreaking. I've reread it now several times and every time some new facet leaps out at me.

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.
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