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Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (Modern Library Food) Paperback – February 20, 2001
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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
Laura Shapiro's Perfection Salad documents the state of women and their relationship to cooking at the outset of the twentieth century and offers an analysis of the beginnings of contemporary feminism. Mark Knoblauch
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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.
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!