Food is nurturing. Food is comfort. Food is home. Because of all those things, the art of preparing food has, even through feminism and the supposed enlightenment of the culture, primarily been the province of women. Because of this, women have been the prime target of the food industry for nearly 50 years, as manufacturers attempted to lure them away from the supposed drudgery of cooking with an increasing number of packaged and frozen foods. The foods required minimal effort on the women’s part, but because of the way the tasted – and because of the stigma attached to culinary shortcuts – women were initially resistant.
The resulting push and pull between women and the companies that tried to insinuate themselves into American kitchens is chronicled in Laura Shapiro’s funny, smart and compelling Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. Essentially a history of American cooking throughout the '50s, Oven chronicles the many ways that food was shaped by business in that decade. Shapiro, always in a way that is charming and conversational, talks about the power struggle between the corporations, who thought they were giving women what they wanted, and the women themselves, who felt that convenience food was “cheating.”
The industry found a number of ways around that, including the discovery that women would be more likely to use cake mixes if they got to add their own eggs. That little bit of extra work made the women feel less like they were taking a shortcut, and more like the resulting confection was their own creation. Oven is filled with tidbits like that, and with the stories of women who were at the center of this culinary revolution.
The best story is that of Poppy Cannon, the shortcut gourmet who made a living developing “fast” versions of delicacies such as vichyssoise, much to the dismay of such proponents of good – and painstaking – cooking as James Beard. Though not as well-known as some of the other women mentioned in the book (who also include Julia Child and fictional advertising icon Betty Crocker), Cannon was monumentally important in introducing convenience to cooking, through her cookbooks and other contributions.
Shapiro makes all her stories fascinating and compelling as she describes a world far removed from the current gourmet culture, but one we recognize nonetheless. It’s a world where busy women simply want to get something good on the table, and want to do it fast. Shapiro does an exemplary job of describing how that simple desire sent ripples through both the business and culinary worlds. In short, Oven is a delicacy.