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Something from the Oven

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Something from the Oven
Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. By Laura Shapiro. (Penguin: 2005. Pg. 336.) ISBN: 014303491X

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 30, 2004

World War II changed the lives of American women in a myriad of ways. The war compelled many women into the work force, caused housewives to change how and what they cooked, and it gave many women a taste of independence that they had not had before. When the war ended, and the soldiers came home, the women of America were expected to give up their jobs and return home, to once again become dutiful and obedient wives and mothers. For some this was a welcome return, for others, imprisonment. This was a sentiment that the food industry took note of and saw a new market for - quick and easy to prepare foods that would allow women to escape from the drudgery of the kitchen, allowing them to spend more time on other pursuits. What they did not realize was that it would take a lot of convincing to get women to use all the new 'convenience' foods that the food industry was hurriedly marketing.

In Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro presents a riveting account of how the foods we eat changed during the 1950's and the steps taken by the food industry to convince American consumers that it was better, and more convenient to eat canned, frozen, or dehydrated prepackaged foods over their fresh counterparts. Many of the packaged foods that graced American tables in the 1950's were a direct off-shoot of products developed for use by soldiers in the field. Shapiro details how these field rations were manufactured and she describes the preservation techniques that were developed to ensure a long shelf life in adverse conditions. She then goes on to explore in detail how these 'war foods' were incorporated into peace time food production, giving us such delicacies as Spam, deep-fried canned hamburgers, complete frozen dinners, frozen potpies, and fish sticks. In addition to these novelty prepackaged foods, these innovations also made it possible for housewives to serve a greater variety of vegetables, fruits, and fruit juices, year round. Prepackaged foods and mixes enabled housewives to prepare quick and nutritious meals for their families, and once everyone's taste buds had become conditioned to like the bland, salty, or overly sweet taste of factory prepared foods, they were readily consumed.

Shapiro explores how these new packed-foods were developed and how they were marketed to primarily middle-class households. She offers a compelling commentary on the social changes that these prepackaged foods had on American society. She also shows that, for many women, cooking was an exercise in creativity, not drudgery, and they sought to learn how to create culinary masterpieces, from scratch! A phenomenon that was perhaps best epitomized in the 1961 by the unprecedented success of Julia Child's cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Gender bias, in regard to cooking is also touched upon in this book. In the 1950's women were merely amateur home cooks. On the other hand, men who cooked were chefs or professional cooks.

Something from the Oven is a fascinating book to read, both for those that lived through the changing culinary attitudes of the 1950's and for those interested in discovering a fascinating and oft overlooked aspect of American history. Within the pages of this informative and entertaining book, you will meet the food gurus of the era from James Beard and Poppy Cannon (author of the famed Can-Opener Cookbook) to the fictional Betty Crocker and the food guru of food gurus' Julia Child. Shapiro also provides an intriguing glimpse into the realm of baking contests as a means of promoting 'convenience foods' Particular attention is given the celebrated Pillsbury Bake-Off contests and the prevalence of recipes in both newspapers and magazines.

A fascinating culinary and social history, Something from the Oven will forever change your conception of what a home cooked, family meal was like for most Americans' during the turbulent period of the 1950's.

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