Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I've finally broken down and decided to get my groceries delivered, as part of my new effort to stop being a good little trooper and acknowledge that I'm going to be a little impaired until the world settles down and stops spinning. I feel guilty about this. I'm abandoning my lovely, local grocery co-op for a soulless corporate supermarket. No more picking out the freshest produce, not that the produce at the co-op is all that fresh. No more oh-so-European daily jaunts to the market. Most of the stuff I ordered is made by huge food conglomerates, like Kraft and Nestle. I'm going to be eating like a proletarian, not like a peasant. Alice Waters would be appalled. I'm a failure as a foodie.

The thing is, I've never really been a successful foodie. I'm a foodie poseur. I've become, with a lot of work, an adequate cook, but there's nothing at all instinctive about it. It's taken a lot of work for me to wean myself off of absolute adherence to recipes. It was a huge breakthrough when I stopped measuring the olive oil in which I cook onions. It's only recently that I've begun to trust myself to eyeball the spices in a chili recipe that I've made so many times I've literally memorized it. My one real kitchen triumph, pie crust, is something I've mastered only because I attacked it with an approach so rational and scientific that I should have worn a lab coat during my many experiments in gluten-minimization. Seriously: I can actually explain the chemistry of flakiness to you. While my pie crust is, I have to say, pretty damn awesome, it signifies everything that's wrong with me in the kitchen. I take great pleasure in serving people food that makes them happy, but there's not a lot of joy in my method. It's a far cry from the playful, free-form, sense-based kind of cooking that distinguishes a true foodie from a faux-foodie like me.

Maybe that's why I've never been a huge fan of food writing. I read cooking magazines in an obsessive search for the kind of recipes I like: filling, veggie casseroles, burritos and the like, preferably that freeze well. I enjoy Jeffrey Steingarten's columns in Vogue, but I think they're really more about obsession than about food. It so happens that food is Steingarten's particular passion, but he could just as well be writing about the over-the-top quest for comic books or first editions or tropical fish. He's the record-collecting geek of the food world. But I don't read a lot of true food writing. I've never even tried M.F.K. Fisher, which in itself should tell you that I'm not a real foodie. The books about food that I like tend really to be about something else, like Sidney Mintz's brilliant Sweetness and Power, which is as much about the links between European industrialization and slavery as it is about the history of sugar.

This is, I think, why I really enjoyed Laura Shapiro's Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. It's really not a book about food. It's about cooking, and what cooking meant to women, and how the food industry tried to change what cooking meant to women in order to get them to buy newfangled food products. But really, it's about the revisionist history of women in the 1950s. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

We're all familiar with the standard version of the 1950s. That's the one with rampant conformity: men in gray flannel suits, women blissfully vacuuming in pearls, pleased as punch to do nothing but pop out children and bake cookies (or barring that, pretending to be while drowning their sorrows in cocktails and tranquilizers), everyone living in the suburbs with their white picket fences and their 2.5 children. Insert the standard disclaimer about how of course many people were excluded from this consensus, but mostly ignore them. Be nostalgic for this time, or mock it, or both. Talk about it as the calm before the storm of the 1960s, the official Decade That Changed Everything.

The revisionist history of the 1950s holds that this era of conformity and consensus never existed. In fact, the '50s were characterized by anxiety, rapid social change, and the first stirrings of many of the social movements that would alter the world in the '60s. And part of this was that women, including married white middle-class women in the suburbs, had a much more complicated attitude towards domesticity than the standard narrative would have you think. Many openly acknowledged the drawbacks of domestic life: the tedium, the loss of status, the desire for stimulation and adult companionship. This stuff was a staple of articles in women's magazines of the time, and possible solutions were raised and discussed. Many women saw full-time domesticity as a temporary status: the '50s was a period of extremely high fertility, and many young mothers reported that they intended to return to the workforce when their children were older. Over the course of the decade, increasing numbers did just that. Yet even with all this acknowledged ambivalence, many women, across divisions of race, class, region and culture, remained committed to the domestic ideal. They might find it tiring and tedious and yearn for something else, but keeping house, cooking, and caring for children remained central aspects of their identity and sources of meaning in their lives. And many still expected themselves to do those things with an ease, effortlessness and grace that certainly never existed outside of T.V. and advertising copy.

Shapiro's book is about how food industry types assumed that harried, overworked homemakers would prove the perfect consumers for new processed food products, and how they hit against women's attitudes towards what comprised proper domesticity. It turned out that many women didn't want to feed their families by throwing a frozen dinner in the oven, no matter how quick or easy or ostensibly tasty that might be. It didn't feel like cooking. It didn't feel like fulfilling their obligation to nourish their families. They expected cooking to reflect skill and love and hard work. Even the most frazzled, inept cook felt like she was shirking her domestic duties if she let food manufacturers make dinner for her. Shapiro argues that the industry set about trying to redefine cooking, showing women that baking a cake from a mix could involve as much "flair" and "creativity" as baking a cake from scratch. Meanwhile, other forces were at work. Shapiro ends her book with cooking's ostensible liberation at the hands of two very different women: Julia Child, who broke down the gendered divide between the female home cook who created food as a domestic obligation and the male chef whose food was a display of macho art, and Betty Freidan, who finally packaged the decade's abundant domestic malaise in a way that was suitable to start a movement.

I have to say that I don't find that contention all that convincing. Julia Child is obviously a tremendously significant figure in the history of American food, not to mention a hugely engaging and appealing character, but I'm not sure she really altered the way the average American woman got dinner on the table every night. I've been reading The Julie/Julia Project, and I'm most struck by the fact that I really, really don't cook like that. My cooking is much more influenced by California cuisine than by anything done by a French chef. And while feminism has changed everything, I'm not sure how radically it's changed the expectation that women will be ultimately responsible for food preparation. At the very least, it took a generation for that to change, I think. My brothers are reasonably adept in the kitchen, although unlike me they didn't start to learn to cook until after they left home. But my father is still at a loss when my mother isn't home to make dinner. When I was a kid, and this is firmly on the other side of the Betty Freidan divide, if my mother wasn't around to make dinner, we went out for fast food or I made my signature pasta with eggplant sauce. At 12 years old, I was a better cook than my fully-grown, reasonably enlightened father. I was a girl, and cooking was a girl thing to do. I took a lot of pride in my ability to be a stand in for my mother, even as I vaguely realized that there was something wrong with the fact that my father and brothers never stuck around to help with the dishes.

At any rate, both Child and Freidan are well-known figures, and in fact Shapiro's chapter on them is so derivative that she ought to send their respective biographers royalties. If there's a really stunning character who emerges from the book, it's Poppy Cannon, the author of, among other things, The Can Opener Cookbook. Shapiro could have treated Cannon as an object of scorn and ridicule, and indeed she shows that the gourmet food establishment did just that. And it's hard not to laugh just a little bit at someone who insisted that it was possible to replicate gourmet French cooking using only processed, canned ingredients. But in Shapiro's hands, Cannon emerges as a vibrant, noble, and slightly tragic figure: a woman who refused to back down from her conviction that women should and could have it all. A completely self-made woman, Cannon insisted on living her life on her own terms: a Jewish immigrant from a deeply troubled family, she changed her name, won a scholarship to Vassar, established a wildly successful career as a journalist and food authority, and married three times before settling down with the love of her life, NAACP president Walter White, in a match that was as transgressive as it was apparently happy. Shapiro suggests that Cannon knew deep-down that her canned-food cuisine wasn't up to the standard of real cooking; Cannon had all the foodie instincts that hack cooks like me lack. But she clung, tenaciously and a bit desperately to the idea that, with the help of the proper technology, women could balance satisfying work with a satisfying, gracious home life. Shapiro sees Cannon as embodying the contradictions of the '50s, but to me she seems like a much more modern figure. It's easy to see a bit of her in all those working mothers who are making family-sized takeout meals a big seller at places like Boston Market. And while I'm not a big take-out aficionado, if you have the money, you can throw together dinner on the fly with a lot less guilt and sacrifice of quality than Poppy Cannon and her audience could fifty years ago.

I don't have the money, though, and I'm a little worried that my scaled-back, corporate-supermarket meals are going to look like the recipes in The Can Opener Cookbook. Actually, as we speak, I'm about to go cheat and stop by the co-op on my way to the library for green lentils, something that the delivery service doesn't offer. How pathetic is that? I can't even pull off being a former-faux-foodie!

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