The only movie I’m interested in watching this summer is Julie and Julia, Nora Ephron’s new movie about Juila Child and the young blogger Julie Powell who was so inspired by Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, 1961) as to cook every recipe in the book in a single year and blog the results. But, I’m rather unsettled by the simplistic narrative of American culinary history we’re getting in all of the publicity for the movie. In the popular narrative lionizing “The French Chef” of PBS fame and her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, people in the United States allegedly ate nothing but overcooked pot roast or dry pork chops, canned green beans and canned corn, and “salads” and desserts that were both composed of Jell-O brand gelatin or pudding in part or in whole. But, Child didn’t so much invent a hunger for real food, properly cooked, and an interest in international cuisine; rather, she capitalized on it. I don’t mean to argue that MtAoFC was a cynical publication–but, the originality of her book and its outsize success should not obscure the passionate interest that many other Americans in the 1950s shared in cooking and eating high-quality fresh foods.
In other words, that decade has a bad rap among foodies, one that I suspect is largely shaped by historical evidence of the marketing of prepared or convenience foods instead of the reality of most people’s experience with food in their home kitchens. My mother’s childhood in the 1950s was like a wonder out of the previous century compared to my 1970s childhood: she had milk delivered to the house several mornings a week, milk with cream that rose to the top of the bottle, that her mother would try to skim off for her coffee, but which my mother and aunt would like to shake into the milk they’d drink for breakfast. My mother also talks about visits from the “huckster,” who sold fresh vegetables door-to-door, whatever was in season–and in Toledo, Ohio with its substantial number of Lebanese immigrants, that meant not just corn, beans, potatoes, and carrots, but eggplant, zucchini, perhaps heirloom tomatoes, and a world of other interesting garden veggies. My grandmother would buy and try anything, apparently. My mother said to me just this morning, “my mother never, ever used prepared food.” Everything was fresh, most of it was intensely local, and not incidentally, in my mother’s words, “it was cheaper” than going to the grocery store. One of my earliest detailed memories of my grandmother was of staying over at her house on a Friday night at age 3 or 4 and rising before dawn to go to the local farmer’s market with her. I remember sitting in her tiny, brightly-lit kitchen eating a sectioned grapefruit before heading off to the market as the light rose in the sky.
Thus, the “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative serves to ignore or marginalize mid-century home cooks and gardeners who kept their families going through the Great Depression, through the rations and privations of World War II, and through the 1950s in households that weren’t affluent. (My grandmother’s was one of them: she was widowed at the age of 38 in 1953 and left with two little girls to raise on her own on pink-collar wages.) Maybe the households who bought MtAoFC were the ones who were living on gravy made from a packet, vegetables from cans, and cakes from a box, but not everyone could afford those conveniences, nor did everyone want them (regardless of the price.)
Ignoring (or even insulting) the work of these home cooks, gardeners, and small farmers–most of whom were women–who never heard of the word teroir but who lived it, seems like just another version of the misogynist stereotpes of women in the 1950s in the popular imagination. Instead of being rewarded for attending their domestic duties and stepping out of the paid work force to free up a job for a returning vet, these women were further denigrated as “smothering mothers” or as materialistic superconsumers. (Even many feminists use “1950s housewife” as an insult, or to suggest a fate clearly to be avoided at all costs.) The Before Julia/After Julia narrative seems to me to draw on and replicate these stereotypes by casting housewives and mothers who cooked two or three meals a day for their families as somehow evil agents of agribusiness and packaged food companies, as malign forces who endangered or polluted their families and the culture at large, instead of as people who were performing honest labor for no pay. (And, really: can you blame them if they wanted to see if gravy from an envelope might be a reasonable substitute for the real thing once in a while? How many of you cook two or three meals a day at your house? I’d sure like to have a home cook, and I’d choke down just about anything in return.)
A graduate student of mine recently wrote an excellent paper about the ways in which farm wives shaped their home and work environments to their own liking, and not necessarily along the lines the Extension Service had in mind, based on Extension Service records in the Baa Ram U. archives. I wonder if Extension Service records in the 1940s and 1950s will similarly document the rich relationships between these home cooks, gardeners, and small farmers, and furnish evidence of the local, fresh food tradition in the United States. (Hello, those of you interested in women’s history, environmental history, and/or rural history–that’s opportunity knocking, friends!)
Another issue that is unexplained by the “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative is the fact that the consumption of prepared foods and surplus grain and corn syrup-laden snacks, and the correleated fact of increasing American obesity, are squarely “After Julia” phenomena of the 1980s to the present. Once again, I think the division in American eating habits is probably largely due to class: the foodways of the poor are ignored in the “Before Julia/After Julia” theory of American culinary history.
Tomorrow in part II, I’ll show you a terrific cookbook I have, published in 1958, that furnishes more evidence of the interest in fresh, local foods in the 1950s. (It’s also a wonderful artifact of 1950s tastes and styles in clothing, cocktails, entertaining, home design, and dining out.) Meanwhile, I’ll share tonight’s dinner menu with you, a very special high summer meal:
- grilled beef steaks from our local meat farmers
- green beans and sweet corn from the farmer’s market
- our own homegrown tomatoes and basil
- brownies with mint chocolate-chip ice cream made at a local dairy